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Teaching STEM at the Time of Political Distress

  1. Jan 30, 2017 #1

    e.bar.goum

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    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?

     
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 31, 2017 #2
  4. Jan 31, 2017 #3
    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.
     
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  5. Jan 31, 2017 #4
    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: Jan 31, 2017
  6. Jan 31, 2017 #5

    e.bar.goum

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    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.
     
  7. Jan 31, 2017 #6

    e.bar.goum

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    Thanks! Not sure what I did there.
    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! :)
     
  8. Jan 31, 2017 #7
    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?
     
  9. Jan 31, 2017 #8
    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: Jan 31, 2017
  10. Jan 31, 2017 #9

    e.bar.goum

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    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.
     
  11. Jan 31, 2017 #10
    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.
     
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  12. Jan 31, 2017 #11
    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.
     
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  13. Jan 31, 2017 #12
    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: Jan 31, 2017
  14. Jan 31, 2017 #13

    Andy Resnick

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    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.
     
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