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Amy E. Slaton

is a Professor of History in the Department of History at Drexel University. For more information on her scholarship and research, see the “About” page or download her CV. For information on her teaching, please visit her official university Web page. She is also co-Editor-in-Chief, with Tiago Saraiva, of the international quarterly journal, History+Technology.


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Race, Rigor, and Selectivity is now available from Harvard University Press.

The New Alchemy of “Informational Diversity”

Diversity, Katherine W. Phillips writes in Scientific American, is both harder to achieve in science and engineering workplaces than we might hope, and a more worthwhile goal if innovation and new ideas are our aims.  At first glance that argument seems like it would bring some criticality and some urgency to the correction of racial, gender and other forms of discrimination in places of STEM employment. Alas. I think Phillips while trying to support more inclusive practices in science and engineering is actually marshaling some newly subtle means for keeping the social relations of STEM pretty much just as they are.

The basic findings she offers, based on her study of decades of others’ diversity research and some of her own, combine familiar and novel claims about diversity. First, a familiar claim: People of differing backgrounds have different ideas about what should be done in scientific and technical settings, which in turn fuels innovation.  And here, a less familiar one: When we are in dialog with people of  backgrounds that differ from our own we listen more acutely to their points, expecting those ideas to differ from our own. Thus we are more open to new concepts, more diligent in inspecting that incoming information than when in a “homogeneous” setting. We are “jolted into action” by the expectation of intellectual dissonance. The social conflict and discomfort often associated with efforts at social diversity thus have “an upside,” as Phillips puts it, because these feelings put us on our inventive mettle. Voila! Even more innovation!

This concept of “informational diversity” practically sings with meritocratic promise, converting discomfort to democracy, fear to productivity. I find it troubling in many ways.  Among the many selective denials of power and oppression operating here, let me just take on the most basic: the very perception that one is facing a person of “differing background” involves a raft of presumptions.  It involves reproducing ideas of what counts as difference, and operating from the idea that demarcations in skin tone or national origin or economic status are in all instances indicative of unique life experiences.  It also presupposes that we know what we are seeing: That a person’s meaningful identifications are visible and known to us.  I’m not just talking about so-called invisible disabilities and the immense presumptions we make every day about one another’s sexualities (both unto themselves huge factors); I’m talking about a huge range of personal circumstances, both advantaging and disadvantaging, that are not knowable through any external expression.

What’s more, while tremendous privileges and penalties inhere in different identifying characteristics there is little determinacy to life experiences associated with such characteristics.  To  presume that “difference” is there is to reify one’s own sense of what matters about the person one is encountering, ironically closing off any real consideration of how privilege and penalty might be operating in that moment, in that institution, or crucially, as residuals of one’s own ascribed identity.

And in that consoling sense of knowing “who” we are looking at and what matters about them, we generate and regenerate delineations of races, ages, physical and intellectual abilities, and other familiar taxonomies that keep our entire social system (including the hierarchies of opportunity in STEM education and work) ticking over.  Make no mistake: to deny the social instrumentalities of race, gender, sexuality or ability in 2015 would be just as bad, enacting a willfully naive worldview that terrifies whether in the hands of either right or left. Rather we need to think more about our presumptions of difference than Phillips’ analysis suggests; we need to grapple with our starting points for the project of “diversification.”

Diversity isn’t merely harder than we might presume, as Phillips writes; it is in fact much harder, with inequity and injustice supported by much more complex and self-justifying logics than her interpretation here acknowledges.  For example, as Patrick Grzanka makes beautifully clear in his book on intersectional scholarship, the inequality that characterizes so much of our culture  “is not based in identity; but rather inequalities produce social identities.” Think about the way that “racist, xenophobic, immigration laws produce ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals’ and ‘noncitizens’” as he suggests, and you can start to see how seemingly positive attributions (“here is a black person with a new idea,” “here is a successful company with a female CEO”) don’t solve the problem. Those formulations can help sustain essentialist concepts about human difference that ground discriminatory social structures, converting systems of oppression to mere methods of distinction in our minds.

The idea that we “listen differently” to those we expect to have different life experiences than our own does nothing so much as prove that we operate from stereotypes.  And while it may be a new research finding, it operates on somewhat stale ideas of the nature of identity. No surprise, perhaps, because it serves deeply uncritical ideas of what counts as innovation. These are all ideas about optimized social relations within a very particular setting: The corporate society in which ideas about science and technology seem worthwhile when they reproduce the labor, environmental, geopolitical and other societal arrangements in which corporate interests thrive. (Note the many statistics Phillips offers about companies which have done well fiscally through the hiring of women and minorities.) Avery Gordon laid out this power-conserving feature of corporate diversity efforts some time ago, and Sara Ahmed adds much to our understanding as well, as I hope does my own work linking STEM rigor and selectivity. But this criticality, unsurprisingly, does not find its way into the institutions whose larger distributions of privilege it might threaten.

Think about Phillips’ findings in that context of institutional self-preservation and the reassuring image of perceived differences serving either authentic intellectual risk or radical expansions of social opportunity dissolves. More women and minorities may be hired if more employers take up the notion that “diversity makes us smarter,” but that tells us little about the experiences of thus-labeled persons within workplaces, and I actually think ideas of biological and cultural difference are not challenged here in a way that will bring wide or sustainable change even within STEM sectors. On a more global level, too, we should ask how those marginalized persons without access to education or work will be further marked and disadvantaged by this version of democracy.

I wish I was confident that diversity programming was indeed a kind of alchemy: that the conversion of interpersonal hostility and suspicion to productive intellectual labor described by Phillips held implications for a more equitable society. But I’m not, because the problem of discrimination here is bounded in a way which makes a solution possible. It is a solution which preserves larger discriminatory functions for identity in our culture. Phillips’ vision serves the decades-old claim of American corporate diversity that innovation arises from having someone of minority background in the room.  I think, though, that not much will really change until everybody decides there is a world beyond that room.

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.

With Friends Like These…: Why “The Triple Package” is So Disturbing

Like many folks who read Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s lengthy piece in the NYTimes today, I’m aghast. The piece purports to be a probing and innovative exploration of “success” in America, following the differing fortunes of persons of various ethnic heritages.  But it seems to me to be one of the most concerted and insidious defenses of ethnic and racial stereotypes we have been offered since the Bell Curve.

In the essay the authors summarize their new book, and if you have ever reflected for even a moment on the self-reproducing logics of ethnic and racial discrimination in America, the book’s title alone will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”  Traits? Rise and fall? Cultural Groups??? Each of those terms demarcates an entity, standard of attainment, or category that is utterly arbitrary and which conveniently, seamlessly, reproduces their argument.

I have to ask: How do these people have ANY credibility IN A DEMOCRACY?

Chua (aka, Tiger Mom) and Rubenfeld posit a cocktail of personal attributes that carry individual citizens out of penury and into affluence.  The three “traits” are a “superiority complex” that lends one a sense of one’s own exceptional merit or valor, a sense of innate “inferiority” that drives one forward to achieve, and (la plus ca change!), sufficient “impulse control.”   Certain people, whom they identify by what they believe to be meaningful group affiliations  (for example, as Jewish, Cuban-American, or Nigerian), “succeed” by dint of these attributes and affiliations.

So we are back to Horatio Alger. We are back to the neoliberal belief that individual fortitude is and should be central to individual economic security. We are also back uncritically to delineating group memberships (Jewish, Asian, Black, Mormon…) and attaching functionalist labels (students of Ivy League caliber, people who are insecure…) that confirm our own logic. This last is an idea of “cultural groups” and their experiences that even the NY POST understands is retro!

I could write a book (oh wait, I already did) on the self-referential nature of American definitions of intellectual attainment and how those definitions systematically deny structural racism.  But let me stress here the way that each of the three traits points to individual volition…potentially cultivated, say Chua and Rubenfeld, through family and community influences, but to no avail without the final ingredient: the magic of personal grit.

Yep, that’s right: Grit. Heck, why not “Gumption?” Or how about, “Moxie”? Because frankly, this argument would have been cutting edge in 1943. In that year, a noted expert on African-American education in the U.S. Office of Education, Dr. Ambrose Caliver, described the importance of increased self-discipline for black Americans who aspired to be doctors or scientists. More precisely, he fretted that blacks lacked a “zest for discovery” and were easily distracted by “entertainments.”  A shortfall in self-control was diagnosed asthe problem. During his career Caliver tirelessly fought immense obstacles to black educational opportunity, but he operated with ideas that were nonetheless highly essentialist. This kind of characterization appears to find evidence (lack of fortitude) in a field of data (people who are black) while in actuality, selecting both what counts as evidence and what belongs in the field in order to fit a pre-conceived pattern (a preponderance of blacks who lack fortitude).

I shudder to think of such false empiricism gaining new credence through the imprimatur of Yale Law School (Chua and Rubenfeld’s employer) and the New York Times. But I’m not surprised.  Circular arguments, narrowed ideas of human welfare, deep distrust of collective aims that might transcend self- or other-identity…these are reliably the instruments of privilege in a profoundly hierarchical society.  The concerned tone of Chua and Rubenfeld’s piece is disingenuous and their brief nod to “discrimination, prejudice and shrinking opportunity” disguises a systematic denial of structural inequities in American education and economic institutions.  Packaged, indeed.





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.