• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products Here!

Teaching STEM at the Time of Political Distress

  • Thread starter e.bar.goum
  • Start date
e.bar.goum
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
949
388

Main Question or Discussion Point

I just came across this article from UPenn physical chemist Prof. Zahra Fakhraai on "Teaching STEM at the Time of Political Distress" ( http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/volumes/v63/n20/teaching.html ) . I found the article inspiring at a time when it is often hard to focus on research, and when physics sometimes seems unimportant.

I think I'll try to keep her bullet pointed list in mind for the future. How about you all, do you have specific strategies to deal with distressing events impacting your classrooms?

1. Student well-being is important to their learning. We make exceptions when a student faces a personal distress and try to accommodate them. Major political or social events could probably follow the same path. It is important, however, to remember that when the majority of our students are in distress, support networks on campus can be quickly overloaded, so there may be even more of a need to be lenient. Sometimes, just acknowledging the event could be a big step towards students’ emotional recovery.

2. Not everyone is affected in the same way. Our students have a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. A major shift in the policy may mean just an inconvenience for one group, while others may face deportations, hate crimes, or attacks based on their sexual and religious identity. While we may instinctively want to help everyone, and rightly so, we may not always be able to. It is important to be conscious of how a discussion may affect those who are the most marginalized and ensure that they are given the chance to stay and excel in our class. A generic response may not address their specific concerns and can further disenfranchise them.

3. Classrooms are not safe spaces. Marginalized students may not feel safe to speak out or may find it traumatizing to share their concerns with strangers. One can consider providing a chance for students to discuss their concerns during office hours, over email, Canvas or even anonymously. While trying to be more generous with my time, I can also provide an alternative list of places they go for help.

4. Group assignments can be challenging. There has been significant effort on campus to promote SAIL (structured, active, in-class, learning) classrooms. While we typically assign students to random groups, the groups cannot function well if the students don’t work together. Major disagreements on political issues can reduce student participation and hinder learning. One could show flexibility by allowing students to request a group change or even to opt out if such action becomes warranted.

5. The instructor may not feel safe. Finally, when considering discussing politics in the classroom it is fair to ask whether one feels safe with the discussion, given the recent backlash against professors who speak about politics in their classrooms or on social media. An instructor from a marginalized group could consider whether their safety would be compromised and whether that is a price they are willing to pay. One can contribute differently, by reaching out to specific students in distress, or by volunteering their time outside the class instead.
 
Last edited:

Answers and Replies

379
249
How about you all, do you have specific strategies to deal with distressing events impacting your classrooms?
I don't teach anymore, as I had to retire due to disability; but when I did teach, up until 2012, I was an adjunct writing instructor in the continuing & professional ed. department ("night school") at New York University in Manhattan, NYC. My adult students were an interesting mixed bag, including some foreign students and/or persons who were not native English speakers; and although I was generally teaching essay writing, politics often came up. I remember two semesters in particular:

- A class where I had two young men with passionately different views on the Middle East, one a U.S.-born Jew with very conservative & militaristic views, the other also U.S. born, but first generation, whose parents had come here from Iran; he was as liberal as the other fellow was conservative. And interestingly they were the two best writers - most motivated as well - in the class. Part of my effort was to make sure they could get along with each other in class despite their different views; I don't remember doing anything special except for being a calming presence.

- Another class, fairly large for my experience (about 20 students) where everyone was liberal except for one woman who was conservative. At one point she was bringing in drafts of an essay arguing in favor of some conservative political position - I don't remember what; and the class was critiquing it according to procedures & guidelines we used for discussing all submitted work. Again I had to coach the class on how to critique work fairly according to not only etiquette but "what is a claim," "what is evidence," etc. etc. Having the guidelines allowed me to coach on the author on points where her argument was obviously unpersuasive to others; and to coach the class as a whole on how to talk about her essay on its own terms, rather than revert to a mere exchange of pre-existing views. In my experience, even well-educated older adults (this class skewed toward well-educated retirees) are quite naïve about what makes a fair argument.

So if politics were to be discussed, whether after a distressing event or not, my own view is that 1) the institution has to be supportive in the first place, for this to occur; and 2) the concept of "fair argument" is useful as a buffer when the class holds persons with different views; and helpful also when everyone believes the same thing, a situation which typically leaves persons liable to engaging in speech that reflects shared intolerance. So much public speech is deliberately manipulative - advertising, nearly all political speech, shared intolerances of whomever our group defines as "the other" - that we become conditioned to not only accept it but practice it ourselves, without understanding the consequences to human relations.
 
Last edited:
Aufbauwerk 2045
In my years as an undergrad and grad student, I never once saw a STEM teacher bring their religious or political advocacy into the classroom. If I had, I would have walked out. They were getting paid to teach us math, science, and engineering. Anything else was totally unacceptable to me, and apparently to virtually everyone else in the university. We certainly don't need to infect our STEM classes with non-STEM issues. Those can be dealt with in other settings.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
e.bar.goum
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
949
388
In my years as an undergrad and grad student, I never once saw a STEM teacher bring their religious or political advocacy into the classroom. If I had, I would have walked out. They were getting paid to teach us math, science, and engineering. Anything else was totally unacceptable to me, and apparently to virtually everyone else in the university.
I'd like to note that the points weren't about religious or political advocacy, but about what to do when students are in distress due to political actions -- about supporting learning STEM. Being paid to teach math, science and engineering means making sure that everyone in your class is able to do so, to the best of your ability.
 
e.bar.goum
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
949
388
Just a note, I couldn't get your link to work - here it is again in non-link form just to be sure: http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/volumes/v63/n20/teaching.html
Thanks! Not sure what I did there.
I don't teach anymore, as I had to retire due to disability; but when I did teach, up until 2012, I was an adjunct writing instructor in the continuing & professional ed. department ("night school") at New York University in Manhattan, NYC. My adult students were an interesting mixed bag, including some foreign students and/or persons who were not native English speakers; and although I was generally teaching essay writing, politics often came up. I remember two semesters in particular:

- A class where I had two young men with passionately different views on the Middle East, one a U.S.-born Jew with very conservative & militaristic views, the other also U.S. born, but first generation, whose parents had come here from Iran; he was as liberal as the other fellow was conservative. And interestingly they were the two best writers - most motivated as well - in the class. Part of my effort was to make sure they could get along with each other in class despite their different views; I don't remember doing anything special except for being a calming presence.

- Another class, fairly large for my experience (about 20 students) where everyone was liberal except for one woman who was conservative. At one point she was bringing in drafts of an essay arguing in favor of some conservative political position - I don't remember what; and the class was critiquing it according to procedures & guidelines we used for discussing all submitted work. Again I had to coach the class on how to critique work fairly according to not only etiquette but "what is a claim," "what is evidence," etc. etc. Having the guidelines allowed me to coach on the author on points where her argument was obviously unpersuasive to others; and to coach the class as a whole on how to talk about her essay on its own terms, rather than revert to a mere exchange of pre-existing views. In my experience, even well-educated older adults (this class skewed toward well-educated retirees) are quite naïve about what makes a fair argument.

So if politics were to be discussed, whether after a distressing event or not, my own view is that 1) the institution has to be supportive in the first place, for this to occur; and 2) the concept of "fair argument" is useful as a buffer when the class holds persons with different views; and helpful also when everyone believes the same thing, a situation which typically leaves persons liable to engaging in speech that reflects shared intolerance. So much public speech is deliberately manipulative - advertising, nearly all political speech, shared intolerances of whomever our group defines as "the other" - that we become conditioned to not only accept it but practice it ourselves, without understanding the consequences to human relations.
Super interesting, thanks! Yes, writing courses must give very different problems to STEM courses (where you can be a bit more divorced from current events) but I think that lessons can certainly be drawn from your examples. Indeed, the idea of claims and evidence are essential to science! :)
 
379
249
In my years as an undergrad and grad student, I never once saw a STEM teacher bring their religious or political advocacy into the classroom. If I had, I would have walked out. They were getting paid to teach us math, science, and engineering. Anything else was totally unacceptable to me, and apparently to virtually everyone else in the university. We certainly don't need to infect our STEM classes with non-STEM issues. Those can be dealt with in other settings.
David, I think you should read the article linked to above, if you haven't already. A blanket restriction on acknowledgement in the classroom of public events such as those mentioned by the author of that article is not always possible. Often it will be students in rather obvious distress who bring up mention of the event, and the teacher needs a way to respond that is not simply authoritarian. Other times, a good teacher (I would argue) will have legitimate concerns (again, the author of the article has an example of this) for the welfare of students who belong to ethnic groups that were persecuted in a particular event; any teacher knows that students can easily feel intimidated, marginalized, unsafe, etc., and that this can affect their ability to learn and participate. To ignore this fact of life would be poor teaching. Frankly, it is not that much different than other behaviors a good teacher must mediate - e.g. ensuring that even shy students have a chance to speak, so that a classroom is not dominated only by a few overly talkative types.

I am curious if you have ever taught yourself, and if so, what your perspective is on this as a teacher, rather than as a student?
 
Aufbauwerk 2045
I read the article. My reaction is that bringing politics or personal problems into the classroom, whatever the reason, is a very bad idea. It's bad if the professor does it, and bad if the student does it. But I think it's worse if the professor does it, because of his power over the students.

A professor can't help but bring personal biases into the situation. For example, a professor may have an opinion about who is "advantaged" and who is "disadvantaged" and treat these two groups differently. This can create a very unfair situation for some students.

My only other comment is that university students are adults, not children. They should be able to handle unpleasant situations without falling apart emotionally. If there is some criminal issue, as apparently there was at the University of Pennsylvania, then it's up to the police to sort things out.

Thanks for being interested in my opinion. I've said enough now on this issue.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
e.bar.goum
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
949
388
I read the article. My reaction is that bringing politics or personal problems into the classroom, whatever the reason, is a very bad idea. It's bad if the professor does it, and bad if the student does it. But I think it's worse if the professor does it, because of his power over the students.

A professor can't help but bring personal biases into the situation. For example, a professor may have an opinion about who is "advantaged" and who is "disadvantaged" and treat these two groups differently. This can create a very unfair situation for some students.

My only other comment is that university students are adults, not children. They should be able to handle unpleasant situations without falling apart emotionally. If there is some criminal issue, as apparently there was at Penn State, then it's up to the police to sort things out.

Thanks for being interested in my opinion. I'm said enough now on this issue.
And some people apparently have biases that professors are men. :rolleyes:

I think that being able to avoid having your external life (be it illness, family issues, the need to work, politics, campus issues or otherwise) impact your studies (to greater or lesser extents) is a luxury of the few, and it's imperative that educators recognise this and exercise compassion when needed.
 
Aufbauwerk 2045
And some people apparently have biases that professors are men. :rolleyes:
Sorry, I changed the wording several times to avoid offending anyone, but I did let a "his" slip in. At my earliest opportunity, I will mention this to my girl friend, who is a dedicated feminist, and she will inflict the appropriate punishment. I will also mention my grammatical error, which I corrected. Finally, I changed Penn State to University of Pennsylvania.
 
Last edited by a moderator:
379
249
I realize this is a delicate area to comment on, but I feel it's important.

Whenever I hear claims that persons of any age should control themselves completely and never display vulnerability or distress - in other words, should always be rational and never show weakness - I think of the many men I know, some of them very close friends, who claim to be absolutely rational themselves, and who do their damnedest never to admit vulnerability or weakness. The fact is, these men are among the most irrational and emotionally hamstrung people I know. Their inability to admit vulnerability or show weakness has a big impact on their stress level (which is usually extremely high) and close relationships (which also have high stress levels). Of course these men are completely unaware of this contradiction between self-description and actual behavior.

This can happen to women too, but less often. The origin, whether cultural or familial, is. an environment in which children are taught they must not show negative emotion or weakness. They grow up to become adults who have completely internalized the notion that that to be an acceptable person (that is, not to be shunned & driven out of the group) they must continue to repress any sign of weakness or distress. It's an impossible bind that no human can live up to, which is why they end up so stressed.

I'm not saying the above applies to anyone in this thread - I don't know anyone here. I am only saying that in my experience, such statements are highly characteristic. My friends who are this way are wonderful people in some ways, and tend to also be extremely self reliant - I mean extremely. So they do gain something. But the down side is huge. They could still be self-reliant and admit a little vulnerability here and there - if they're lucky they sometimes learn this late in life.

And it would be impossible to count the men who were emotionally sensitive as kids, but were forced into concealing that sensitivity by the traditional "be a man, be tough" culture they grew up into; and who therefore wound up sad & distressed in life if work wasn't enough to satisfy them; and who became fathers but had a hard time enjoying fatherhood. My own dad was this way. This pattern was written about very accurately by Robert Bly in his famous (also infamous!) book Iron John; many others besides Bly have made similar observations.

More broadly, the recent increase in the U.S. and Europe of cultural groups that encourage emotional rigidity and intolerance - more specifically, who prefer to blame distressed persons for their distress, whether the cause of the distress is economic or social - is part of the terrifying crisis we've entered into. We have these rigid, blame-the-victim, intolerant cultures on the rise again (they've been around throughout history), while on the other side we have more recently developed cultures, typically more diverse, that are inclined towards helping the disadvantaged and the distressed rather than blaming them. The irony is that the cultures which prefer blame are quite happy these days to claim that they have been disadvantaged, too, and are only getting their own back! Of course there are many other aspects to this clash; but the notion that individuals must never show vulnerability or weakness is a big part of it. I hope tolerance of vulnerability wins out over intolerance, myself.

FYI there are zillions of studies in psychology on the damaging effects of emotional rigidity, especially for men who in nearly all cultures are taught to "be a man, be tough" - here's a pop-sci story from TIME that cites some of these studies: http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2014038,00.html

And there are lots of studies on conflicts between more rigid vs. more tolerant cultures; but of course the topic is even more politically charged than for studies of individuals. It's hard to get around the potential for bias either way - bias in those doing studies, and bias in those reading the studies.
 
Last edited:
379
249
A professor can't help but bring personal biases into the situation. For example, a professor may have an opinion about who is "advantaged" and who is "disadvantaged" and treat these two groups differently. This can create a very unfair situation for some students.
So you've never taught. I highly recommend you try out teaching if you're at all interested; it can be a lot of fun as well as enlightening. Even giving a library talk or something on that level, where you have to relate and present well to an audience of strangers, could be enjoyable & yield insights. I always found that preparing to teach a topic forced me to learn it even better than I already had.
 
Last edited:
Andy Resnick
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
Insights Author
7,305
1,720
I just came across this article from UPenn physical chemist Prof. Zahra Fakhraai on "Teaching STEM at the Time of Political Distress" ( http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/volumes/v63/n20/teaching.html ) . I found the article inspiring at a time when it is often hard to focus on research, and when physics sometimes seems unimportant.

I think I'll try to keep her bullet pointed list in mind for the future. How about you all, do you have specific strategies to deal with distressing events impacting your classrooms?
Thanks for sharing the link- while I disagree with some of the text, overall it is very reasonable. Certainly, recent presidential diktats impact my classroom (many classrooms- universities have actively recruited foreign students for decades), but it also impacts my lab (many labs- universities have actively recruited foreign STEM workers for decades).

What I say (or don't say) in class/lab is not the central point- the real point is how to foster a supportive learning environment. One bullet I would add to her list is something like "Get to know my students. What are they thinking? How can I set an example for them by disagreeing without being disagreeable? Can I frame the discussion in terms of evidence-based reasoning? Do I have enough evidence to facilitate that discussion?"

UsableThought's post (#3) is excellent.
 
WWGD
Science Advisor
Gold Member
5,009
2,240
This is a can of worms, bringing up issues of oppressors, oppressed, privilege is way too divisive and it is unfair to those students who disagree, let alone the fact that many of these claims are questionable as I see it, from both left and right. I did T.A for years and never had the need to bring up politics.

Students with problems approached me one on one after class and I did my best to address their concerns. It seems like an abuse of power to bring up and or inject politics of any type in the classroom outside of classes specifically intended for that, given students who disagree may feel uncomfortable given the power differential.

There are plenty of resources in most schools to help students in distress and I believe the best or even only workable idea is to refer any student in distress to those services. Politics nowadays are too divisive so that little of use can come up by bringing them up implictly or explicitly in the classroom. Moreover, few teachers or professors are trained, equipped ti deal with psychological issues. How far will the instructor become involved? What if they believe, e.g., the student's weight or lack of social life is affecting the student's performance?

I say make an announcement in class notifying students of the availability of said services and teach your class ( again, this applies outside of classes specifically dealing with politics.)
 
Last edited by a moderator:
11,097
4,605
Classroom teaching is always a challenging venture once current events and politics invade school life. Students need and look for support in whoever they respect can give it to them. They will use the teacher‘s authority to support their own beliefs

its important not to inject your own prejudicial thoughts into the discussion to avoid releasing the demons of prejudice by affirming their existence in your own statements. This is what politicians often forget as they strive for political power.

With that said we can now close this thread.
 

Related Threads for: Teaching STEM at the Time of Political Distress

Replies
14
Views
1K
Replies
39
Views
2K
  • Last Post
2
Replies
33
Views
17K
Replies
15
Views
1K
Replies
34
Views
4K
Replies
18
Views
18K
Replies
4
Views
11K
Top