A couple of days ago, a student in our class disclosed her struggles as a student majoring in Biology with the goal of going to dentistry school when she began attending this university. She talked about how difficult calculus and organic chemistry classes were and how the professors were less than supportive. She failed a few classes that semester, and decided that Biology wasn’t for her. She changed majors to Psychology and is going to grad school to become a therapist. She is very happy and satisfied with her decision, as she should be, but this narrative is common, and it begs the question, why?
This happens to a lot of people, it has even happened to me in the past. I joined the military as a result. I spent years internalizing my academic failures as a personal failing, as indicative of my lack of worth. Unlike the woman in my class, I was not able to change majors to something that was “a better fit.” It’s wonderful that people have that option.
People claim they are not a “math person” however, people do not generally claim to be an “anthropology person” or a “political science person.” What about math requires some built in identity in order to engage in it? Surely people have preferences for certain fields of study, but I argue that those preferences are not solely based on some kind of intrinsic talent or identity, and for most of us, talent has little to do with anything. People like certain subjects because they have positive experiences with specific teachers, they were told by their teachers/parents/peers that they are good at something (whether or not it is true), they saw some TV show that glorified a profession, or any number of other influences. People decide to study subjects they want to attach (to some degree) their identity. We all know that identity is not the “unchanging self” but the self that is recognized by others, that is constantly in negotiation with the world around it.
There is an emphasis on a “true calling” when deciding what to study (sometimes to our economic detriment) as if deep in our gut is the answer to whether we are going to become accountants or journalists, as if balancing figures in spreadsheets can be an ultimate purpose in life. The truth is, we learn from our parents, from our schools, and from our cultures about what professions are sources of dignity and what professions are degrading. We live in a hierarchy of labor, and STEM is valued in that hierarchy, so people are incentivized to cultivate a culture of exclusion to determine who can “cut it” and assign who is better and who is worse. In the hegemonic narrative of the “meritocracy” the whole situation is interpreted as fair. We call the introductory science classes like calculus I and physics I “weeder” classes. They are designed to exclude people. The hierarchy of majors not only justifies systemic racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism/transphobia, but also hides it.
Most people act in ways that promotes self-preservation, and will avoid situations that are actively harming them. People self-select out of STEM majors because they are experiencing the violence of indignity. When a student fails a test, they are led to believe (through academic cultural pressures) that it is a moral failing, that it is a reflection of their inherent limitations, rather than the ineffective way that learning is expected to occur in these classes.
What is the actual difference between someone who fails a STEM class and someone who succeeds? If we are to believe the dominant narrative, it’s that the people who succeed are better. They are smarter, work harder, are more dedicated. If you have low self-esteem, you internalize these messages, and become self-defeating. People who are marginalized tend to walk into these classes having already received negative messages about themselves, making it more likely that they will not “succeed.” If we recognize that culture has just as much to do with the success of the student, then developing a compassionate and encouraging learning environment should be a priority in the classroom.
I am a Math major and am graduating next week. I plan on teaching high school Mathematics in Baltimore City next fall. Although I will be limited in the influence that I will have on the education of my students by the requirements of the state, I will try to cultivate an encouraging environment for students to feel supported in their math education. My perspective on education is unique; although I am a good student, I am not a “math person.” Nothing comes easy to me, and my educational journey has been a struggle. I hope that the pamphlet* that my graphic designer friend and I made, will help people realize that they are not alone in feelings of alienation in STEM, and are encouraged to continue, despite the mental, emotional, and physical burden using some of the coping techniques discussed in the pamphlet.
*Feel free to print pamphlets, and distribute them.