This article has repeatedly been making waves in my circles over the last couple of months: “How well-intentioned white male physicists maintain ignorance of inequity and justify inaction” by Dancy & Hodari (2022). My take-away in a nutshell: Ignorance is bliss. It’s totally worth a read!
[Edit 5.9.2022: I just read “Decolonization is not a metaphor” by Tuck & Yang (2012) and I am very much using decolonization as a metaphor in the blog post below. That does not mean that my thoughts are bad or not important — I think there is still a lot of good stuff in them! — but what I am doing is not decolonialization. So please keep that in mind!]
I just read the article “Decolonizing the Undergraduate Chemistry Curriculum: An Account of How to Start” by Dessent et al. (2022) and found it a really nice and encouraging introduction to a topic that might otherwise seem scary to tackle. Because what does “decolonisation” even mean? If we don’t have colonies any more as a nation, or never had them as a community of scientists, what is there to get rid of? There are of course many structures and relationships that either originated in a colonial system or from similar traditions. Like for example the way we talk about where knowledge comes from and how we hadrly ever question what kind of knowledge is included in curricula. Not reflecting about this is very likely propagating injustice and definitely limiting. Decolonialising in the sense of Dessent et al. (2022) means to “develop a more complete scientific perspective that better includes global voices.” And shouldn’t that always be our goal? For me, this ties in super well with efforts towards diversity, equity and inclusion that I want to strengthen.
The authors present small, manageable steps towards decolonialisation that can be approached one by one rather than all at once (and I am presenting them here with my own thoughts on what that could mean in oceanography):
- finding best practice examples of decolonialising a science department. This is such an obvious starting point, but one worth mentioning. Reading this article is a good start!
- collect good practice examples that already exist at the institution — a great way to increase buy-in and make the efforts feel bottom-up rather than top-down. In oceanography, I know for example of efforts to highlight the role of women: Did you know that Eunice Newton Foote first proposed in 1856 that atmospheric CO2 concentrations would change atmospheric temperatures, a discovery that is commonly attributed to John Tyndall three years later? Or showing Polynesian stick charts that use waves for navigation is quite common in introductory oceanography. But even just writing this, I opened something like 15 new browser tabs with more information on how they worked, because I realise that despite my fascination with all things waves, and despite having showed pictures of them in introductory classes, I have only a very vague understanding of them — much more vague than all the other things I would have shown in that class.
- compiling resources that can be used as starting points for others, or several in their case: (A) a list of Black scientists that have done important work in their field, and (B) a list of scientists from the Indian continent. This point that mostly white men are highlighted is a very obvious starting point in the oceanography context I “grew up in” — at the institutes both in Hamburg and in Bergen it would be very easy to get the impression that all relevant research in oceanography had pretty much happened by our forefathers at each of the institutions, respectively, or at the very least involving cooperation with them. There is a lot of patriotism and pride and culture etc entangled with a tradition of following in the footsteps of Bjerknes & co, but focussing on this too much effectively makes contributions of others invisible. So starting to compile lists of scientists from other regions of the world, or with specific underrepresented characteristics, is a useful start!
- making sure the images displayed in the department show diversity. This brings to mind the galleries of historic oil paintings of all the oceanographic celebrities that are all old white men… Which are all somehow tied in with the history of the institution, yes, but that also paint a very one-sided picture! Plenty of room for improvement there!
- celebrate Black History month. Or maybe, thinking back to the Polynesian stick charts, there are events that could be organised around other traditions that we bring in? I watched a super interesting YouTube video of a 2017 seminar on “Wave Piloting in the Marshall Islands” and they say that wave piloting is easier by night because you aren’t distracted by so many other impressions as when you see the waves. Maybe we could include a session on reading waves in the dark? Or we could look at what other opportunities we might have to showcase diversity, like the international women’s day.
- survey the culture of the department to figure out next steps — always good to get an idea of the baseline we are working with, and the specific needs at our own place!
The authors report on how they approached this with a work group, while always transparent towards the whole department, first focussing on specific parts of their teaching but with the intent to, little by little, look at all areas.
The authors also suggest different strategic approaches that could be taken individually or combined:
- Looking at the impact of the field in different global contexts. Oceanography is inherently a global science, since the ocean covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and 40% of the world’s population lives within 100km of the coast. But looking at what we teach, neither the area nor the population are represented well.
- Diverse histories that don’t only focus on our own tradition. As I described above, I have newly discovered my fascination with the polynesian stick charts, and I’ll go looking for more examples like this. With so many people living so close to the coast, there must be so much knowledge that I am not aware of! Like the old tsunami stones in Japan, warning people that anything closer to the sea is in danger of tsunamis, which were mostly forgotten for a long time.
- Role models! From different backgrounds and cultures for decolonialisation specifically, but also from different minority groups for diversity more generally. Off the top of my head, this reminds me of “OceanInsights — musings of a blind oceanographer“, a blog by blind sea-going oceanographer Amy Bower. And I’m embarassed to say that right now, I can’t really think of other good examples!
- Science as a global endeavour, not just happening in the ivory tower or by a lone genius. This comes down to for example how we speak about science, for example by giving out Nobel prices to mostly individuals and not the whole networks of people without whom the research would not have been possible.
- Ethical considerations. Who benefits from our research? Why do we investigate certain questions and not others? These questions are asked by far too little (at least by me — I usually go for what I find most interesting at any given moment).
- Structures and hierarchies in science. How do they influence what we do, and do we really want that influence in that way? Important topic to discuss and tackle!
- Student voice and leadership. The authors found that the initiative to take on decolonisation of the curriculum came from the students, and I think that’s one reason I’ve been so interested in co-creating recently: Because students show us where we are (maybe even unknowingly) stuck in traditions, and inspire change. Of course, we can’t rely on students driving changes that we already know need to happen, but we should take their perspective into consideration to show us where our blindspots are.
So yep, these are my thoughts on that article, and now I need to figure out how to actually translate it into action. Which I am very inspired to do, so thank you, Dessent et al., for the great article!
Dessent, C. E., Dawood, R. A., Jones, L. C., Matharu, A. S., Smith, D. K., & Uleanya, K. O. (2021). Decolonizing the Undergraduate Chemistry Curriculum: An Account of How to Start. Journal of Chemical Education.
After being “invited” to do some service work because someone noticed “that there was nobody on the committee without a beard” (gee, thanks for making me feel like you appreciate my qualifications!), and then the next day feeling all kinds of stereotype threats triggered in a video call where I noticed I was the only woman out of more than a dozen people, I finally read Sandra Laursen & Ann E. Austin’s book “Building Gender Equity in the Academy. Institutional Strategies for Change” this weekend. And it was great!
The book compiles many years of experience in the NSF’s ADVANCE program into a compelling collection. After setting the scene and describing the structural problems that women face in academia, all based on hard data that show the scope of the issue, the whole book is basically a call to action to “fix the system, not the women” while giving actionable suggestions for how to do this.
The book is structured along four main themes:
- Many processes in recruitment, hiring, tenure, and promotion are biased, but there are ways to counteract the biases.
- Workplaces themselves need an overhaul to make them more equitable, for example by addressing institutional leadership, improving climate at departments, or making gender issues more visible.
- People need to be seen and supported as whole persons if we want to attract diversity into the workplace, for example by supporting dual-career hires, allowing flexibility in work arrangements, or providing adequate accommodation.
- While we are still working on the whole system becoming more equable, individual success of people who are already in the system can be supported by providing grants, development programmes, or mentoring and networking
For each of the four main themes, four strategies are presented together with different examples of how the strategy has been implemented in one of the ADVANCE projects, and reflections on how it worked.
The authors explain that even though their focus in the book is on gender (because the program that funded the projects they were evaluating was one focussing on gender), all the strategies most likely work for increasing diversity for other characteristics, too.
I found this really interesting from several different perspectives:
- As someone who wants to support cultural change, I like that this book gives actionable suggestions and reflections on how they worked in different contexts. It will be great to refer back to this book whenever I see that there is potential for changes in policy and procedures, because there will certainly be good ideas in there that have already been tested and that we can build on! For everybody working in uni admin in any capacity, I would totally recommend keeping this book close by
- As a woman in science, I used to be very active and on the leadership board of the Earth Science Women’s Network, where I met Sandra and really appreciated her perspective on things (and that she would join me for early morning swims in the lake!) and I’m just super happy to see that there is such a great body of work that we can all build on together and change things!
- As someone who’s getting more and more interested in exploring the literature on faculty development and cultural change, this is a really good review of the literature related to gender equity in the academy. This is a great starting point for quickly finding relevant literature on this topic
So there is really no reason for anyone to not pick up this book and learn how to build gender equity in the academy :)
Laursen, S., & Austin, A. E. (2020). Building gender equity in the academy: Institutional strategies for change. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.