Privilege and Pratfalls: The Role of an Ally in Physics

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Privilege and Pratfalls: The Role of an Ally in Physics


Scott Franklin Professor, School of Physics & Astronomy, Director, Center for Advancing STEM Teaching, Learning & Evaluation. 

Rochester Institute of Technology

Scott Franklin, making a perfect cup of coffee. Photo courtesy of Scott Franklin.

Adapted from a talk at the 2016 Summer Meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

One of the most exciting developments in physics is the growing awareness of the need to make our discipline accessible and inclusive to all. And it’s more than just awareness: the field is making real progress towards inclusivity, too. Just last year, the American Physical Society commissioned a survey to study the work climate for LGBT physicists, a step that would have been unheard of when I was in college. For more information on this study, reference the “Queer Physicists Speak Out” article in this issue of the Observer. APS also hosts numerous annual Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics and has standing and ad-hoc committees for women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ members. Incoming students are more comfortable in diverse environments, and are taking an active role in demanding equity for all.

The growing diversity in physics presents new challenges: cultures and practices developed within a homogenous culture may no longer work. Together we face the challenges of not only exploring new frontiers in physics, but also supporting our friends and colleagues by being allies in the fight for equality.

Many of us know that being an ally is important but don’t know where to start. That’s why a number of us physicists are developing an approach that starts with three principles:

1. Authentic help means everyone wins.
2. Personal experiences trump intellectual theory.
3. Building relationships and trust on the individual level makes a difference.

The first principle was best articulated by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian advocate of critical pedagogy, who writes: "Authentic help means that all who are involved help each other mutually, growing together in the common effort to understand the reality which they seek to transform."

This means that equity can’t be framed as someone in power “helping” (but actually dominating) a less privileged person. It turns out that those in power have as much to gain from equity as those marginalized.

In physics, this plays out in many ways. For example, data I’ve analyzed shows that of physics majors who pass at least one upper-level physics course, one in six then leave the major to graduate in another program. Clearly we are not retaining the “best and the brightest.” If we did a better job of retaining marginalized community members in physics, our whole field would benefit.

The second principle is about data and how it can sometimes lead us astray. Physics likes to perceive itself as objective. While this may be an advantage in the lab, its blanket application to culture may further alienate those not in the majority. Here, perception trumps intent. Behaviors that seem natural—to faculty teaching class, students interacting in study groups, or researchers in labs—are perceived by individuals in different ways. For example, faculty often engage with students by asking them questions. That seems natural, but to some students this mode of dialogue is threatening. If they don’t know the answer, they feel stupid and begin to think the professor is picking on them.

Similarly, we often interpret silence as consensus; the critical theorist Dr. bell hooks points out that it is “the absence of a feeling of safety [that] often promotes prolonged silence or lack of engagement.” Taking the time to truly listen to our students, classmates, and colleagues increases our ability to communicate and brings us closer together as a community.

These lead to the third principle—to act on an individual level. Here are some simple ideas that students can use: First, if you lead or help lead a study group or SPS chapter meeting, keep track of how long different gender/racial groups are speaking and check for equity in participation. Online tools (e.g., make it easy to measure the fraction of a discussion claimed by (as presenting) men and women (and are easily modified to account for race, rank, or other characteristics).

My students have started using this when they work together in labs or activity-based classes, and the resulting discussions are more collaborative and productive. Now they brag about when their numbers indicate equitable participation, whether across gender or other lines, and informally compete to see which group can be most equitable.

Second, practice active “amplification.” In September 2016, it was revealed that female White House staffers had adopted a practice of repeating key points made by women and giving explicit credit to the original speaker. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution (and denied them the opportunity to claim it as their own!). Even if you don’t work in the White House, you can practice amplification. I do! Now, I see each meeting or discussion as an opportunity to amplify the voice of another. This requires much more active listening; I’m much less able to zone out or check e-mail, instead listening carefully to points raised by those in the minority. In workshop classrooms, we frequently assign students “roles” to play in their investigation. In addition to traditional “scribe” and “skeptic” roles, I have now introduced the “parrot,” whose role it is to repeat with attribution any good idea that they hear.

I can’t paint an overly rosy a picture. While the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in physics rose 58 percent between 2003 and 2013, the fraction awarded to women (20 percent) and African Americans (2 percent) was largely unchanged, and the numbers for those with intersecting identities (e.g., women of color) are even worse. And yet, the attitudes, energy, and awareness of the next generation give me hope that my son’s experiences as a physicist will be much different and diverse than mine, and include more active discussions about ways to make physics a discipline in which all can truly participate. //

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