Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Social Justice in the Physics and Astronomy Classroom

At the beginning of this winter term (in Montreal we don't even try to call it the "spring" term), I tried for the first time to directly address social justice issues, including racism and harassment, in my physics classroom.

In the months leading up to this attempt, I read that having diverse role models in the sciences is a good place to start, but not a replacement for an open, candid conversation about bias in STEM. (If you have a reference for this study, please contact me. I can't relocate it!) I'm a white women and a physics professor and perhaps that's a useful combination for some students to experience, but my mere presence doesn't prompt them to think about the core issues that lead to bias in physics and astronomy. Me standing there doesn't openly challenge them to consider racism, ablism, unconscious bias, or even gender discrimination. My desire to talk about these issues crystallized at the end of last year when Justices in the US Supreme Court used the physics classroom as an example of a place where diversity couldn't or shouldn't matter, to the outrage of many physicists and astronomers, outrage also articulated eloquently by Jedidah Isler in her NY Times Op Ed, The ‘Benefits’ of Black Physics Students.

With considerable trepidation, I tackled this the way brand new faculty tackle most things, I just tried something. And yes, it was clumsy. I share my experience here because I want to embolden other junior (and senior) faculty to take a stab at this conversation and because I would like to learn from those of you who have made (or will make) similar attempts.

Here's what I did:

1. On day one, near the start of class, I gave a short anonymous survey:

Find a piece of paper, DON’T write your name on it. 

Answer these simple questions:
   –  Take a moment to look around at the members of our class. Does this class look normal to you? In what ways yes, and in what ways no?
   –  What are you most excited about learning in this class?
   –  What is your greatest anxiety about this class?
   –  What are your greatest excitements/anxieties outside of this class?


Pick one answer and share it with the person sitting in front of or behind you...

Turn your questionnaire in when you pick up PS #1 at the end of class.


2. Then I introduced myself, talked about my research interests, told them about my unlikely career path, and also about my attempts to learn about and work toward equity and inclusion in STEM. I used both my non-traditional career path and my own commitment to equity to segue into a description of the fraught comments from the US Supreme Court.

3. As a part of the latter bit, I read out loud Sarah Tuttle's essay, Racism Doesn't Belong In My Classroom.

At the end of this 1-2-3 my classroom was dead silent. If you could look at my slides, you'd see that the next one features a linearly polarized plane wave. Seriously. The transition was just about that abrupt. I desperately wanted to bring this conversation to my students, but I didn't manage to make it a conversation at all. I could hear them thinking, "We're in Canada, what does the US Supreme Court have to do with us?" "Why are we talking about this?" "Are we ever going to talk about Optics?" "Does she even know anything about Optics?" "Is this going to be on the exam?" And I wanted to scream, "Didn't you hear the part about training revolutionaries?"

It was awkward. You can see my impostor syndrome kicking in as I struggled to express how much this conversation meant to me and how clearly I saw that I hadn't approached it well.

After that, I provided my students with several excellent suggested reading lists from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and John Johnson (here and here; which mercifully do include some discussion of race and racism in Canada). And I dropped it.

My actual, real, live discomfort with talking about discrimination in a physics classroom manifested in me: (1) not making it a real conversation with my students, (2) not having a plan to meaningfully integrate either the student surveys or the concepts themselves into future discussions, and (3) not returning to it as a theme over the rest of the term.

Which doesn't mean that I won't try it again.

As I finally sat down to write this post, I rediscovered an excellent set of blogs from Moses Rifkin. He describes a rich 6-day curriculum which draws from his training as a physicist and teacher. The AIP also has a nice set of Teaching Guides on Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences. And I'm sure there are other great resources out there.

My first foray was not a smashing success, but I remain committed to this endeavor. It's too important to the future of physics and astronomy, and for people inside and outside of STEM, for me to drop it altogether. These actually are our future leaders. So, if you have additional resources and/or have tried to facilitate a similar conversation in your physics classroom, please contact me. I would like to learn, to learn from, and (if you're game) possibly to share your story.

Further Reading:

1. An open letter to SCOTUS from professional physicists drafted by the Equity & Inclusion in Physics & Astronomy group and signed by over 2000 astronomers and physicists

2. The ‘Benefits’ of Black Physics Students by Jedidah Isler

3. Racism Doesn't Belong In My Classroom by Sarah Tuttle

4. A U.S./Canadian Race & Racism Reading List by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

5. Required reading for those who prioritize diversity by John Johnson

6. Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom by Moses Rifkin

7. Teaching Guides on Women and Minorities in the Physical Sciences from the American Institute of Physics