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.
Race, Rigor, and Selectivity is now available from Harvard University Press.
[Due to my own technical ineptitude, a version of this posting originally published here on March 28, 2016 subsequently disappeared. I’m reposting it now (thanks to the technical aptitude of Justin Carone) because education researcher Angela Duckworth has become an even more visible media presence since her book came out a few weeks ago, and “grit” thus a wider and in my view, still more troubling cultural commitment.]
Who among us has never been tempted to calculate their Body Mass Index? It’s irresistible: A scientific measure of our health and self-discipline, of our success (or abject failure) at dieting and exercise! Yet, many researchers have by now made it clear that BMI is a very poor predictor of health and longevity: Not wrong in every single case, but only coincidentally right, because BMI is highly selective in both its use of evidence and ideas of causality. Crucially, like every metric of the human condition, BMI is a measurement that supports very specific criteria of good health and behavior…in this case, including narrowed ideas of attractiveness and historically racialized ideas of virtue and self-restraint. In short, BMI is an instrument with a cultural history. Like all instruments.
I have been thinking about BMI today because in yesterday’s New York Times [March 26, 2016], Angela Duckworth expressed concern about new applications of some numerical instruments that she has devised. A quantitative education researcher, Duckworth says she is particularly worried about the misuse of metrics she has produced in recent years for the assessment of student “character.” These are means of ranking each student’s individual capacity to fulfill the behavioral and academic demands of our educational system, to display “self-control” and “zest for learning,” for example. School districts are now beginning to incorporate her “measures of character” into high-stakes accountability systems, Duckworth writes, and she is deeply dismayed by this, worried about a loss of nuance and narrowed applications of her approach. I appreciate her concern, but I find her surprise at this turn of events to be…well, surprising. Like BMI and all other means of sorting and comparing people, the measurement of student character traits derives from cultural priorities which such measurements then help support. For all her apparent attention to cultural and social milieu, Duckworth seems not to acknowledge this fundamental feature of social science.
In an effort to understand the roles played by self-confidence, gratitude, and other types of “intrinsic motivation” in patterns of student success, Duckworth has refined ways of detecting and measuring those traits. She now worries that schools will be gauged on the levels of such characteristics detected (using her instruments) in their students. She fears that this move will obfuscate the complex social conditions in which such character traits take shape in and gain meaning for students. For example, her research indicates that students’ own sense of effort matters for their continued performance in school. But that factor must be addressed in context, she warns here, because similar self-assessments may reflect very different student experiences. That is: students’ sense of their own conscientiousness could remain low not just in poorly run classrooms where they receive little support or guidance in cultivating such efficacy, but also in classrooms where the standards for academic achievement are quite high.
For those using Duckworth’s metrics, that’s certainly a valid warning about a logical pothole lying in the path of data analysis. But I want to reframe the problem. As is BMI, I think Duckworth’s instruments are built for precisely the purposes to which they are now being put: “Revealing” a spectrum of human conditions and “finding” flawed or inadequate subjects at one end of it. She is surprised that a ranking of student endowments intended to help “cultivate self-discovery” (as she puts it) is instead now supporting crude evaluations of school performance in the service of narrowed ideas of accountability. But how could this not be the case? There is not some other kind of accountability operating in our educational system.
I would suggest to Duckworth that it is only in a world where existing social structures must always be protected from critique, where one’s academic difficulties must be attributed not to social structures and ideologies but to oneself, or to one’s parents, teachers and school, that the measurement of student “character traits” makes any sense.
Such metrics are designed to find, and do find, sturdy and weak, willing and unwilling learners. Comparative measures of student conduct also seek and therefore find good and bad pedagogy. Emphatically, they do not seek and thus do not find crowded classrooms, underfunded districts, and underpaid teachers. They do not seek and thus do not find families that are struggling with shrinking wages, costly child and health care, and encroaching poverty, societal problems that all place extraordinary daily burdens on children. Duckworth might well believe that her instruments can point to means of better supporting students with “low” levels of desirable intrinsic traits, but unfortunately they will only ever reproduce the sorts of individual blame and responsibility that her metrics render legible.
To look at character is thus not to broaden the “narrow focus on achievement” installed by standardized testing, a broadening to which Duckworth says she has aspired in her work. Rather it is to reiterate the definition of student success as a mustering of self-control and energy, an adjustment to the circumstance in which one finds oneself rather than a radical reshaping of those circumstances. It is also, in some sense, to produce inadequacies of student character, just as BMI produces instances of obesity. UMD researcher Stephen Secules, in probing the nature of American educational inequities, incisively prompts us to ask, “Must every classroom have a weakest student?” If we keep entering classrooms with means of comparing and measuring individual students as such, the precise purpose for Duckworth’s instruments have been devised, the answer will always be “yes.”
The blunt racism of Antonin Scalia’s statement today recommending that minority students attend “lesser” schools so that they do not feel that they are being “pushed too hard,” is cloaked in false concern. His is not only a deeply racist worldview, demarcating human potential on the basis of some arbitrarily ascribed biological identity, but a disingenuous one. Clearly Justice Scalia does not have any authentic concern regarding the well being of minority students or he would not seek to limit their opportunities. But I want to talk for a minute about Justice John Roberts’ contribution to today’s Supreme Court discussion of affirmative action measures, which has gotten less attention from the press and on social media.
Robert’s words might appear to constitute a milder, less biological rejection of identity-focused educational reforms. They do not. In a seemingly trivial aside, Roberts dismissed a common trope in higher education diversity programming: the idea that diversity of student background will intellectually enrich all students’ classroom experiences. Roberts said that he did not see what “unique perspective” a minority student could bring to physics class. In that claim I think we actually see one of the more insidious defenses of racism circulating in our culture: Roberts would have us believe that scientific knowledge is not–cannot possibly be–raced.
To be clear: uncritical “diversity” efforts that seek to increase the presence of non-majority persons in STEM settings can themselves readily reproduce essentialisms. Critics from the left, especially those working with the incisive tools of intersectionality, question casual associations of say, one’s Hispanic heritage, Lesbian identity, or immigrant experiences with particular or unique outlooks on the world. They make clear that simple or predictive associations of that kind are not merely means of reproducing differences of value to those in authority, but are also likely to reinstate racist, sexist, or homophobic conditions in the long run. This isn’t just true of schooling: Consider corporate diversity efforts that celebrate the “unique” innovations of persons of different backgrounds; these are often deeply problematic, enrobing globalizing and marketing priorities in inclusive rhetoric.
But Roberts isn’t against mixing people of different perceived backgrounds where they are not currently mixing, as in physics. Nor is he for it. He is quite simply and conveniently denying that physics is a place where background functions; there’s no problem with the current demographic make-up of science because it’s not a meaningful category of concern. Real, good science does not have demographics.
This claim is possible not just because our culture is unaccustomed to seeing physics and other sciences as raced. It is because Roberts, like many of us of majority background, has great difficulty seeing any places dominated by white persons as places where race is functioning.
Mind you: Science is particularly good at being white. By that I mean that science disciplines, like technology, engineering and mathematics fields, customarily work to evacuate any indication that social or political values shape their content or practices. Sure, ethics count and malfeasance happens, we commonly hear, but if you get down to the calculations or measurements or mixing of chemicals at the lab bench, that’s simply not activity where one’s life experience; one’s socio-economic status; or the privileges or penalties of gender, class or race could possibly play any part. Or so goes the usual conversation about identity in STEM. And in maintaining that view, the pervasive role of white privilege in shaping what counts as a reasonable question, answer, calculation, measurement, instrument, learning style, or idea in science (yes, even in physics) is routinely disguised as rigor. Equity projects such as minority set asides and affirmative action counter that view by bringing explicit, responsible attention to the role played by identity in the lab or classroom or board room.
To shut down such attention is to naturalize the disproportionate representation of white persons in many areas of American learning and work; to make the under-representation of minority persons seem a natural by-product of intellectual or character differentials. In short: A neatly eugenic system.
I have written about these circumstances in regard to engineering and they are also true of physics, and any places of intellectual labor where whiteness goes unremarked. I am not expecting a Supreme Court justice to have studied the history of science, or science studies, or intersectional theory. But I am expecting the basic goal of maintaining a reflective and just society, a goal that shapes much work in those academic inquiries and many other humanistic projects in our culture, both in and beyond the academy, to drive the thinking of the country’s highest court.
A crucial step in any such maintenance is the acknowledgement that ascriptions of whiteness bring opportunity, privilege, and safety even in our society’s most ostensibly intellectual, most knowledge-intensive, undertakings: in science, medicine, banking, law. Ironically, Justices Scalia and Roberts have today given us some very powerful evidence on that very point.
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.
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?
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.