Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Values Affirmation and You: What You Deeply Care About Affects Your Ability to Do Science (Now Featuring Peer Review!)

Today I am sharing a guest post from Dr. Sarah Ballard. Dr. Ballard completed her PhD in Astronomy & Astrophysics at Harvard University in 2012 and is now a NASA Sagan fellow at the University of Washington.

It was only several years into graduate school that I learned that language already existed to describe my academic experience in science. I’m an unusual astronomer in some ways, having arrived in the field only after devoting my early undergraduate studies to Peace and Conflict Studies and Gender Studies. I was inculcated in the early years of college with language that describes the human experience. I was literally tested on phrases such as “intersectionality of oppression” and “safe space.” Value is assigned in these disciplines, in the form of grades, to a student’s ability to articulate ideas of bias and privilege. I wrote essays in exam rooms, after poring over assigned articles, on how wrongs get righted within human group dynamics. I thought and wrote about the activities people undertake to restore feelings of dignity and agency to underserved groups: this was once my major. 

Let me describe to you here why this is relevant to you, an astrophysicist. Let me describe a way that you can leverage the knowledge other fields accrue about imperfect human functioning under high pressure. Let me make the argument to you that reflection on self-worth can alleviate distress and underperformance in yourself, your colleagues, your mentees.
The ability to articulate ideas about human well-being is heavily downweighted when a student, myself in this case, pursues a physical science. The set of skills is largely orthogonal at first glance. Different skill sets are assigned value in physics, and to a certain extent, this is necessarily so. I report that my experience as an undergraduate in astrophysics, and later as a graduate student in the same subject, was often defined by protracted feelings of isolation, self-doubt, and even misery. It does not make this story unusual to report that I have experienced tremendous success in these same subjects, and that the misery and the success were very often contemporaneous.
I learned to articulate, in about my second year of graduate school, that the physical sciences do not circumscribe a space within which injustices never occur. Rather, this is a field full of human beings. As I once learned in classrooms, human beings are capable of inflicting (sometimes, even often, unknowingly) injustices upon one another that manifest on enormous scales. I conducted research, a miserable astronomy graduate student trying to understand my feeling of imminent failure, on how bias manifests in scientific communities, specifically. Readers of this blog are not new to this information. What I also learned to communicate is this. The set of skills that individuals use to navigate biased spaces is not, after all, an orthogonal set of skills for a scientist. This is particularly true for a scientist who is suffering from effects of implicit bias, which are often internalized. Tools exist for these human problems, and we as a community need to take them very seriously.
Please read and absorb the following sentence: underperformance in stereotype-threatened individuals is alleviated with basic values affirmation. I’m referring to individuals who are subject to negative stereotypes about scientific performance. You can identify the members of these groups by observing who is missing, in large demographic chunks, from your typical colloquium. The space of this article is not to argue about whether or not individuals suffer under negative stereotypes, and very often perform worse when reminded of them, even implicitly. I hold that these concepts are proven in peer-reviewed study. Please apply to me directly for my sources for this claim, or alternatively appeal to a careful Google search of reputable websites. The fact of women and students of color performing worse, when they are reminded of negative stereotypes that exist about their performance, is an enormous challenge that remains to us to make right. I want to point out that explicit invocation of the stereotype is an extreme example of behaviors that activate so-called “stereotype threat.” In journal articles about the phenomenon, simply placing a female subject in a room with only male subjects is sufficient to activate the threat, or claiming that the test to be undertaken is designed to address scientific ability as a function of gender (many citations follow, as in our own journals). These sorts of things are regularly dealt with as more mundane details of studies in peer-reviewed journals about this phenomenon, with the effective tone of “we [obviously] activated a threat against the test group by placing them under psychological duress in the following way.” Your author notes that this is an astonishing tone to encounter, given how regularly we encounter these situations and declare them “simply inevitable” or “harmless.”
What do I propose, to the interested astronomer, who is perhaps allied with myself in wanting to do right by groups of underrepresented people? Perhaps this individual (perhaps it is you, reader) is beleaguered by feelings of burnout and hopelessness at dealing with a problem that feels enormous and totally embedded in our culture. Perhaps you are burned out yourself! You are burned out at hearing your own mind act as a voicebox for our implicitly biased science culture. This manifests as impostor syndrome in many circumstances, the internalized voice that predicts failure, failure, failure, even with ample evidence to the contrary.
What do I propose?
1) I propose to draw your attention to a study published in Nature in 2010. Miyake et al. (2010, Science, 330, 1234) describe their results in an article entitled "Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Studyof Values Affirmation." From the text: "Students in the affirmation group selected their most important values from a list (such as relationships with friends and family or learning or gaining knowledge) and, in response to structured prompts, wrote about why these values were important to them." This test was delivered twice in the course of the studied large undergraduate physics course at a major public university, and removed the original 10 percentage point gap in the final score of men versus women in the course (this gap is typical among undergrad physics performance), and also in an independently-administered test related to mastery of the physics concepts in the course. I’d propose that you read other articles on the same topic on the amelioration of stereotype threat. If this subject interests readers, I can furnish a list. Results are similar.
2) I propose, by extension, that the practice of asking an individual to reflect on their intrinsic value and worthiness is not divorced from the basic scientific process. There is no reason why the students who comprised the test group of the Nature study should be distinct from any others. Women and individuals of color suffer under stereotype threat conditions. They may underperform, in a bulk statistical sense, in test environments. I contend that it is not unreasonable to assume that these individuals also suffer in other high-pressure academic environments when the threat is activated.
3) I propose that the results of this study, and others of a similar nature, need to become commonly replicated in academic environments. These results address how underrepresented individuals function in environments that undercut their worth, and how leading the individual to reflect on their worth can buffer this effect. Allow me to point out: This is revenue neutral. I am describing studies that take 10-15 minutes and require only a pencil and paper.
But what I am proposing in a grander sense is a tectonic movement of the scientific community toward regular practices of wellness for underserved groups. The practice of values affirmation is one that I propose to replicate, word for word from the pilot study, at large meetings of our community (the AAS meetings, for one). I have identified a large group of individuals aligned with this goal (join us!), which is not only a practical one, but a philosophical one. I contend that is rests firmly within the purview of scientific gatherings to dedicate pittances of time toward mitigating the negative effects that the gathering itself will almost certainly agitate. I believe these underserved individuals also deserve, as our peers, to feel that their experiences and input are crucial to achieving the best possible science. It is very powerful, I learned as a freshman, to designate spaces in the interest of righting wrongs.