Language use & gaps in STEM education

Today our microanalytic research group focused on videos of STEM education.

 

Watching STEM classes reminds me of a field trip a fellow researcher and I took to observe a physics class that used project based learning. Project based learning is a more hands on and collaborative teaching approach which is gaining popularity among physics educators as an alternative to traditional lecture. We observed an optics lab at a local university, and after the class we spoke about what we had observed. Whereas the other researcher had focused on the optics and math, I had been captivated by the awkwardness of the class. I had never envisioned the PJBL process to be such an awkward one!

 

The first video that we watched today involved a student interchangeably using the terms chart and graph and softening their use with the term “thing.” There was some debate among the researchers as to whether the student had known the answer but chosen to distance himself from the response or whether the student was hedging because he was uncertain. The teacher responded by telling the student not to talk about things, but rather to talk to her in math terms.

 

What does it mean to understand something in math? The math educators in the room made it clear that a lack of the correct terminology signaled that the student didn’t necessarily understand the subject matter. There was no way for the teacher to know whether the student knew the difference between a chart and a graph from their use of the terms. The conversation on our end was not about the conceptual competence that the student showed. He was at the board, working through the problem, and he had begun his interaction with a winding description of the process necessary (as he imagined it) to solve the problem. It was clear that he did understand the problem and the necessary steps to solve it on some level (whether correct or not), but that level of understanding was not one that mattered.

 

I was surprised at the degree to which the use of mathematical language was framed as a choice on the part of the student. The teacher asked the student to use mathematical language with her. One math educator in our group spoke about students “getting away with fudging answers.” One researcher said that the correct terms “must be used,” and another commented about the lack of correct terms as indication that the student did “not have a proper understanding” of the material. All of this talk seems to bely the underlying truth that the student chose to use inexact language for a reason (whether social or epistemic).

 

The next video we watched showed a math teacher working through a problem. I was really struck by her lack of enthusiasm. I noticed her sighs, her lack of engagement with the students even when directly addressing them, and her tone when reading the problem from the textbook. Despite her apparent lack of enthusiasm, her mood appeared considerably brighter when she finished working through the problem. I found this interesting, because physics teachers usually report that their favorite part of their job is watching the students’ “a-ha!” moments. Maybe the rewards of technical problem solving are a motivator for both students and teachers alike? But the process of technical problem solving itself is rarely as motivating.

 

All of this leads me to one particularly interesting question. How do people in STEM learning settings distance themselves from the material? What discursive tools do they use? Who uses these discursive tools? And does the use of these tools change over time? I wonder in particular whether discursive distancing, which often parallels female discursive patterns, is more common among females than males as they progress through their education? Is there any kind of quantitative correlate to the use of discursive distancing? Is it more common among people who believe that they aren’t good at STEM? Is discursive distancing less common among people who pursue STEM careers? Is there a correlation between distancing and test scores?

 

Awkwardness in STEM education is fertile ground for qualitative researchers. To what extent is the learning or solving process emphasized and to what extent is the answer valued above all else? How is mathematical language socialized? The process of solving technical problems is a messy and uncomfortable one. It rarely goes smoothly, and in fact challenges often lead to more challenges. The process of trying and failing or trying and learning is not a sexy or attractive one, and there is rampant concern that focusing on the process of learning robs students of the ability to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that matters to people who speak the traditional languages of math and science.

 

We spoke a little about the phenomena of connected math. It sounds to me very closely parallel to project based learning initiatives in physics. I was left wondering why such a similar teaching process could be valued as a teaching tool for all students in one field and relegated to a teaching tool for struggling students in another neighboring field. I wonder about the similarities and differences between the outcomes of these methods. Much of this may rest on politics, and I suspect that the politics are rooted in deeply held and less questioned beliefs about STEM education.

 

STEM education initiatives have grown quite a bit in recent years, and it’s clear that there is quite a bit of interesting research left to be done.

Deeper into the family files; recipes and gendered histories

One picture of my mom really captures me. It is of my parents at a political event, greeting George Will. My mother was heavily involved in politics, and she had likely been one of the event’s organizers, partially responsible for bringing George Will to town. She has a huge smile, and her eyes are sparkling. She is focused on George Will. But George Will is not even looking in her direction. He’s greeting my father, who likely had nothing to do with the event.

The deeper I look into the family files, the deeper my understanding of my mother’s particular brand of feminism grows.

As I grew into a woman, she was proud of me for many reasons, but she never came to grips with my love of cooking. She hated cooking with a passion, and she treated kitchens like they held hostages, like they had latch stations at their gates that clicked into place around unsuspecting ankles as they crossed the threshold. She was a great cook. She created souffles with ease. But she hated the kitchen and hated to see me cook. In fact, I learned to cook against her will, once I’d left home for college. In our lives together we shared many activities, but we never cooked together. She never shared a recipe with me. Granted, I didn’t push. I am a vegetarian, bent on healthy cooking and vegan substitutions, and she was a part of a sour cream generation.

Her kitchen history came alive in a wholly different way as I sorted through her papers. I found boxes, books, clippings and handwritten recipes. I’d seen all of these often in my youth, but I’d never looked through them. As I looked through them now, a new kind of culture began to take shape. These recipes weren’t the anonymous instructions that I find on the internet when I search. They had histories. They belonged to the women that created them. They gave credit to any creative twist on the old standards. They seemed as unique as footprints. And they were clearly passed around quite a bit. I imagined my mom tasting something delicious at a friend’s house and asking for the recipe, and I imagined the pride that the cook had felt in that moment. I can imagine moments like these, but they seem incongruous, deeply out of character for all involved.

Cooking is not simply about our need to fuel our bodies. And it’s a different process for my husband to cook (he loves to cook and has a professional cooking background) than it is for me. My time in the kitchen is part of a deeply gendered history. It is heavy with expectations, ideals and predefined roles. Maybe this is why I avoid recipes? Following a recipe seems to be about creating an ideal and trying to embody it. It’s about believing in your potential to make some fantasy a reality for your family. It’s about embodying a role that has been laid before you. It’s about achieving an unrealistic standard. A successful dish isn’t just food for the belly or a pleasant taste. It’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride, a sense of achievement. It’s about the success of the cook and the nurturing of those around the cook. It connects a woman to a greater tradition of women in the kitchen.

In our histories, people are pegged into traditional societal roles that they may or may not fit into easily. One one hand, they are held back from other roles and relegated to these. But on the other hand, they embody these roles in a way that rises above the call of duty.

These traditions embody uniqueness, a common respect and understanding, a kind of sisterhood, and a common striving. My mom hated the kitchen. But she was a part of a sisterhood that I’m discovering as more of a historian than a participant. Would I trade my professional or academic success for that sisterhood? Absolutely not. But as a woman in the kitchen, I want to understand what these traditions meant to the women who came before me. I want to understand how they redefined them and rose above them. I want to understand how they fit themselves and the women around them into these roles.

I will pass these recipes on to my daughters- not as instructions for cooking or instructions for life, but as a way of carrying on a sisterhood forged by the women who came before us.

I recently accomplished my first successful omelet!

I recently accomplished my first successful omelet!

For further (& really interesting) reading: http://www.presenttensejournal.org/vol1/cooking-codes-cookbook-discourses-as-womens-rhetorical-practices/

Upcoming DC Event: Online Research Offline Lunch

ETA: Registration for this event is now CLOSED. If you have already signed up, you will receive a confirmation e-mail shortly. Any sign-ups after this date will be stored as a contact list for any future events. Thank you for your interest! We’re excited to gather with such a diverse and interesting group.

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Are you in or near the DC area? Come join us!

Although DC is a great meeting place for specific areas of online research, there are few opportunities for interdisciplinary gatherings of professionals and academics. This lunch will provide an informal opportunity for a diverse set of online researchers to listen and talk respectfully about our interests and our work and to see our endeavors from new, valuable perspectives.

Date & Time: August 6, 2013, 12:30 p.m.

Location: Near Gallery Place or Metro Center. Once we have a rough headcount, we’ll choose an appropriate location. (Feel free to suggest a place!)

Please RSVP using this form:

Spam, Personal histories and Language competencies

Over the recent holiday, I spent some time sorting through many boxes of family memorabilia. Some of you have probably done this with your families. It is fascinating, sentimental and mind-boggling. Highlights include both the things that strike a chord and things that can be thrown away. It’s a balance of efficiency and sap.

 

I’m always amazed by the way family memorabilia tells both private, personal histories and larger public ones. The boxes I dealt with last week were my mom’s, and her passion was politics. Even the Christmas cards she saved give pieces of political histories. Old thank you cards provide unknown nuggets of political strategy. She had even saved stirrers and plastic cups from an inauguration!

 

Campaign button found in the family files

Campaign button found in the family files

 

 

My mom continued to work in politics throughout her life, but the work that she did more recently is understandably fresher and more tangible for me. I remember looking through printed Christmas cards from politicians and wondering why she held on to them. In her later years I worried about her tendency to hold on to mail merged political letters. I wondered if her tendency to personalize impersonal documents made her vulnerable to fraud. To me, her belief in these documents made no sense.

 

Flash forward one year to me sorting through boxes of handwritten letters from politicians that mirror the spam she held on to. For many years she received handwritten letters from elected politicians in Washington. At some point, the handwritten letters evolved into typed letters that were hand-corrected and included handwritten sections. These evolved into typed letters on which the only handwriting was the signature. Eventually, even the signatures became printed. But the intention and function of these letters remained the same, even as their typography evolved. She believed in these letters because she had been receiving them for many decades. She believed they were personal because she had seen more of them that were personal than not. The phrases that I believe to be formulaic and spammy were once handwritten, intentional, personal and probably even heartfelt.

 

 

There are a few directions I could go from here:

 

– I better understand why older people complain about the impersonalization of modern society and wax poetic about the old letter writing tradition. I could include a few anecdotes about older family members.

 

– I’m amazed that people would take the time to write long letters using handwriting that may never have been deciphered

 

– I could wax poetic about some of the cool things I found in the storage facility

 

 

But I won’t. Not in this blog. Instead, I’ll talk about competencies.

 

Spam is a manifest of language competencies, although we often dismiss it as a total lack of language competence. In my Linguistics study, we were quickly taught the mantra “difference, not deficiency.” In fact it takes quite a bit of skill to develop spam letters. In survey research, the survey invitation letters that people so often dismiss have been heavily researched and optimized to yield a maximum response rate. In his book The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, Jan Blommaert details the many competencies necessary to create the Nigerian bank scam letters that were so heavily circulated a few years ago. And now I’ve learned that the political letters that I’m so quick to dismiss as thoughtless mail merges are actually part of a deep tradition of political action. Will that be enough for me to hold on to them? No. But I am saving the handwritten stuff. Boxes and boxes of it!

 

 

One day last week, as I drove to the storage facility I heard an interview with Michael Pollan about Food Literacy. Pollan’s point was that the food draughts in some urban areas are not just a function of access (Food draughts are areas where fresh food is difficult to obtain and grocery stores are few and far between, if they’re available at all). Pollan believes that even if there were grocery stores available, the people in these neighborhoods lack the basic cooking skills to prepare the food. He cited a few basic cooking skills which are not basic to me (partly because I’m a vegetarian, and partly because of the cooking traditions I learned from) as a part of his argument.

 

As a linguist, it is very interesting to hear the baggage that people attach to language metaphorically carried over to food (“food illiteracy”). I wonder what value the “difference, not deficiency” mantra holds here. I’m not ready to believe that people in areas subject to food draught are indeed kitchen illiterate. But I wouldn’t hesitate to agree that their food cultures probably differ significantly from Pollan’s. The basic staples and cooking methods probably differ significantly. Pollan could probably make a lot more headway with his cause if, instead of assuming that the people he is trying to help lack any basic cooking skills, he advocated toward a culture change that included access, attainability, and the potential to learn different practical cooking skills. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one.

 

As a proud uncook, I’m a huge fan of any kind of food preparation that is two steps or less, cheap, easy and fresh. Fast food for me involves putting a sweet potato in the microwave and pressing “potato,” grabbing for an apple or carrots and peanut butter, or tossing chickpeas into a dressing. Slow food involves the basic sautéing, roasting, etc. that Pollan advocates. I imagine that the skills he advocates are more practical and enjoyable for him than they are for people like me, whose mealtimes are usually limited and chaotic. What he calls basic is impractical for many of us. And the differences in time and money involved in uncooking and “basics” add up quickly.

 

 

 

So I’ve taken this post in quite a few directions, but it all comes together under one important point. Different language skills are not a lack of language skills altogether. Similarly, different survival skills are not a total lack of survival skills. We all carry unique skillsets that reflect our personal histories with those skills as well as the larger public histories that our personal histories help to compose. We, as people, are part of a larger public. The political spam I see doesn’t meet my expectations of valuable, personal communication, but it is in fact part of a rich political history. The people who Michael Pollan encounters have ways of feeding themselves that differ from Pollan’s expectations, but they are not without important survival skills. Cultural differences are not an indication of an underlying lack of culture.

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