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?



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.