Can discomfort be taken seriously?

Some may think those who work in academia within STEM fields are lucky – the classes and work they do rarely involve bringing up conversations about biases, political correctness, and privilege among other things. Many of our research areas don’t involve the human experience at all, so “uncomfortable” subjects don’t usually come up in the classroom.

Just because we don’t intentionally stimulate “uncomfortable” dialogue very often doesn’t make us lucky at all. Situations that reveal biases and problems within the workplace will inevitably come about, rendering us unprepared and even more uncomfortable.

STEM fields are just as subject to inequality and biases as any other area. At my previous university, at least three women close to me reported Title IX incidents without any subsequent repercussion to the offenders. One of those reports involved a tenured, full professor in her department. She was being paid quite a bit less than her male counterparts; even less than some assistant, untenured male professors. Moreover, she was only one of two full, female professors in the department. Even further, there were no non-white faculty at any level in this department.

We never, ever talk about why white males dominate our field. Animal Science at the undergrad level is 80% female and mostly white. However, those with leadership positions in Animal Science, and agricultural fields as a whole – almost 100% male. I’m not entirely bothered by this, because I feel these dynamics are slowly changing at the academic level. What does bother me is that our higher-ups know these issues exist, and still choose to blatantly gloss over them.

Consequently these conversations are rarely had. When they come up in the workplace, they are not serious. Males dominate the dialogue, and as a woman I usually find myself feeling sheepish and not wanting to be contrary. I’ve been witness to such conversations where a woman will be brave enough to interject, only to later hear the men talking amongst themselves about the content of her character. As a result, my automatic reaction when the subject of bias arises is to be passive. Unfortunately, that’s how women are conditioned to be in our society – agreeable, cooperative, apologetic even.

The power dynamic rules in these situations.  Georgetown’s guides for using heated topics as a learning tool make the task seem more approachable. However, those mainly apply to a classroom setting when you hold the power cord of the conversation. The question is, how can we overcome the fear of having the unpopular opinion if we aren’t in the power role or in the majority? How can we learn to be okay with creating discomfort?


How do I *reach* these kids??

This is a series of clips from a South Park episode in which Cartman (for those who are unfamiliar with the show – he is the overweight one), for reasons I cannot remember, becomes a teacher for a class of underprivileged inner city high schoolers. While the portrayal of the students in this episode is arguably offensive, I believe the show’s creators hit a very real nerve regarding the U.S.’s education system.

Cartman is put in charge of these students, who as a result of their environments, are impoverished, defiant, and collectively do not care about school. He tells them that they should believe in themselves, that they should challenge the system, that they can get into college just like the privileged kids in rich schools! Their secret? Cheat!

Professor Cartman, who has stolen the answers to what we assume is the SAT/ACT, has students recite the answers over and over in class. Consequently, they all receive perfect scores and get accepted into college – as a result, he laments, “I reached these keeeds.”

Okay, so South Park is a crude, and at times quite disgusting show. However, the writers oftentimes portray the realities of our society, albeit in the most crass way possible.

Scores define educational success in the U.S., and money and privilege will give you a leg-up to that success. As a result, impoverished and minority schools suffer. Students lose motivation, become disinterested, and find purpose in unhealthy places. It’s a cycle that adds weight to people who were already born with feet encased in cement blocks.

Grades and test scores are how the government can measure schools’ success, and reward them with funding. However, as Dan Pink mentioned in his TED talk, incentivizing work may not necessarily translate to competence, performance, or understanding. In fact, schools that strive for higher grades may cut corners in their students’ education in order to do so.

“If we really want high performance…the solution…is not to entice people with a sweeter carrot, or threaten them with a sharper stick.” -Dan Pink, The puzzle of motivation

What if all students from all schools had virtually no way to cheat? Remove grades, remove pressure, encourage creativity. Every person has a passion. Give them purpose rather than incentive, and remove unnecessary pressure. My art teachers always said, “You don’t have to be good at drawing, you just have to create and show you understand the process.” Grades in art class weren’t based on how well you could draw a vase of flowers, but how you approached the task.

Realistically, we do need concrete, measurable means of gauging student progress. However, I like Alfie Kohn’s suggestion of negotiation – at the end of the course, sit down and ask what grade they think they deserve (although the teacher does have the final say).

Make assignments, give due dates, offer feedback. But do not break out the ominous red pen.  Known for scratching harsh criticism into the skin of an assignment, the red pen is a killer of motivation. Fear of the red pen steers students to cheat. And contrary to what Cartman believes, a “keeeed” who is pressured to cheat is not a “keeeed” who has been reached.



Build it, and they will complain

Windy, inspiring messages about change and innovation are abound in many facets of our society. The promise of change prompts voters to select their hopeful candidate. The advent of new technologies will free up time for us to perform less mundane tasks. Change is the answer.

I don’t disagree. An object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an external force. But without proper execution, even a new and improved reaction can be inhibited by unforeseen friction.

The buzz around disruptive education and “anti-teaching” encourages student learning rather than student compliance. The rhetoric surrounding these ideas empowers students and teachers alike. They nod their heads in agreement in regards to subjects with negative connotations, such as tests and grades. A different system is needed, they concur, one that is tailored to students’ individual experiences.

Again, I agree. But all I can think of while reading or listening to TED talks surrounding the subject is the friction. Implement new learning practices, and watch the complaints roll in. Complaints from the students, who are oftentimes so under-socialized that the thought of talking to someone on the phone gives them anxiety; complaints from the teachers, who are sometimes already so overworked that brainstorming and fine-tailoring individualized lesson plans may put them over the edge; complaints from other teachers, who have taught the same lessons and used the same handouts for decades; complaints from parents, who were measured by grades and ACT scores and feel this served them just fine.

The friction is inevitable. It slows progress, but it also serves a purpose. Feeling fuzzy and warm is an important ignitor for change, but genuine concerns are just as important. Before everyone jumps on the change train, they should be sure the track is built, and built well.



Made for us

Hopefully no one has to sit behind the projector. Image from EdTech Stanford University, Flickr Creative Commons.

Traditional universities are designed much like the United States Constitution: hallmarks of knowledge and innovation made with the intent to advance and shape society. However, the bones of both universities and our Constitution could not anticipate the nuances and strides of the future. They were constructed in a time, for a time, that is not ours. As such, it is difficult to interpret how some aspects of both of these important pinnacles fit in our present.

Take for example the lecture hall. All of the cramped chairs face forward in a large, stuffy room – some are lucky enough to have air conditioning – and feature small pull-out desks barely big enough for a notebook. What is appealing about this setting? Are students excited to come to this classroom? Maybe, if the teacher can hold their attention.

How many brand new lecture halls have been constructed within the last ten years? I would wager that investments in student learning space has been allocated more into smaller, more interactive classrooms than lecture halls. These rooms surely cost more than installing several hundred chairs with a projector; many of these smaller classrooms have multiple screens, interactive tablets, tables where students can face each other, and features such as spotlights and smartboards. This could be seen as a highly inefficient use of money – less students fit in these pricey spaces. However, more and more universities are recognizing the value of learning by doing.

A teacher should not be hindered if he or she is confined to a lecture hall not made for today’s learners. Teaching style should also be molded to fit the present.  It may be difficult to accept cellphones and laptops in the classroom and label them as distractions. However, many high schools do not allow girls to wear certain types of clothing, labeling shorter-length shorts and thin-strapped tank tops as distractions as well.

In both of these cases, the real problems are not the so-labeled “distractions,” but rather a lack of discipline and interest in learning. Still, a teacher may do all they can to be inclusive, innovative and encouraging in the classroom and still not be able to reach everyone. They should not be hindered by this either.

For those who wish to learn, it is not fair to deny them the freedom of having their technologies within reach. Rather than distrusting students from the get-go, asking students what keeps their attention, having them close their laptops at certain times, and overall, keeping inclusivity in mind is more important than exerting control over them. Forcing a student to learn on your terms is just as demoralizing as forcing a girl to change into her P.E. uniform because her tank top is “too distracting”.