by Patrick Monahan
Balancing science and personal stories, representatives of SF Build are working to spread techniques for creating more inclusive classrooms through a series of faculty training workshops.
SF Build is an NIH-funded initiative to transform research and teaching at SF State and increase diversity in the biomedical workforce. The program, and these workshops in particular, focus on the phenomenon of stereotype threat — a fear of confirming the stereotypes people have about you. Triggered by a variety of situations, from being the only student of color in a classroom full of white students to dealing with negative or dismissive comments about one’s identity, it can lead to decreased motivation and lower test scores.
In a December 2017 workshop delivered to new faculty members, Professor of Biology and Principal Investigator of SF Build Leticia Márquez-Magaña explained ways that new faculty members can avoid triggering stereotype threat in their classroom, drawing from her own experiences as a Latina scientist. For instance, comments like “I don’t see color” can make students of color feel unwelcome. “I’m super colorful,” she said. “If you don’t see color, you don’t see me.”
Another pitfall, she said, can be negative comments that leave no room for growth — like trying to reassure a student who had failed a test by saying, “Not everyone is good at math.” Feedback like that could be especially derailing for students who already have to combat negative stereotypes about their math performance. Instead, instructors can reframe comments in ways that show a path forward while emphasizing that failure is an important part of learning, Márquez-Magaña explained.
Assistant Professor of Management Verónica Rabelo, who attended the workshop, cited that portion as eye-opening. Even as someone well-versed in the literature about the negative impacts of stereotypes, she had fallen into some of the same traps that Márquez-Magaña described. “Some of that feedback can be well-intentioned. I’ve even given some of that advice to my own students,” Rabelo said.
Combining science and stories
Over the past two years, the team has collected data about the workshops’ effectiveness and fine-tuned their delivery. With a continually shifting audience, finding the right balance of information has been a challenge. On the one hand, personal stories encourage new faculty members to open up and share their own thoughts and experiences. According to Assistant Professor of Gerontology Emiko Takagi, who attended the December 2017 workshop, “Every one of us was able to connect to the ideas they were presenting in our own ways.”
At the same time, some faculty members will only be swayed by hard scientific evidence. So Márquez-Magaña also explains the large body of research on the triggers of stereotype threat and how these effects can even be seen in peoples’ bodies. “You can monitor stereotype threat from an experimental psychologist’s point of view,” she said. “You can measure stress hormones, you can see peoples’ eyes darting back and forth.”
Change the syllabus, change the environment
Another fall 2017 workshop, conducted during orientation for new faculty members, focused on the syllabus — typically a stiff, formal document. During the workshop, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alegra Eroy-Reveles and her co-presenter, Professor of Health Education Michele Eliason, offered a different vision for the syllabus as a signal to students that the classroom will be welcoming for everyone.
One of their examples of a model syllabus, from Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Kim Coble, included the line, “You are encouraged to recognize the diverse strengths your colleagues bring to the classroom.” Language like that signals to the students that they, too, belong in the class. “What really resonated with me is that a syllabus isn’t just a laundry list of policies,” said Rabelo, who participated in the workshop. “It forms a feedback loop between the professor and students.”
And the syllabus has symbolic significance, too. “The syllabus is an official University document,” Eroy-Reveles said. “So if we can change the language of the syllabus, that’s really showing institutional change.”
Márquez-Magaña hopes to expand the program by recording anecdotes from different presenters so they can have concrete examples of how the triggers of stereotype threat can affect students’ performance. In the meantime, they’ll have some ambassadors in the form of new faculty. Rabelo says she’s already recommended the workshop to her colleagues. And Takagi says she thinks other faculty could benefit, too. “I hope it’ll be shared more widely,” Takagi said.