By || This piece was written by Members of the F&M Chemistry Department
[The following email was sent to chemistry students on June 10, 2020, but has been published by the College Reporter in a desire to reach the wider F&M Community.]
The Department of Chemistry abhors the racially motivated violence we have witnessed in this country, including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless others that came before. We also condemn the racist actions that have occurred on our own campus. We support the Black Lives Matter movement and we vow to take a more active role in fighting systemic racism. We accept the challenge offered by #shutdownSTEM and #strike4blacklives to stop our normal activities today (June 10, 2020), to reflect on our teaching and research, and to plan for how we move forward to root out systemic racism in the field of Chemistry. We know we need to do more to educate about racial inequities within the sciences, to amplify the voices of underrepresented scientists, and to establish a supportive educational environment for all of our students.
To become a scientist is a difficult path for almost everyone. At the end of the day, most scientific experiments don’t work. Those of us who have made it all the way through a science major, through one or more post-graduate programs, and into the ranks of professional scientists have experienced amazing amounts of day-to-day failure. It can be incredibly demoralizing to fail at solving scientific problems especially those that are truly critical for humanity. To solve these problems, humanity needs the efforts of everyone who’s willing to work on them. And yet, we see that whole swathes of society are almost completely absent in the ranks of professional chemists.
We in the Chemistry Department are cognizant every day that the F&M science faculty does not look like America. It doesn’t look like the F&M student body. We know that PhD programs do not look like America. The events that call us to consider structural barriers to progress, at this moment, invite us to specifically consider the Black American experience. It’s safe to say, for most of us, that our Black colleagues in our Chemistry PhD programs could be counted on the fingers of one hand. We at F&M want to serve as a springboard, propelling talented students of color on to fulfilling scientific careers.
So, what specifically are we doing about recruiting Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color as students, faculty, and staff and supporting their success? What are we doing now, and what are we intending to do in the future? As scientists, our instinct is to do experiments and to be guided by data. If you’ve seen us trying to build a sense of classroom community, talking about the growth mindset, attempting to build in chances to reflect and re-work assignments, discussing metacognitive strategies, presenting information in multiple formats, emphasizing lab work, bringing in real-world connections to our material, working in teams during class, laying out expectations as clearly as possible, and even using Canvas, these are all practices that help all students, but have been shown to especially improve the performance of students from under-represented groups in the sciences. We look to programs that have been successful in guiding students from these groups into the sciences, like Xavier University of Louisiana, UMBC, and even Harvey Mudd’s success in diversifying their computer science program. Those are all actions that we are taking—are there things that we’re not doing? Yes.
In Chemistry, we faculty often feel unprepared to explicitly discuss racial disparities in our field during class time, and default to just talking about the material we feel comfortable teaching: electrochemistry, protein kinetics, or the mechanism of the aldol reaction. None of us has the lived experience of being Black in America, so we’re concerned about inauthenticity at best, and precipitating stereotype threat at worst, where even subtly reminding students about stereotypes can cause their performance to be altered. For every student who appreciates hearing about Percy Julian’s epochal synthesis of progesterone while working for a paint company, another feels like the discussion is simple tokenism. But our silence on these matters is also deafening: despite our intentions, the impact matters. And avoiding these issues doesn’t make them disappear and instead places the burden of fighting systemic racism onto the students who most need to heal from it, so we need to do better.
What’s the right thing to do? The right thing to do is to work to make every student at F&M feel welcomed, that they can succeed in our courses, and they can major in Chemistry if so moved. We’re not there right now. The specific actions we’re taking have not resulted in a group of Chemistry majors that has the same demographics as the student population. We look at these numbers, we collect this data, and we take action. We try to improve. Is it enough? Not yet.
We invite you to walk alongside us and be an active part of our departmental community. We have to do the work to research best practices, gather data, and make the changes needed to transform Chemistry into a field where we all succeed together. And we will remain active listeners of those who have suffered from systemic racism.
Please help us mark this #shutdownSTEM event by reading and reflecting on some of the resources listed below.
The Faculty and Staff of the Chemistry Department
Franklin & Marshall College
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