The moderator was the associate dean of the school, and they invited 3 panelists from different disciplines to give 5 minute primer talks to start the conversation. The rest of the time was a lively question/answer discussion with the audience, who was engaged and asked insightful questions. I enjoyed all aspects of the conversation, and left thinking about what we mean by “diversity” and what it means to “teach diversity” on a college campus. I decided I would blog about what I took away from it, to help both catalogue those take-home points, and to do my own interpreting.
First, the moderator launched us right into the discussion about how we can fulfill the university’s diversity requirement in the natural sciences by suggesting that social sciences and humanities “have permission to teach diversity,” while the natural sciences are supposed to be divorced from those topics, focusing only on facts and objectivity. The first panelist laid out a model for how we might think of bringing diversity topics into a science curriculum, by asking students 2 questions:
1. What drove you to science? How do you choose your problems to study?
Thinking about the values inherent in making those decisions, in our motivations and interests can start to help students see how science is an inherently value-laden endeavor. Values get layered upon, as well, when we also consider that beyond individual researchers’ choices and motivations, our funding agencies have their own set of values (and politics) from which they draw when making their allocation decisions. The panelist pointed out that “the greens are white,” meaning it tends to be white people (usually middle-class or upper) who are most active in environmental science and advocacy. This observation deserves the question, why? Is it because well-off white people have the luxury of studying and advocating for changes and being insulated from potential consequences, (such as increased prices or loss of jobs) that might impact others who are not in their same group? Is this movement inadvertently unwelcoming to others or diverse perspectives? We ought to turn the lens on ourselves and all of these pieces, to see how we are unwittingly contributing to an institutional level block. Another panelist said, “if you want to diversify, you must be open to the nature of Truth within your discipline changing.” That openness is necessary, although not sufficient, for creating a space that is more welcoming to diverse perspectives.
2. Who do you want to use your science? Who are you trying to impact?
The answers to these questions on an individual level can also give us insight into what we think our science is going to do for society (a question that many people consider secondarily, if at all). And taking all of these individual interests in the aggregate, can illuminate systematic disparities in where research benefit is truly located. At least in my field, research is justified because it “benefits society.” Taking a closer look at this, we see that scientific advances don’t always benefit everyone. Details of this are for another day (and an article I just finished writing for my Social Justice and Health class, and for publication, god willing).
From what I understand, each school sets their own criteria for meeting the requirement. In the College of the Environment, 60% of the course has to be on diversity topics (not sure how that is defined) in order to be listed as a course that meets the requirement. While I understand that we need standards so that the requirement actually has teeth, and doesn’t allow any class to just add an example from an underrepresented community and call it enough. However, I wonder if this does not meet the spirit of the requirement. Not having been part of those conversations, I don’t know specifically what the spirit was, but as one audience member pointed out, this 60% rule relegates diversity to “next door” status, some thing that stands alone or is not integral to all conversations. But integration can be tricky too—do we want to force everyone (even those who are not interested, qualified, in support of) to teach about diversity in their classes? This could certainly back-fire, and do more harm than good. But what kind of message are we sending to students when we make them separate classes?
One of the other panelists from the Psychology Dept. shared her experience team-teaching a course for undergraduate engineering students about diversity, with the goal of making their discipline more welcoming for women and underrepresented minority students. She described their 1 hour/week course as giving students the language to think and talk about their biases, assumptions, -isms, and when they have experienced discrimination, stereotypes, or other feelings of unwelcome. This kind of work requires a commitment from students, however small, to expand their thinking, which is good in one sense because those are the students who may be ready to engage in mind-changing explorations, but also leaves out those who might actually need it the most. But it sounds like a fantastic class, drawing from research and theory in the social sciences to inform and frame these experiences for students who have never had a way to structure their thinking on diversity before. It avoids the pitfall that an audience member raised, of having diversity teaching default to people sharing their personal stories, and amount to an “anemic” lesson, devoid of the richness and depth that can be offered by people who are experts in these theories.
“Every STEM needs a flower.”
“Ferocity mixed with humility…We must do it, but we can’t do it alone.”
“Is it still the dominant assumption that science is objective?”
“Institutional blocking” re: how we tend to keep the status quo.
“Universities like UW want/need to be on the leading edge and diversity is an edge.”
“We need to let diverse perspectives change the way we do our science.”
“The environment suffers because people without power suffer.”
“The social, ethical, political pieces are harder to solve than the science.” = job security for PHGers?