Statement on Intersectionality in My Teaching Practices
“It actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us."
- JANE GOODALL
"Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening."
- CHICO MENDES
As an educator in one of the least diverse STEM fields, my goal is to dismantle the ways that ableism, classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia operate within academia. My experience with intersectionality and fairness in the academic environment is informed both by my own lived experiences and those of my students and colleagues. As a white college lecturer—especially one in geology—it has been imperative to actively listen to dialogue led by academic professionals and students of color, and apply what I learn from them to make my practices more equitable. I try to keep my intersections in context: I am a white lecturer teaching a notoriously racially homogenized subject at one of the most racially diverse campuses in the United States. Racism in particular has notoriously persisted in the geosciences—and especially my primary specialization of paleontology—more substantially than it has in any other STEM field. This has been in large part because we as geological community have only recently begun working together to dismantle the power structures which favor white students for access to geological spaces. We know that high school and early college students are more likely to be given field experiences based on location and easy access to wild areas, and that rural students are more likely to be white. This problem is compounded when the few students of color who enroll in college geology find themselves surrounded by a white echo chamber when they enter the classroom, enduring microaggressions that our homogenous white community all too often perpetuates against them.
While a conversation about critical race theory is unlikely to take place in a geology class (though I would be all for it if it did in my lab), geology has its own specific intersections at which racial equity needs to be given attention. As a geological educator, I have worked to question my own blind spots. I grew up in suburban and rural parts of New York and Connecticut, where I spent extensive time outdoors. I knew what shale, chert, and trilobites were when I was in elementary school. I helped my parents build their garden. My knowledge of these things is rooted in privilege and access, nothing more.
Last year, I took the GRE. A question that came up in my test prep materials had the word “trellis” in it—a trellis is an outdoor structure designed to support viny plants. It turned out I was not the only person taking the GRE who realized that not every test taker may have had a garden growing up, and with it, a lifelong arsenal of oddly specific vocabulary words. The GRE, like certain aspects of geoscience education, predispose students from an urban upbringing to be outperformed by rural and suburban students. Demographic breakdowns of rural and urban areas mean that students of color are often at a disadvantage to white students when it comes to geoscientific education in high school, and are less likely to pursue it in college.
I do not experience racism personally but I have experienced other axes of oppression which made me considerably disadvantaged when I was first becoming a scientist. I am a bisexual woman who was diagnosed with “mild autism” at age nine, but was not allowed to have this included on my medical records for fear of discrimination. I grew up not knowing that there were resources that could have helped me cope, directing any frustration towards myself instead of toward the decision to deny me support I needed. I mention my experience with autism for two reasons. The first is because I know how to relate to those with undiagnosed autism, as I have shared in that struggle. Regardless of race, girls are more likely to be underdiagnosed than boys. However, regardless of gender assigned at birth, Hispanic children of all genders are as much as 50% more likely than white boys to be underdiagnosed with autism. Black children with autism are 20% more likely than white boys to be underdiagnosed with autism. Undiagnosed autistics are often caught between two worlds, and in my experience, we pick each other out in a crowd, offering a silent, unspoken brand of support that only undiagnosed (and late-diagnosis) autistics ever seem to provide one another.
The other reason I mention my incompletely diagnosed autism is because of the crazy journey on which it had a hand in sending me. I mask (mimic a non-autistic woman) just as millions of other autistic women and girls do, and have never once been allowed to claim autism as an exemption from uncomfortable social, professional, or academic experiences. This means that if you meet me, you will not be able to see obvious signs of autism. Legally, I have no disability due to the decision not to document my autism. However, my internal process is abundantly autistic. I take a lot of things at face value a little too much, and this made me somewhat naïve in my early twenties. Like many autistic women, I could not read between the lines in social settings. We are almost three times as likely as neurotypical women to be sexually assaulted, and I was no exception to this during college. These experiences left me so traumatized that anything related to college caused me to have severe panic for several semesters. My GPA suffered during this time. However, I found paleontology, and in it, a safe place to revel in the natural world. Finding joy after my sexual trauma, and finding the tight-knit community of the New Paltz geology faculty, put my life on the right track. Paleontology gave my life meaning when I felt like my life was over. Though they didn’t know my story, I also remember which professors were compassionate to me as a twenty-one-year-old struggling to cope, and which ones were not. I remember how all my experiences with professors impacted me at this challenging point in my life, with “What to Do” and “What Not to Do” mental images based on both real compassion and emotional manhandling I received from the greatest worst professors anyone ever had. Together, they form my compass when I am speaking to a student whose life circumstances are out of the ordinary.
I also think it is worth bringing up the gender politics that still permeate geology. Most geology students are female, but the people in power over us are still mostly men. (Female geologists are not actively trying to replace male geologists, as geology is not a gendered space. I could write volumes on my simultaneous excitement that women are being heard, and concern that our equality is being misconstrued to young men, such that they become disenfranchised from academia and blame their disenfranchisement on the advancement of women. I do not know the exact mechanism with which this is happening and it obviously creates a problem for academics of all genders. I want men to be able to achieve their dreams just as much as I want that for women and nonbinary people, but I want men to understand that inclusion of others is not an act of demoting them. A multifaceted tangent for another day.) It does not always feel like we have a seat at the table as women. We still get told we are "emotional" when we question things or disagree with the powers that be. For me, these idiosyncrasies were exacerbated by my tendency to fulfill Italian-American stereotypes, as this is the bulk of my own ethnic background. As Italian from NY, though I am undeniably white, I, as someone who is oftentimes profoundly Italian in behavior, am somewhat culturally removed from the Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture that dominates academia. I have been told by other scientists that my mannerisms, gestures, and inflections are any of various less flattering synonyms of “passionate” and this has caused me to feel out of place in academia a time or two (to which I say, what is science without passion?) I worked for a long time to hide these parts of myself. I’ve more recently worked to unhide them. Creating a learning and research environment that is devoid of any type of gender-based hierarchy has become a goal for me in my teaching. I want all of my students--male, female, nonbinary--to know that I am happy they are here, and that their thoughts and contributions to the class discussion matter to me. I do not take attendance the first class, and I don't call out students' names or pronouns until they have told me what name and pronouns to use. Things like acknowledging "great job!" to more than one person, individually, when two people call out the same answer in class, is a way that I try to handle this issue. I try to acknowledge the reasons why a student may feel more comfortable interacting in some ways but uncomfortable in others, and I strive for flexibility in the ways students are able engage with the material.
I often think about the Webb School and the Alf Museum as the pinnacle of opportunities-based disparity for fledgling geologists. The Webb School is a private high school near Los Angeles that is so wealthy that its own natural history museum, and its students gain research experience before they are given a diploma. Several luminary paleontologists have gotten their start there. All of them were white men born into wealth. Though this semester, none of my students are geology majors, I constantly try to think of ways I can give my own students a leg up given that I don’t have millions of dollars of equipment. For most jobs in science, publishing and writing are the core of the job. I have not met many students who have been prepared for this reality. For students belonging to marginalized groups, the chronic unpreparedness of undergraduate students for scientific research is likely to be further compounded by impostor syndrome.
I attended Brooklyn College for my master’s degree, and was determined to become a top-tier researcher. I learned to publish papers—lots of them, and quickly. I feel strongly that I can assist students with overcoming this hurdle by helping them to find research in paleontology and sedimentary geology that do not require expensive trips or equipment. I am constantly finding new projects that can be done from anywhere, with just an internet connection.
The causes of geology and environmental science overlap with intersectionality. Environmental justice is lacking in geology curricula which traditionally favor privileged white students. A part of my broad-ranging Earth science teaching is on climate, and I try to drive home the intersectional human aspects of climate change as well as all of its ramifications on non-human communities and structures. We need public scientific literacy within the context of race and class because climate change is, at its core, caused by the exploitative social injustices of Eurocentric imperialism and American globalist capitalism. As tropical storms become more severe, as draught and wildfires become more common, and as shoreline is swallowed by the sea, the issues of racial disparity will be compounded by new manifestations of inequality. We are already seeing this with the deadly hurricanes in Haiti and Puerto Rico. We are seeing “climate gentrification” in coastal cities in Florida, in which affluent, mostly-white beach communities are being abandoned by their inhabitants in favor of more inland traditionally Hispanic neighborhoods.
I think empowering students of marginalized identities in the geosciences is incredibly important. The Earth Sciences are for everyone, but it is up to instructors like myself to ensure the path to geological careers is cleared of inequality.