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Case #15: Melanie Wong
Professor Melanie Wong, chairperson of the Mathematics Department, arrived early for the department meeting. She walked into the modern conference room with tall, tinted windows that overlooked the tree-lined central quadrangle of the West Coast campus where she worked. She sat down at the head of the table, opened a brown leather folder, and looked closely at the letter she had received that week from the local chapter of AWIS (American Women in Science).
"We urge you to ensure," the letter read, "that your department looks toward the future by emphasizing the accomplishments of women scholars, addressing significant issues pertaining to women, and including research done by women in your curricula."
Melanie closed her folder and waited as her colleagues entered the room. She greeted them as they joined her at the table. Her department was composed of many idiosyncratic faculty. Luckily, Melanie's personal relations skills were excellent. She had managed to forge the department into a somewhat cohesive group by listening to what people wanted and taking the initiative when it was appropriate.
This meeting went well. There were no major business items on the agenda. Melanie waited until the "Other Business" portion of the meeting before she took out the letter.
It took courage for Melanie to speak up for the principles of AWIS. She had relied heavily on the organization when she was an undergraduate and a younger professor, and now, she felt, she owed that community something in return. After all, it wasn't easy for a woman to become a math professor, even in the twenty-first century.
"Recently," Melanie began, choosing her words with care, "I received a letter from an organization that provides support for women in science and math. Women who major in mathematics as undergraduates tend not to persist into higher levels of education. This occurs despite the fact that women often achieve high scores in math on standardized tests and perform very well as math majors. American Women In Science, the group which sent me the letter, believes that an increasing emphasis on women scholars' achievements and on issues relevant to women can encourage women to participate more in math and science and to eventually become faculty. They are asking us to be a part of this effort by including female mathematicians' work in our course material. I would like to hear from you as to what you think about this, and what you could do in your courses to make this happen."
"I think it sounds fine," said Bernard Frank, the youngest member of the faculty. "I don't mind changing my course a bit - I'd probably ask my graduate students to find a few female mathematicians to profile. It shouldn't be too much trouble."
Ross Kosovich, his senior by thirty years, shifted in his chair and furrowed his brow. "This is all very well," Ross said, "But mathematics is a gender-neutral subject. Of course, women have contributed to mathematics, but to single them out seems biased."
Another senior mathematician, Alfred Beauregard, spoke up. "The letter is well-intentioned, and I believe that we should all make an effort towards mentoring female students," said Alfred. "But to skew the curriculum, as this organization suggests, is a disturbing proposition." Many of the other professors nodded in agreement.
Before you read the sample analysis for this case, you may want to consider the following questions.
1. What issues does this case study raise?
2. What questions for group discussion come to mind as you read the case?
3. What could the instructor do in this situation? Generate several possible responses.
4. What might be the consequences of these responses?
An Example Case Analysis
Some Issues Raised By the Case:
The department chair was put in the position of recommending curriculum changes based upon the influence of an outside agent in what might be described as a "cold call." This would be likely to be met with resistance, whether it included women in science issues or any other concerns. Perhaps the situation was exacerbated by the fact that the chair was a woman and the outside agent was AWIS.
This case raises basic questions about the nature of curricular content and how it does or does not relate to the lives of students. When Melanie Wong brings up the issue of inclusive curricula, she is questioning the neutrality of her discipline as it is traditionally taught. This critique, even in an implicit form, is difficult for some of her faculty colleagues to accept.
An additional issue is whether or not adding one "example" for each type of student is sufficient to improve climate. An extrapolation of this idea is that every "type" of student will need his or her own "example" to be "included," which would seem ridiculous. This critique of the suggestion is valid, but that does not in any way invalidate the questions of how to improve climate and increase the relevance of the curriculum for the students.
Possible Discussion Questions:
- Given her history with AWIS and her role in the department, was it appropriate for Melanie Wong to bring this issue to the faculty?
- How long should it take to make a change in a traditional field like mathematics when change is stimulated by outside influences?
- Do students need to see their own gender or ethnicity reflected in their textbooks, or is interpersonal support more important?
- Was it appropriate for AWIS to adopt this strategy in their outreach efforts?
- How does one motivate change successfully in traditional environments?
A Possible Set of Responses and Their Consequences:
1. Response : Melanie Wong could use a slow but constant persuasive approach.
Consequences : Taking a slow approach could ensure that the change would not be derailed through irrelevant arguments to the contrary.
2. Response : Melanie Wong could lead by example and introduce examples of female contributions in her own course. She could also encourage the faculty who agree with her to do the same.
Consequences : Leading by example is the right of faculty in conducting their classes. So long as the course catalog description is satisfied, the faculty are free to design the curriculum as they wish.
3. Response : Melanie Wong could talk individually with the faculty members and network with supportive people both within and outside the department, focusing on how to "sell" the idea to the faculty, rather than just presenting it. She could mention key advantages of curriculum diversification to the other professors and connect them with the existing values of the discipline and the university administration.
Some arguments could include:
1. Intellectual diversity is a cherished academic value tracing its roots back at least as far as Socrates;
2. The overwhelming majority of the American public want to move forward on diversity issues;
3. In math and science, women feel more comfortable if they can connect the course material to their everyday lives (Rosser, multiple works).
Consequences : The faculty may respond in varying ways to Melanie Wong's request. Most likely, she will be able to convince some, but perhaps not all, of the professors. She may have to bring up the topic again and discuss it individually with faculty several times over the course of several years. However, individual faculty members may start implementing her suggestions before the rest of the faculty "comes around."
Reaching All Students: A Resource Book for Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Diversity Institute Literature Review
- Ayre, M., & Mills, J. (2003). Implementing an inclusive curriculum for women in engineering education. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education & Practice, 129 (4), 203-210.
- Busch-Vishniac, I.J., & Jarosz, J.P. (2004). Can diversity in the undergraduate engineering population be enhanced through curricular change?. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, 10 (3), 255-282.
- Keilson, S. (1997). Infusing a multicultural approach to education in the engineering and science curriculum. ASEE Conference: National Conference on Outcomes Assessment for Engineering Education, Washington, D.C.
- Mayberry, M., & Welling, L. (2000). Towards developing a feminist science curriculum: A transdisciplinary approach to feminist earth science. Transformations, 11 (1), 1.
- Tillberg, H. K., & Cohoon, J. M. (2005). Attracting women to the CS major. Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies, 26 (1), 126-140.
Belenky, M., et al. Women's ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books, 1987.