We need to stop putting diversity in a box at conferences


At the moment, I’m having an absolutely great time at the Ecological Society of America meeting. I’m learning new science, meeting old friends and a variety of folks who read this site, and formulating plans for my sabbatical that recently started.

This wonderful time has been punctuated with moments of my own frustration and annoyance. Why? Because this is a typical academic conference. And the status quo is often maddening.

This morning I went to a session on “Adapting your research agenda to work with undergraduates.” It was a solid session, there was lots of useful advice and perspective from a panel of faculty (100% women! most excellent!) from primarily undergraduate institutions.

Most biggish conferences I’ve attended have a session like this. (I’ve never been on such a panel, I haven’t organized one and regrettably have never have been asked to participate in one. If you’re organizing one, yes, I am interested.) But I’ve observed maybe a dozen of them over the years. They’re all by the numbers*. Not in a bad way. There are fundamental things about undergraduate institutions that a lot of graduate students are unaware of. I mean, that’s why this site exists. Having sessions about working in undergraduate institutions is important and valuable.

It’s frustrating to me because pretty much everything from the panel wasn’t applicable to the majority of undergraduates. How can I make such a claim? Well:

The majority of undergraduates attend public institutions that have an acceptance rate higher than 50%, are on commuter campuses, take six years or more to graduate, and take six years or more to graduate. And one third of undergraduates transfer in from community colleges. Most of them are unfamiliar with the concept of graduate school, and the vast majority are working jobs off campus to pay for school.

On this panel, there was a general assumption that students graduate in four years, that most students are there for their freshman year, that they aren’t working many hours off campus, that they are ready to research on campus for the summer instead of working a higher-paying job over the summer, that they don’t have children, and that the university has money to support student research in one form or another that students can apply for. In other words, the panel was taking about “traditional students,” even though “traditional students” are actually in the minority. Especially students attending disadvantaged institutions.

This majority of undergraduates are disproportionately from groups that we are desperately trying to bring into our discipline. If we are talking about research with undergraduates, it is our professional imperative to place the recruitment of URM students at the forefront of this effort. If we don’t, then we’re perpetuating the mostly-white status quo at the ESA. And have you been at this conference? It’s so frickin’ white! If you don’t notice this right away, then you must be used to living and working in a very white place.

All of the faculty were experienced mentors with valuable things to say, but none of the faculty came from minority-serving institutions**. And the discussion of ethnic diversity in students, or the need + approaches to recruiting URM students, was an afterthought at best.

Being a color-blind mentor to students doesn’t work. If you don’t work regularly with URM students, you might not have experienced that recognizing their challenges is an essential piece in the mentorship process. Unless you focus on recruiting URMs, then you won’t be increasing your numbers. And you do want to increase the numbers. Right? Please?

We keep talking and talking and talking about diversity but when the time comes to incorporate it into what we do, it’s not there.

Yes, the ESA has a high-quality organization called SEEDS, which recruits and funds and mentors URM undergraduates. (Here you can quickly and easily donate to SEEDS by paypal. They use funds efficiently and to good effect.) You see them at the conference with a green SEEDS bag and a label on their name badge.

But so far at this meeting, that’s how you meet URM students. The SEEDS program. This is not enough. SEEDS is one program. SEEDS is one small ingredient in the recipe we need to cook to diversify ecology. The recipe requires that we cook inclusivity into everything we discuss about student training and mentorship and recruitment.

So why is it that these conferences perennially exclude ethnic diversity from discussions of undergraduate research? Because diversity is put in a box. We have diversity symposia and workshops. Isn’t that enough? The answer is NO, IT’S NOT ENOUGH.

Why do we put diversity in a box? Well, look at the people here at the conference. When folks are here talking about undergraduate education, they tend to come from primarily white small liberal arts colleges. And they’re probably white like me. And their campuses only have a relatively small proportion of URM students. So it makes sense that we don’t talk about diversity because it’s not a part of our day-to-day experience. However, that’s precisely why we need to talk about it. Because it needs to become part of our day to day experience.

Yes, the panel can (and should) incorporate faculty from minority-serving institutions. (Of which there are many represented at the conference!). However, what’s needed more is for people at non-MSIs to discuss how they bring their minority students into the fold. We can stop treating it as an ancillary issue. If you have five minutes to give a talk, then you can take 30 seconds to talk about it. Because it matters.

(Oh and by the way I do happen to be in a panel for early career scientists talking about working in a diverse institution on Thursday morning. But if you’re a regular reader here, I doubt you’ll hear anything particularly new from me.)


*The session covered how to attract students to your lab (invite them, be welcoming, build a community), how to be productive (collaborate, do meta analyses, bite of small chunks, contribute to data networks), and how to run a research program while being busy teaching (use blocks of time well, make sure your lab is prepared for student turnover, make the most of summers), tips about applying for the job (customize your app, articulate your reason you want the job, have teaching experience and undergrad coauthors, have a research program that fits the institution, yadda yadda), and so on.

**though at least one institutions is a nudge less than 50% white, it’s not classified as a MSI or HSI by the feds).

25 thoughts on “We need to stop putting diversity in a box at conferences

  1. Terry,
    I was following much of what you and others were talking about on Twitter, and as a former high school teacher in an urban school district (nine years in DC public schools) and an ESA attendee, I very much appreciate your perspective here. Diversity will remain an isolated concern until its discussion is infused into every aspect of conversations about equity and access in science education. As a k12 teacher, it was difficult sending bright, talented, motivated research-experienced students to higher ed to find that they could not obtain meaningful research positions in labs. The notion of who comprises a traditional student should change, and your thoughts on the matter speak to a lot of my personal experience.

    I would also really like to hear more about your work with LA Unified and outreach to K12 teachers. I’m part of an initiative with HHMI looking at extending existing free, high quality biology/environmental science resources and teacher workshops to urban school systems, and would very much appreciate your experience and perspective. My Twitter is sydneybergman and I included my email as well.

    Great thoughts and much appreciated!

  2. As an academic who has devoted much of his career to addressing the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the academy, and especially science,I appreciated the post as the author cited the frustrations that those of us who have been doing this for over 30 years have experienced on a regular basis and which in many ways is not a lot better now, despite the fact that “diversity and inclusion” are very overused buzz words! Talking the talk is easy ; walking the walk is not, especially when those who are “talking the talk” are unwilling to step out of there “privilege” so as to make a difference. Until that happens in sufficient numbers to have a real voice, diversity will remain in a box and, as such, a low priority, despite all of the rhetoric to the contrary.

  3. I agree with the general sentiment here, but I take issue with your treatment of the symposium that you attended, and I was a part of. You make several flip generalizations about the panelists and the spirit of the discourse that are, in my opinion, complete fabrications. As one of the panelists, the first issue I have is your claim that the panel was 100% women. This statement automatically has me guessing at your level of engagement because I am a traditional looking male with some fairly obvious facial hair. Secondly, you state our “general” assumptions about the students we serve. From the content of our ignite talks, I have no idea how you formulated these assumptions of ours. I work at an institution full of low-income students, many the first in their family to attend college. Our student body is diverse in many ways, although there is great room for improvement. However, we are in no way an elitist or exclusive university. My talk highlighted the difficult struggles many students face when confronted with the choice of attaining research experience in the summer or being financial secure by taking a job. I proposed meta-analysis as a way that students could conduct meaningful research during the semester or around job obligations. Diversity of opportunity for all students was NOT an afterthought for me or for some of the other panelists! Maybe you were tweeting during our talks?

  4. Christopher, my gosh, you’re right. I forgot that you had presented, as I saw your talk — but didn’t recall you participating in the panel after all of the talks were given. Were you up on stage for that panel at the end? Please forgive me for this slight. I am sorry, as there is no excuse for failing to acknowledge your role.

    I could have made a point of emphasizing that your session’s lack of inclusivity was not different than nearly every other session at the conference, and nearly every other session on mentoring undergraduates, in that diversity is an afterthought at best. I did not single this session out in the post (though you’ll note I didn’t point the finger at any person, nor name anybody, or provide a link to the session in the post. So you’ve identified yourself. If someone wanted to blame you or your session for a lack of diversity, they’d have to a bit of homework in the ESA program.) I was making a point of not singling anybody out because this is such a widespread phenomenon. It’s about more than you and your session, because it is entirely typical.

    As I said, your session had lots of useful things for the target audience. My concern is that the target audience was not people who work in minority-serving institutions or work at universities predominated by first-gen college students. My point is that not baking in the diversity from the beginning leaves it as an afterthought.

    Despite some grumblings from you and from one other panelist that I got on twitter, the panel was entirely white, and nobody was at a minority-serving institution. Please correct me if I’m wrong about this. There really is a big difference between being “diverse” – everybody thinks they’re diverse, even the Ivies. But being diverse doest mean that you’re serving an underrepresented population in terms of being an MSI or HSI.

    I don’t really recall hearing the terms — or even the concepts — of “diversity,” “minority,” “underrepresented,” and such in the talks, nor in the discussion afterwards. I agree with you that your talk was an outlier in that you specifically addressed how to meet the needs of students who would benefit from mentored experiences during the academic year but couldn’t have as much time in the lab and weren’t available in the summer. That kind of concern wasn’t reflected in the other talks, nor did it really come up in the panel discussion afterwards. Heck, I don’t even remember you on the panel! Which is my bad. Though I am short :)

    Here’s what I can reiterate: Most of the advice that people were providing in this panel were not that helpful to me because they were predicated on my students having access to time and resources that are not available to them. That’s my perception.

    How do I get students to work in my lab over the summer? Well, you get money from campus to pay them! Nope – no money.
    How can I get them to research during the academic year? Well, you give them course credit! Nope – that doesn’t work much at all because the students are working so much off campus.
    How about I groom a freshman and have them trained by seniors? Nope. In my department nearly all the students graduate in more than 6 years, if they do graduate, and the idea that one students in my lab will be there the same time as another student is pretty hilarious given their class, work schedules, and family commitments.
    How about I get them to come from the dorms on the weekends? Nope, no dorms.

    That’s what I meant about assumptions. I’m spelling them out because the nature of assumptions means that people who make them do not realize they’re making them. Even though most students in the country are commuters, don’t live in dorms, work 20 hours per week, take a while to graduate, and are on campuses that don’t have well funded summer research programs. Didn’t think I had to spell that out again in the comments, but there you go.

    (BTW Folks, here is some context about Chris’s employer, Kutztown, which is 80% white.
    I spent quite a while trying to look up the fraction of first-gen students, but came up empty handed, except for a speech from the campus president when he said it was a lot. The campus has about 30% pell grant recipients, which does have a rough 1:1 correlation with first-gen students when the regression is run, so that gives you an idea. For a classroom with 50 students, maybe fifteen of them or so might be first-gen. That’s high compared to the Ivies, but low compared to other underfunded regional universities. Yes, it’s not a wealthy school, but by no means is it minority-serving institution and nor does it primarily serve first-gen students.)

    And yes, I was definitely tweeting. In my experience, tweeting increases my engagement as an audience member. What has been your experience with how tweeting has affected your engagement in conference sessions? By the way, here’s one of several peer-reviewed papers that show the use of twitter increases engagement by listeners in an lecture: http://eprints.teachingandlearning.ie/3784/1/Tiernan%202014.pdf

  5. Yes, I was present for the panel discussion. I’m guessing tweeting during sessions is not in your best interest if you expect to gain an accurate take on the content or players of an event.

    • You know, Christopher, you could actually listen to what I’m saying instead of just wholly disagreeing with me.

      You could say, “That’s not the read I had in the room, I saw lots of people concerned about diversity and underserved students and it was a big part of the discussion. But I recognize that you were in the room too, and you didn’t see it, and I should reflect on why that might be.”

      But instead, you’re all, “You were on twitter so you weren’t paying enough attention to me and you didn’t know what was happening in the room.”

      I surely hope you show more professional courtesy to your own students, and you listen to them and validate their perspectives and experiences rather than just say that your perception is the same as reality.

  6. Terry, I do not wholly disagree with you. As I stated, I agree with your general sentiment (regarding the passivity of diversity issues). I think these are important points to never lose sight of. But when you can’t tell that there was a man in the panel, that he was there for the discussion, and that you seem not to have heard what I know was a more than passing recognition of diversity issues in our session, I can only conclude that you were preoccupied with other things. Excuse me for defending the integrity of our session in the face of these oversights.

    • I think the differences in our perception reflect the differences in our experiences. What might seem like a substantial emphasis on diversity from your perspective, can seem like a failure to recognize some fundamental things from my perspective. Or maybe I’m an ignoramus. Your call. Have you seen the movie Rashomon?

  7. Actually, the panel was not “entirely white.” I mention this not because the panel was very racially diverse but because you said “correct me if I’m wrong about this.” You’re wrong about that.

    I was the organizer of the panel. I absolutely take your point about diversity needing to be common cause with everyone in ecology. White ecologists can’t sit around waiting for someone else to do something about it; it has to be everyone’s job. And it shouldn’t be marginalized into boxes…it should be, as you say, “baked in.”

    I also take your point about the panel’s focus on smaller, liberal arts institutions. There’s a reason for that. I used to teach at a large, state-funded, commuter-campus HSI, and I left it precisely because I could not do much research there with undergrads, for all the reasons you cite–no research money, students with multiple jobs outside school, long times-to-graduation, heavy teaching load, commuter students, little on-campus housing, little support for research.

    So, yes, the advice we offered was probably of less use to people coping with those challenges. But I wish you were focusing less on the ethnic diversity of the panel (which was drawn from membership of the RUI section of ESA, by sending out an email and asking who wanted to give an Ignite talk), and more about the structural features of undergraduate education that mean that large state institutions that are minority serving are not doing a good job of engaging undergraduates in research. To my mind, it’s less about ESA being too white, and more about MSI’s being too little supportive of undergraduate research. That might make a great session at next year’s ESA–how can we improve that situation?

  8. I’m sorry, Virginia, that my post was not about the topic you wanted it to be about.

    You recommend a session at ESA about improving support for undergraduate research at MSIs. Great idea. If a session at ESA is a good idea, why is it bad idea for me to write a blog post about the same thing?

  9. Hi Terry. I participated in this session because an email went out to everyone who is a member of the ESA chapter/section RUI- Researchers at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions. I responded to the email saying that I wanted to participate. Perhaps no one from a MSI responded to the email? I don’t know. You are correct that I did not use any of my 5 minutes to talk about my insights gained from working with students of color (or students who are parents or otherwise nontraditional) in my research lab. Nor did I talk about my dedication to such students. Those are important topics and fell outside of the theme of my talk, as did other important topics.

    • There are two ways to look at the absence of MSI representation (in this session, and in the conference in general). One is that everybody is free to participate, respond to emails, and show up. Another perspective is that people are here because they weren’t specific asked to be involved, and there was no specific effort for outreach.

      Both perspectives are factual and valid.

      For change to happen, it takes conscious effort to reach out the community that you want to include. I get it, that conscious effort didn’t happen in advance, it’s not a part of day to day business for most folks outside MSIs. And the people involved in this session aren’t different than anybody else. That’s just the status quo.

      I didn’t get the email, by the way, because I’m not a member of the RUI section. I’m not a member of the section because I found that it really doesn’t represent the needs of myself or my students. I’ve been investing plenty of effort towards institutional change — within ecology and beyond — and working to change the RUI section within hasn’t been an approach that I’ve chosen to tackle. Though inadvertently this post has started this conversation, and for that, I appreciate the frank and friendly conversation.

  10. Terry, your blog is very good, and this piece is a value. But by the nature of your responses, what I think you are missing here is a strong sense by us, the panelists, that you misrepresent us and our assumptions in many ways. You’ve now outed yourself for not being aware of the gender and racial composition of the panel. If you were looking towards the screen or at the seated panelists during the discussion, I think these things would have been clear. Also, the majority of (maybe the whole) panel seems to disagree with the assumptions you ascribe to us. Do any of these things give you any pause regarding your ability to accurately comment/critique on our views on diversity or our session in general?

    Also, please give the RUI section another try. Everyone knows change comes easiest from within. Incidentally, I’m curious, how did the section fail for you and your students hen you were a member?

    • How am I wrong about the racial composition of the panel? I do recognize that ethnicity isn’t something that is readily determined by just looking at a person. It seemed mighty white to me, and if I was wrong about this, it’s not because I’m the unobservant nincompoop that you’re really try by to paint me as.

  11. Terry, your argument is odd. On one hand you seem certain the panel was entirely white. But when confronted with the fact that it wasn’t, your argument changes to ethnicity is hard to ascertain by looks alone.

    • Christopher, I’m not certain. That’s why I asked you. And an answer would be handy, actually. I just said if I was wrong that’s not hideous on my part.

  12. Quoting you: “Despite some grumblings from you and from one other panelist that I got on twitter, the panel was entirely white…”

    • Yeah but since you’ve pointed out how I’ve been wrong about a thing as fundamental as your gender, Id like to know how I’m wrong about the other stuff. Could you help me? Was someone Native American or Latina? I really don’t know and your assistance would be nice, since as you pointed out I’m wrong, I’d like to know how I am so I can be better about these things.

    • Terry, as I said, I think you raise important points about undergraduate research at MSIs, a dimension not covered by our panel. The panelists were largely not from MSIs, but they were doing their best to present ideas and answer questions based on their own personal experiences. The implications of your comments…that we were ignoring diversity, or that we don’t care about diversity…were personally distressing to many of us who work very hard on this issue within the contexts of our own institutions and our own student bodies.

      Nevertheless, despite what came across to us as an attack on the panelists, I and others attempted to engage you in this dialogue, because it is SO important. But the belligerent tone of your responses–and your seeming unwillingness to fact-check yourself–made me disengage. I don’t “express fury” in blog comments because I don’t think that’s a productive way to have a discussion.

      Someday, let’s get together at an ESA, have a beer, and talk about how we can all work for change. But I’m done with responding in this forum.

  13. Terry, it is not my place to out other people’s ethnicity. I suggest you do your own digging.

    • Christopher, you went to great lengths to tell me how I was wrong about the ethnic composition of the panel in effort to call into doubt the reliability of my remarks on the panel. You said I was wrong about both gender and race. You told me about the gender but not about the race? I’d like to help you in undermining my credibility but you need to give me a little more to work with.

  14. Terry, it is not my place to out other people’s ethnicity. And I’d hope you would not if you were in my place.

    Regarding undermining your credibility, that is not what I (I could say, we) are after. What I’d like from you is a little more retrospection about the things you assume about other people’s thoughts before you put fingers to keyboard. At this point, you have infuriated several people on the panel with your misguided assumptions of us and what we think, and you have offended one of us with the blanket label of an “entirely white” panel.

  15. Christopher, I’ve read over this post and my comments carefully several times. I see one spot where one could read that I’ve made assumptions about the thought of others. I said that on the panel, there were general assumptions about [the of the students we serve]. I’d like to clarify and apologize. I did not mean to make any claims whatsoever about what any of the panels are thinking. That would be folly. I have no idea what you all think! I only know what you say. And my post was about what I heard, now what you were thinking. I apologize for even suggesting that I know what you are thinking. I should have been more clear that I was responding to the words that were expressed.

    Christopher, I am taking from your remarks that most of the people on the panel have been in contact since then have been in contact and discussed how you’re infuriated about the content of this post. At least, I’ll have to assume that’s the case. I didn’t catch any fury from Virginia or Rachel in their comments.

    I find it cute that you’re requesting retrospection on my part. Have I shown a failure to look back on my words and consider them carefully? I’ve gone to lengths to say that your perspective is valid, and you’ve continued to do roughly the opposite.

    I must say, it is very nice of you to come to the defense of the other panelists who haven’t chosen to express their fury.

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