How to make STEM classrooms more inclusive

This post is a bit of a departure from my usual content. I’m assuming two things about you, the reader:

  1. You teach/learn in a STEM classroom
  2. You’d like to be more inclusive

If that’s not you, you might want to skip this one. Sorry; I’ll be back to my usual haunts with the next post.

If you’re still with me, you may be wondering what triggered this sudden departure from fun facts about linguistics. The answer is that I recently had an upsetting experience, and it’s been been niggling at me. I’m a member of an online data analysis community that’s geared towards people who program professionally. Generally, it’s very helpful and a great way to find out about new packages and tricks I can apply in my work. The other day, though, someone posted a link to a project designed to sort women by thier physical attractiveness. I commented that it was not really appropriate for a professional environment, and was especially off-putting to the women in the group. I’m not upset that I spoke out, but I’m a little unhappy that I had to. I’m also upset that at least one person thought my criticisms were completely unnecessary. (And, yes, both the person who originally posted the link and the aforementioned commenter are male.)

It got me thinking about inclusiveness in professional spaces, though. Am I really doing all I can to ensure that the field of linguistics is being inclusive? While linguistics as a whole is not horribly skewed male, professional linguists are more likely to be male, especially in computational linguistics. And we are definitely lacking in racial diversity; as the Linguistics Society of America (our main professional organization) puts it:

The population of ethnic minorities with advanced degrees in linguistics is so low in the U.S. that none of the federal agencies report data for these groups.”

If you’re like me, you see that as a huge problem and you want to know what you can do to help fix it. That’s why I’ve put together this list of concrete strategies you can use in your classroom and interactions with students to be more inclusive, especially towards women. (Since I’m not disabled or a member of an ethnic minority group or I can’t speak to those experiences, but I invite anyone who can and has additional suggestions to either comment below or contact me anonymously.) The suggestions below are drawn from my experience as both a teacher and a student, as well as input from the participants and other facilitators in last year’s Including All Students: Teaching in the Diverse Classroom workshops.

For Teachers: 

  • If someone calls you on non-inclusive behavior, acknowledge it, apologize and don’t do it again. I know this seems like an obvious one, but it can be really, really important. For example, a lot of linguistics teaching materials are really geared towards native English speakers. The first quarter I taught I used a problem set in class that required native knowledge of English. When a student (one of several non-native speakers) mentioned it, I was mortified and tempted to just ignore the problem. If I had, though, that student would have felt even more alienated. If someone has the courage to tell you about a problem with your teaching you should acknowledge that, admit your wrong-doing and then make sure it doesn’t happen again.
  • Have space for anonymous feedback. That said, it takes a lot of courage to confront an authority figure–especially if you’re already feeling uncomfortable or like you’re not wanted or valued. To combat that, I give my students a way to contact me anonymously (usually through a webform of some kind). While it may seem risky, all the anonymous feedback I have ever received has been relevant and useful.
  • Group work. This may seem like an odd thing to have on the list, but I’ve found that group work in the classroom is really valuable, both as an instructor and as a student. I may not feel comfortable speaking up or asking question in front of the class as a whole, but small groups are much less scary. My favorite strategy for group work is to put up a problem or discussion question and then drift from group to group, asking students for thier thoughts and answering questions.
  • Structure interactive portions of the class. Sometimes small group work doesn’t work well for your material. It’s still really helpful to provide a structure for students to interact and ask questions, because it lets you ensure that all students are included (it has the additional benefit of keeping everyone awake during those drowsy after-lunch classes). Talbot Taylor, for example, would methodically go around in the classroom in order and ask every single student a question during class. Or you could have every student write a question about the course content to give to you at the end of class that you address at the beginning of the next class. Or, if you have readings, you can assign one or two students to lead the discussion for each reading.
  • Don’t tokenize. This is something that one of the workshop participants brought up and I realized that it’s totally something I’ve been guilty of doing (especially if I know one of my students speaks a rare language). If there is only one student of a certain group in your class, don’t ask them to speak for or represent thier group. So if you have one African American student, don’t turn to them every time you discuss AAE. If they volunteer to speak about, great! But it’s not fair to expect them too, and it can make students feel uncomfortable.
  • If someone asks you to speak to someone else for them, don’t mention the person who asked you. I know this one is oddly specific, but it’s another thing that came out of the workshop. One student had asked thier advisor to ask another faculty member to stop telling sexist jokes in class. Their advisor did so, but also mentioned that it was the student who’d complained, and the second faculty member then ridiculed the student during the next class. (This wasn’t in linguistics, but still–yikes!) If someone’s asking you to pass something on for them, there’s probably a very good reason why they’re not confronting that person directly.
  • Don’t objectify minority students. This one mainly applies to women. Don’t treat women, or women’s bodies, like things. That’s what was so upsetting for me about the machine learning example I brought up at the beginning of the article: the author was literally treating women like objects. Another example comes from geoscience, where a student  tells about their experience at a conference where “lecturers… included… photo[s] of a woman in revealing clothing…. I got the feeling that female bodies were shown not only to illustrate a point, but also because they were thought to be pretty to look at” (Women in the Geosciences: Practical, Positive Practices Toward Parity, Holes et al., P.4).

For Everybody: 

  • Actively advocate for minority students. If you’re outside of a minority that you notice is not receiving equal treatment, please speak up about it. For example, if you’re a man and you notice that all the example sentences in a class are about John–a common problem–suggest a sentence with Mei-Ling, or another female name, instead. It’s not fair to ask students who are being discriminated against to be the sole advocates for themselves. We should all be on the lookout for sneaky prejudices.  
  • Don’t speak for/over minority students. That said, don’t put words in people’s mouths. If you’re speaking up about something, don’t say something like, “I think x is making Sanelle uncomfortable”. It may very well be making Sanelle uncomfortable, but that’s up for Sanelle to say. Try something like “I’m not sure that’s an appropriate example”, instead.

Those are some of my pointers. What other strategies do you have to help make the classroom more inclusive?

There, their and they’re: linguistics style!

The most frustrating homophone triplet in English is there, their and they’re, which are all said [ðɛr]. They’re a pain, and one that I’ve found that even really smart adults struggle with. And, frankly, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’re not usually taught in a very linguistically sophisticated way. Luckily for y’all, “linguistic sophistication” is my middle name*. And, like all good linguists I’ve got some tests to help you figure out which [ðɛr] you need.

googleChart
If tests aren’t your style and you just want to play the odds, though, guess “their”, “there” and “they’re” in that order. According to Google’s n-gram viewer (click the chart to go play around with it) “their” is the most common [ðɛr] in writing, followed by “there” and then “they’re”.
  • There. So the confusing thing here is that there are really *two* there’s in English and they play really different roles.
    • Pleonastic there. So in English we really need subjects, even when we don’t. Some sentences like “It’s raining” and “There’s no more ice-cream” don’t actually need a subject to convey what we’re getting at. There’s no thing, “it”, up in the sky that is doing the raining like there’s a person throwing a ball in “They threw the ball”. We just stick it up in there to fill out our sentence.
      • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “it”? If so, it’s probably “there”.
      • Test: If the sentence has “[ðɛr] was/were/is/are/will” it will almost always be “there”.
    • Locative there. So “locative” is just a fancy word for “relating to a place”. Are you talking about a place? If so, then you probably need “there”.
      • Test: Is [ðɛr] referring to a place? If so, it’s probably “there”.
  • Their. So people tend to use a semantic definition for this one; does it belong to someone? It’s way easier to figure it out with part of speech, though. “Their” is part of a pretty small class of words called “determiners”– you may also have heard  “articles”. One good way to test if a word belongs to the same part of speech as another is to replace it in the sentence. You know “snake” and “pudding” are both nouns because you say either “My snake fell off the shelf” or “My pudding fell off the shelf”. So all you have to do is swap it out with one of the other English Determiners and see if it works.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with words like “my”, “our”, “the” or “some”? If so, it’s “their”.
  • They’re. This is probably the easiest one. They’re is a contraction of “they” and “are”. If you can uncontract them and the sentence still works, you’re golden.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “they are”? If so, it’s probably “they’re”.

Try out these tests next time you’re not sure which [ðɛr] is the right one and you should figure it out pretty quickly. Of course, there are some marginal cases (like when you’re talking about the words themselves) that may throw you off, but these guidelines should pull you through 99% of the time.

* Not actually my middle name.

What’s the best way to teach grammar?

The night before last I had the good fortune to see Goeff Pullum, noted linguist and linguistics blogger, give a talk entitled: The scandal of English grammar teaching: Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it. It was an engaging talk and clearly showed that the basis for many of the “grammar rules” that are taught in English language and composition courses have little to no bearing on how the English language is actually used. Some of the bogeyman rules (his term) that he lambasted included the interdiction against ending a sentence in a preposition, the notion that “since” can only to refer to the passage of time and not causality and the claim that only “which” can begin a restrictive clause. Counterexamples for all of these “grammar rules” are easy to find, both in written and spoken language. (If you’re interested in learning more, check out Geoff Pullum on Language Log.)

Evaluarán las distintas estrategias para enseñar a leer en los establecimientos subvencionados chilenos
“And then they python ate little Johnny because he had the gall to cheekily split his infinitives.”
So there’s a clear problem here. Rules that have no bearing on linguistic reality are being used as the backbone of grammar instruction, just as they have for over two hundred years. Meanwhile, the investigation of human language has advanced considerably. We know much more about the structure of language now than we did when E. B. White was writing his grammar guide. It’s linguistic inquiry that has lead to better speech therapy, speech recognition and synthesis programs and better foreign language teaching. Grammar, on the other hand, has led to little more than frustration and an unsettling elitism. (We all know at least one person who uses their “knowledge” of “correct” usage as a weapon.) So what can be done about it? Well, I propose that instead of traditional “grammar”, we teach “grammar” as linguists understand it. What’s the difference?

Traditional grammar: A variety of usage and style rules that are based on social norms and a series of historic accidents.

Linguistic grammar: The set of rules which can accurately discribe a native speaker’s knowaldge of their language.

I’m not the first person to suggest a linguistics education as a valuable addition to the pre-higher educational experience. You can read proposals and arguments from others herehere, and here, and an argument for more linguistics in higher education here.

So, why would you want to teach linguistic grammar? After all, by the time you’re five or six, you already have a pretty good grasp of your language. (Not a perfect one, as it turns out; things like the role of stress in determining the relationship between words in a phrase tend to come in pretty late in life.) Well, there are lots of reasons.

  • Linguistic grammar is the result of scientific inquiry and is empirically verifiable. This means that lessons on linguistic grammar can take the form of experiments and labs rather than memorizing random rules.
  • Linguistic grammar is systematic. This can appeal to students who are gifted at math and science but find studying language more difficult.
  • Linguistic grammar is a good way to gently introduce higher level mathematics. Semantics, for example, is a good way to introduce set theory or lambda calculus.
  • Linguistic grammar is immediately applicable for students. While it’s difficult to find applications for oceanology for students who live in Kansas, everyone uses language every day, giving students a multitude of opportunities to apply and observe what they’re learned.
  • Linguistic grammar shows that variation between different languages and dialects is systematic, logical and natural. This can help reduce the linguistic prejudice that speakers of certain languages or dialects face.
  • Linguistic grammar helps students in learning foreign languages.  For example, by increasing students’ phonetic awareness (that’s their awareness of language sounds) and teaching them how to accurately describe and produce sounds, we can avoid the frustration of not knowing what sound they’re attempting to produce and its relation to sounds they already know.
  • Knowledge of linguistic grammar, unlike traditional grammar, is relatively simple to evaluate. Since much of introductory linguistics consists of looking at data sets and constructing rules that would generate that data set, and these rules are either correct or not, it is easier to determine whether or not the student has mastered the concepts.

I could go on, but I think I’ll leave it here for now. The main point is this: teaching linguistics is a viable and valuable way to replace traditional grammar education. What needs to happen for linguistic grammar to supplant traditional grammar? That’s a little thornier. At the very least, teachers need to receive linguistic training and course materials appropriate  for various ages need to be developed. A bigger problem, though, is a general lack of public knowledge about linguistics. That’s part of why I write this blog; to let you know about what’s going on in a small but very productive field. Linguistics has a lot to offer, and I hope that in the future more and more people will take us up on it.