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From the Director: Teaching, Difference, and Power

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director

Several years ago, I read about a line of research in mathematics education that immediately captured my attention.  The research indicated that reminding female students of their gender before they took a math exam tended to decrease their exam performance in a statistically significant way.  The reminder could be very subtle, such as having students check a box at the top of the exam indicating their gender. I was amazed that such a small trigger could have this kind of effect.

The term for this phenomenon is stereotype threat, the idea that in certain moments we may fear confirming a stereotype about a social group to which we belong.  There’s a stereotype that female students aren’t as good at math as male students.  Simply reminding female students of their gender before they start a math exam “activates” that stereotype.  The worry that she will confirm that stereotype produces enough anxiety in the student to inhibit performance—even among very capable, highly confident students.  This phenomenon is not limited to women in math—any group that is negatively stereotyped can experience stereotype threat.

This summer, several members of the CFT staff read Whistling Vivaldi, a comprehensive and engaging overview of stereotype threat by one of the leading researchers in the area, Claude Steele.  The book is an excellent reminder that the social environment of a classroom has a significant effect on student learning.  Universities like Vanderbilt are reminded frequently by students, faculty, and the public that they should provide meaningful and equitable learning opportunities for their increasingly diverse student populations.  For these reasons, we are exploring the theme of “Teaching, Difference, and Power” at the CFT this year.

In the coming year, the CFT will share and explore ways that all instructors can create more inclusive classrooms, ones in which every student is welcome to fully participate in learning, as well as strategies for teaching about difference and power when those issues are on the syllabus.  Look for a series of activities on this theme, including teaching visits and workshops, blog posts and online teaching guides, faculty and graduate student reading groups on race and teaching, and a spring semester symposium.

We hope you’ll join us for these important discussions, the first of which will take place next Tuesday, August 19th.  We’re offering two Faculty Teaching Workshops on the theme next week: “Facilitating Difficult Discussions” and “Teaching Human Beings: Strategies for Reducing Students’ Classroom-Based Anxieties.”  Click here for more information or to register.

Then, on September 2nd, sociology professor Larry Isaac will host a Faculty Teaching Visit in his course “Change and Social Movements in the Sixties,” during which Larry’s students will consider the Nashville Civil Rights movement.  In the post-visit discussion, we will discuss how Larry’s combination of discussion, lecture, and documentary film footage provides a model of how to approach teaching issues of difference and power.  Click here for more information or to register.

Be sure to check our newsletter each month for details on further “Teaching, Difference, and Power” activities and resources.  And, as we look ahead to the coming academic year, please let me know if the CFT can be of service to you or your department or program on issues of difference and power in the classroom or any other aspect of teaching and learning.

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