Women and Work: A Defining Moment

A surprising couple of weeks for public discourse on the role of work in our lives…. I wouldn’t have thought that so many people had so many strong opinions about women and work (which of course means, about ALL of us and work), and  I’m glad to see that Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent  Atlantic piece has created a perfect storm of  debates about gender, work, family, and class ideologies in the U.S.  As Joan Williams wrote on Huffingtonpost, Slaughter has
“peeled the band-aid off the open wound of American womanhood.” I blogged about Slaughter’s piece and some much-needed historical context for the debate today at PACHS.net. Let’s keep the conversation going.

Opening the Lab: STEM Equity for Students with Disabilities

From ISci Science Access Blog (www.independencescience.com)

The exclusion of persons with disabilities from STEM disciplines is something I’m just starting to study.  If you know this blog, you know this is not really a set of discriminatory practices that I’ve  written about here.  And that is both telling and troubling because it is an aspect of STEM equity that should be integral to our thinking on the subject, not a distinct set of considerations, let alone one that trails after our more familiar concerns with race or gender discrimination.

I want to use this space to formulate questions about disabilities in scientific and technical disciplines, and as usual it is not a matter of looking for what we might label good- or ill intentions.  Instead we need ask questions like these, about seemingly practical decisions:  Why do some STEM instructors, when asked to accommodate students with disabilities, see insurmountable safety issues? Or prefer the use of classroom aides for students with disabilities rather than technical or procedural innovation that might lead to more direct student participation? Why do disabilities officers to whom I’ve spoken often find STEM departments less able to “find time” to make changes than other parts of the university?

I think one recent effort to address accessibility in the science lab holds a kernel of important ways to think about all this.

Take a look at this recent newspaper article, “Blind CU-Boulder Student Inspires Lab Changes,” by Whitney Bryen.  At the University of Colorado at Boulder, one creative and highly focused student, her willing instructors, and some innovative Disabilities Services staff members have together developed ways to make laboratory processes accessible to visually impaired researchers.

The student, Amelia Dickerson, is blind and had been frustrated by limits to her immersion in laboratory work for chemistry courses.  Working with the school’s disabilities services team, Dickerson’s chemistry professor Susan Hendrickson began to make material and procedural changes to lab practices that among other things allowed the student to ascertain experimental results through non-visual means.  Note how simple some of the changes were: for example, the addition of notches to the printed calibrations on lab glassware, at a cost of just 25 cents per test tube.

Look closely, as well, at the changes that involved higher-tech interventions, such as the school’s purchase of  a $900 apparatus that can help translate visual laboratory data into auditory information.  There are many more apparatuses of this nature on the market, such as those available from Independence Science,  and I’ll be writing about those shortly.

For now, I want to make the point that it is not cost alone that has stood in the way of wider laboratory adoption of such technologies; after all, very few labs have undertaken the 25-cent innovation, either. Rather, I see a belief among scientists that such translations are not translations at all, but alterations of laboratory data.  That is, I see an uncritical acceptance of the idea that it is the data’s visuality, its expression on a graph or instrument panel for scrutiny by the researcher in that form, that gives it meaning. In this view,  to re-present the data in any other format would be to change it.

Most scientists presume some optimal association of scientific form and content but unlike Hendrickson, never make such associations explicit. So conventional practices seem unassailable.   Thus is the student with disabilities rendered an unlikely future scientist in the eyes of many, without anyone actually saying that’s what’s happening. (These conventions of scientific display, incidentally, are a focus of  Science Studies, my home discipline).  My point here is that exposing and thinking about such epistemic features of STEM practice will help us understand and address discrimination faced by persons with disabilities, just as it has illuminated racial and gender inequities.

We know that science sees its procedures as the essence of its rigor. And, indeed, the precision with which a specimen or instrument is handled, or with which measurements are taken, is undeniably crucial to virtually every experimental protocol. But customary understandings of how that precision might be achieved are unnecessarily narrow.  And exclusionary.  CU-Boulder, and other sites such as the University of Washington’s Center for Universal Design in Education,  are taking on that exclusion.

As I tried to show in Race, Rigor and Selectivity in US Engineering, unexamined notions of technical rigor served for generations in America to reinforce the exclusion of HBCU researchers from science. So, too, notions of what counts as a precise handling or accurate measurement in the lab today reinforce the idea that accommodations for physical impairment necessarily reflect loosened standards of precision or accuracy.   Amelia Dickerson and some of the folks at CU-Boulder think this situation cannot stand. We should follow their lead.




Not just STEM, or, Why the American Economy Needs Humanities Majors



Poster from Federal Art Project/WPA

This blog usually focuses on opening the door to science occupations for groups traditionally under-represented in those fields.  Obviously, one aim here is the creation of more opportunities for rewarding and remunerative STEM-related careers for women, minorities and persons with disabilities.  All good. But I have to turn our attention for a minute to a logical fallacy that such activism might unfortunately support: the idea that higher education in the humanities and social sciences is a bad idea for any young person hoping for a paying career.

This is a trope that goes with the pervasive idea that American is suffering from a STEM talent shortage as “competitor” nations build their technical workforces…Which in some narrow sense might be the case, but the answer to that shortage is to provide more kids with higher quality, more welcoming science programming, NOT to turn young people away from their non-STEM passions and pleasures!

Frank Bruni’s column on “The Imperiled Promised of College” restates that not-very-good idea in today’s New York Times.  He fittingly notes the unaffordable cost of college for too many Americans today, but less helpfully sees a worrisome insistence among many students on dead-end degree programs that lead to less-than-meaningful working lives:

 Philosophy majors mull questions no more existential than the proper billowiness of the foamed milk atop a customer’s cappuccino. Anthropology majors contemplate the tribal behavior of the youngsters who shop at the Zara where they peddle skinny jeans.

As is often the case with such plaints, students’ engagement with humanities, arts and social science disciplines comes across in Bruni’s telling as pointless and naïve. But why should we accept that these venerable intellectual pursuits are occupational cul-de-sacs? You would have to accept the existence of an awful lot of social and cultural constraints in the process of doing so.

First:  You would have to accept that the low employment prospects for today’s humanities and social science grads mean that those disciplines are inherently a waste of everyone’s time and money—including the time and money of the anthropology, art history, film studies and philosophy majors who make up some of my brightest and most engaging students.  I will not be the one to tell these kids to suppress their fabulous curiosity, creativity and insight.

That first judgment in turn rests on the presumption that as a nation we cannot afford to create jobs for our arts and humanities graduates. The WPA famously produced some of the most enduring art, drama, and civil architecture in American history, but if that kind of outcome is too touchy-feely for you, think more practically.  Imagine not just the wealth of student experience and cultural excitement that a nationwide artist-, designer- or writer-in-residence program for American high schools would generate, but how students’ expressive abilities and communications skills would improve!  (…according to many educators, the very same  “soft skills” too many of our engineering students lack!)

And what about the democratic (dare I say, “global”?) potential of a nation with more science writers, equipped with federal grants to support their work for local newspapers? Or , with more social scientists specializing in research on the origins and impacts of science, technology and medicine…with funding to share their findings with both expert and community groups?  Our university humanities and social science programs can produce superb practitioners to fill these and many other positions.

Instead, Bruni and others wring their hands in unimaginative supplication to the conventional economic analysis that privileges industrial profits and  the projects that assure those profits.  The impoverished cultural and civic life that this vision projects for America is truly depressing… And, offers another instance where today’s low level of public resources for American arts and letters is naturalized as necessary for a healthy economy, asserting that we just don’t have the money for activities that don’t make money  (…or, make money for those who already have a way to make money, that is; NB how CEO salaries continued climbing throughout the recession).

Would we need big political and cultural changes to bring about this kind of renewal for the status and scale of humanities in American higher ed, a new and unfamiliar vision of what matters, and why? You bet…and just the job for artists, writers, philosophers and historians!

The STEM Gender Gap: Persistent but not Puzzling

This week of science festivals around the nation has mostly been a very festive occasion, indeed (I, for example, learned at a “science cabaret” last night that Linneaus was obsessed with bananas). It has also brought forth welcome coverage of equity issues in STEM fields: the perpetually low numbers of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in U.S. science and technology occupations. The correction of that under-representation partly justifies the festivals as efforts at STEM outreach and inclusion.

But in that coverage, my eye was caught by the very last point in a long article from PBS NewsHour by Jenny Marder this week, “Why Engineering, Science Gender Gap Persists.”

In this piece, Angela Bielefeldt, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Boulder who has done some very interesting work on the topic, had the last word:

“The important thing to note is how long we’ve been at this,” Bielefeldt said. “The fact that we’ve made no tangible forward progress despite working on this for a long time is puzzling and depressing… and again, we’re not sure what the secret is.”

“Depressing,” yes. That captures it perfectly. But: “Puzzling?” And, “Secret?” I think that language may arise from a spirit of thoughtful inquiry, but set up too many listeners to shrug and move on. I wonder if we too often use a politely perturbed tone to direct attention to something that is really far closer to bigotry than mystery.

As I see it, the previous pages of the article laid out many causes proven by studies over the last 40 (!) years to have contributed to women’s under-representation in STEM classrooms and jobs. These causes range from documented sexism in teaching, hiring and promotion practices to, “…A lack of female mentors” and ”subtle discrimination or work conditions in which men talk in a way that women found disrespectful.” Those are findings produced not by some narrow academic specialty, but by diverse scholarly disciplines (educational theory, workforce policy analysis, psychology, and by scholars in science and engineering themselves),  and by researchers from a huge range of institutions. Their sheer numbers add up to a powerful message for those who are willing to hear it: Day-to-day life in American classrooms and workplaces involves a constant stream of presumptions about the inborn capacities and desires of people of different identities.

There is no subtlety in the way these presumptions work to disadvantage certain groups. That’s clear  from the facts recounted in the article and broadcast, even if you don’t read the deeply disturbing collection of reactionary and creepily retrograde comments which follows the article (many referring to women’s innate intellectual disinclination towards science, or characterizing those concerned with these issues as “cry babies”…). What if Bielefeldt, a person who has clearly seen endless dismaying moments of this kind, had faced the microphone and instead of framing the problem as a mysterious social malaise had said instead, “The behavior I see every day  in classrooms, in labs, in administrative offices, and on civil engineering worksites is discriminatory, and unacceptable”?

Crucially, I don’t mean to say I would have done so.  The circumstances in which STEM activism occurs are by definition settings in which we must make our livings; it is terribly difficult to bring blame into the discussion. And, yes, those proverbial flies do prefer honey. More seriously, I deeply appreciate the very constructive (not blameful) cultural critique and pedagogical ideas introduced into the NewsHour discussion by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and a powerful advocate for bringing young women into the sciences. But if Klawe’s suggestions are to take hold in a significant number of educational settings, I want to suggest that in our discussions of the “gender gap,” we have to stop scratching our heads and own up to the dismal social reality revealed by the evidence offered by experts featured on the program, if not their tone.

The take-home: It is the very stuck-ness of Americans around equity issues, the fact of sexisms’ durability, that we need to foreground.  This lack of progress, as Bielefeldt says, is “the important thing to note.”  Unfortunately, her interviewers or their editors consigned that “thing” to the last note of the discussion. We should start our discussions, in the media and in our own institutions,  grasping and declaring this fact, not puzzled in the least.

Talking about Technocracy

Readers of this blog know that I’ve fretted a fair bit about recent invocations of “innovation” as an economic engine,  finding this recessionary return of Yankee Ingenuity to be  short on attention to issues of sustainability, corporate privilege, and the inequities of global labor markets.  But this selective vision is really part of a much bigger problem, I think. The sheer pervasiveness of scientific and technical knowledge in our industrialized culture, and the countless products of this expertise with which Americans are surrounded every day, render this human enterprise strangely invisible from any critical vantage point.

Put another way: For more affluent citizens, it is just awfully hard to turn away from the non-stop technology-party to which American car commercials, WIRED magazine, and the Apple store invite us.

I wonder…Were America’s few moments of widespread, really palpable criticality regarding technology–say, just after Hiroshima, or around the first Earth Day in 1970–so rare as to be culturally insignificant? Can we more well-off Americans of the 21st Century ever stop texting long enough to ask some hard  questions about the costs of our techno-centric lifestyles and what they mean for the nation’s “have-nots” (and talk about your loaded terms!), for the rest of the planet, for our grandchildren? Really, what is meant by “democracy” in a society where such questions are not asked?

I’m eager to see what ideas surface at a conference I’m joining at Harvey Mudd College later this week, for their 2012 Hixon Forum on Responsive Science and Engineering:  Engineers, Exact Scientists (Technocrats) and Political Processes: Global Perspectives. If you’re in the area, come by; it’s free an open to the public!

The historians, philosophers and others speaking at the meeting will talk about “technocracy,” a concept that has interestingly had a largely negative connotation in the U.S.  since its brief glory days early in the 20th century. Herbert Hoover notwithstanding, few Americans of any subsequent era have pictured engineers or even scientists as the experts best equipped to run the nation. I’d say it was the discouraging narrowness and inhumanity of the Soviet model that made us turn away from technocratic leadership, but the lawyers we do tend to choose as our cultural spokespersons on the global stage (whether Democratic or Republican) hardly make a habit of critiquing technology.  “Technocrats” sound narrow and unimaginative; but a culture committed to “technology”? Exciting and prosperous!

I want to understand why we make that distinction. And, why we spend very little time on public discourse about science and engineering, despite their influence on our lives. A little reflection, please, about how our culture discourages big questions about the knowledge, skills, and investments that shape our material world.  Some of my students, focussing on the ways that science and technology serve profit structures, would say, “It’s Capitalism!”…absolutely, but that’s where the explanation begins, not ends. I’m hoping this gathering will be a chance to see how this situation has come to be, and how it might change.

STEM Equity: In Search of Trend Setters

Close your eyes and imagine a biology department or engineering school where every single one of the following policy changes has been implemented:

….universities might educate women graduate students about the downsides of alternative career paths, following partners’ career moves and taking time off. They could explore the use of part-time tenure-track positions for women having children that segue to full-time once children are older, and offer members of a couple the option to temporarily share a single full-time position. Further strategies include not penalizing older or nontraditional applicants for jobs; leveraging technology to enable parents to work from home while children are young or ill; providing parental leaves for primary caregivers of either gender and offering funding to foster successful reentry; and providing an academic role for women who have left professional positions to have children. Institutions could also try stopping tenure clocks for primary caregivers during family formation; adjusting the length of time allocated for work on grants to accommodate childrearing; offering no-cost grant extensions; providing supplements to hire postdocs to maintain labs during family leave; reducing teaching loads for parents of newborns; providing grants for retooling after parental leave; hiring couples; offering child care during professional meetings; providing high-quality university-based child care and emergency backup care; and instructing hiring committees to ignore family-related gaps in curricula vitae.

Amazing, right? This list, offered in Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci’s piece in American Scientist on “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,”  is striking for the variety of interventions it proposes: changes to hiring, tenure and leave policies; the introduction of new grant administration, childcare, and tele-commuting options…picture it: what a transformation!

But really, if we think about it, a good many of these institutional changes are in fact simply matters for HR.  There is not a lot here that threatens the essential features of teaching or research as those have been practiced in the academy for the last 120 years. Wait a minute: There is NOTHING here that undermines those practices in ANY way! It is the quality of life and levels of equity associated with academic work that would start to change if such policies were to be established.

So, why then does this list seem like fantasy?

Because, I suspect, any one of these changes, let alone the whole collection, would likely seem to many in the university today primarily like a gender-based accommodation,  a change to established institutional practice that derives from issues of practitioner identity. And American science is very, very reluctant to lend those issues any significant influence. We might feel bad about demographic imbalances in these professions, but we’re not going to let those “social” issues infiltrate our labs, classrooms, and other places where reputable, rigorous science is meant to be the order of the day.

That combination of impulses explains why the studies of race or gender inequity in STEM pile up, year after year, but the project of real inclusion in the academy just inches along.  (And of course, STEM is not alone in its cultural aversion to thinking about identity; thanks to Perri Strawn for making the connection to a similar critical discussion regarding business, by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox.)

So here’s an idea: What if we get prominent universities to leverage their existing reputations for rigor in STEM and model these very doable gender-equity reforms?  Our STEM disciplines are inherently aspirational, so it might only take one or two national or even regional leaders to make an impact in this way.  MIT under its now-retiring president Susan Hockfield took a few such steps; why not more steps, taken more conspicuously, to set in motion a large-scale transformation?

A second piece just out in Science (and summarized by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education) reminds us just how badly such shifts are needed.  Tracking careers of women in STEM fields, Deborah Kaminski and Cheryl Geisler  find that the high attrition rate among women STEM faculty in US universities largely offsets recent documented improvements in retention and promotion. Under existing conditions and hiring patterns, they report, university science departments would require nearly a century to attain gender parity.

A century?? We’re talking epochal time scales here! Yet go back to Williams and Ceci: there is clearly no shortage of good, creative thinking on what to do to change academic working conditions…on doable steps that would cost STEM programs money, but not rigor.

And we can’t let money stop the conversation, as it so often does: universities spend plenty of it on labs and salaries when they think those costs are merited to keep up their reputations. And that’s the key here: Again, STEM disciplines are by nature aspirational, judging all departments and programs in comparison to Big Guns like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Berkeley, or Michigan.  If those leaders act, the much wider culture change may very well begin. Trend setters, step up: your to-do list is ready!

With Friends Like This…

An opinion column by Caitlin Flanagan in the NYTimes today, entitled “Hysteria and the Teenage Girl,” maps out for us why it is that girls experience “hysterical reactions” to stress more often than do boys, especially in the pressure-filled teenage years.  She lists separate episodes in which groups of girls or young women from various cultures—two batches of female American cheerleaders, 900 Arab girls in the West Bank and some female Israeli soldiers, communities of Tanzanian schoolgirls—apparently fell prey to shared (contagious?) psychological reactions to stress, exhibiting “Tourette’s like” behaviors, compulsive laughter, or fainting with no apparent physical bases. Flanagan sees here a version of the recurring psychological distress and domestic conflict that many parents of teenage girls she encounters routinely report. Thinking about these seemingly related phenomena compels Flanagan to assert to her readers that boys and girls are different and ultimately, to quote a neurologist’s finding that, “These girls will get better, they just need time and space.”

My own teenage daughter read the column and, with evident disgust (which I suppose, could have been induced by hysteria) said of Flanagan: “It’s like she is just saying ‘Who cares what happens to teenage boys!’ She doesn’t bother to find out why these girls reacted this way, or what other factors might have been involved…the only common feature was their craziness!”

“Girls look weak and susceptible,” she added, “Flanagan makes them look like delicate creatures!” Even at 16, provoked by such insults perhaps, she got it. To treat these females’  behaviors as “extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms” you’d have to be (in my daughter’s words), “looking for extreme behaviors only in girls, just refusing to see anything boys did as hysterical or extreme!”

She said it better than I could have and made me realize why a critique of Flanagan’s points belongs in a blog about STEM equity: Because Flanagan so blithely denies that social structures may set girls up to see themselves as less sturdy than boys, promoting such stress reactions.

Moreover, essentialist expectations of female weakness and incapacity like those Flanagan broadcasts might precondition girls to see themselves as innately physically or psychologically vulnerable. Her perhaps sincere sympathy for the suffering girls in fact  perpetuates such disempowering myths, not least by utterly ignoring the social, educational and economic inequities with which so many young women live.

Are some, or even most, teens emotionally vulnerable? Of course. Do conditions of impending adulthood, or poverty, or war, put people (of any age) in a position of psychological unsteadiness? Without question. But the presumption that we should not be surprised when girls or women reveal such vulnerability because it is inherent in their femaleness is to set the cause of women’s rights, and equal participation in social and cultural institutions of all kinds, back by decades.  Read this quote from the column and see if you agree with me that this might have been exactly Flanagan’s intention:

“Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away.”

“Won’t seem to go away”?? With folks like Flanagan treating psychological upset as gender-derived, primarily biological, and devoid of social or political cause,  it’s no wonder.

Obama, STEM, and the Rebranding of Community College

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama took another step in his effort to rebrand community colleges.  He sees the nation’s two-year colleges as playing a big role in preparing those who will work in emerging high-tech manufacturing industries.   Putting worries about his job-creation strategy aside for a minute (I’ll believe we can tax corporate outsourcing when I see it happen),  the speech did a good job of casting the American two-year college as home to sophisticated, cutting-edge science and technology skill and knowledge.

This message counters old stigmas associated with two-year technical programming, and I think it holds some promise for more inclusive STEM education writ large. Obama is associating community colleges,  at least rhetorically, with the promised science- and tech-based manufacturing resurgence…that is, with technical novelty and innovation. We are meant to leave behind our image of utilitarian “vo-tech” uplift,  and start picturing classrooms full of intellectual energy and achievement.  I could be caught up in the glow myself, of course, but it feels like the President is leveraging our cultural tendency to venerate high-tech in order to bring new respect to its students and teachers, even or especially in what has previously been seen by elite Americans as a second-best educational sphere.

In particular, Obama praised industry/school partnerships in which firms send employees to school for training or retraining in emerging technical fields.  He welcomed as his guest Jackie Bray,  who had found a renewed career through one such program run by Siemens at its Charlotte, NC,  “Energy Hub,” and although it remained a pretty vague directive, he called on Congress to provide the resources that would support such initiatives across the country.

And, he did all this early in the speech, when the largest audience could be guaranteed to hear it.

We mustn’t forget, of course, that job-focused education is not an unalloyed good, and that the possibility of transfer into bachelor’s programs must be built into the two-year curricula if we are sincerely to pursue educational and job equity in America. Four-year and graduate schools increasingly become options only for the affluent and we must not paper over that trend with feel-good rhetoric; people of limited economic means are turned away from the pursuit of bachelor’s degrees as a matter of course in this country, as this blog often points out.

What is more, industrial clean rooms function on the same managerial premises as assembly lines: modern manufacturing jobs are not necessarily any more secure or lucrative for the rank and file than were jobs in the “old tech” economy.

Nor is high-tech employment a guarantee of satisfying work. Repetitive, heavily mechanized or automated tasks performed by workers using nanolithography or bio-assay instruments can be as mind-numbing as those performed on shopfloors of a century ago. No job should deny those holding it the possibility of intellectual reward and creativity.  The history of manufacturing labor shows few employers making a priority of that concern and without it, STEM-focused education-for-jobs loses much of its sheen.

But let’s focus for now on Obama’s ongoing effort to cast community colleges as sites of exciting, immersive student experiences in technical fields. This is a significant rebranding that helps more than simply those individuals who may find jobs directly through programs like Siemans’.  It also moves us away from a stubborn habit we have in America of seeing two-year colleges and technical curricula as the preserve of those unable to “make the grade.”  This could recast the credentials offered by two-year schools,  and thus the opportunities of community college graduates as they move out across the nation’s higher-ed and employment spheres.  New labels are not enough, but they can help.

Sharpen Those Pen Nibs, Lad! (Or: Gene Marks Feels Their Pain)

I wasn’t going to post anything about Gene Marks’ ridiculous Forbes column of the other day,  “If I were a poor black kid,” which told disadvantaged young people that if they study a lot and use lots and lots of technology, they will transcend the immense structural inequities that shape America today (oh wait, I think “immense structural inequities” might be my wording, not his…)

This was partly because I think Baratunde Thurston did a fine job in a CNN column puncturing Marks’ naïve and pompous “advice”…advice which basically could have come from the mouth of an industrialist talking to an office boy in a bad 19th century novel: “Work hard and keep your pen nibs sharpened, lad, and you’ll go far!”

But there is something so manipulative about Marks’ subsequent response to Thurston, so mistaken in its invocations of technology,  that I want to weigh in.

In his response, Marks repeats his original bullet points, each more reductive than the last, each denying the fact that kids in weak school systems can never achieve these goals simply by sheer force of will.

Here’s Marks’ advice, each “tip” followed by my thoughts:

  • “1. Study hard and get good grades.”  […In which Marks ignores the challenges faced by kids attending underfunded schools operating with huge classes and poor instructional materials, or living with overworked parents who need the kids’ help after school to care for siblings…]
  • “2. Use technology to help you get good grades.” [Ignoring the fact that many school systems can afford neither cutting edge technology nor the staff hours to maintain it and (this is crucial) to instruct students in its effective use; access is NOT inclusion, as Virginia Eubank’s book, Digital Dead End helps us see. Undergraduates need guidance in using Google Scholar; how would a middle- or high-schooler figure it out on her own as Marks’ original column suggests she do? That column shows the depth of his ignorance about how pupils learn to think critically and vet resources.]
  • “3. Apply to the best schools you can.” [Because to Marks, just believing in yourself apparently makes up for the challenges I just listed under “1” and “2”]
  • “4. Get help from a school’s guidance counselor.” [Because, as in the corporate world Marks inhabits, it is not what you know but who you know…? Does he really think the kids are actively avoiding services that are being offered to them?]

The brevity of each point is itself insulting, a gesture that condescends by simplifying.  So it is not surprising when we then read that Marks feels the kids’ pain:

  • “5. Learn a good skill. This is what I said in my blog. I said this wasn’t easy. It’s brutally hard. “

“Brutally hard”, Mr. Marks? Maybe that’s a clue that this is not about the kids’ lack of  discipline and fortitude.

As I’ve written before  in this blog, analyses like Marks’ put tremendous faith in existing systems of education and employment, with technology privileged as a cure-all.  Alongside such conservative logic,  his compassion rings false, to the last note of the response:

“Will any of these kids read what I wrote in Forbes? Probably not. I’m hoping that educators, bloggers and most importantly parents do. Because it will be very tough for any kid to do it alone.”

“Tough,” it certainly is, for many kids of color or low socioeconomic standing striving to find equitable educational opportunities in the United States.  Too bad Marks displays no historical or political perspective on what makes it so; he could start by looking at his own thinking on the problem,  I’m afraid.

Happy New(?) Year

Reading reports about the Bayer Corporation’s new survey of STEM department chairs at U.S. research universities leads to a fairly discouraging take-away.  In asking the  413 chairs for their thoughts on why so many women and under-represented minority students fail to complete STEM degree programs, the survey uncovered two beliefs that have left me less than cheerful.

First, the chairs understand that familiar notions of merit in STEM fields work as a gatekeeping tool that limits diversity:

Specifically, the chairs say being discouraged from a STEM career is still an issue today for both female and underrepresented minority (URM) STEM undergraduate students (59 percent) and that traditional rigorous introductory instructional approaches that “weed out” students early on from STEM studies are generally harmful and more so to URM (56 percent) and female (27 percent) students compared to majority students (i.e. Caucasian and Asian males).

–Bayer U.S. News, Dec. 7, 2011

Second…well, same again:

Yet, a majority (57 percent) of the chairs do not see a need to significantly change their introductory instructional methods in order to retain more STEM students, including women and URMs.

How can these prominent and accomplished educators not see the connection between regrettable social patterns in their fields and the content of their practice? As I tried to convey in my book, Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering,  the stubborn character of standards of rigor, the unassailability that STEM disciplines ascribe to those standards, is at the very heart of STEM exclusion.

In summarizing the survey results, Bayer cites Freeman Hrabowski, who warns that we need “a culture change.” Rigor is attainable along with inclusion, Hrabowski says, if we choose to provide support to students who may need it and to faculty who might enact such reforms.  Teaching methods can change without undermining the rigor and functionality of the knowledge conveyed.  That Bayer actually quotes Hrabowski, putting such an outlook on the table, gave me hope for a moment that this survey might make a difference. But one last point from the survey’s findings pretty much burst that balloon:

Most institutions don’t have a STEM diversity plan: Only one-third (33 percent) report their colleges have in place a comprehensive STEM diversity plan with recruitment and retention goals.

33%? In 2011? Is this possible? (Slap forehead in despair, here.) What kind of serious audience is there for Bayer’s findings if only one in three American research universities has even gotten to the point of systematizing STEM diversity?

Clearly, many of the department heads surveyed by Bayer are not happy with existing inequities and believe that some sort of change is needed. But how can even the best intentioned department chairs make a practical priority of an issue that their employers have declared to be unimportant? More broadly:  How many dozens or hundreds of reports, from government, philanthropic and corporate sources, have laid out these same STEM diversity issues over the last 40 years? How many more will do so before something new happens at the university or department level?

Here’s an idea: If Bayer, a hugely influential and wealthy entity, has the wherewithal to conduct such surveys, could we not ask them to act on the results? Not merely to articulate the problem, but act to solve it? For example, what if Bayer campaigned for the creation of a nationwide accreditation or ranking system, encompassing academic STEM departments of all disciplines, that names and shames those institutions that fail to take meaningful action on diversity issues? Perhaps making universities responsive to calls for STEM diversity programming?

Sure that’s a pipedream, likely to be derailed by all kinds of arguments about….rigor!  And that’s exactly why we need powerful voices like those of private industry, understood to be disinterested seekers of new STEM talent pools, to take bold steps like this. If corporations genuinely seek racial, gender, and other kinds of diversity in their scientific and technical labor forces (and, yes, that’s a big “if, but for the moment let’s accept that Bayer’s science education surveys show at least a kind of commitment to inclusion), why not try to change the metrics of prestige for universities, in a way that might encourage that diversity?

That sort of effort by Bayer would make this not just another poll of STEM diversity, but one that might actually change the results of future surveys.