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White woman listening with focus to a Black woman as they sit in chairs together

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When, one year ago, a liberal arts college experienced an exodus of faculty members of color, I felt both relief that the story wasn’t about my college and acute fear that it could be.

At our college as well, women, Black women, and especially Black women in STEM are leaving—for other colleges and universities, for industry, for elsewhere. They’re not the only people leaving academe, and each departure could possibly be understood as an individual decision. But there is a pattern: Black women in STEM are leaving. Each one is a profound loss, and collectively, this is an institutional shame.

My colleagues’ stories, despite some commonalities, are specific and distinct and are not mine to tell. I am writing now in the spirit of coming to get my people. White faculty, we must do better.

By rethinking biased evaluation processes, expanding student and faculty ideas about STEM expertise, and urging our institutions to value multivalent labor, we can help ensure that our colleagues can thrive.

Bias in Teaching Evaluations

The long-established inadequacies of student course evaluations include gender and racial biases. Many studies have concluded that such evaluations systematically disadvantage women and faculty members of color, and that the effects compound for women of color. This should be the start of discussions about how to do better, not the resigned last word.

There are other options. The effectiveness of teaching can also be assessed by peers equipped to offer constructive feedback, by students trained as outside observers of classroom teaching and through student performance and products in current and subsequent classes. Why are we using a one-size-fits-all tool for something we know to be individualized and to encompass a wide range of teaching and learning styles?

Think first about what you’re trying to measure: Is it student satisfaction, engagement, motivation or learning? Keep in mind that many inclusive pedagogies that have proved to enhance student outcomes are viewed differently when deployed by different faculty. So a minoritized faculty member implementing best practices for inclusive teaching may meet student resistance both in the classroom and on those evaluation forms. And peers observing them may see teaching that is very different from their own: we (white) faculty may need educating ourselves on how to make equitable observations of teaching.

If an institution sticks with student course evaluations, then interventions proven to mitigate bias should be part of the standard messaging to students. (In a nutshell, stating that evaluations can be influenced by “unconscious and unintentional bias about the race and gender of the instructor” reduces the bias in data.) That is especially important in classes taught by white faculty. Students must hear the same message from faculty members who benefit from these biases as they do from those who’re harmed.

Faculty Members of Color and Their Intellectual Authority

Such biases reflect a systemic devaluing of the intellectual authority of faculty members with minoritized identities. Students challenge the authority of those instructors in the classroom and withhold the respect that white men receive by default.

White faculty members, we must use our (unearned) authority to help students dismantle the idea that expertise must look, sound, present a certain way. Such expectations are gendered, racialized and heteronormative. Those who think white masculinity is correlated with STEM expertise have been misled—they’re like the AI model that concluded the highest risk indicator for skin lesions to be cancerous was the presence of a ruler in the image with them, instead of the tumors it should have actually been on the lookout for. White masculinity is just a ruler that appears in most of the pictures of STEM expertise. Misconceiving Merit: Paradoxes of Excellence and Devotion in Academic Science and Engineering and Ebony McGee’s Black, Brown, Bruised demonstrate how cultural schema have perpetuated bias and hindered innovation; Picture a Professor presents strategies for interrupting those biases.

Invisible Labor Performed by Women and Faculty of Color

We must address the disparate workloads associated with invisible labor like mentoring students. (Calling this work “invisible” makes clear whose gaze is the default: people who can’t see and aren’t doing it.) This work must be acknowledged and valued: it is an essential part of how our institutions support minoritized students. When minoritized faculty are asked, expected or called to advise, mentor or advocate for minoritized students, our institutions should give that service serious weight and credence in their tenure and promotion evaluations. Even better, to reduce the burden on minority faculty members, colleges and universities should have adequately staffed their ranks of professional advisers and counselors to include a range of identities.

That burden isn’t just the opportunity cost of time that minority faculty members could spend otherwise; it’s the weathering of physical and mental costs. White people, we know how to prevent and mitigate erosion, and we might try these strategies on this kind of weathering, too. It’s, in part, a resource-conservation issue. We need to build terraces, to cultivate what nourishes the soil, to protect against overuse. And we must attend to the environment.

The activists of Cite Black Women provide five key actions that will help enlarge the definition of expertise and experts in your field, and support your colleagues:

  1. Read Black women’s work.
  2. Integrate Black women into the core of your syllabus (in life and in the classroom).
  3. Acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production.
  4. Make space for Black women to speak.
  5. Give Black women the space and time to breathe.

These are guiding principles for your teaching, scholarship and service as a peer reviewer. Don’t fall for the ruler in the picture. Expand your idea of what STEM scholarship looks like, and of how and by whom its stories are told.

White faculty, we can move beyond allyship and toward active work as co-conspirators using Bettina Love’s frameworks. To do so, we must take risks and put something on the line ourselves.

  • Be intentional in recruitment of diverse students and faculty members. Consider hiring a faculty cohort, using a cluster hiring model to build a community of interdisciplinary scholars.
  • Interrogate policies and structures that exist at your institution to support retention of Black faculty members. Who is accountable for establishing and monitoring these policies? How do you train and assess peer mentors or department chairs? What structural barriers could you remove? In what ways could you support the flourishing of Black faculty members?
  • Understand cultural taxation. Is your institution further burdening marginalized faculty members with the need to craft these policies or bear repeated witness to their unaddressed concerns? Use what you already know from climate surveys, or testimonials like these, or even #blackintheivory tweets, to inform policies that sustain and support the teaching and scholarship of faculty members of color.

We need to understand that although people have the same title, we may not actually be doing the same job, and we are certainly not experiencing the same working conditions. Dear white faculty, we must listen and understand the differences. We need to educate ourselves, our colleagues, our leaders and our students if we are truly committed to equity and justice.

Jenn Stroud Rossmann is Baird Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Lafayette College, where she also served as founding co-director of the Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education. Her writing has previously appeared in The Atlantic, at Public Books and in Inside Higher Ed.

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