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.

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.