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.