Call for ideas: help design a “Gender/Race/Class” class on “interrupting the discourse that perpetuates inequity”

October 28, 2013 – 11:04 am

Our “Gender/Race/Class in engineering education” class has an “open topic” period that I’ve volunteered to help design… which means I’m going to Ask The Internet for help. (Hi!)

Based on our class discussion just now, for sale we are interested in tackling this question: How do we interrupt the discourse that perpetuates inequity in engineering education? (Subquestions: who has access to this discourse as a listener? A speaker? What is that access based on — gender, recipe race, class… age? geography? language? disability? intersections of any subset of that? What strategies do we have for doing this dialogue-interrupting work in professional and personal contexts?)

The course will be Monday, November 18, which is 2 weeks from now. We’re mostly PhD students in engineering education (technical backgrounds, social science research interests, lots of future engineering professors who care deeply about teaching). We have 3 hours in class, plus the ability to ask people to read a reasonable amount (<100 pages, English) before class. I’d love to hear thoughts, especially half-baked ones, on:

  • “learning objective” suggestions — in other words, what do we want to learn during the course of the 3 hours? (Can be fact-based, skill-based, emotion-based, perspective-expanding-based…)
  • “assessment” suggestions — given those learning objectives, how will we tell (at the end of the 3 hours) whether we’ve learned them, and how well? Does not need to be a test; could be questions for reflection on our own, etc.
  • Reading suggestions — scholarly or not. (For instance, Alice Pawley has offered to let us read her CAREER proposal on feminist engineering — a short, highly competitive grant for junior scholars whose committee was probably not used to getting “feminist” proposals.)
  • Activity suggestions — discussions, games to play, short bits of theatre to act out and/or improvise upon, provocative question prompts, etc…

Potential inspiration: our guiding question/framing about “interrupting discourse” came from a discussion on “how do we talk to people about this?” and an interest in intersectionality, especially with disability/access. I’m personally curious about the history of opening these dialogues in STEM: who (tenured? white? male? western?) started the conversations about women in physics, minority races in computing, wheelchair-accessible chemistry labs, etc — and when, and how, and what were the responses?

Comment away! I will post readings (or reading notes, if readings are not freely available), discussion questions/guidelines, and a story of what happened in the class once we run it — basically, whatever I can do to make the experience we’re creating here available and reusable by more people.

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  1. 8 Responses to “Call for ideas: help design a “Gender/Race/Class” class on “interrupting the discourse that perpetuates inequity””

  2. I’ll start by talking about how I talk about these things. My approach is usually one of four:
    1. Fact-based. This is where I describe a narrative, highlight quantitative evidence that supports that narrative, and then offer a critique of the flaws in the narrative I’ve constructed. This is how I talk about these things to myself and places like WisCon. It doesn’t work as well for audiences who aren’t collaborating in good faith and from a similar perspective, which means it rather seldom works.

    2. My Personal Experience. This is where I use my own vulnerability and lived experience to highlight problems in something that has just occurred. When I acknowledge my own fears and speak anyway it provokes less defensiveness and disrupts the us-vs-them mentality. I am not trying to control others; I am claiming the power to voice my fears, disappointments and alienation.

    3. Their Personal Experience. Especially in one-on-one settings, I often make it about the personal experiences of the opposition. This is why I now have a rough talk about Men in Computer Science. It simultaneously validates the feelings of the opposition while also denormalizing and decentering their experience by marking it as worthy of interrogation. It is frustrating and exhausting, it requires constantly challenging the perceptions to keep from reinforcing the existing narrative, and using my personal experience to build twinship.
    “I can see how that would hurt. Why did you think it was appropriate to generalize that to all women? Can you imagine what it is like to encounter someone who refuses to work with you because they once got dumped?” I’ve had surprising success with the approach, although also one epic failure that did at least alienate him from the group instead of requiring me to put up with his behavior. He said, “I’ve never felt so pre-judged in my life”, which I’m pretty sure was the problem.

    4. Reflexive Intervention. Short, declarative statements that broke no discussion. “Please don’t use that word that way,” is my favorite example or, “That’s sexist.” The key is to rehearse these until they are nearly automatic, and provide no reasons, no citations, nothing that gives the listener something to argue with. If the listener wants to disagree, they will need to put in the effort. At that point, they become the one who would need to commit a social faux pas. This works well when creating social norms, as opposed to trying to change someone’s mind.

    I am absolutely in love with The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, by Audre Lorde:

    I also love affinities over identities. Access is vital for some, without it they can not participate, but if that is the standard we demand before we will take access seriously then we waste a bunch of effort arguing about who is excluded enough to be worthy of access. By making it okay to express any level of frustration with access (with or without a diagnosis or variation from the assumed-norm), we can better support everyone and suddenly it is not “extra” or a favor to provide necessary access; it’s just P1 bugs in a sea of must-fix bugs.
    At the same time we need sufficient resources invested in these efforts so that the gains are not captured by the most-privileged.

    Finally, I haven’t gotten very far on this yet, but I think is going to end up being central to explaining why the further-from-testable-reality sciences are the most male dominated. Figuring out how to make people aware of when they are engaging in such rationalizations and disrupting the process may be more useful than the strategies that are effective in other situations.

    Encouraging scientists to used other people’s lived experiences as data to which their models must conform is my current favorite approach (this also works well for inner-social-justice group conflicts, where by “well” I mean “nearly guaranteed to piss everyone off, but at least I spend a lot less time feeling highly discouraged dealing with polemicists.”)

    By Beth on Oct 30, 2013

  3. I’m sure you guys have already discussed this to death but I’m really interested in how self-imposed fears and psychologies play into perpetuating gender/race/socioeconomic divides. One thing I realized is that if you’re a woman, minority, and poor, you qualify for like a billion engineering fellowships. Of course there are challenges to get you there technically (maybe you didn’t go to the best school, your parents never pushed you, no good role models, etc), but are there also challenges to get you there psychologically? What is the perception of an engineer to a kid who never even saw a STEM career in his/her path?

    I say this because I always feel like, as much as people say there are barriers for women/minorities, @ UCLA where I can name a hundred things that go wrong, that’s not one of them. So, I can’t help but feel like a good amount of these inequities are perpetrated by the student who thinks “well I’m probably not a good fit for that since I’m a ___”, which may not have been anyone else told him/her, but something more inborn.

    By yifan on Oct 30, 2013

  4. I realized I should probably add two contextual points:

    1) UCLA grad has a HUGE gender divide amongst domestic engineering students (feels like 10/90)
    2) The gender divide amongst the international students is much much smaller. (feels more like 40/60)

    So I think it starts in US public schools.

    By yifan on Oct 30, 2013

  5. in retrospect my numbers are probably way off…

    By yifan on Oct 30, 2013

  6. Whoa. Thanks for the starter thoughts/suggestions — Alice, Canek, Barbara and I are meeting Friday morning to brainstorm, discuss, and design, so I’ll bring these to the meeting and see what happens. (Keep the ideas coming! We don’t meet until 10am EST Friday!)

    I also wanted to add a suggestion from Grant which didn’t make the comment thread yet: Project Implicit as a good “how to open the dialogue” tool (justification: engineers like objective evidence and numbers).

    (EDIT: Today is Wednesday. The meeting is Friday, not “tomorrow.” Why does this week seem so much longer than it actually is?)

    By Mel on Oct 30, 2013

  7. Yifan: The quick “here, useful Wikipedia article!” response to this is Impostor Syndrome (and its opposite, the Dunning-Kruger effect). But (1) I know you’ve heard those terms before when we were both at Olin, and (2) naming something is useful, and awareness can start changing the situation, but it’s often not sufficient on its own.

    During my Hacker School residencies, I bring up the research on intrinsic motivation (as levers we can use to get ourselves more revved up about something even when it’s hard), but that assumes a starting desire and a belief in that possibility in the first place. I also mention the research on self-efficacy (and social learning) as “here’s what you can do to help other people believe more that they can do X” strategies. But I feel like these don’t answer your question so much as they walk in circles around it.

    Maybe it’s a two-part question. The stuff above is “once they have this mind-flip, what resources can help people do the work needed to make things better?” and the first one (which Beth and Grant spoke to) is “how do we ignite the mind-flipping, paradigm-poking, possibility-opening stuff in the first place?” Maybe it’s not a causal thing we can Absolutely Make Happen (if there was a “privilege awareness” machine we could march people through, we’d be millionaires)[0], but… what is the environment we can create that will cause some people passing through it to be moved, such that they cannot remain unchanged?

    [0] I think “travel” and “extraordinary nurturing while growing up by families, friends, neighborhoods, teachers, and mentors” both do a consistently great job in the vast majority of cases, but those take too long and cost too much money and are not standardizable-enough to get NSF funding.

    By Mel on Oct 30, 2013

  8. Oh my gosh, Beth. Thank you so much. This is gold. There’s a ton here to look into and unpack (I’ll do this in the next day or two) but I wanted to ask you more specifically about your “Reflexive Interventions” (point 4). Do you have good ideas for quick howtos, a starter list of phrases, sort of the… “Reflexive Interventions 101″ cheat sheet?

    I’m also thinking about looking at resources from Geek Feminism and/or the Ada Initiative for good examples on how to live this conversation in a variety of ways (because people need to find out what’s going to work for them) and how to give others the space to practice finding their version of that conversation, so thanks for reminding me to do that as well.

    Finally — and I’m torn on this — I’m wondering if we should put some resources on “possible consequences” in there. Because sometimes when you stand up for what you believe is right, not-so-good things happen to you (if nothing else, you can get tired). And it seems only fair that people know the possible consequences of their actions. But man, is that topic depressing… and possibly something that’d drag the rest of our conversation off-track (yanking it into a mindset of scarcity instead of having it come from a place of abundance).

    By Mel on Oct 30, 2013

  9. I don’t have anything like a “Reflexive Interventions” how-to, though I should make one. I just coined the phrase for it right that second; thanks for the encouragement!

    I think that adding some resources for possible consequences would be great, both so people aren’t blindsided and drop out the first time they encounter push back, but also because it is evidence of how much this stuff matters. It can also help explain why it is so important for men to participate, since the backlash they face is significantly different.

    This isn’t work we can do alone, and knowing where to find supportive communities that will offer validation and tools (like comment screening or doxxing harassers) can keep the work from feeling like a tiny drop in a giant sea. Men in particular need male mentors who can coach them through the 101-style stuff so all the work doesn’t fall to women and so young men don’t feel alone.

    I got up the bravery to start talking about gender in public after attending a panel that included a woman who had been stalked and ended up moving to escape backlash for blogging for a rape crisis center. The way I saw it, if she could handle all that, I could certainly handle a couple offended coders. The worst that was going to happen still wasn’t the end of the world, and the only reason it happened at all is because the work she was doing was *effective*.

    The other thing I would bring up is the accusations of “white knighting” that dudes and masculine women will almost inevitably have thrown at them. It is often a derailing technique, and I think it can be most easily defeated by owning our own discomfort. “I’m not trying to defend her: what you said/did made *me* uncomfortable and that’s not okay.” On the other hand, it is useful to remember that if we are trying to speak for someone else, it behooves us to listen to them and offer the support they want instead of the support we wish they wanted. I don’t think this is the only possible perspective, certainly, but it’s the one I’ve developed.

    By Beth on Oct 31, 2013

What do you think?