In defense of STEM re: critical pedagogy and content

At this point, I’ve participated in a lot of discussions about how to incorporate more critical discussions about race, gender, and power in the classroom, and thus far, they’ve been dominated by people from the humanities and social sciences. I think these are really important discussions, and I’m glad to be a part of them.

For me, these discussions often become a bit uncomfortable when we start talking about STEM. Usually, these discussions start with some comment about the difficulties of incorporating these discussions into the STEM classroom, and responses tend to vary anywhere from an insistence that these topics permeate any discussion to mild (or not so mild) indignation that STEM people don’t seem to care about these issues.

As someone with an undergraduate degree in STEM, and as someone who has spent some time teaching STEM topics, I can’t help but feel a bit defensive in these discussions. I think there are parts of this discussion that are indeed true: I do think that STEM people, on average, do not think about these issues in their daily lives and work quite as much as their non-STEM peers.

That said, I think that non-STEM people tend to forget that there may be significant periods in STEM classrooms where we are literally not talking about people. When I taught about deriving the formula for a correlation, I wasn’t talking about people. When I sat in a classroom and learned SQL, we weren’t talking about people. We were talking about databases and pivot tables. What were the tables in the data about? Many times, not people. (Throughout the duration of my education, I’ve worked with a surprising number of datasets about different kinds of boats.)

Even when we are talking about people, there are often ways in which issues of race or gender or class are not immediately applicable. I’ve had by DNA put through gel electrophoresis on multiple occasions to assess characteristics of my human DNA, but no, I don’t think there was any reason to discuss those types of issues in that moment. At some point in my education? Sure. In that moment or even in that particular class space? Debatable.

There are subtle ways to incorporate critical reflection into the classroom, yes. I myself have made mention of the limitations of using dichotomous indicators for measuring gender identity. However, I feel that as a function of the subject matter, responsibility for STEM educators to use critical teaching is different. Not lessened. Just different.

Where this kind of thinking does fit more universally is in considering the classroom environment. Many STEM fields have traditionally been dominated by white, class-advantaged, heterosexual men. So there are many ways in which the system, as it stands, still systematically excludes marginalized populations from STEM and, as one mechanism, creates uncomfortable and sometimes harmful classroom environments. It’s at this juncture that I think STEM educators need to be most in touch with critical pedagogies. STEM educators have a responsibility to understand how the dynamics they develop in their classrooms and the systems in which they participate contribute, often, to the disparities we see in terms of the participation of othered people in the field. With this, STEM educators have a responsibility to be open to and learn alternative ways of creating learning and living environments that are cognizant of the power in the room.

That all said, I do wish that discussions of critical pedagogy and content  would be more open to the idea that no, all of our respective academic spaces are not the same. No, the concepts we are talking about do not apply in the same ways across disciplines. If we are going to develop ways to create an educational world that is, across the board, reflective of the justice we seek, being sensitive to the variety of ways knowledge is legitimately created is just a practical reality.

Who finds it funny? And why?

Generally, I have very high respect for good comedians as I think it’s one of the most difficult art forms. In addition, various forms of identity, ranging from gender to race to sexual orientation, are often the subject of comedy, which I think can be very difficult to approach. For my part, I think this is okay in certain circumstances. It depends on how it is done.

I recently learned of the concept of “punching up.” The general idea of punching up is that as a comedian, jokes about certain populations are frowned upon if those populations are less privileged than yours, which would be “punching down.” For example, making fun of homeless people generally doesn’t go over well, since most comedians themselves are not homeless. As such, if you’re going to make those jokes, you should punch up – make jokes about people with more privilege.

There are some comics from relatively privileged backgrounds who punch down, and while I go back and forth about whether it’s okay, the joke is often clearly meant to be a caricature of people who are racist/sexist/etc. The joke is meant to highlight the absurdity of the bigotry that does exist. In this post, I don’t want to make any claims about the general quality of any specific comedian as much I want to provide examples of this comedy. Daniel Tosh, as I interpret it, does this fairly frequently and is often allowed to do so because this kind of comedy is a part of his track record.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euayc_HqMbY

While again, I’m ambivalent about whether I think this is okay for Daniel Tosh to do, I recognize that part of what makes me uncomfortable is much less about what he is saying and much more about what others might be hearing.

I think something similar can be said about comedians who poke fun at people who are like them. Iliza Shlesinger does this fairly frequently, poking fun at women (of a certain social class).

In a similar vein, Russell Peters also has a fairly famous/infamous bit about immigrant parents. (At this point, my post is just me posting YouTube videos.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn5jlrxcpkI

To a certain extent, I think people are allowed to poke fun at themselves and the social groups with which they identify. I think there’s something humbling about taking a look at cultural and social traditions within identity groups and discussing the ways in which we often take them for granted. And of course, there are times when those jokes edge on being reflective of some sort of internalized bigotry, but in general, I don’t think many comedians are doing that.

What worries me about this type of humor is the rest of the audience. In many ways, it’s similar to the way I felt about Sheryll Cashin’s talk at Vanderbilt. Broadly, I can trust black people to watch a Todrick Hall sketch and not take the video as some source of information about what black people are like.

What about white people, watching this video? What about men watching Schlesinger’s work? This problem was particularly apparent to me during the Antoine Dodson craze back in 2010, with the remixed “Bed Intruder” song.

Creative, yes. But I was around a lot of white people at that point in my life, and it became apparent to me during this period that we were all laughing, but for very different reasons. I got a lot of comments from people that indicated that the foundation of their reaction was embedded in their own stereotypes about black people. This video, to them, was just confirmation of what they already believed about black people as a lesser group.

I re-evaluate my position on this pretty much once a week, but overall, I think it’s somewhat unfair that people who wish to make comedy about their own historically marginalized populations have to worry about this. Gay people, in my mind, should be allowed to poke fun at certain things about the gay communities of which they are a part. Of course, there are other problems with the intersections of these identities (saved for another day), but in general, I think this issue is really unfortunate.

Should we, then, ask people to stop this kind of humor? I honestly don’t know the answer. I lean towards no, but I also empathize with the anger expressed by many people in the black community towards black comics poking fun at black people. I get it. My question is whether we should not be allowed to make this kind of humor because of what those in a privileged social class might think. I don’t have an answer. I just hope that we can be more critical of what it means to laugh at identity-specific observational humor. Who is laughing? What are they laughing at? And why?

Diversity for the sake of diverse learning spaces

In 2003 (Grutter v. Bollinger), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan Law School were not unconstitutional. In the dissent, Justice Rehnquist noted that school administrators cited the need for a diverse student body to “ensure that these minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race; to provide adequate opportunities for the type of interaction upon which the educational benefits of diversity depend; and to challenge all students to think critically and reexamine stereotypes.” Similarly, the ruling (authored by Justice O’Connor) stated that the Constitution “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

This justification is also used here at my own institution, as per the academic strategic plan: “Diversity, in the broadest sense of the term, is absolutely critical to ensuring excellence in our core missions of discovery and learning. The human condition is fundamentally shaped by the context in which we have lived, learned, and now reside. A university offers an exceptional opportunity to bring together people from different personal and scholastic backgrounds in the name of higher learning. The experience of being an African-American is different from that of being a Hispanic. The same is true for gender, ethnic groups, social class, place of origin, sexual orientation, and countless other genetic, cultural and environmental parameters. It is also true that engineers have different perspectives than lawyers, as well as classicists compared to chemists. At one level, all such claims are obvious. The human condition, and human lives, is shaped by these different experiences, and they give rise to very different prisms by which each individual thinks about problems and opportunities and then approaches solutions.”

There are parts of these notes with which I sympathize, and parts that make me deeply uncomfortable. This discomfort isn’t because I think the statements are incorrect; there are various pieces of evidence circulating (especially recently) that cite the benefits that diverse student bodies bring to academic spaces. Nor do I think that there’s any particular problem with stating these benefits, since I do think it highlights the value of perspectives from historically excluded and marginalized populations.

My problem is when this is the only justification provided. In short, it’s not my job as a person of color or as a gay man to enhance your academic experience.

This isn’t to say that I don’t also benefit from a diverse learning space. My undergraduate institution was very diverse in many ways, and I think it really contributed to a healthier environment to the extent that I did not particularly feel isolated, and I did learn a great deal from those with backgrounds different from mine.

For me, though, the most important reason to include more “diverse” populations (in quotes to acknowledge the possible oddity of calling any particular population diverse) is not because of what it brings to others, nor is it particularly because those people will benefit from having more “diverse” colleagues. The most important reason is related to the fact that persons of color (speaking from my own identifications) have historically been excluded from quality institutions of higher learning, which is something (I assume) we agree is morally wrong.

Briefly, I’d add that my feelings here extend beyond academia. The same justification is often used elsewhere, especially in community development. Throughout my life, I’ve seen various news reports about the extent to which, for example, having gay men move into a neighborhood benefits the entire community. While I appreciate the magical powers that these reports have assigned to me in terms of my queer ability to raise the property values of my neighbors’ homes, it still feels tokenizing, as if they need me as a gentrifier (which has its own problems) more than I deserve the right to live in a safe community.

My overall point is that the compelling reasons for diversity should not primarily be because of its ability to increase the excellence of an institution. It should be because that institution has a commitment to upholding justice.

Preserving Confederate memorials to learn from “our” history

My friend Dominique Baker recently shared this story with me. The basic summary is that removing physical relics of the Confederacy from shared public life removes any need for “us” to contend with the racism of “our” history.

A similar argument was made here at Vanderbilt University recently, amidst conversations about Confederate Memorial Hall as well as the Eliza Claybrooke Memorial Scholarship for daughters of Confederate soldiers at Peabody. Besides the argument that there are still people who hold the Confederacy close to their chest as a part of their identity, a similar argument was made that removing relics removes any responsibility “we” have to face “our” ugly history.

I think there is some valid thought here. This nation needs to contend with its violent and oppressive history. “We” can’t just wash away all memory of this history and just march forward for the sake of marching forward.

What I firmly reject about this argument, as is evident from my consistent use of scare quotes, is the idea that “we” all share this responsibility. Let us be clear for a moment: the “we” being discussed here is white people. This much is explicit in Regina Nippert’s article above, as she notes, “We white Southerners are a hot mess. That does not excuse us from the conversation we know we need to have.”

The problem I have with this argument is that it perfectly fits into existing structures of white supremacy. It privileges the needs of white people above the feelings of black people.

I do not attempt here to make the claim that all black people want the removal of Confederate symbols. To some extent, I expect there are probably some who would agree that white people should not be allowed any boulevard through which they can avoid facing history. My issue is not so much the decisions made as a result of this argument as much as it is the fairly uncritical way it has been presented by white people.

Racism isn’t just a part of our history. It exists in our current world, and based on observations from my experience as an activist, Confederate relics can and do contribute to feelings of disempowerment, invisibility, and fear among black people. Discussing preserving these relics in the name of helping white people grow without paying any mind, again, to the needs of black people isn’t a statement of progress.

Sure, it’s great when white people are able to contend with whiteness in a historical and contemporary context. But as I also mentioned in my discussion of white fragility, this exploration of whiteness can dangerously translate into continued ignorance of the needs of people of color.

Affirmative Action may be uncomfortable, and that’s okay (for some people)

Last year, Vanderbilt University brought Sheryll Cashin to discuss her book Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America. I attended, as did several of my colleagues and friends. And for those of us that were trying to work towards a more equitable and justice-oriented campus, it was…interesting, to say the least. Overall, I found it somewhat narrow and felt that it missed the point. I was deeply troubled for a while, especially as the audience consisted mostly of white members of the community who, more often than not, were in a place of power. What were they taking away from this talk, and how much harder was it going to make my job?

In discussing her opposition to affirmative action, she said one simple, powerful phrase that brought the crowd to its feet, notably without myself and my colleagues: “I was raised to care about other people’s children.”

In a lot of ways, I think this sentiment in opposition to affirmative action, that those in the dominant majority are being slighted in a zero-sum game of college admission, is very unhelpful. It was deeply troubling to me for a while, and only made me even more cynical about our ability as a community to enact real justice for those who are underserved in higher education or, more broadly, the world.

That said, I’ve thought about it a lot. And while I still think that it’s a huge problem that this was announced to a crowd of white people who overwhelmingly endorsed this point of view, I sympathize with where Dr. Cashin in coming from, in certain ways. Before anyone either (a) decides to dismiss everything I’m about to say as anti-justice or (b) use what I’m saying as a part of their anti-affirmative action platform, let me say up front: I support affirmative action, and I generally disagree with most opposition that those in the dominant majority have against affirmative action. What has changed in my thinking is that overall, I think it’s okay for black people to be uncomfortable when thinking about it.

Obviously (or maybe not, for some people), it’s not okay when someone assumes that a black person got into college because of affirmative action. I’ve gotten these comments before, anywhere from “It would be great to be black so I could get into college more easily” to “Well it’s good for you that you got affirmative action to be here.” I’m not going to spend time explaining why these statements are deeply offensive and hurtful, because it should be clear, but there’s a second reaction that I think we don’t think about a lot.

At least for me, when I was in college, I didn’t really understand how college admissions worked. Frankly, I’m still only fuzzy on the details. The secondary, but longer-lasting issue for me when it came to those offensive comments was that they’d dig their way into my subconscious and gradually start to feel true. Did I only get in because of my race? Do I not measure up to other people here because I didn’t get here on my own merit? I’m not saying that they’re healthy thoughts, but I think that if other black students were also feeling this way, I’m okay with that acknowledgement.

I think it’s okay for black people to feel uncomfortable about affirmative action as it relates to our own personal lives. I think that overall, that’s where Dr. Cashin was coming from (though it’s still thoughtless to not consider your audience). It’s for the same reason that, for a good portion of my young adult life, I was also against affirmative action. In a lot of ways, it’s not great to feel like you might be getting special treatment in spite of your merit.

All that said, I don’t think it’s valid for this to be a talking point for white people on this topic. It’s not up to white people to decide, in my opinion, whether or not my discomfort works for or against their own policy opinions. I’m not sure, now being pro-affirmative action, what exactly you do about the discomfort. It’s definitely hard to reconcile with broader senses of policy justice. These feelings, I think, are exacerbated by a life of feeling like my stereotype was lesser (in academic words, stereotype threat) and living in constant doubt because of it. Even with my updated understanding of the policy, knowing that I’m not actually taking the place of someone more “qualified,” it’s still a slight nag I have in the back of my mind.

I’d rather acknowledge it than pretend it’s not there. It’s the main reason why I don’t think affirmative action is necessarily a perfect situation, but it’s easier when I recognize that I feel this way, and then can work that into my more complete perspective on the policy. It’s not all about me, but in some respects, my thoughts about me are a part of it. Frankly, I’m okay with that.