Revisiting Retention of Underrepresented Students

Since the magnification of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, there has been a surge in the production of diversity statements across all academic disciplines. Amongst these disciplines have been mathematics departments, which have historically been dominated by straight white cis men. On one hand, this has resulted in an increase in the conversations surrounding recruitment of diverse candidates for faculty, graduate and undergraduate positions. However, on another there has been a lack of conversation surrounding retention. In this post, I focus mainly on the implications of retention for underrepresented graduate students, however there are undoubtedly more conversations that need to happen within the field of mathematics.

For most graduate students, school requirements are often just the tip of the iceberg. Many of them have their own responsibilities, be it families, second-jobs or their primary research. Most graduate students experience some level of stress with managing their time between these different roles, and generally there is some wiggle room for students. For marginalized students there is often more stacked in this “typical” plate. Some examples are students who are on hormones, students with chronic illnesses, neurodivergent students and BIPOC students (especially in predominately-white spaces). Requiring marginalized students to produce and operate at the same frequency as their counterparts is where many departments often fall short.

Professors often use an “equality” approach to their teaching. This is where they provide the same set of rules for all students, but equality is not enough to retain diversity. This is where equity comes into play. Professors need to recognize the value in molding requirements for students. Expecting a student to function at 100% when they have a chronic illness is unrealistic and this is just one example. For students who are regularly trying to make it through the day without experiencing a micro-aggression, focusing on an in class exam can understandably be incredibly difficult. However, the chances of being allowed to reschedule or retake the exam are often non-existent, especially by professors who may not understand the gravity of the situation. This often results in an internalization of these issues, which only stacks on all the other requirements.

Until we have environments that are empathetic and flexible to the struggles of underrepresented students, realistically there will be no sustainable retention and consequently recruitment of diverse voices. Expecting underrepresented students to function in a system built only for cis white men is impractical and there has to be a uniform shift in the field of mathematics, at a graduate level and otherwise, for students to prosper.

To read more about this I recommend looking into trauma-informed teaching and learning. Writings on this topic include various techniques professors, teachers and students can take to allow students to prosper, while recognizing their various backgrounds and potential traumas.

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