Our class discussion on Wednesday the 24th focused exclusively on one reading: Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele. We invited Professor James Valles, chair of the physics department, in to contribute to our discussion, as we knew he had read this book before and had experience dealing with the issues surrounding stereotype threat within his own department.
The sections we read in Whistling Vivaldi were Chapters 1, 2, 9, and 10. These sections first outline the definition of stereotype threat and the preliminary studies that initially outlined the phenomenon, then provide a variety of interventions and strategies that may be used to alleviate the reduced intellectual performance of groups affected by it. At its most basic level, stereotype threat occurs when the fear of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group (ex. Girls can’t do math as well as boys, Latino students aren’t as intelligent as white students, white athletes aren’t as talented as black ones, etc.) causes a type of background anxiety which impairs performance and thereby perpetuates the stereotype. Studies show that, since most people have already been exposed to our society’s set of stereotypes countless times, this threat is often “in the air” even when racial or gender stereotypes are not mentioned explicitly before people perform tasks relating to them. What this means is that it often takes a conscious effort to alleviate the problem at hand and to reduce underperformance by stereotyped groups.
We started discussion by polling the room to see who had previously heard the term “stereotype threat” outside of the context of our GISP. Although quite a few students had heard it used before, some had not, and even more stated that reading sections from Steele’s book had changed the way they understood the term. A few people said that they had thought of stereotype threat as a purely individual issue rather than a systemic problem. After this reading, however, we all came to see the term as referring to something much broader and more insidious. Still, many students in the group claimed to have individually experienced this phenomenon themselves in science and math settings at Brown.
A large part of this class was devoted to writing up the following list of “interventions”, many of which were suggested in Whistling Vivaldi, as strategies to alleviate stereotype threat among students at Brown:
- Take 15 minutes at the beginning of a course to have students write about their top three values.
- Inform others about stereotype threat. This act alone reduces stereotype threat.
- Change the perception of intelligence from an innate intelligence to an elastic, learned intelligence.
- Claude Steele found that telling test takers “This is a fair test. Women perform as well as men on this test.” is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Similarly, telling test takers “This test measures your problem-solving procedure, not your problem-solving ability.” closes the achievement gap.
- Professors or role models with a shared threatened identity reduces identity threat.
- Share success stories of identity-threatened individuals and reframe the narrative of what it means to have a threatened identity in STEM.
- Organize late night discussion groups for students from all backgrounds to share frustrations so that individuals are able to see that everyone struggles.