Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Academic Honesty

About two weeks ago, Freeman Hrabowski came to our campus to give a series of talks. Dr. Hrabowski (I don't usually call Ph.D.s Dr., but he mentioned several times that students call him "Doc" so...) is the president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which is best known (at least in the crowd I run in) for the Meyerhoff Scholars program, which has achieved a fantastic success rate in producing minority, especially African-American, research scientists, not only among the scholars but throughout the university, and has provided a model that many in the country are trying to emulate. 

The main reason for Dr. Hrabowski's visit was to deliver a convocation address (audio and video available here) that marked the beginning of Black History Month. It was an fantastic talk, that left few dry eyes, but it wasn't the most important part of his visit, at least for me. The previous day he delivered a talk at our Learning and Teaching Center to a group of mostly faculty on "Diversity in the Sciences: Creating Climates of Success" and then later in the day had a conversation with mostly students (though I and a few other faculty were there) on more or less the same topic. Both of these conversations were, as a colleague puts it, "focused, blunt and intense" but also amazingly funny and comfortable. I had a feeling of being in the presence of someone who tells the truth - the truth that you already know in a fuzzy way, but either haven't had the guts to say or haven't been able to put together in a way that would convince anyone. 

The take-home lessons for me were all about honesty. 

• You can't solve a problem if you don't state the problem. The retention rate for African-American students at liberal arts colleges in general, and ours in particular, is worse than for majority students. Retention in science majors for under-represented minority students (African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, some Asians) is worse than for majority students. Hrabowski told the story of encouraging some prospective students who'd been admitted to Harvard that they should come to UMBC instead. When asked by someone at Harvard why he would do such a thing, he said "I want those students to become scientists. If they went to your place, they'd end up as lawyers." Talking in generalities about "climate" or about how the statistics of small numbers makes these patterns harder to follow avoids stating the problems, and can make them harder to solve.

• In general, people are more comfortable around others who share similar backgrounds, at least at first. Dr. Hrabowski said this again and again. His point, or at least the point I took, is that labeling as racism the frustrating slights that minority students commonly experience - being the last to find a partner when the professor says to break up into groups, the initial awkwardness that can turn into long term awkwardness in interacting with professors, the difficulty in joining study groups - isn't helpful. These are very real problems, but they come from carelessness and a mostly unconscious desire to stay in one's comfort zone, not from maliciousness. Solving them should involve creating awareness and situations in which students interact with each other in ways that force them out of that zone. 
It also means that pointing out the slights when they occur can be the most effective way to fight them. Dr. Hrabowski told a story of getting his first exam back in graduate school, where he studied math. The professor had written "You did surprisingly well." Hrabowski approached him afterwards and asked "Why the adverb?" That was all it took. The professor hadn't even thought about the impact when he wrote the comment, and never would have realized if Hrabowski hadn't pointed it out. Doing so took courage and confidence, but also trust - trust that the professor was a well-meaning, if slightly clueless (aren't we all!) educator, not an ogre.

• Preparation matters in the math and science. The example Dr. Hrabowski used was long division. It's just not possible to do long division if your multiplication and subtraction skills aren't well honed. That kind of cumulative accumulation of skills is taken for granted in college science and math courses. Students are expected to be comfortable with algebra and with basic skills in the sciences when they arrive. Upper level courses depend on concepts from lower level courses. This seems fairly obvious, but the consequences can be devastating for students who come into college science classes without a few crucial skills that their classmates got in high school. It makes it extremely difficult to continue in the major successfully without doing well in the intro courses. Hrabowski encourages students to retake intro courses if they didn't get an A or a B, something that's against the rules at our institution. He discourages students from taking multiple science courses simultaneously during their first year, so they can focus on getting the crucial material in one class at a time. He's fine with students taking more than four years to graduate, if that's what it takes to do well in the classes that they do take. 
Implementing these suggestions, though, takes honesty. It takes both students and advisors who will figure out where the gaps are in a students background, and do what needs to be done to fill them. It takes an understanding that these gaps have nothing to do with intelligence or ability. It takes changing or working around rules that were make when the college had a more homogeneous student population. All of those things are hard. 

• Students need to talk to each other about how they're doing. There was a marvelous moment when Hrabowski asked students who was excelling in their science classes. Embarrassed silence. Students at our place simply don't speak to each other about their grades. They'll say things like "that went pretty well" about a test, or "things are okay" but they won't go through an exam with a classmate or a group and figure out how to do the problems they missed. (I often worry that students won't even do this on their own.) This is a great way to put cement on the gaps in knowledge. Of course it's hard to show a classmate that a test that didn't go well. But hiding it away, saying that everything is "okay", or joining the "organic chem is kicking my butt" group on Facebook isn't a productive way forward. 

• Above all, it's important to treat students as individuals. To learn their strengths. Not to make assumptions. It's too easy to fall into the trap of talking about "these students", to make generalizations. To be too careful about what is said. That can be as problematic, as dishonest, as doing nothing at all.

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About Me

I'm a biochemist at a small college.