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.

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.)

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?

New resources up: Stata boot camp materials

With moderate success (I think), we just finished running a Stata boot camp for our masters students, who are switching from using SPSS point-and-click to Stata this semester. The materials for running this boot camp are now on the Resources page.

Many thanks to Dominique Baker, Sy Doan, Adam Kho, Chris Marsicano, Olivia Murray, Chris Redding, Luis Rodriguez, and Ben Skinner for piloting and providing feedback on the materials and modules.

My own racism: a reflection

In the same way that I don’t particularly believe in the use of leadership as a label applied to certain people, I don’t know how much I believe in the use of “racist” as a word for people. How many racist ideologies need a person hold to be a racist? How much expression? How many times? To whom? My main problem is that using the term “racist” (most people’s use of the term, that is) (a) abdicates responsibility of non-racists to be critical of themselves and (b) casts racism as a problem with individual people, rather than something broader in which most of us are implicated.

I’m not trying to say that accepting that we all have the potential to be racist means we should be more accepting of racism when we see it. See the following musical number from Avenue Q to see kind this kind of thought.

Growing up, a lot of people used this song to excuse the little actions of racism they’d commit, but that’s not my point. I think this sends the wrong message.

Here, I reflect on one example of my own racism.

Growing up, even though I lived in a relatively diverse environment and was surrounded by family members and friends from all kinds of different backgrounds, I was still inundated by media highlighting white men as generally more attractive than black men. It’s hard, as a kid, not to start to take some of those messages to heart. When I reached teenage-hood and became interested in more romantic and otherwise intimate relationships, I found myself fundamentally not attracted to black men.

Throughout high school and even part of college, I acknowledged this fact to myself, and while it made me vaguely uncomfortable, I lived with it and acted by it. Out of all of the men with which I found myself infatuated in my daily life, not a single one was black. The only black man I would acknowledge as being attractive to me was Usher, and even in that instance, I think I was just looking for an example that could make me feel better about the trends I acknowledged in my own attractions.

Some might, in a weird psychoanalytic kind of way, chalk this up to a kind of internalized racism in my part,to the extent that I did not accept my own blackness as a part of my identity. This may have been a part of it, sure, but in trying to rekindle the emotions I felt during that period of my life, I think it was much simpler than that. white men were generally attractive. Black men were not. That was just the way I felt.

It wasn’t until about halfway through college when it really started to eat away at me that this kind of trend was rooted in racism, rather that it just being an unfortunate personal preference. It was at that point that I decided to do something about it. I’m not going to go into detail about how I went about that work here, but I believed very strongly that I would be able to reorient myself away from those racist ideologies to something more just. Over time, I think I did reorient my way of thinking with more-than-moderate success.

My point here is that racism, while socialized, isn’t just something that people have to accept and live with as a part of their being. Combating racism requires acknowledging the ways in which you hold racist ideologies and waking up every day with a commitment towards thinking differently. I’m not saying that I don’t still have ways in which I can grow and try to fix the racist (and sexist, homophobic, etc.) things that still linger in my consciousness. All I’m saying is that I believe positive work is possible. I believe it is possible to become less racist, and I think we would all benefit from doing the real emotional work to at least try.

Maybe some regular research thoughts?

I think I’m going to start putting some of my thoughts on interesting research articles down on paper (keyboard?) every now and then. But I figured that if I’m going to do that, I should mark down some disclaimers about these.

First, my purpose in writing these thoughts is not to provide a comprehensive review of the articles, and I will often not be discussing some of the parts of the article. So to that end, no one should ever use what I write as a substitute for actually reading the original publications.

Second, I will attempt as best as possible to write any criticisms I have as open to discussion. I’m fallible, like anyone else, and it’s possible that I’m missing an important piece in my interpretation of an article. Any thoughts greatly appreciated.

That’s all I can think of for now. I’ll likely add more as I explore this endeavor.