Judith Shulevitz’ Scary Ideas

Long time, no blog.  But I want to make a quick return to the fray here because I find Judith Shulevitz’ column in the New York Times yesterday, “Hiding from Scary Ideas,” and the many favorable reactions to it on social media, so terribly disturbing.  140 characters will not do the trick today.

Shulevitz’ reductive analysis of emergent “safe” practices on college campuses,  which are intended to minimize the trauma of student exposure to confrontational or otherwise upsetting speech, is profoundly mistaken.  She pillories a wide range of provisions now being made (from support groups to quiet, recuperative spaces) for college students who may feel unsettled by encounters with campus conversations about rape; instances of racial bias; or discriminatory talk about disability, LGBTQI and other identities.  She equates such concern for students’ unease or trauma with censorship and intellectual timidity, a patently ridiculous connection and one that is, to my mind, part of a truly scary discourse in higher-ed today.

Institutional attention to the difficulties of students encountering discriminatory ideas is seen by Shulevitz to be “infantilizing.” Worse, today’s students are in her view “hyper-sensitive,” “fragile” or “puerile,” in contrast to the “hardier souls” of earlier generations. In short, she would have it that our recent, growing sense that all identities and life experiences need to be respected, and that such experiences are not easily predicted or delineated, adds up to a weakening of our moral fiber. This sounds a note of the most socially conservative kind: an effort to treat the cultivation of mutual concern as a symptom of cultural infirmity.

What is lost with such a sweeping indictment of the nascent ethic of care in higher ed? I’d answer, for one thing, the remarkable, generative challenges posed to the status quo when the issue of “safety” is introduced into academic venues…when psychological and emotional well-being are allowed to enter into the intellectual sphere, welcomed as empowering, not diluting, influences on cognition and discovery. I am a huge advocate of unpredictability in the classroom: It is only through risk that new ideas emerge. This is why I worry so deeply about “competency based education” and similarly risk-removing pedagogies. BUT there is no possibility of intellectual risk-taking for students without a powerful sense of personal security also being present; indeed, without a frank address of the power relations that structure our conduct in classrooms or public fora. This is where Shulevitz conveniently fails to reflect on the privilege of being the teacher, the white person, the man, the cis-gendered, the heterosexual, the affluent or the abled person in the room.

The equation of a sturdy, uncomplaining mien with intellectual rigor is one that has protected such privilege throughout the history of STEM education in America, and as “grit” now makes (yet another) return to educational theory, thinkers like Shulevitz are not surprisingly ever more popular. Toughness and tolerance for abuse have been requirements for those hoping to complete engineering degrees, for well over a century. But let me offer a very different picture of what an empowered and empowering college experience might look like.

Last year, I attended “safe zone” training sessions at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, the first ever offered at this huge gathering of STEM educators, publishers and policy makers. Supported by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, these sessions, offered continuously so that as many ASEE attendees as possible might participate, altered the climate of the meeting. As NOGLSTP describes this programming:

 Safe Zone training introduces prospective allies on college campuses to information and best practices in supporting LGBTQI students at their institutions. A Safe Zone could range from the office of an individual faculty member to an academic department to an entire campus, depending on the degree of influence of the ally.

Note the rarely articulated idea here that the people in our institutions who have influence can consciously deploy that in more democratic and inclusive ways…or not.

But for all its nuanced address of how we might improve our day-to-day social support of all students, and its frank acknowledgment of power in the classroom and laboratory and university board room, I now realize that the Safe Zone training at ASEE really accomplished something even more fundamental.  It showed how many false presumptions about identity and well-being normally pervade our lives in the academy. It made clear how little we really know about one another (students and colleagues, alike) as we move through the university day, and how challenging, and thereby valuable to our own development, such knowledge can be.  I’d say to Judith Shulevitz: Isn’t such challenge, rooted in generosity and openness,  as far from “insularity” as it is possible to be?

 

 

STEM Education Research: Saying the Unsayable

Last week I attended the 2014 meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education in Indianapolis to look over the current landscape of STEM inclusion efforts from kindergarten through graduate education. This is a huge meeting, with thousands of participants from hundreds of international universities, engineering firms, and funding agencies, along with publishers of educational materials and software, all mingling in something like a million square feet of meeting rooms and exposition halls. It is a social setting utterly central to the reproduction of professional engineering in the U.S. and globally.  Surely this is where STEM education finds its largest, most energized audience…its most powerful allies.

Yet power was the one thing barely discussed during the four-day meeting, whether we mean by that the relative authority and influence of engineering professions, of engineering educators, or of the social scientists who study those enterprises…all of course also relative to that of students, institutional staff, consumers or community members. I heard just a handful of attempts at political, philosophical and moral self-examination; in short, moments of talking about power. Those few encounters stood in sharp contrast to the well intentioned and highly systematic but largely uncritical research and conversation that made up the vast majority of scholarship on offer.

In the latter category I’ll take the following as outliers: First, a surpassingly superficial plenary offered by Mitch Daniels, former governor of Indiana and now president of Purdue University, in which technological innovation and the expansion of corporate opportunity were (naively? disingenuously?) said to assure a uniformly happy and prosperous citizenry. A panel on the “Grand Challenges” of twenty-first century engineering as outlined by the National Academy of Engineering predictably included some voices supremely confident in the value and safety of technical solutions to all manner of human difficulties (even those difficulties brought about by technological enthusiasm in the first place).  But these were the claims of the truly elect in the world of U.S. STEM policy and programming, and in a way of course their sweep and apparent optimism doesn’t surprise.

More typical were papers encouraging us to focus on enhancing student self-efficacy, on filling the nation’s high-tech “skills gap,” and other projects which I have previously pointed to in this blog as often disguising neoliberal ideologies that in fact diminish democratic opportunity structures. A lot of the STEM ed research I heard honed in on students’ individual capacity and achievement as if decades of critical scholarship and activism around class, race, gender, LGBTQ identities, physical and intellectual ablism, immigration and other linkages of identity and occupational marginalization in America signaled only the existence of superficial identifiers instead of deep, persistent social inequities.  One paper by a community college STEM instructor characterized her students as today being “of lower caliber…less motivated, less driven” than those whom she encountered 10 years ago, a disparaging characterization that seemed to dismiss her earlier point that many in her classes had experienced severe economic disadvantage.  Her worry that, “we’ve enabled these students for too long” doesn’t seem to me to hold much inclusive promise.

Tellingly, I heard almost no researchers at ASEE reflect upon their choices to look at gender or race or geography among such categorical options, or ask about who is heard and unheard in our STEM education conversations.  One large “town hall” session explicitly focused on the normally un-askable question, “Why is change so hard in engineering education?” and that seems like a very promising step. But the risks of researching such perturbing subjects to those employed by engineering schools remain huge; there are currently few incentives to questioning the value of our own intellectual and professional commitments. I’ll be reading the proceedings to see if these kinds of reflections appeared in other papers that I may have missed.

By contrast, the folks I heard at ASEE who were explicitly concerned with power and privilege insisted that we make our own certainty and authority our objects of study.  That is: They urge us to acknowledge the powerful subjectivities at work in our own understandings of engineering education.

Consider a paper by Donna Riley, who directly confronted our confidence in evidence-based research and articulated the social construction of that confidence as an instrument of (our own) occupational privilege.  Another paper, by Julia D. Thompson, Mel Chua and Cole H. Joslyn explored the authors’ own spiritualities (vitally, a category distinct in their view from religiosity) as integral to their identity as engineering educators.  Both papers expanded what is sayable in the meeting rooms of ASEE. None of this work, however, suggested that any particular subjectivity will improve or for that matter damage the practice or teaching of engineering.  To have said so would be to imply a core object that is “good engineering”… an entity subject to improvement or damage in some absolute sense. These authors are far too sophisticated to imagine an objectively measurable gain or loss to some idealized notion of engineering. Rather, it is the social relations of STEM they wish to expose along with all the value-laden, contingent judgments about engineering skill and knowledge that are entailed by those relations.

These and a few other instances at ASEE thereby provided a hard look at the ways in which ascribed identities insistently determine eligibility in STEM occupations. The nature of true criticality is that it must admit the possibility that desired change may not happen; here, that means saying that the labor and knowledge systems we call engineering may not tolerate profoundly democratic reform…and these bold papers got very close to that precipice.

But something else going on in that convention center helped pull me, at least, back from that precipice. A remarkable move this year to schedule 12 sessions of LGBTQ Safe Zone/Positive Space ally training throughout the ASEE conference, sponsored by the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) and four engineering schools (at Rowan University, University of Southern California, Texas A&M, and Michigan Tech), leapfrogged over other tentative, uncritical nods to STEM inclusion at the meeting. Not 1 training session, let’s note, but 12… a choice with the potential, I think fulfilled, to pervade the event with a sense that the social conditions of engineering education and our ideas about identity matter. All of these efforts have raised the bar for what we will call serious, inclusive STEM ed interventions from here on out.

Apology…Excepted: Anti-LGBTQ Bias in STEM, continued

Some good news: There is now an apology posted on-line from the publisher of ASEE’s Prism magazine.  Norman Fortenberry has taken responsibility all along for the appearance of the anti-LGBT letter in Prism that I discussed in the post just below, and he summarized his reasons for going ahead with that publication for InsideHigherEd.com a few days ago. But now he sees things differently, which is a very welcome turn. Dr. Fortenberry expresses his “deep regret” for his decision to publish the letter and for the “resulting anger, pain, disappointment, and embarrassment to ASEE members, officers, and staff and the LGBTQ community.” And yet, I feel I need to take just a minute to consider this apology.

It’s not that Dr. Fortenberry in any way here endorses anti-LGBTQ bias in engineering; it’s just that he doesn’t strive to dismantle it in any direct way, either.  Somehow that bias does not become in Dr. Fortenberry’s apology an object for our direct attention.  Some subtle qualifiers follow that statement about his deep regret, and I think these suggest a sort of hesitancy that has configured many STEM diversity efforts, certainly some of my own included.  Some of my colleagues have pointed out a few more qualifications and elisions in Dr. Fortenberry’s apology, and I wonder if in articulating these we might open the door to more criticality about our diversity work in engineering.

For one thing, Dr. Fortenberry steps back at several points from explicitly criticizing Dr. Helmer’s original claims about LGBT persons.  In the following passage, he labels these claims not as harmful, but rather as unexpected in conventional discourse. Referring to his placement of Dr. Helmer’s letter in Prism, Dr. Fortenberry says:

 I failed to recognize that there is a balance to be struck between representing a variety of viewpoints and not providing a platform for views that are generally considered outside the mainstream of public debate.

But in characterizing Dr. Helmer’s ideas as merely unusual, the apology discourages us from seeing those ideas as harmful.  They are not simply different ideas from those we may hold or commonly encounter; they are “specious,” and “intolerant and prejudicial,” as ASEE’s own leaders have indicated in their published response to the letter.  Saying that Dr. Helmer’s claims about LGBT persons are “outside the mainstream” lends a neutrality to the patent falsehoods and prejudice on which those claims rest.  Could this possibly have been Dr. Fortenberry’s intention?

In his apology Dr. Fortenberry also notes that:

As a privately published, society-focused magazine, Prism is under no obligation to address issues not directly relevant to engineering education, research, service, or practice

But the existence of ongoing bias and bigotry, and specifically their bold address and forceful elimination,  are entirely relevant to the work of engineering. I find it surprising that a proven leader in the field of engineering education would consider for a moment that identity politics, in all of their manifestations, are unrelated to STEM practice. What is more, with this phrasing, Dr. Fortenberry may marginalize our concerns about Dr. Helmer’s discriminatory words. That is, with this demarcation of “irrelevance,” any upset at anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is also easily deemed to be outside of Prism’s mission.  This feels at some distance from a solid, clear rejection of the bigotry many of us sensed in Dr. Helmer’s judgments.

So where do the lessons in this episode lie? Let’s think again about the checklist Dr. Fortenberry provides of the letter’s damaging impacts: “anger, pain, disappointment, and embarrassment”…Dr. Fortenberry not only regrets his own actions in publicizing Dr. Helmer’s views, but also apologizes for causing our subsequent reactions. But let’s consider whether we really want to wish those reactions away quite so quickly; given Dr. Helmer’s bigoted statements about the health and character of LGBT persons, and his letter’s suggestion that these presumptions should shape engineering education, maybe some anger is needed right now. That Dr. Helmer’s words were framed in terms of his religious beliefs must not deter us from clearly naming them as injurious, as intended to induce shame.  The anger and pain many people felt upon reading them is proportionate to their menace, and that anger and pain when shared can describe and communicate that menace.  To fail to parse in this way the outcomes of discrimination, even unintentionally, may leave some lessons unlearned.

My thanks here to Deanna Day, Erin Cech, Juan Lucena and others for helping me think some of this through. Again, it is gratifying to see the ASEE engage in this conversation, and Dr. Fortenberry’s decision to apologize is not in any way to be dismissed.  But that apology as written just might be foreclosing important debate.  In other words: We still need to talk about this episode.  And with some more conversation, maybe we can come to see why our concern about diversity, however sincerely felt, time and again has failed dramatically to erode the discriminatory profile of engineering.

 

 

LGBTQ Inclusion in STEM: Timidity Won’t Work

The line between “freedom of speech” on one hand, and the dissemination of hate speech on the other,  vexes everyone who thinks about diversity in a democratic society, or at least it should. How do we protect 1st Amendment rights without also empowering those who want to broadcast bigoted or demeaning messages?

We don’t usually face the problem of drawing this line in our work for STEM diversity, a notably polite and measured arena of social exchange. For one thing, moments of gender, racial, age, LGBTQ, or (dis)ability-based discrimination are today commonly enacted without the use of epithets or overt derision in STEM classrooms and workplaces, and even (especially) those who are its direct objects are taught to question their impressions of bias rather than their instructors’ or bosses’ behaviors. That tentativeness shapes the way many of us study identity in STEM disciplines, as well.

Then when we do recognize it,  our responses to discrimination don’t often rise to the level of audible anger. We’ve developed the habit of seeking “respectful dialog” as mostly, we try to  redirect the thinking of those who traffic in bias and stereotyping; a constructive impulse, perhaps, but not always a way of speaking truth to power. It’s partly a matter of self-preservation, of course: Activism, anger, noise?…not the marks of the mature student, or professional educator or engineer.

But a funny thing happened on the way to diversity in engineering this morning…and I am newly worried about the quietness of our STEM diversity efforts,  about the sheer timidity of our discussions around difference and inclusion. And mostly: about our reluctance to censure powerfully those who traffic in hateful rhetoric.

Here’s why I think that avoidance of rigorous yet vigorous confrontation is doing us harm:

Several times a year, the American Society for Engineering Education produces a publication dedicated to STEM diversity. If you haven’t seen it: Prism routinely carries pieces on inclusive efforts in engineering pedagogy, and puts engaging and often thoughtful coverage of the topic in the hands of folks who might not otherwise have convenient access to such ideas.  Sure, it sometimes “celebrates difference” with an apolitical gloss, but it also weaves inclusion into the quotidian work of technical education…helping to naturalize and normalize engineers’ attention to privilege and disadvantage. Not a small thing.

But the September 2013 issue gives space to a profoundly disturbing counter message, as Donna Riley, an LGBTQ activist and associate professor of engineering at Smith College, has brought to my attention.  A published letter to the editor from Wayne Helmer, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Arkansas Technical University,  reads as follows. Please take a minute to read the whole thing, to absorb the full meaning of Prism’s decision to publish this letter.

Is All Diversity Good?

As a member of ASEE for a number of years, I have been rather fascinated by recent diversity articles in Prism and on the website. These commentaries seem to suggest that diversity is to be strongly promoted in education: Any and all diversity is good and the therefore should be encouraged.

But is it? Is diversity in sexual preference good if:

    • -the behavior takes 5 to 15 years off of a person’s life expectancy?
    • -the behavior proliferates sexually transmitted diseases?
    • -the behavior promotes a sexually promiscuous lifestyle?
    • -the behavior is addictive and abusive?

We would do well to teach the truth about the homosexual/lesbian/bisexual/transgender lifestyle. These dear people caught up in this destructive way of life need true help and true hope and not encouragement or approval of a detrimental, negative lifestyle. They deserve better than that. This is not God’s plan for their lives.

Beyond the physical, their emotional and spiritual needs are just like ours: Their need for abundant life (emotional) and forgiveness of sins (spiritual) is only what Jesus Christ can give them [John 10:10, 3:16].  Only he can truly change lives and give people the healing and forgiveness and self-worth and significance that they [and we] all desire and need.

 And that is the truth all of us need to hear and proclaim and submit to.

–Wayne Helmer, P.E., PhD., Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Arkansas Tech University, Russellville, Ark.; at Prism-Magazine.org, September 2013

This, to me, is very close to a kind of hate speech (persons of LGBT identity are “abusive”? “destructive”? disease-transmitting?), and I think we need Prism to know that’s how it sounds to some of us.  Riley has written a letter to Prism’s editors in response to Helmer’s that dismantles his  construction of amoral and “dangerous” sexual identities,  challenging his categories of normalcy, health,  and virtue.  She shows, too, that his tone of unassailable devotion would make little sense to a great many religiously observant engineers.  I’m not sure Prism is going to publish it, but I share it here for its probing humor and vital point that Helmer’s view carries destructive and exclusionary messages to Prism’s readers:

 

Professor Wayne Helmer asks if LGBT engineers should be welcomed in the profession, expressing concern that “the behavior” is addictive, abusive, shortens life expectancy, and promotes disease and sexual promiscuity. I am not sure exactly which behaviors he means to implicate. CAD can certainly be addictive, especially with the emergence of next generation fab labs, but is it abusive? Is it spreadsheeting that promotes disease, or is he referring more broadly to any activity involving shared keyboards? I am pretty sure he’s right that those all night problem sets and marathon code-debugging sessions probably took years off my life. And I suppose heat transfer in open channel flow might have something to do with sexual promiscuity, but I’m still experimenting with noise and vibration.

 

The relevant behavior of LGBT engineers is our engineering behavior, which should be encouraged – no matter what couplings we have or how prurient minds imagine they might fit together.

I appreciate Professor Helmer’s concern for my soul as well as my body, but as a bisexual engineer who is also a practicing, self-affirming Presbyterian, I note that not all Christians believe as Professor Helmer does, and in fact national denominations including the Episcopal Church (US), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Friends General Conference, and my own Presbyterian Church (USA) have welcomed LGBT people as professional leaders in their local and national organizations. I hope engineering catches up quickly; we risk losing not only LGBT talent, but also our allies who won’t tolerate an intolerant profession.

–Donna Riley, Associate Professor of Engineering, Picker Engineering Program, Smith College

 

I couldn’t say it better than Riley.  So I’ll just try to make sure a few more people hear her say it.  I know I said that our politeness was not doing us any favors, but, thank you for listening. Now: Get mad.