The Gustavian Weekly

Implicit Bias Training in the Chemistry Department: Collaboration is the answer - The Gustavian Weekly

By Grace Worwa - Opinion Columnist | November 6, 2020 | Opinion

Gusties are passionate about racial justice. The past few weeks there has been a rumor going around about the chemistry department and implicit bias training. There is more to the story than what is being spread student to student. However, given the gravity of this topic and the urgent need expressed by students to address issues of inequity not just on-campus, this issue deserves a down-to-earth, informed discussion about what is possible and what should be done.
According to Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chair of the PCDEI Siri Erickson, implicit bias training at Gustavus had its start in the Biology Department.
When concerns were raised about microaggressions happening in peer-to-peer interactions, particularly in TA-to-student interactions, Biology collaborated with Assistant Director for the Center for Inclusive Excellence Janet Jennings to create a training program customized for the lab setting, which Jennings later modified for the Chemistry Department upon their request.
According to Chemistry Department Co-Chair Scott Bur, they completed one of the two training sessions originally planned for the Spring semester, but when COVID-19 hit, they delayed the second for this fall. The problem came, however, when Jennings left for a new post two weeks into the Fall semester, taking the training with her.
“We didn’t have anybody to do the training, so we didn’t actually cancel it. It’s just we can’t do it because we don’t have anybody qualified to do it,” Dr. Bur said.
It’s not as if the training was canceled per se, it’s just there’s no one who can do it at this moment, and chemistry has explored several alternative solutions. One such alternative was to follow Biology’s lead and refer to faculty within the department who happens to have the expertise required to lead an anti-bias program. Unlike in Biology, however, there are no chemistry staff members with these types of qualifications, and they can’t just ask the qualified Biology faculty, Professors Ngawang Gonsar and Margaret Bloch Qazi, to do it for them.
“They are not the campus representatives to go around doing this for every department. That’s not part of their job description,” Dr. Bur said.
Furthermore, chemistry faculty can’t simply take Jennings’ material and present it themselves. Not only do they lack the necessary qualifications but doing so would be academically unethical.
“We can’t just use her intellectual property. We have to recognize that that was something she developed based on her expertise, so we’re kind of starting from scratch,” Rev. Dr. Erickson said.
According to Dr. Bur, the real issue is that there is no single position on-campus responsible for organizing and implementing anti-bias initiatives.
“One of the real problems that I think we have to address as an institution is we need someone whose job it is to do this kind of stuff, not just dump it on someone else from the [Center for Inclusive Excellence] because that’s where it seems like it should go,” Dr. Bur said.
According to Rev. Dr. Erickson, this problem is in fact being addressed by the President’s Council for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as part of their commitment to involve all Gustavus students and staff in anti-bias training this year. A group led by Associate Provost and Dean of Sciences and Education Valerie Banschbach is specifically working to implement implicit bias training for all TAs, tutors, and student department leaders across campus.
“The goal is to make all students feel comfortable and welcome. Many students do, but not all,” Provost Banschbach said.
The group unofficially named the Tutor and TA Bias Working Group is working hard to roll out a uniform, functional, campus-wide training program. While certainly promising, such an ambitious initiative has many moving parts and requires deep structural change, and that takes time.
“Think about this like a carnival cruise ship as opposed to a little fishing boat. It doesn’t turn on a dime. It takes some time to get these things in place and make them sustainable,” Dr. Bur said.
According to Rev. Dr. Erickson, the group hopes to have something ready by spring. However, that still leaves the Chemistry Department in limbo for the fall. On the one hand, chemistry faculty want to ensure that any training they implement is purposeful and effective.
“The Chemistry Department wants to make sure that whatever we do is working, is functional, and does what we want it to do rather than just quickly put something out there just for show,” Dr. Bur said.
On the other hand, while the technical challenges are great, the issue of implicit bias is very serious and time-sensitive, and it has gone unaddressed long enough, especially in the Chemistry Department.
“There was a concern that white students didn’t understand all of the potential ways in which things they say or decisions they would make in a lab setting could be biased against students of color, or multilingual learners, or women, and so there were specific concerns that especially in that peer-to-peer, or TA-to-student group interaction, that there was bias happening,” Rev. Dr. Erickson said.
In light of this, several students have approached chemistry faculty, including Dr. Bur, about the lack of training this fall.
“From students, I think the concern is that it doesn’t get lost,” Dr. Bur said.
Given everything that’s been happening this year, this is a very real worry, and the Chemistry Department faculty doesn’t disagree.
In the meantime, the department continues working on equity and inclusion efforts. They still hope to see their original training plan come to fruition, and they want to build a system in which students can report bias specific to the Chemistry Department without fear of repercussion. According to Dr. Bur, they are also working on a statement addressing concerns about bias within the department and efforts to address them. It will hopefully be out by Thanksgiving, but the quality is the priority.
“We want it to be useful to our students and to our department, so a lot of thought is being put into it,” Dr. Bur said.
However, these plans are in the long-term, and students are facing the consequences of implicit bias in the department right now. To be frank, action is the only way to address this, and the consensus of urgency between students and faculty in the department can and should be used as an asset.
“I think maybe [the students] are in a better position to help us understand what those concerns are and how to address them,” Dr. Bur said. “I think they are constructive partners in this, the students are.”
Together students and faculty could produce a short-term method of filling in Jennings’ role until PCDEI’s program rolls out in the spring. According to Provost Banschbach, one place to start might be peer-to-peer training, which would utilize students who have already undergone anti-bias training. Another potential strategy is to reach out across all other departments and groups on-campus in search of people with the expertise and time to provide small favors, feedback and advice.
While the technical difficulties standing in the way are great, we have to find ways around them because implicit bias cannot continue unaddressed within the Chemistry Department this fall. Although there is no Jennings to expertly develop and implement a training program, measures can be taken through student-faculty collaboration in order to circumvent this problem in the short-term, just until the campus-wide program comes in the spring.

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