Language Matters

We need to reflect on how we wield our words as scientists and educators, especially when doing work to make academe and science more diverse, writes Maria Qadri.

August 11, 2021
 
 
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So you are looking for a checklist on how to achieve diversity in your program, discipline, or field. My rude awakening for you is that, unfortunately, no such list exists regardless of what you may have been told, and we must look somewhere we often avoid: inwards at ourselves.

Education is supposed to be a lifelong process. It is not something that ends with a terminal degree or accolade. In learning about our disciplines, those of us who are in STEM fields must not forget to learn about ourselves. We should set aside an hour, a minute or at least a mere moment to the intentional self-reflection that ensures inclusive practice. What are we doing to make the world a little bit better, who we are truly serving, and how are we upholding systems and structures that perpetuate injustice? As we learn more about who we are, what we value, and where we come up short, we do better at achieving the transformation in scientific pedagogy and research that we advocate for.

I am not just a doctoral degree holder. Not just an engineer. Not just well-educated. Not just a woman. Not just disabled. I am also a steady influencer, an organizer, an amateur baker, a daughter of immigrants, and a thoughtful consul. I bring all these identities with me in all the work that I do, scientific or not, and I cannot just turn them on and off like a light switch. These words describe parts of me, and while some of them might make you feel uncomfortable or sound irrelevant, to truly embrace the multitudes of our identity helps us relate to each other as scientists more meaningfully and represents the first step in making the scientific enterprise more representative of humanity. I try my best to remember that my lens is unique, my opinions matter, and my growth as a scholar and a human requires reflection.

We must name the systems of oppression that we are working against -- otherwise, we will never truly dismantle them. Privilege comes in many forms, has a clear meaning, and makes many academics squirm. We cannot deny that we, as well-educated scientists, have some measure of it by the sheer presence of those letters after our names. Our only recourse is to wield our privilege to aid others and reduce the gap between those who are and are not privileged. The words that we use to discuss this landscape of who we are, what we represent, and why we strive for equity should be as clear in purpose as they are in intent.

These essential words do mean different things to different people, as clarified by Nicholas Burbules, and ultimately, the responsibility lies with the speaker to clarify their vision of what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to them in the specific context of their class, program, or institution. This is not a copy-and-pasted statement on every syllabus or blanket declaration of a commitment to diversity in the footer. Effective communication requires both sending the message and ensuring that the receiver understands what the message contained.

As a biomedical engineer, I have often been at the table with a medical doctor and an engineer who are using the same words to mean wildly different things or different words to mean nearly identical things. Let's discuss why we uphold these values to better identify different interpretations. Ask for feedback on what our community understands and how people interpret our words when we discuss these complex and nuanced ideas. At the very least, we will have more data about what our statements convey as they are currently phrased, and maybe, we will even build stronger bridges between each other.

If ever there was a doubt that words matter and that the way we use them to shape our understanding and our realities has tremendous power, the violent attack in January on our nation's capital has proved that to be true. In a world where it seems expertise and education have lost their import, no self-evident truths hold the pieces of our deeply fractured nation together. Reality has been shaped by social media misinformation, both positive and negative, claims of post-truth and post-race, and unsubstantiated lies. Not only have we experienced a devastating global pandemic and yet another demonstration of the influence of race on interactions between black people and the police, but more recently, we have also seen an insurrection of our democratic norms in real-time and in living color on video. Words matter. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, words matter profoundly.

While we think that this truth only applies to political or institutional leaders, our own words matter, too. As scientists and educators, our realm of influence is notably more expansive than we typically consider. Our peers, our community members, our students, and our loved ones hear both our words and their subtext, subtle or overt. The words that we use in our daily lives have an enormous impact, and yet so often we wield them without remembering their true meaning. Equity. Inclusion. Diversity. Equality. Representation. Yes, these are indeed all different and distinct. But we use these words so frequently in our vernacular when discussing higher education that we have become numb to what they represent. We even shorten them into acronyms and further obscure them for the sake of conversational ease. This is problematic -- especially for scientists who claim to value and prioritize accuracy and precision in their day jobs.

We should actively reflect on whether our words in our inquiries are truly capturing our intent and portraying our vision of change to our audience. What are we trying to achieve; what do we learn from these results; and how do we hold ourselves accountable if we achieve or miss the stated mark?

Do you really mean Black people when you say people of color? Would a nonbinary person pass your checkbox when you say you seek gender diversity? What does that acronym URM actually stand for? Is it JEDI, EDI, DEI or something else altogether? Would systematically disenfranchised persons or persons excluded due to ethnicity or race better represent what you mean instead of minority or underrepresented?

Whatever you use, be specific and honest. And reflect on the why: for me, we do our research proudly and strive to enrich our diverse communities because beaucoup evidence shows positive outcomes for all involved and, of course, booming innovation.

Remember, now and forever, that we are talking about people. Human beings. Individuals with full and rich lives. Just as we do not warm to one-dimensional characters in our novels and movies, we cannot distill real people down to a single component of their identities. We should strive for diversity not only of race, ethnicity, and gender, but also of behavior style, socioeconomic class, discipline, institutional training, and more.

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Let's use our words wisely to reshape these learning spaces, research spaces, and public spaces into realities that are truly welcoming to all and not just some. Ample evidence shows that Universal Design for Learning principles in classrooms and programs elevates the quality of learning equally for both students who are disabled and students who are not. Research programs that focus on constructing and supporting cohorts of systematically excluded individuals not only foster belonging but also collaboration and productivity (for instance the SREB Doctoral Scholars Program, the SACNAS National Diversity Conference, the BlackInX Network and more). Public spaces grounded in established frameworks like Courageous Conversations that start with foundational principles in reflection and curious inquiry can transform our abilities to effectively discuss and address race.

In short, we must stop maintaining the status quo and taking the easy path of convention instead of taking the more difficult path of continual learning, growing, and transforming. Only then can we as scientists, engineers, and scholars really achieve the transformative revolutions promised by innovation. Our work, our communities, and our futures demand it.

Bio

Maria Qadri is the assistant director of scientific communications in the Office of Undergraduate STEM Education at the Association of American Colleges and Universities AAC&U. Her portfolio includes knowledge transfer and outreach for the Center for the Advancement of STEM Leadership.

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