I recently attended a seminar on Unconscious Bias. The principle is simple yet always problematic: the evaluation of others is affected by our own stereotypes and attitudes, which we cannot see ourselves. So far so good…
The conversation kicked off on career progression, and continued with career progression in academia, and then again on gender bias. Ok, I started to get a little itch right then. Gender bias is indeed a huge problem in academia, and I strongly believe it should be addressed. But it is not the only source of inequality and unfair treatment. I would say that ethnicity, sexual orientation, or nationality, just to mention other three, also play an important (negative) role…yet they are widely ignored. Think, for instance, how much the UK has benefited from the brain drain from other countries (like mine, Italy). A large number of extraordinary researchers and teachers, yet: how many academics not born and bred in the United Kingdom are in leadership positions in our university system?
Ok, back to gender bias –do not get me wrong- I fully embrace the cause, even though I have some concerns to share about the debate around it. The seminar continued illustrating methods and techniques to monitor on career progression procedures. With a few interjections and some (quite angry) comments about the current situation from the audience (90% composed of female colleagues). What I struggle to understand is: where is the novelty? Every modern institution has Human Resources and Equality and Diversity policies to tackle gender discrimination. It is quite difficult to evaluate their impact, but they are in place. So the next question is: what is missing?
I will use the language that I am familiar with (as economist) to explain my point of view. Imagine that we are in the market for “fairness in the work environment”. There is a supply of fairness delivered by HR and E&D policy and procedures. This is complemented and informed by data, statistics, and all sort of interviews on experience of applicants to career progression. A lot of time and effort is spent on the supply side, but what about the demand side? Yeah, right: what about demand for fairness? Females (or other groups subject to discrimination) are not well represented in leadership position, but are they applying for these positions? (We can observe the number of those who applied, but not the number of those who got discouraged by the system and did not. This is what we call sample selection bias). The problem is that particular groups (e.g. females) have experienced discrimination for decades… centuries really! So, even if institutions are taking care of the supply side of fairness, the demand might be lagging behind because it takes time for discriminated groups to raise their own awareness and aspirations to come to a position of even demanding for fairness. Assessing this empirically it is not an easy task, but at least we should acknowledge it!
So, the problem is there: there is still under-representation for particular social groups. But can we clearly pinpoint whether that is a supply or a demand issue? Somebody might say: it does not matter, the problem is still there! The answer is, yes, the problem is there, but the policy you need to put in place to address it is completely different! I think we should never neglect the supply side; we should continue to monitor it and to improve it. But on the demand side we are truly lagging behind. I would like to see more training, mentoring and networking to raise awareness within social groups affected by discrimination. (What I often see, instead, is a lot of entrenchment and anger). It takes time and effort, but it is essential. Now, there are two reasons why institutions push on the supply side: (1) it is easier to tackle, (2) it prevents legal disputes and protects institutions from being sued. This is perfectly understandable. But how about people (e.g. females)? How can we incentivise pressure groups to abandon entrenched, angry positions to take real good care of the demand side? Who should do it? Hard to tell, but that is the direction to go now.
Despite being a ‘false beginner’ in teaching practice I had to re-train to gain my PGCert credits to obtain my HEA Fellow status over the past two years. (Not yet required in Scotland, where I worked prior to joining UEA). I attended several modules of our MA in Higher Education Practice here at UEA, and shared the journey with a number of colleagues from different schools and discipline. One of the most verbal and enthusiastic contributors teaches anatomy in the School of Medicine and spends a lot of time dissecting bodies to teach our future doctors how the human body system works. He is really a fun guy; I guess it takes a little sense of humour if you embrace such a challenging profession. (I did not use to be squeamish when younger, but I am now. I could not do it, I think).
Well, we have been talking a lot about assessment in our sessions, and we are just out from an intense examination marking period, so the association comes spontaneous: is assessment (summative assessment especially) an anatomic dissection exercise?
Many colleagues believe that good practice consists in indicating explicitly the number of marks awarded for each part of the questions asked to our students in every paper we give out to them. Marking guidelines become even more complex: “give three points if students write this…drop two points if students do not say that”. There are great advantages in doing so: (1) if you have a large number of colleagues involved in marking the same set of scripts you can guarantee fairness and uniformity, (2) you can help less experienced markers with very firm criteria, (3) you can point students to important passages of their examination papers.
Nice heart here, it works fine and pumps the blood beautifully. But lungs are not working so well and oxygen does not transfer to the blood. The gallbladder is inflamed, it should better be removed, we can do without it! So the heart is worth 5 points, lungs 4 points, gallbladder just 1 point. Ok…the patient would live, even with a few respiratory problems. Dissection session terminated, put down your knives clean up and move on to the next.
But the heart is not just a muscle, and the brain not just a set of synapses. Can we really ascertain what is more important? And what happens when we look at a human person all together, at her thoughts, emotions, interactions with other human beings? Along with anatomy our medical students learn about compassion, communication with the patient, personalised treatment and information. Are we giving all this to our students when we are marking?
Anonymous marking places a nice clean sheet over the body to dissect, covers modesty and contributes to guarantee that all bodies are seen as the same. But –my colleague confirms- not all human beings are the same. True anatomy wisdom can teach us about similarities as well as differences, and good doctors will have to deal with both: choosing treatments and interventions that are tailored to each individual case. On top of that, patients hate being anonymous to their doctors; they want to be recognised, and they want to be informed about their health status clearly, honestly, and personally.
I will stop now with the Medicine metaphor (my knowledge in the field really ends here). But I am wondering whether marking procedures could do better than being imprinted to anatomic dissection exercises. Assessing our students’ performance and abilities, as showcased by their scripts, should consist of much more than adding up scores gained across answers and sub-answers. How does the script look like in its entirety? How is the writing style? Is there internal coherence? What is our gut feeling as experienced markers? (And how can we help our junior colleagues to develop their own gut feeling?) When teaching Macroeconomics I tell students that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. (Microeconomists will excuse me here, I hope). I wish I could do the same when I mark scripts, and in fact, I do…whenever I can!
Last Saturday I came to campus (as usual) to catch up with some work and I found myself immersed in our students’ “Pimp my Barrow” end-of-exam-period celebration. As new comer, I was yet to get acquainted with this event, but I discovered it even has a Wikipedia entry! Groups of students decide on a theme, design and create their fancy dresses as well as make additions to their barrow around their theme. They race from Norwich city centre to UEA, where a big party explodes. After a few hours of banter, they storm back in town to collect money for charity and to continue on with the celebrations.
While standing on the balcony overlooking the campus square going insane, I was amazed by the ingenuity of our students, the originality of their costumes, and the wit of some of their ideas. At some point I caught myself shaking my head and thinking (perhaps with a little envy for the fun they were having) that if ever our students applied the same craft, originality, independence and thinking in their studies our job would be so much easier and fun. I must admit, I felt immediately ashamed of that thought…because what came to my mind next is that very often we are the ones to blame. If our students can do extraordinary things with a carton box, a little face paint, and some old charity-shop old clothes, can you imagine what they could do with the right learning tools, academic knowledge, and thinking freedom? if they are so great at pimping their barrows, we should be equally great at pimping our teaching.
I did, and it was an exciting experience that made me see things in a new light. I recruited Chris, a 3rd Year student of mine here at UEA, as research assistant to support my work. We are crunching data and co-ordinating various activities for a HEA funded Teaching Development Grant on the use of Student Response Systems to elicit student confidence. Chris has been excellent support to the project activities. After so much hard work I thought it would be interesting for him to see where the results of our analysis would end. I asked Chris whether he wanted to come and help me presenting some preliminary results at the HEA Social Sciences Conference. Busy revising for his final exams, dribbling between books, review notes and exam sessions, Chris packed his bag and joined me on the way to Birmingham. The train journey from Norwich takes forever, but we did not stop talking for the whole duration of it: projects for the future, his experience at UEA, the future of Higher Education…this went on over dinner. Nevertheless, professionalism kicked in again just before sleep time as Chris asked me to review our PowerPoint slides together, to make sure that he knew what we wanted to say and how. (He did already know better than me!) A good night sleep and we were ready to join the crowd of delegates. I suggested that Chris could take a few hours off to take a wonder in the city centre, but he insisted to stay and attend all the sessions. (I was secretly pleased to have some company and somebody to discuss the presentations to be true). But that was not enough to him: as we were walking around conference sessions and venues, Chris started to talk to colleagues and engage with debates like a veteran! Not only was I proud, but also amazed by how much wisdom, knowledge, and information Chris was willing and able to share with fellow conference delegates. There is a lot of discussion in the HE literature about ‘creating partnerships’ with the students and on the ‘teaching-research nexus’, but this was truly a prime example of how to move from (sometimes -let’s admit it-) vacuous words to facts. Chris delivered his part of the talk captivating the audience and I think he truly enjoyed and made the most of his experience in Birmingham with me. My colleagues and I gained so many useful insights from his experience. Yes, indeed, because none better than him could give us a clear picture of what truly means being a HE student in current times. Have you ever taken your students to an academic conference? Try that!