Making Science More Welcoming for Underrepresented Groups: Our Workshop’s Second Edition

Last year, two colleagues and I developed and ran a workshop for the first year graduate students in our department on taking steps towards making academia more welcoming to underrepresented groups. You can find details about the workshop here.

We just finished running the second edition of this workshop for the new cohort of first years. Here are a few notes on what we changed:

  • We showed two videos (1, 2) on how to have difficult conversations, about race and racism in particular. The videos recommend focussing on what we do (not who we are), and avoiding the racist/not-racist binary. We ran the second video from about 2:45 to the 9:45 mark, and emphasized that the same principles apply to most conversations about discrimination.
  • We added this article to the reading of the group assigned the Survey of Academic Field Experiences study, to incorporate a first hand account of what the SAFE study discusses.
  • Because this year’s cohort was bigger than last year’s, we added a reading on research documenting the gender disparity in postdoctoral researchers in elite labs.
  • We kicked off the section on what we can each do to help make academia a better place by discussing Dr. John Johnson’s blogpost on being blinded by privilege. We discussed what he did wrong and what he did right, and then expanded our conversation from there. This solved two problems we faced last year–the problem of when to talk about this important blogpost, and the problem of how to structure the “moving forward/what can we do” section of the workshop.
  • We handed out feedback forms at the end of the workshop. Huge thanks to my colleague Glenna Clifton for formulating these.
Feedback form we used this year
Feedback form we used this year

One widespread suggestion was to leave more time for the group discussions of the readings, perhaps at the expense of talking at length about ground rules and principles for conversations about discrimination. Another suggestion was to include readings about  axes of discrimination other than bias based on gender and race, and also have more discussion of these other axes.

The second point leaves me in something of a dilemma. Of course, I’d love this workshop to include more conversation about all sorts of types of bias in academia. But as far as I can tell, most of the research on bias in academia investigates gender and, to a lesser extent, race. So it’s easier to choose a variety of different articles, ranging from observational and experimental studies to personal narratives, that discuss gender and race. But if you have suggestions for solid and short readings about other axes of discrimination, I’d love to hear them. I’ll be on the lookout for such readings as well.

I think both suggestions, if implemented, would have worked well for this particular group of students, because many or most of them seemed to accept the premise that bias exists, and that our conversation needed to be respectful. So the lengthy period spent discussing ground rules seemed like overkill in this instance, and readings that were founded more in personal experience and less in formally collected data would have been well-received. But it’s not clear to me that extended emphasis on ground rules won’t be necessary for other cohorts, and that others wouldn’t easily dismiss personal narratives as unrepresentative anecdotes.

Do let me know if you have feedback, suggestions, or insight from similar workshops you may have held. And feel free to adapt this workshop (again, the details are here) for your own institution–if you do, drop me a line and tell me how it goes!

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