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).