Let’s Listen

Guest Author: Thomas Goodwillie

Last spring I taught a course at Brown University called Race and Gender in the Scientific Community, and I’d like to say some things about what that was like for me. I have the idea that by reflecting on this experience I might manage to breathe a little new life into the overused and inadequate words “diversity and inclusion” for some of the people who read this. I’ll tell the story of the Race and Gender course, and I’ll tell some other personal stories, too. There’s a common theme to this set of narratives: it’s all about learning and changing by paying attention to what people have to say.

This post is aimed at people who have good intentions but who also have a tendency toward complacency. I think that there are a lot of us in that category. It’s easy to see oneself as being committed to opposing racism and sexism and other wrongs (such as class prejudice, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism), and it’s easy to agree that these wrongs ought to be addressed in one’s own professional world; yet at the same time it can also be easy — at least for someone like me — to have only a fairly abstract idea of what is actually wrong, and only vague ideas of what anyone might do about it.

Teaching the Race and Gender course has played a part in (partially) opening my mind and my heart to some hard realities. And I don’t simply mean that the content of the course has had an impact on me. Perhaps even more, it is the students and the process that have had an effect.

The main message of this post is: listen and learn.

Origins of the course

It began as a student initiative. In 2013 some Brown undergraduates were turning to each other for support. Each of them was running into obstacles to studying STEM subjects as a woman, as a person of color, and/or as a member of a gender or sexual minority – obstacles like bias on the part of instructors or fellow students and feelings of isolation.

They ended up planning and carrying out a Group Independent Study Project (GISP). Over the course of a semester they read some materials related to history of science, philosophy of science, and history of unequal representation in scientific fields, and about the history of efforts to change that. They also engaged in some inquiries of their own about the state of things at Brown. This led to some recommendations.

One recommendation was that the GISP should become a regular course. This happened, thanks to Bjorn Sandstede in the Division of Applied Mathematics: he worked with some of the creators of the GISP to develop a course, which he then taught/facilitated for the first time in the spring of 2017, and again a year later, and again a year after that. The third time around I taught it with him, each of us taking one section. Next year APMA 1910 will not be offered, but I will teach essentially the same course, this time listed as a Mathematics course and cross-listed with Applied Mathematics. It appears that more clones of the course will appear in some other departments or programs at Brown. The hope all along had been that the project would spread like this.

My experience of the course

It’s often said that we learn by teaching, and that we learn from our students. In this setting I had a lot to learn!

I had never taught anything other than math. Moreover, except for one-on-one or very small group work, teaching had mainly meant standing in the front of the room talking and writing on a blackboard. Now I was beginning every class period by arranging chairs in a circle for twelve students and me.

I made it clear at the outset that this was a new and daunting experience for me, and I hope that my openness about that was useful to the students. I said that I was going to be learning from the readings along with them, and that I had never taught a class anything like this before — and I also acknowledged the reality that as a cis het white male I should be more prepared to listen than to speak about some of the topics ahead of us.

We spent a little time at the beginning of the semester talking about what had brought us all there, and also addressing questions about how to talk with each other. How were we going to handle it if there was hot disagreement about something? Or if someone in the group felt disrespected in a sexist way or a racist way or some other way? And, simply, what could we do to insure that everyone would get a chance to speak, that everyone would be encouraged to speak? We promised that we would work on listening to each other.

There were times when I worried a little about how to get things going. But over the first few weeks I learned, and we as a group learned, some ways of sparking discussion. I am not the only one in the room who sometimes had to make an effort to refrain from interrupting or otherwise dominating the conversation.

In teaching the course I was for the most part following the syllabus and the reading list that I had received. This year I will work to make the course into something that is more my own. I will make some changes: going more deeply into some things, cutting out some material that did not work so well, adding new readings that have come my way, getting better organized about guest appearances, being clearer about what I expect from the students, finding ways to make them even more active participants. But the format will remain basically the same.

Before most class meetings there are assigned readings. They might be excerpts from books, or scholarly articles of a statistical kind or of a philosophical kind, or news articles. Students submit a written response to the reading before class, and often they are required to write something again after we have talked. Eventually they also take turns leading discussions. In the final weeks of the course the students choose projects and break into groups to work on them.

As the semester went along, the students and I all got to know each other somewhat better, and this meant a lot to me. Some of the topics elicited stories from the students’ own lives (and sometimes from mine).

Hearing first-hand accounts is only one way to learn about sexism and racism, and by itself it is not enough. We can and should educate ourselves by reading, and there is a lot to read; anecdotes are no substitute for data; it is not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressors. But hearing first-hand accounts from people I know can get my attention like nothing else.

Apart from the content of the course, I would like to think that this experience enriched me as a teacher by giving me practice at listening, and at trying to be in tune with a room full of people who all have their own viewpoints. Even when your teaching takes the form of an old-fashioned mathematics lecture, these skills are worth working on.

It’s hard to listen

I want to say this as strongly as I can: even with the best of intentions we often don’t hear what we don’t want to hear. Here is a case in point.

A few years ago our department, like all other departments at Brown, wrote its Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. I offered to chair the committee that would take the lead in implementing this plan. Just as the committee was beginning its work — beginning to work out what its work might be, and how we might do it — I received a report written by a group of students in Sandstede’s APMA 1910. (I was dimly aware of the course at that time, but it would be many months before I seriously thought of co-teaching it.) That particular group’s final project had been to gather information about the Math Department’s undergraduate program through interviews and surveys, and to recommend some ways that we could serve our students better.

It was hard for me to read the report, because I had such a strong defensive reaction to it. I simply couldn’t believe much of the criticism that I saw, and my tendency was to ignore it — despite my voluntary commitment to spearheading the department’s efforts at inclusiveness!

In the next few months one thing that our committee did was to solicit criticism, from undergraduates, through undergraduate members of the committee. Again we heard some bitter complaints. I was feeling more ready to hear such things by then, but neither I nor the committee as a whole quite knew what to do with what we were hearing.

A month or two later I was approached by a student whom I knew. They talked, eloquently, about some of the same issues, and this somehow helped me to move further beyond defensiveness and excuses. It had been a messy internal process for me, but things were moving.

Eventually we confronted the assembled faculty of the department with some of these complaints. That was the beginning of another messy process. The confrontation was sudden, and it led to hard feelings. On the other hand, I tell myself that there was no way to begin this conversation without shocking people, precisely because of the strong human tendency toward complacency.

We have happy math students here, and we know it. We also have unhappy math students, although we tend to be less aware of that fact.

We have students who begin studying math but switch to other subjects. There can be good reasons for that, but there can also be bad reasons, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. When someone says “I realized that math is not for me,” it can mean any of a number of things, or a mixture of things, including “I felt excluded from the world of mathematics that I saw around me”.

The conversation about this in our department will continue. We have to find ways to make it continue, and if there are ways in which the culture of the department needs to change then we have to find ways to promote that. There will be “climate surveys” and other efforts to gather hard facts about how well we are serving our students. Facts are important, but individual voices are important, too. Knowing how many students are happy is worthwhile, but it is no substitute for listening to the ones who are unhappy.

One of the readings in the course was from Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. That book grew out of experiences of teaching the rural poor in Brazil to read and write, and of teaching the rural poor in Chile about revolutionary politics, so you might not think that it has much to do with you. But please bear with me: I believe that its core message is universal. Teaching is for the students, and they must be equal partners. The students know what they need, and we must let them tell us. Of course I do not mean that (for example) our abstract algebra students come into the course knowing what it is that they need to learn about abstract algebra. But there are things that they know better than we do. They know what it is that they already know or think they know, and they know what is hard for them to understand about the subject, and they know why they want to study the subject. We can teach them better if we let them tell us how to teach them. In a real sense we cannot teach them at all unless we listen to them. [Freire might say that his core message is: Education is liberation. I hope you will entertain the idea that that applies to the teaching of math in colleges and universities, too.]

More history

Here is another story on the same theme.

One day in November of 2015 something happened at Amherst College. It began as a one-hour vigil in the library to show solidarity with students protesting racism on other campuses around the country, but it grew into something more. All afternoon and far into the night, one student after another — many of them women of color — spoke to the crowd about their negative experiences at Amherst. The focus of the event shifted to confronting the college administration and demanding attention for these concerns. The event resulted in thoughtful conversations and serious efforts at institutional change. It came to be called the Amherst Uprising.

By coincidence I was on the Amherst campus that day; I was there to give a math talk to students in the evening, and also to spend some time with my daughter, who was a student there. I went with her and witnessed what was happening in the library for a while. After my talk we returned and listened again for a long time.

I was strongly affected by hearing those students talk. They spoke with passion about feeling like an outsider, about being treated as an outsider in subtle and not so subtle ways. Institutional diversity is all very well, but if the “different” people do not feel truly welcome, and if mismatches between the institution and the worlds that the students are coming from are ignored, then the institution has failed them. All of that is easy to say, and has been said before, but hearing it the way I did made a deep impression on me.

I recently learned that one of the initiatives that eventually came out of the Amherst Uprising was a teaching project somewhat parallel to our course at Brown. It’s called HSTEM, or Being Human in STEM. It was created in the aftermath of the Uprising, and it was designed to be something that can be transplanted to other institutions.

I became aware of HSTEM in May of this year, when there was an event at Brown connecting us with some HSTEM people from Amherst and Yale. Three of the founders of our Race and Gender course, Amy Butcher, Abigail Plummer, and Jamelle Watson-Daniels — all of whom are now graduate students in various STEM fields — came back to Brown that day to speak about the creation of that Group Independent Study Project. It was powerful to hear them talk, one after another, about the experiences of racism and sexism that had driven them to create the GISP, and they spoke with infectious enthusiasm about how they had worked together to make it happen. I am very glad that the project they started is still alive.

In conclusion

Listen to the students you are teaching.

Listen to your colleagues. Every one of them has something to teach you about teaching.

Listen (you and your colleagues) to the students at your institution. It’s easy to listen to the happy students. It can be much harder to listen to the sad or angry ones. It’s impossible to listen to the ones who don’t speak up at all. Work to find ways of helping them to speak up.

Listen to criticism. Work to overcome your internal resistance. Our tendency to argue when confronted with things we don’t want to know can be amazingly strong.

And always remember: it is easy for a man not to see sexism, and for a white person not to see racism.


Editorial comment: We strongly support Dr. Goodwillie’s efforts to learn to see what might otherwise be hidden from him by learning to listen more deeply and by acknowledging that waiting to hear, what filters through a privileged perspective, what he needs for learning is not enough. As he points out, there are forces that keep him and others from seeing. We think it is important to name these forces, especially whiteness, which is a structural force that sets agendas, asserts which perspectives are neutral and central, and sets up active processes by which this kind of self-reflection and vision are shut down.

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