Dear STEM, It’s Time for Some Identity Work

Professional photo of Maria Wallace
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Maria Wallace, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of STEM Education
University of Southern Mississippi
Professional Photo of Becky Carmichael
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Becky J. Carmichael, Ph.D.
Communication across the Curriculum Science Coordinator
Louisiana State University
Professional Photo of Jonathan Hall
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Jonathan L. Hall, Ph.D.
Curriculum Specialist and Activity Director, STEM Success Program
University of West Florida
Dr. Stephanie August
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Stephanie E. August, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant
Engineering Education
What identities are being built? What identities are (and/or ought) to be dismantled?
What structures, traditions, philosophies, and/or practices necessitate disruption?

Sharing our work is a mainstay. We discuss our research, our courses, and our experiences working with students or colleagues. We tell stories of fieldwork, memories of mentorship or advising, and ponder persistent questions. Through these interactions, we can see how identity is shaped by interactions, experiences, and connections we have within the many figured worlds of STEM. This blog is a byproduct of our conversations surrounding Freire’s1 critical consciousness and acts of disruption in our contexts. Here, we offer four invitations to expand practices of care and safety within STEM communities (Figure 1).

A chart showing four invitations for expanding care & Safety in STEM Communities. These four invitations are described in detail in the post below.

Figure 1: Four Invitations for Expanding Care and Safety in STEM Communities.

We are all actors within STEM communities. The invitations represent our collective response-ability2 to cultivate equity, inclusivity, and social justice within those spaces.

Identity & Figured Worlds

The term ‘identity’ can refer to many factors contextualizing the exchange among students, faculty, and institutions (Table 1). We focus on how individuals see themselves and others see their overlapping identities in various figured worlds3.

Table one is lists examples of identity ranging from personal, professional, institutional, and those that fall in-between.

Table 1: A non-exhaustive depiction of identity and figured worlds. (Click to View PDF.)

Figured worlds are social, cultural, and historical realms that position and associate varying levels of recognition, value, and power to identity work.

Identity work includes beliefs, behaviors, and actions within the norms, expectations, rules, and values of a figured world. The development of identity (Table 1) happens within multiple and conflicting figured worlds3. Exclusionary stereotypes, gender bias, and ‘chilly’ cultural environments4 are all common characteristics contributing to ‘figured worlds’ of STEM communities.

Expanding Care and Safety in STEM Communities

There’s an urgent need to expand prevailing definitions of care.5 By considering care as more than merely ‘a neutral act of protection for somebody’, we encourage communities to view their involvement in contributing to identity development as deeply contextualized by value-laden decisions. How we mobilize care within STEM communities implicitly and explicitly answer four complex questions: (1) who and/or what is worthy of care; (2) who and/or what is being cared for? (3) who is rendered safe? (4) how is safety rendered visible? Redirecting our energy to center questions of care and safety can have a positive impact on all spaces.

Invitation #1: Dig deeper into surface-level (re)presentations and enhancements of STEM.

The laboratory is one figured world where individuals engage in identity work. Within laboratories, identity work manifests as changing behaviors, actions, or feelings. While physical spaces or identifying as a ‘STEM person’ may not appear to be interconnected, both have important implications for the safety of students. From grant proposal guidelines requiring ‘facility management descriptions’ to basic lab safety protocols, a significant amount of effort (i.e., physical, institutional, cognitive, and economic) has been invested in the architecture of STEM spaces. Lab safety protocols even inform the structure and building footprint within those decisions making conversations. Millions of dollars are spent on maintaining and enforcing these safety guidelines. Money and energy are two primary factors shaping what kinds of work and what ‘kinds of people’6 are valued.

Why, then, are we not investing the same level of care in learners’ emotional and psychological safety?

High-impact pedagogical practices that contribute to equitable and just educational experiences are only possible when students feel psychologically safe.7,8 The capital (i.e., social, cultural, and economic) driving the development of physical spaces in which future STEM professionals and citizens rely on has been the dominant form of ‘care’ for hundreds of years. Thus, there is an urgent need to disrupt this prevailing tradition if we are to cultivate equity and justice. The physical spaces are only as effective as the people who interact with them.

Table two shows examples of what care may look like, contrasting ways individuals might nurture harmful figured worlds versus positive figured worlds. An example of a harmful figured world is receiving and speaking words of refutation. In contrast, an example of a positive figured world is receiving and speaking words of affirmation.

Table 2: Images of ‘care’ that contribute to figured worlds of STEM education. (Click to View PDF.)

Invitation #2: When you know your environment, begin where you are.

It is critical to reflect on our positionalities and local figured world/s to make positive change. Ask: What features of the figured world are being cared for? At what costs? To whose benefit? What about my ‘figured world’ is impacting student ability to cultivate positive identities?

Begin by taking a hard look at undergraduate and graduate education. Many students are ‘trained to attack’. These mechanisms systemically care for some identities and damage others. Norms of STEM training involves intensive critique– trained to announce holes in hypotheses, methodologies, and the interpretation of results. These norms extend to ‘weed out classes’; mechanisms of ‘gatekeeping’ and the nature of qualifying exams. Critique is not always used to cultivate generative idea development. Students are told they must learn how to thrive within a system committed to finding flaws, and inadequacies in their work and each other.

Engaging in critical reflection of your ‘figured world’ reveals strong disagreements or feelings of being offended. This is an inherent byproduct of working towards equity and justice. It is challenging to discuss ideas beyond the dominant cultural paradigm and more challenging to act on them. You may find out that your identities benefit at the expense of your colleagues. Being in spaces of learning should motivate you to disrupt ecologies of care that harm identities.

Invitation #3: When attempting to nurture a positive educational environment, get some direction.

We need direction from those we interact with and the information we consume. These perspectives help illuminate ideas to consider as you grow, and how you are helping other learners grow into and form their identities. Education and mentorship can be a slippery slope as witnessed by many researchers of K12 teacher education through a phenomenon Dan Lortie termed, ‘the apprenticeship of observation’.9 By merely observing pedagogical performances as a student one becomes enculturated into a particular idea of ‘teaching’ (i.e., philosophy and practice), thus to engage, practice, and/or research supportive identity development:

  • Seek nurturing positive STEM education experiences,
  • Attune to the value-laden figured worlds of research across historical, social, cultural, economic, and political domains,
  • Examine critically ways data are used, represented, and analyzed,
  • Determine whose or what interests this research, initiative, or program serves, and
  • Question whose ideas are deemed worthy of action?
Invitation #4: When you hear (or feel) resistance, reassess your action plan, self-reflect, and consider your long-term goals.

In ecology, adaptive management is a responsive practice, where stakeholders plan for long-term goals in the face of uncertainty. Stakeholders learn about the system (i.e., structural and personal), and periodically make adjustments as information is obtained. The same practice is critical for the perspectives that shape your identity.

Reassess and self-reflect when working toward creating equitable figured worlds. Frame care and identity work around long-term goals for both yourself and your institution. Recall personal goals for addressing diversity and inclusion of multiple identities (e.g., Table 1). Center on the collective mission to cultivate STEM spaces where everyone thrives. When faced with resistance pause, ask why, and begin adaptive management strategies.

The path of disruption and expanding care is not the same for everyone. Reevaluating your perspectives and consulting accomplices reveals opportunities within your space or occasions to expand your reach.

Expanding Ecologies of Care as Disruption

Adopting an ecological perspective allows us to keep working toward more comprehensive cultivation of healthy STEM environments. Disrupting how we contribute to the construction of STEM identities and figured worlds requires continual reflection, especially in moments of resistance.

Further Reading