Sciencewomen

Why are my students so white?

Mystery City is 42% non-Caucasian, with the largest minority being African-American. Mystery University is 25% non-Caucasian.* My introductory courses bear out that statistic; I have a substantial percentage of Hispanic, Asian, and African-American students. So I was somewhat started the other day when I looked around my upper-level class and realized that we were all pretty much non-Hispanic Caucasian.**

That first glance around the classroom was folled by a surreptious examination of the other upper-level courses in my department, our graduate student population, and our faculty. So far, my informal detective work has turned up only one African-American, no Hispanics, and a few Asians among the student population. As far as faculty in the department, we have two Chinese professors, one African-American part-time lecturer, and no Hispanic faculty.

As far as I’m concerned, the whiteness of our students and faculty is pretty apalling. And it’s not just my department. A quick internet search reveals, that <5% of BS degrees in -ology (broadly defined) go to minorities, contrasting with ~15% in science and engineering as a whole.*** As we move into graduate school the problem remains: 3.3% at the M.S. level and 5% at the PhD level. For the sciences and engineering combined, it’s 10.6% for the MS and 8.2% for the PhD (ref.).

So as a field, we’re doing a remarkably poor job of attracting minority students and as a result we’re missing representation broad segments of the American population. By the way, we’re pretty bad at attracting and retaining women too, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here. And, we -ologists can’t even say that it’s a problem for all the sciences, because we are doing significantly worse than the group. So there must be something about -ology — something that we are doing that deters prospective minority students or something that we are not doing to recruit them.

Hopefully there’s some good research going on to figure this out and devise strategies to increase diversity in -ology. I know there have been conference sessions devoted to this topic. Next time, I’m at a conference I’m going to make a point of attending one of those sessions, learning what I can, and then applying those lessons in my own department.

I could add my own speculation as to why -ology is so white, but for the moment I’ll just say that my eyes are now open and the issue is now persisently in my conciousness. And you can bet that since I’m thinking about, I’ll be blogging about it. And, more importantly, I’ll be doing what I can to entice those minority students in my intro courses to think about continuing on in -ology.

(This post is for the 6th edition of the Accretionary Wedge carnival, with the theme "things that make you go "hmmm." The carnival will be hosted at Lounge of the Lab Lemming, who despite his blog’s name, now works in the field.)

*The first question we might ask ourselves is why the demographics of Mystery City and Mystery U (a public university) diverge from each other so significantly, but I’ll focus more tightly for now.

**Let me apologize up front if this realization or the language I use to talk about these matters is inadvertently offensive. It’s just another example of how white privilege has manifested itself in my life, that my best efforts to be culturally sensitive may fail miserably.

***These statistics are for African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native-Americans/Native-Alaskans and persons with disabilities and were available in 2000. Hopefully they are a bit better now. Also note, that the definition of minorities in the statistics is not the same as which I used when I visually surveyed my department.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrew Cooper
    February 22, 2008

    I remember much the same in my engineering classes during the 1990’s. The lower level courses had a fairly even balance of the sexes. But the number of women dwindled dramatically as the course level went up, to just one or two, or even none, in any given 400 level lecture.

    I distinctly remember noting the lack of females on the first day of one particular course, looking about the classroom to see who I knew from semesters past. I do not recall any gender bias in the courses, I didn’t see any pressure from faculty or other students, nothing overt anyway. Even after having made the observation and being aware of the issue the reasons never became obvious.

  2. #2 IanR
    February 22, 2008

    If your muddy pants say anything about what field “-ology” is, I’m going to hazard a guess as to the lack of non-white students. I think that field sciences are not appealing to people who are purely urban (inner city folk who never had the chance to play in the mud), nor are they appealing to people who understand agricultural drudgery. I suspect that it’s most appealing to people who grew up with mud to play in but not to work in.

    Just my totally unscientific guess…

  3. #3 agnostic
    February 22, 2008

    Ian is on the right track — people go 1) where they want to go, or 2) where they’re good, hopefully both. These are the “can do” and “will do” factors, in the personnel psychology lit.

    As for 2, African-Americans have a mean IQ that is 1 S.D. below that of Whites (Hispanic depends on what country they’re from — somewhere around 1/3 to 2/3 of a S.D. lower). East Asians have a mean that is 1/3 to 2/3 of a S.D. above the White mean.

    As for 1, Ian is right — take a survey of Af-Am students at Mystery U and see how many of them a) have ever gone camping, let alone b) enjoy camping / hiking / etc. Or you could watch Comic View on BET and see how often Af-Am comics make fun of what they view as goofy White folks preferences, embodied in your picture of getting your pants muddied to the knee just for fun.

    Or peruse this great satirical website for similar remarks:
    http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.wordpress.com/

    In general, if group X is under or overrepresented in some field, always account for this as much as possible by differences in the “can do” and “will do” factors — without those, only divine intervention during recruitment would achieve parity.

    (And on a sidenote, depressing navel-gazing phrases like “white privilege” should be left in the ’90s.)

  4. #4 catswym
    February 22, 2008

    i’m a white grad student in boston-ish in biochem/biophysics.

    i don’t see many black or hispanic students in my field either, and it’s certainly not field work. i also don’t see ANY black or hispanic profs in those depts at either my current university or my undergrad institution (which was HUGE).

    i also realized a few years ago that i’ve never had a black or hispanic teacher. which was disconcerting to me. both that it hadn’t happened and that i had never realized it until that point.

  5. #5 acmegirl
    February 22, 2008

    IanR – that’s just silly. You assume that all minorities either live in the inner city ghetto or are the children of migrant farm workers. I am one of those underrepresented minorities, and I can say that:
    1) I spent plenty of time playing in the mud as a child
    2) my choice of scientific field – one that does not involve fieldwork – had nothing to do with an aversion to mud.
    I think it’s more likely to stem from a proposed reason for the huge difference between the numbers of minorities who become doctors and the number who become scientists. While everyone knows what a doctor does, you just don’t meet scientists if only a handful of people in your family actually have a college degree. If you don’t meet scientists in general, how many field scientists will you meet? Before I got serious about science, the only ‘scientists’ I knew were my high school teachers and introductory course instructors in college. I almost went to medical school, myself, and was saved by the MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) program, one of the NIGMS funded programs aimed at addressing the inequity. http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Minority/

  6. #6 autumnmist
    February 22, 2008

    Among my own minority group (Asians), it’s not a matter of not knowing what a scientist is/does while knowing what doctors do. It’s generally (many exceptions of course) a matter of knowing that doctors (at least historically, less so b/c of all the health insurance problems in this country) make lots more money than scientists.

    For us, making lots of money = validating your parents’ hard work to raise you in this country and help you succeed (among other things) = respect

    Scientists? Pah, what useful things do scientists do? Do they save people’s lives? Can they afford to comfortably support their parents in their old age? Do they get instant respect by society? No. So why do you want to be a scientist?

    (note: I am a future scientist, so this is obviously not a reflection of my personal beliefs)

  7. #7 acmegirl
    February 22, 2008

    As for 2, African-Americans have a mean IQ that is 1 S.D. below that of Whites (Hispanic depends on what country they’re from — somewhere around 1/3 to 2/3 of a S.D. lower). East Asians have a mean that is 1/3 to 2/3 of a S.D. above the White mean.

    agnostic – You do realize that the verdict is still out on whether IQ predicts social status, or social status predicts IQ, right? You are treading on dangerous ground when you try to suggest that a lower mean IQ score for a group somehow means that every individual you meet from that group will not be intelligent. Clearly there are enough African-Americans of sufficient intelligence to pursue professional careers – they are doing it. They are just not choosing specific fields in the same patterns as their white counterparts. With all due respect to ScienceWoman, I don’t think her particular -ology is so much harder than some other scientific field that we dumb Black folks can’t compete.

  8. #8 Spaulding
    February 22, 2008

    The first question we might ask ourselves is why the demographics of Mystery City and Mystery U (a public university) diverge from each other so significantly

    Are all of your students drawn from within the city limits? If not, then the numbers you’re comparing really aren’t usefully parallel. Try comparing the demographics of the university to the demographics of the towns or counties of origin of the students, obviously weighted based on how many students come from each town or county.

    As far as I’m concerned, the whiteness of our students and faculty is pretty apalling.

    Hmm, so should each white student or faculty member be appalled at his or her ethnicity, or only a specific percentage of them? If a caucasian student gets a tan over spring break, ought she to reduce her self-loathing accordingly? Maybe some percentage of the caucasian students or faculty could sidestep the problem if they decided to become black, hispanic, Asian, etc.

    Seriously, a more careful writer might have chosen not to express disgust at inherited racial characteristics of individuals, but instead to investigate the possibility of subtly discriminatory admissions, hiring, recruitment, and retention policies (taking care not to imply blame by tossing around inadequate statistics).

    Still, I hope your efforts yield valid insights; I’m distressed by the fact that peripheral, preventable, or hostile considerations sometimes keep bright people away from careers that make good use of their talents.

  9. #9 acmegirl
    February 22, 2008

    Spaulding,
    I think we all understood that she meant the overwhelmingly high percentage of white people in the group.
    And I think it is a good thing for individual people take some responsibility for the unequal representation of minorities in science and try to do something about it. I applaud you, ScienceWoman, and I hope you become a part of the solution.
    It’s really easy to call these sentiments “self-loathing” when you don’t realize what life is like for the other group. Both my parents were the first in their families to go to college. When I told my extended family that I was going to graduate school, the response was, “Why?” When you come from a place like that, a sympathetic and supportive professor can make the difference between giving up and sticking with it.

  10. #10 IanR
    February 22, 2008

    acmegirl – I’m not saying that explains all of the discrepancies, but inner city kids and the kinds of farm workers are disproportionately non-white. Of course there are other factors. I’m half Indian – I know the social pressure to study medicine or engineering if you’re good at science or math. But there’s more to it than that.

    When you ask people what attracted them to field biology, I find it tends to be middle class kids with a love for nature. They tend to be people who connected with the outdoors at an early age. If you grew up farming and love the outdoors, you’ll probably do that. And if you grew up without a connection to nature, you probably won’t get the chance.

    Obviously it isn’t related to race. Back home, the ethnicity of people drawn to field biology reflects the ethnic makeup of the university, not the population at large. And obviously “Hispanics” dominate biology in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil…

    With some notable exceptions, the average person doesn’t tell their children “I hope you grow up to be a stream ecologist”. And universities courses aren’t going to instill a love of nature that isn’t there to begin with. But most people still need that extra pull, someone to draw them into one field rather than another. Faculty need to cultivate students. Despite my fascination with plants and nature, I would never have ended up in a field like ecology if it weren’t for that one professor. It may have been entirely coincidental, but it was the one person in the department who kinda “looked like me”.

  11. #11 Lab Lemming
    February 22, 2008

    “As for 2, African-Americans have a mean IQ that is 1 S.D. below that of Whites (Hispanic depends on what country they’re from — somewhere around 1/3 to 2/3 of a S.D. lower). East Asians have a mean that is 1/3 to 2/3 of a S.D. above the White mean.”

    Being a broadminded, accepting (some would say ‘accommodating’) kind of guy, let me use these suggestions as hypotheses and attempt to make testable predictions with them.

    The IQ hypothesis would suggest that racial IQ-based filtering should produce similar fractionation patterns in culturally different but racially similar settings. However, in my field (geology), the university with which I collaborated in Brazil had more black* students than were present in the local population. This is not predicted by the IQ hypothesis.

    This hypothesis would also predict that Black African geologists would be of a lower standard than Asian geologists from countries with a similar level of economic development. However, my experience from working with geologists from both regions is that the average Namibians and Botswanans are better than the good Indians or south-east Asians. Another failed prediction.

    Given these two fairly straightforward test cases, I’d either revise or discard your racial IQ hypothesis, as it doesn’t seem to have much predictive utility.

    * African-X terminology gets kinda strange when dealing with non-USAian black people.

  12. #12 Eric Lund
    February 22, 2008

    When I told my extended family that I was going to graduate school, the response was, “Why?” When you come from a place like that, a sympathetic and supportive professor can make the difference between giving up and sticking with it.

    This is an important factor for American-born students: going to grad school is something that many Americans really can’t afford, even with tuition waivers and stipends. IIRC grad students don’t have to make payments on student loans, but the interest still accumulates. Which means that if you are not from a wealthy family, you’re going to grad school only if you really like what you’re doing enough to make the financial sacrifice implied.

    I don’t have any great insights into the problem–I work at a state university in one of the country’s whitest states, so the lack of minority students here doesn’t ring alarm bells as loudly as it does elsewhere–but my field definitely suffers from a lack of American-born nonwhites. In my professional career I have encountered a grand total of three American-born colleagues of African ancestry (one grad student and two who are more senior) and two Hispanic Americans (one grad student and one professor). Except for a couple of grad students, the Asian colleagues I have met came to the US for graduate school if not post-Ph.D.

  13. #13 acmegirl
    February 22, 2008

    Interesting to bring up the money issue. It really is a problem, but not necessarily the way you framed it. Growing up I thought that you had to be rich to become a PhD scientist. It wasn’t until I made the decision not to apply for medical schools and started looking into other options that I found out that, as one of my advisors put it, “If you are doing a science PhD and you end up paying for it, you are doing something wrong.” I’m on a full scholarship, and have a stipend that is more than some of my relatives are making at “real jobs”. It’s that kind of information that underpriviledged people don’t have access to. And when people make life choices based on a lack of information, well, they may decide that some roads are not open to them that actually are.
    Now, I know that all PhD students don’t get such a great deal, and that is another issue, but there is no lack of representation of Black students in African-American studies programs. So, it can’t be just the money.

  14. #14 Miss Cellania
    February 22, 2008

    You should find a few minority students who were in your introductory class and ASK them why they didn’t continue with upper level classes. Did they decide on a different major, or did they drop out of school? Their answers may not be representative, but it could give you some avenues to investigate.

  15. #15 Dave Munger
    February 23, 2008

    Even assuming Agnostic is right about IQ in the general population, there’s little reason to believe that difference would be perpetuated at Mystery U. You’ve said a smaller portion of the African American population attends Mystery U compared to the general population of the area. So presumably lower IQ individuals are filtered out.

    I’d say the reason for the difference is more likely due to the fact a higher portion of African Americans are first-generation college students. First-generation students see college as a vehicle to raise their socio-economic status. So the best and brightest among them are more likely to pursue the most lucrative careers — business, law, medicine, and so on. The next tier of students will head for the more vocational majors like nursing and criminology, which have a good chance of leading directly to employment. That leaves few students in “impractical” fields like *ology.

    If you’re beyond the first generation, you’re more likely to see college and education as good in its own sake. You’re not as concerned with raising your S.E.S., and more interested in “following your dreams.” So students from this group who like science and the outdoors are likely head to *ology, while first-generation students with the same preferences might try to find a more “practical” major.

  16. #16 Jane
    February 23, 2008

    “And, more importantly, I’ll be doing what I can to entice those minority students in my intro courses to think about continuing on in -ology.”

    You know, one of the best strategies I’ve found for this is to send emails to some of my intro students, saying “I noticed that you’re doing well in my class and seem to be enjoying it. I hope that you are considering taking [the next class up], and that you are also considering majoring in [my field]—I think it would be a good fit for you.” Simple, yes, but I will often get students who might not have considered going on to the next class to give it a try.

  17. #17 Kim
    February 23, 2008

    The current issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education is devoted to analysis of various programs designed to increase minority participation in geology. I’ve only read the overview paper, so I don’t know the conclusions drawn by the papers (other than “different teaching techniques work with different students in different situations”).

    My experience: I teach at an institution that’s 10 to 20% Native American (or American Indian, which is actually the preferred term of a lot of the students). My general education courses have populations that match the college-wide population. In the major, though, the numbers of Native American students are much smaller. Larger than at any other institution where I’ve been, but smaller than in our school as a whole. (As for the tenure-track faculty, we are four white men, one Hispanic man, one white woman.) I wish we did a better job teaching Native American students – many of the local tribes have significant oil & gas or coal or uranium reserves on their land, so geology is very relevant to them. There are geology jobs (both extracting resources and regulating or cleaning up from the resource extraction) at home for many of our students – our science is not a frivolous pursuit, in this case.

  18. #18 Lab Lemming
    February 23, 2008

    Kim,
    What sort of recruitment strategies have you tried? Is there any sort of university programs or outreach funds that would allow you to fly professionals in the industry up to talk to your first-years?

  19. #19 Acer
    February 24, 2008

    I suspect that we are in the same (or a similar) -ology. I am a grad student instructor this year in a intro to -ology class; the department is significantly less diverse than the rest of the university, and the non-white students in my classes are almost entirely Asian and Middle-Eastern. Every one of them is taking my class as a requirement for their degree in an applied science (mostly medicine). I suspect it’s in part because many of them are first-generation college students and feel pressure (from both their families and themselves) to go into a ‘high achieving’ discipline and make a lot of money. Many of them are also from more urbanized places and don’t really seem to relate to the “sticks-and-weeds” aspects of -ology, even if they do fine with some of the other parts.

  20. #20 DrugMonkey
    February 25, 2008

    You know, one of the best strategies I’ve found for this is to send emails to some of my intro students, saying “I noticed that you’re doing well in my class and seem to be enjoying it. I hope that you are considering taking [the next class up], and that you are also considering majoring in [my field]—I think it would be a good fit for you.”

    BINGO!!!

  21. #21 Mike
    February 25, 2008

    In my field (animal, poultry, dairy and veterinary sciences, females are over represented. Some co-ed universities have admitted classes that have been 100% female. As a male, I see nothing wrong with this. As far as racial make up goes, the majority of grad students have been asian.

  22. #22 Jim Thomerson
    February 26, 2008

    I was teaching an upper level course. Chair asked me how many black students. I told him one. Later I realized there were two. The other was a student I knew from previous classes. I didn’t immediately think of him as black when asked for numbers.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.