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.
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.
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.
The line between “freedom of speech” on one hand, and the dissemination of hate speech on the other, vexes everyone who thinks about diversity in a democratic society, or at least it should. How do we protect 1st Amendment rights without also empowering those who want to broadcast bigoted or demeaning messages?
We don’t usually face the problem of drawing this line in our work for STEM diversity, a notably polite and measured arena of social exchange. For one thing, moments of gender, racial, age, LGBTQ, or (dis)ability-based discrimination are today commonly enacted without the use of epithets or overt derision in STEM classrooms and workplaces, and even (especially) those who are its direct objects are taught to question their impressions of bias rather than their instructors’ or bosses’ behaviors. That tentativeness shapes the way many of us study identity in STEM disciplines, as well.
Then when we do recognize it, our responses to discrimination don’t often rise to the level of audible anger. We’ve developed the habit of seeking “respectful dialog” as mostly, we try to redirect the thinking of those who traffic in bias and stereotyping; a constructive impulse, perhaps, but not always a way of speaking truth to power. It’s partly a matter of self-preservation, of course: Activism, anger, noise?…not the marks of the mature student, or professional educator or engineer.
But a funny thing happened on the way to diversity in engineering this morning…and I am newly worried about the quietness of our STEM diversity efforts, about the sheer timidity of our discussions around difference and inclusion. And mostly: about our reluctance to censure powerfully those who traffic in hateful rhetoric.
Here’s why I think that avoidance of rigorous yet vigorous confrontation is doing us harm:
Several times a year, the American Society for Engineering Education produces a publication dedicated to STEM diversity. If you haven’t seen it: Prism routinely carries pieces on inclusive efforts in engineering pedagogy, and puts engaging and often thoughtful coverage of the topic in the hands of folks who might not otherwise have convenient access to such ideas. Sure, it sometimes “celebrates difference” with an apolitical gloss, but it also weaves inclusion into the quotidian work of technical education…helping to naturalize and normalize engineers’ attention to privilege and disadvantage. Not a small thing.
But the September 2013 issue gives space to a profoundly disturbing counter message, as Donna Riley, an LGBTQ activist and associate professor of engineering at Smith College, has brought to my attention. A published letter to the editor from Wayne Helmer, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Arkansas Technical University, reads as follows. Please take a minute to read the whole thing, to absorb the full meaning of Prism’s decision to publish this letter.
Is All Diversity Good?
As a member of ASEE for a number of years, I have been rather fascinated by recent diversity articles in Prism and on the website. These commentaries seem to suggest that diversity is to be strongly promoted in education: Any and all diversity is good and the therefore should be encouraged.
But is it? Is diversity in sexual preference good if:
- -the behavior takes 5 to 15 years off of a person’s life expectancy?
- -the behavior proliferates sexually transmitted diseases?
- -the behavior promotes a sexually promiscuous lifestyle?
- -the behavior is addictive and abusive?
We would do well to teach the truth about the homosexual/lesbian/bisexual/transgender lifestyle. These dear people caught up in this destructive way of life need true help and true hope and not encouragement or approval of a detrimental, negative lifestyle. They deserve better than that. This is not God’s plan for their lives.
Beyond the physical, their emotional and spiritual needs are just like ours: Their need for abundant life (emotional) and forgiveness of sins (spiritual) is only what Jesus Christ can give them [John 10:10, 3:16]. Only he can truly change lives and give people the healing and forgiveness and self-worth and significance that they [and we] all desire and need.
And that is the truth all of us need to hear and proclaim and submit to.
–Wayne Helmer, P.E., PhD., Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Arkansas Tech University, Russellville, Ark.; at Prism-Magazine.org, September 2013
This, to me, is very close to a kind of hate speech (persons of LGBT identity are “abusive”? “destructive”? disease-transmitting?), and I think we need Prism to know that’s how it sounds to some of us. Riley has written a letter to Prism’s editors in response to Helmer’s that dismantles his construction of amoral and “dangerous” sexual identities, challenging his categories of normalcy, health, and virtue. She shows, too, that his tone of unassailable devotion would make little sense to a great many religiously observant engineers. I’m not sure Prism is going to publish it, but I share it here for its probing humor and vital point that Helmer’s view carries destructive and exclusionary messages to Prism’s readers:
Professor Wayne Helmer asks if LGBT engineers should be welcomed in the profession, expressing concern that “the behavior” is addictive, abusive, shortens life expectancy, and promotes disease and sexual promiscuity. I am not sure exactly which behaviors he means to implicate. CAD can certainly be addictive, especially with the emergence of next generation fab labs, but is it abusive? Is it spreadsheeting that promotes disease, or is he referring more broadly to any activity involving shared keyboards? I am pretty sure he’s right that those all night problem sets and marathon code-debugging sessions probably took years off my life. And I suppose heat transfer in open channel flow might have something to do with sexual promiscuity, but I’m still experimenting with noise and vibration.
The relevant behavior of LGBT engineers is our engineering behavior, which should be encouraged – no matter what couplings we have or how prurient minds imagine they might fit together.
I appreciate Professor Helmer’s concern for my soul as well as my body, but as a bisexual engineer who is also a practicing, self-affirming Presbyterian, I note that not all Christians believe as Professor Helmer does, and in fact national denominations including the Episcopal Church (US), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Friends General Conference, and my own Presbyterian Church (USA) have welcomed LGBT people as professional leaders in their local and national organizations. I hope engineering catches up quickly; we risk losing not only LGBT talent, but also our allies who won’t tolerate an intolerant profession.
–Donna Riley, Associate Professor of Engineering, Picker Engineering Program, Smith College
I couldn’t say it better than Riley. So I’ll just try to make sure a few more people hear her say it. I know I said that our politeness was not doing us any favors, but, thank you for listening. Now: Get mad.
A compelling piece appeared on the American Physical Society News website a while ago that just came to my attention. (Thank you, Michael Fisher!) Author Casey W. Miller, an associate professor of physics at the University of South Florida, asks the physics community to consider the poor record their discipline holds around gender, racial, and ethnic inclusion. That pattern has been documented for years and is the subject of plenty of conversation, but as Miller makes clear, it is not a problem that exerts any broad or consistent practical purchase on the field.
Miller’s column is a model of careful argumentation that is worth keeping on hand for its clarity around an intractable social problem. But I think there’s one particularly transferable lesson in the piece: Miller makes a direct and powerful connection between university ranking systems (such as that propagated by US News) and a lack of diversity in physics graduate programs.
The GRE scores of admitted students factor into these numeric comparisons among programs in many disciplines, and with the ACT and SAT test scores deployed by undergraduate programs impel admissions decisions for virtually all U.S. schools. Not surprising to the readers of this blog, most likely, is Miller’s case that the heavy reliance by physics graduate programs on GRE scores impedes gender and racial diversity in that field. We learn that women and students of minority background intending to pursue the physical sciences tend to score lower on the GREs, often falling below cut-offs for admission. But more surprising perhaps, Miller then summarizes previous studies that have shown GRE scores to be poor predictors of research success among physics students, undeniably ” the aim of the PhD.”
What’s going on here? How does a field like physics, that many of us would generally think of as profoundly reflective about its own knowledge-making, about its own ways of seeking and handling data, end up with such a deeply skewed and selective relationship to data? By defaulting to conventional (and discriminatory) ideas about how easily people can be converted to data.
That many factors determine an individual’s performance on a standardized test has long been understood by researchers, and the list of those factors keeps growing. Physics professor Suzanne Amador Kane reminded me about the article in the NYTimes by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman a few months ago. That piece summarized new research on biological contributors to students’ stress-while-testing and the variable psychological reactions that different students have to that physiological experience. We should of course approach all such genomic and bodily explanations with great care because, given the strength of discriminatory social structures in the U.S., those explanations tend to displace social factors in our analyses. But that’s all the more reason to question the very term “standardized testing.” And, to remember that the link customarily projected between STEM fields’ selectivity and practitioners’ promise or rigor, as I keep saying, needs to be seen as an arbitrary one.
What I’d highlight from Miller’s version of things is this: The use of scores certainly restricts participation in higher education and relies upon discriminatory social categories. But it also serves as a perfect disguise for our exclusionary educational habits; the symbolic values of testing and ranking are immense in STEM disciplines. Score-based admissions and the resultant rankings of universities on their basis suggest the pursuit of both quality and impartiality by higher ed. Those commitments are assuredly claimed by all disciplines, but the world of STEM expertise has a special investment in the objectivity of quantification. Throughout the world of science, comparisons among bits of data (as rankings by their nature perform), reassert the value of both individual measurements and of the metric itself…that is, they help validate the very act of measurement. But the understanding of test scores as a reflection of students’ promise and the veneration of those scores through school rankings are far from fair, and Miller helps us step back from that habitual, uncritical, numerical embrace.
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.