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.



Beware the Algorithm: STEM Recruitment Meets Big Data

Big Data, it seems, is suddenly very big. Among the social scientists with whom I spend time, newly massive, deep-tissue-massaged bodies of data have found currency.  As a research tool, the emergent technique seems to promise a rehabilitation of conventional, sometimes dismayingly narrow, quantitative analysis because it involves the use not just of MORE raw material but also of unprecedentedly nuanced software. So, unlike old “Small Data” projects, the empiricism of Big Data research feels like it is rooted in an especially flexible and expansive kind of inquiry.  As more and more media, public and private institutions, and cultural enterprises of all kinds operate on-line, the idea that our research subject (manipulated data) and method (manipulating data) shall coincide seduces. But perhaps caution is advised.

I recently attended a social science workshop in which the taxonomic, counting, and graphing choices being made with Big Data seemed to be tripping along with a minimum of criticality and reflexivity.  Not one among the sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural historians attending suggested that the new scale of data-collection and warp speed of data-crunching might hold totalizing risks for the analyst.  In the bigger-data-sets-are-better atmosphere, Foucault’s point that in rendering a subject knowable we reproduce power seemed lost amidst the intoxicating possibility of…the comprehensive.  That this feature of Big Data holds profoundly political implications became clear to me when I read a piece in yesterday’s New York Times by Matt Richtel on the role of Big Data in enhancing inclusion in STEM.

“I Was Discovered by An Algorithm” is not about the social sciences per se, but it is about the use of extraordinarily large data sets for ostensibly value-laden purposes. The article introduces readers to “work-force science,” a new-ish field in which human resources personnel mine massive amounts of data to determine both which sorts of qualification and which individuals may best suit a particular job category or position. In the case of computing professions, the growth of on-line code sharing and programming provides a ready-made body of data that can reveal, proponents say, unrecognized talent. This system supposedly corrects for social biases triggered by our faces or resumes to expand hiring pools and individuals’ opportunities, alike.

But the notion of hidden STEM talent is one I’ve long been concerned about and its mention here alerted me to a conservative deployment of Big Data. Defining the problem as one of unrecognized talent is a way of seeing under-representation in STEM without asking questions about opportunities…about discrimination in education that might preclude an individual’s development of technical interests. Nor does it let us ask about the inherent oppressions of segmented industrial labor , a system that minimizes workers’  chances to learn and grow through work. To me, such searches for promising but as-yet-unrecognized STEM workers have presented a seemingly inclusive agenda that manages systematically to ignore such structural inequities.

Consider the framing of data-driven STEM hiring described in Richtel’s piece. Vivienne Ming, chief scientist at the start-up firm, Gild, approaches the mining of Big Data as a way to evade the biases traditionally found in hiring, including gender, race, and the presumptions we make about one another based on university attended or jobs previously held.  The main case covered in the article is that of a young programmer who never attended college but who, once in range of Gild’s “automated vacuum and filter for talent” (as Ming calls it),  was revealed to possess exceptional capacities.  He got the job. To Ming, this approach to recruitment lets the firm “put everything in,” and then lets the “data speak for itself.”

But of course, data can’t speak for itself; only for those who have given it meaning. Despite Ming’s articulated concern with inclusion,  per Gild’s algorithm (and their Nike-esque catchphrase, “Know Who’s Good”), it is only success along existing standards of technical efficacy and productivity that identifies the outstanding programmer. Automating this determination may be great for the firm, but it hardly constitutes a significant push-back at discriminatory conditions. There are doubts expressed in the article about this HR approach, but these are themselves telling about the obfuscatory power of meritocratic logic in industry. Some observers worry that subjective features such as a candidate’s “people skills” are occluded with this kind of data-based hiring. Others want more finely grained objective tools, such as those at Gild who are eager to hone in on prospective employees’ most specialized technical skills. But the superficial differences between these complaints are deceiving. Both thoroughly detach hiring criteria from the social and political conditions in which those criteria arise and which those criteria faithfully reproduce.

I have lately been reading a remarkable book on industrial personnel practices by professor of management Barbara Townley , which considers “power, ethics and the subject at work” from a Foucauldian vantage point.  She reminds us that the field of human resources has always been about constructing the individual as an object of knowledge, not about “uncovering” some essential self in the prospective employee.  Work-force science, predicated on letting data “speak for itself,”  seems exquisitely suited to (in Townley’s phrase) “render organizations and their participants calculable arenas,” and to do so  unceasingly “in service to the profitability and productivity of the organization.”  To claim, as Ming does, that the largest bodies of data ever deployed for HR purposes will somehow transcend the foundational values of corporate HR seems like selective logic. Personally, I will now be mining Townley’s work for ways to understand the social instrumentalities of Big Data.

Obama’s STEM Master Teachers: A Good Idea Made Better?

I’m excited about President Obama’s new idea for a billion-dollar STEM “Master Teacher Corps,” announced by the White House this week. I particularly like the idea that localities will choose the recipients of the title and its $20,000 stipend, providing a way to reward the science and math teachers they know to be the most excited and energetic.  But I worry that the school systems that currently generate innovative STEM teaching, that already support “highly competitive” teachers with the time and resources to develop this kind of curriculum, will dominate the competition  and skew corps membership away from the schools that most need added STEM support.

My idea: If all of the fretting about our national STEM “skills gap” is genuine, why not use half the money, or better yet, double the allotted pool of funding, to fund partners for each of the chosen teachers? These partners could be instructors of the same grade level, based in our most under-resourced districts.  Their “highly competitive” applications might include innovative math and science pedagogy  (as well as great energy), that has not yet been fully developed. Creative ideas for STEM instruction will come from both partners, but this would let those who’ve had little opportunity to create  teaching materials or implement a curriculum participate alongside those with established STEM teaching records.

American students who are normally the least likely to feel the effects of STEM education funding will benefit directly, and a powerful message of equity and inclusion would be built right into the new program.

So I suggest STEM Master Teacher Partnerships. A daunting administrative task?  If locating promising teachers in disadvantaged districts and coordinating partnerships seem like insurmountable tasks, all the more reason to shorten the distance between our “have” and “have not” schools.

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.