Change, equity, Inclusion

Demonstrating the Gains Inclusion Can Bring

I read with great interest A 30% Author Experiment in last week’s Inside Higher Education. This article highlighted the results of a research study in political science that explored the relationship between graduate students’ self-efficacy (belief that they will succeed in their field of study) and the proportion of women scholars represented on the syllabus (from the typical 10% to 30%!). What they found was that increasing the representation of women to 30% did not significantly increase women PhD students’ self-efficacy, but it did lower the self-efficacy of the men. Oh dear.

I had lots of questions, and so should you, so here’s the link to the full study: “Having Female Role Models Correlates with PhD Students’ Attitudes to their Own Academic Success” by Shauna N. Gilooly, Heidi Hardt, and Amy Eric Smith. They get into many important variables, not just the sex of the respondents and the authors. Most tellingly, the respondents’ pre-existing attitudes toward diversity overall had a predictive value.

As the authors delved into the details of their results, they posited some explanations for the negative impact of a more inclusive syllabus. One explanation was backlash. Drawing on research by Wilkins, Wellman, Babbitt, Toosi, and Schad (2015) they observed that “male students may have equated rising women’s representation in syllabi with their own group losing status and control, and responded with backlash.” For me the key word here is loss.

Anyone who has tried to champion change knows that one of the biggest factors in slowing or derailing such efforts is the sense of loss. Sometimes it is a seemingly small loss of routine that can follow reorganizing physical spaces (small, but annoying, no doubt as we change our routes and habits to fit the new layout). Sometimes it is the obviously large loss that comes with reorganizing power structures, social rules, and privilege. Even if we are rooting for the progress that the changes may imply, we cannot help but feel the losses that go with them.

The losses are real, even if they are just. As a woman in higher education, I am anxious to see syllabi and research investments that reflect women’s interests and contributions to my field. It is important to build our repertoire of readings and potential mentors in higher education in a way that is truly representative of many perspectives and experiences. In practical terms, this means more women and more people of color on my reading lists because they were underrepresented in my years as a doctoral student and in the textbooks and journals I have frequently consulted. Without reducing everything to a zero-sum game, I must admit that this change will necessarily mean my reading lists will include fewer men. I can’t just add; I can’t keep up. So, yes, the loss is real.

As we attend to the voices of more diverse scholars, we also subtly undermine presumptions of authority. This does not happen overnight; it probably takes a generation. Still, little by little, the assumption that doctors and scientists and serious scholars of all kinds are male will fade and with it that little (or not so little) leg up that these assumptions give will wane. Although some may claim that “privilege” isn’t real, the sense of loss of privilege is palpable. It is that feeling of loss that seems to be clearly expressed in this research study.

Among the important nuances of this study is the attention to the intervening variable of the respondents’ predisposition towards diversity. Those who saw increased diversity as a positive did not suffer the lowering of self-efficacy that the students who were less enthusiastic about embracing a diverse society. This is not at all surprising, but it is very important. It leads to what may be the most important question facing us in higher education right now – how are we contributing to the understanding of the value of diversity?

Well, some things are obvious. Our students come to us with attitudes that have been formed by family, school, and media of all kinds. Observing this we have rightfully argued for increased attention to reading and viewing lists from a very young age. But, I think higher education can contribute more to this conversation. We’ve done a lot of good work showing how negative exclusion is, but not nearly enough time has been dedicated to identifying the tangible benefits of inclusion. Moral arguments are great, and I fully embrace them, but in this case we need a clear research program into the value of including diverse perspectives.

Yes, I’ve just added more to our collective to-do lists and I’m sorry, but this is really important. We can’t just attend to the range of voices on our syllabi; we must attend to the impact of those voices on the research in medicine, science, diplomacy, social institutions, and cultural practices. We must be honest about how complex that inclusive stance can be and how the actions that follow from a new perspective may change our priorities in ways that may be uncomfortable for the few in the short term, but benefit the whole in the long term. And if we argue for the long view, we must be able to provide evidence for that benefit for the whole. This is a hard but necessary next step in our pursuit of equity.

It is time to focus our research on the tangible gains that inclusion can bring. There are already countless stories in medicine that can top the list. There are similar moments in history, literature, art, and psychology. Let’s start talking about how diverse perspectives have reshaped the questions we ask and even how we live. Let’s not talk in the abstract, but focus on concrete results. Maybe we can inspire increased curiosity instead of decreased self-efficacy. Now that would be a real win for everyone.

Accountability, Evaluation, Thinking

Remember the Qualitative Data

The phrase “data-driven decision-making” has become the gold standard for proposing policies, research, or other plans to improve outcomes in higher education. You cannot apply for funding for anything without some evidence to support justify the proposed project and a detailed evaluation plan. This, of course, should not be startling for higher education. Building cases for our research and related decisions is at the heart of all that we do. What has changed is what we define as sufficient evidence. Spoiler alert – it is quantitative data.

Much of this transformation is to the good. We have new tools that allow us to gather quantitative data much more easily than we once did. With Survey Monkey or Qualtrics data from a well-designed questionnaire can be easily launched and analyzed. Getting a good sample is still a challenge, but digital tools make reaching potential respondents better than ever before. The tools for statistical analysis have similarly evolved in ways that help the analysis section of a study to perform functions that were once reserved for the most advanced mathematical thinkers. And with access to large databases, the sky’s the limit for exploring behaviors of various populations.

Then there is the power of “big data” which is so powerful in medical research right now. With access to studies from all over the world, scientists can get at a level of analysis that is much more nuanced than we once experienced. It is so exciting to see that, with all of the information available, it is possible for physicians to move from a generalized Chemo cocktail to one that has been edited more specifically for the genetic traits of an individual. It is truly breathtaking to see the advances in science that these tools provide.

In higher education, the data-driven movement is really impacting our evaluation of university outcomes at every level. We move from the big picture – graduation rates and retention overall, and then fully scrutinize factors that might show us that we are systematically leaving specific groups of students behind. Often referred to as the achievement gap, colleges and universities are no longer (and should no longer be) satisfied with gaps in retention and graduation that break down along gender, income, first-gen, and other socio-cultural groupings.

Attending to these gaps is, indeed, driving policies and programs at many universities. At WCSU, it has led to a revision of our Educational Access Program (Bridge) and to the addition of a peer mentor program. We’re tracking the impact on our overall retention rates, but also taking a deeper dive into different clusters in our community to see where we need to do more. What has really changed for us is that we are designing these efforts with follow up analyses built in from the start, so that we don’t just offer things and then move on. We have a plan to refine as we go. This is a good change.

Still, this focus on statistical data can lead to gaps in understanding that are significant. As always, our results are only as good as the questions we ask. Our questions are only as good as our ability to see beyond our worldview and make room for things we never anticipated. This is a challenge, of course, because we often don’t realize we are making assumptions or that our worldviews are limited. It is the nature of our disciplinary frames; it is the nature of being human.

Although my education has included anthropology and media ecology (both with lots of attention to our biases and qualitative data), I realize that I have been struggling to find ways to incorporate more qualitative analysis into all that we are doing at WCSU. It is tricky because it is more labor and time intensive than analyzing statistical outcomes or neatly structured survey data. It is also tricky, because we need to be informed by the qualitative without falling into the problem of generalizing from the single case. And, of course, it is tricky because, well it takes sustained practice with ethnography to do qualitative well.

I was reminded of this, as I began to read Gillian Tett’s, Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See Business and Life. This text explores the ways in which the habits of anthropology can be transformative to business processes of all kinds. It isn’t so much a “new” way to see things – after all anthropology has existed as a discipline for over a century – nor is it new to see it as a tool of business and governments (see Edward T. Hall for a glimpse of the past) – but it is an excellent reminder that anthropology offers a powerful lens. Tett’s book is full of examples of mis-steps in the tech industry and in marketing because those in charge never even questioned their assumptions about how people interact with technology. The hiring of a full-time anthropologist helped to address some of that. She also reminds us of the difference between asking questions and observing behavior – not because people lie, but because our questions were calculated to get the responses we got and, therefore, missed the bigger context. Our narrow lenses go beyond market research and explain socio-political challenges and misunderstandings on a global scale. These are important reminders, all.

So, I am reminded to take the time to dive into the questions that most statistical research will miss. There is more to understand than calculating the percentage of students who answer the question: “How often do you use the tutoring resource center?” with often, sometimes, or never. There’s the whole long list of feelings that complicate seeking help. There’s that long list of other priorities (work, co-curricular, family). There are the things I haven’t thought of yet, that are barriers to using the resources we are providing. There is research on this, I know, but I think there is more to know.

Yes, I am a fan of quantitative data, but I must admit that I have learned much more from qualitative data over the course of my life. The insights of the unexpected interaction, or the opportunity to observe for long(ish) periods of time, have improved my questions and understandings, and generated much more interesting follow up work than the summary data have ever done. This is important for the work on academic success that we are engaged in at our universities. It is even more important (and not at all unrelated) when we try to see the barriers to creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment. I’m thinking it may be time to put a few anthropologists on the institutional research payroll.

Thinking

Time to Read

As I awoke Monday morning, I vowed to do no work. It was a holiday weekend and even if a provost’s work is never done, days off are necessary. Indeed, though I am not protected by any union – administrators don’t get that particular benefit – I recognize that my life and the lives of all of us have been improved by the hard work of labor leadership over the last century. One of those most important improvements in our working conditions is that there are days when we don’t work. Thank goodness for those efforts.

Well, despite my determination to laze the day away, I found a little task nagging at me. A dear friend has just completed a draft of her new book and she was looking for some feedback. With the day stretched out before me, I opened the draft and enjoyed a wonderful read. I won’t reveal anything abut the book here, so she has time to get to publication, but I will say it offered me all sorts of insights into the current state of our culture. As media ecologists, we always look at the ways in which our communication environments shape behavior, and she’s got some great observations about how our portable electronic universes are changing who we are.

But that is not what I am thinking about today. What I am really thinking about is how having a few uninterrupted hours to read an entire book is so wonderful. Although I did read the text on a screen, something I have come to prefer in recent years, I was able to completely ignore the endless stream of email that I usually address, and with the world around me relatively quiet, I could give the reading my full attention. It felt like a vacation.

My entire career in higher education has been about addressing things in chunks so I can manage the interruptions around me. I had my first child at the end of my first year as a PhD candidate. Even before the birth, the pregnancy was an interruption – distracting me from reading things closely and generally leaving me exhausted. After children and then with various teaching positions, I became an adept skimmer and expert at breaking projects into 15 minute intervals. It worked to keep me on track with my doctorate (more or less) and it helped me keep up with children and teaching assignments in the sanest way possible.

As an administrator, I read constantly. I start the day with email triage – addressing all the messages that came in over night to clear the decks for the day ahead. I scan the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed looking for important information and potential research areas that I should follow up on. Then I drive to work and jump between reading, writing, meeting, and repeat. I write policy proposals, accreditation documents, edit proposals of all kinds in an effort to move things forward through various evaluative processes. I follow up on those morning articles, getting to the details of the research behind them and hoping to get smarter. It is important that I can do this kind of juggling and often I find it exhilarating. It allows me to jump between tasks productively, getting to various finish lines regularly. I’m never without a task ahead, but I can see progress.

But my expert skimming and juggling is nothing like sustained reading and the pondering of an idea. One can get a lot from an essay or an academic article, but to really engage an idea, book-length reading is still the best path. Don’t get me started on what doesn’t occur in video formats. I love them, by the way. Movies, documentaries, televisions programs, and little video tutorials all have their place in opening my eyes to ideas or processes that can be helpful or amusing. But watching isn’t reading. Reading is different.

I could try to dredge up some science for this essay, but you have Google, you can figure it out. No, this is really just about my experience of reading. It is slow enough to let me break down an argument as I encounter it. It allows me to back up and think without having to find the remote. It encourages me to pause and reflect, without having things run ahead of me. In book form, authors have time to layer in detail to the argument at hand, supplying new evidence and illustrations as I read on and helping me think things through. Yes, this is a kind of respite for me. I am slowing down, not deciding anything, just thinking.

In the book I read today, I was also reminded of the way an author’s voice is so important to the narrative. Now in this case I know the author, so it is cheating, but in all books there is a tone and rhythm that invites (and sometimes discourages) engagement with the tale being spun and the worldview being suggested. That invitation can help to block out the immediacy of our electronic world – helping to tune out the beeps and dings of our news feeds and friend groups, and just attend to the details at hand. The text becomes a person to whom I am giving my full attention. When I finish a book, I always feel better for having spent the time reading it. Synapses have connected and I am restored.

As I feel the wave of rejuvenation that my morning spent reading provided for me, I am thinking about education once more. It takes a holiday for me to have time to really read. What would it take for education to make room for real reading? You know we don’t make room for it now. Our current structure makes it nearly impossible. Can we come together to make the kinds of changes to the structure of higher education that will make room for that sustained engagement with ideas that we say we value? Perhaps this requires the same level of effort that our unions made to improve the quality of life for all of us. Readers of the world, unite!