Before class, each GISP member was asked to write a personal narrative piece, in which they would reflect on their personal experiences in the context of the issues being investigated in this course. During the class discussion, each student summarized the main themes of their narrative and/or shared a few excerpts from the piece.
While each student’s story was unique, there were a few common concepts present in multiple narratives. One such concept was the trend of explicit exclusion. One story told of how a student was informed by a professor that their background might be insufficient for a certain class, despite this professor knowing nothing about the student’s background; quite evidently, the professor’s remark was based on the student’s demographics. Another story involved students of certain demographic groups being given explicitly different academic and career advice than students of the dominant demographic groups. Whether intentional or not, this act served to directly exclude the students in question from fully succeeding in their scientific careers.
Not all interactions were as explicit as these, however. Some experiences were much more subtle, falling into a category of events known as microaggressions. Microaggressions can be defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership" (Granger 2012). Multiple students shared stories of specific microaggressions that they have encountered within the scientific community. Since microaggressions are often not evident to those not directly involved, this part of the discussion was incredibly beneficial in helping the class gain a better understanding of how pervasive microaggressions are in the scientific community and why that is problematic.
Another recurring concept was the higher level of expectation applied to members of underrepresented groups. One student described how, unlike members of well-represented groups, they felt that they were expected to, in some sense, earn their place in the sciences. Another student explained that they felt they only deserved to stay in their field if they were at the “top of the curve”; if their performance declined below the very best, they experienced a sense of shame that caused them to consider leaving their field.
The last pervasive concept was the dichotomy between different communities at Brown with respect to these issues. Several students described the harsh difference between progressive communities at Brown, where issues of race and gender were constantly discussed, and the scientific community at Brown, where issues of race and gender were essentially never mentioned and where structural inequalities were still strongly present.
Overall, the class discussion of the personal narratives proved incredibly fruitful. It enabled students to better understand the backgrounds and motivations of their classmates, and it highlighted several key issues that will undoubtedly resurface again over the course of the semester.
Granger, Nathaniel. "Microaggressions and Their Effects on the Therapeutic Process." Society for Humanistic Psychology Newsletter (Oct. 2012). APA Division 32: Society for Humanistic Psychology. American Psychological Association. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.