Canaries in the Classroom

In my readings over the past year, I keep coming back to the following:

“[they] may be telling us – loudly, visibly, and memorably — that the arrangements in our classrooms are harmful to human beings. Something is toxic in the air… each teaches us something important, powerful, and worthy about how to reimagine classrooms in the image of being fully human… They offer lessons on power and authority, loneliness and belonging, creativity and conformity. Their experiences and insights draw our attention away from the confinement of pathology and toward the complexity of goodness; away from blame and toward understanding, away from evaluation and toward curiosity.”

— Carla Shalaby In Troublemakers

In that spirit, I’ve been spending a bit of my summer looking into some equity-related data for the classes I teach. One aspect I’ve been looking into this week is grade assignments by gender and race.

Over the past three years of teaching first-semester introductory physics:

  • I have assigned a grade of A to 42% of white students compared to only 12% for black students.
  • I have assigned a grade of B or better to 72% of white students compared to only 32% for black students.
  • I have assigned a grade of C or better  to 84% of white students compared to only 53% for black students.
  • I have assigned a grade of D or better 94% of white students compared to only 83% for black students.

The median grade for white students is a B, while the median grade for black students is a C.

The modal grade for white students is an A, while the modal grade for blacks students is a D.

Needless to say, black students as a whole are not thriving in my physics classes.

There is not a significant nor consistent difference in grade distributions by gender.

some demographic context

At MTSU, black students comprise 18% of the student body; in my introductory physics classes that percentage has been somewhat lower, closer to 15%. With class sizes ranging from 24 to 32 students, this has translated into my classes having as few as 1 black student and as many as 7 black students. There are even smaller numbers of Asian and Latinx students, in my classes about ~ 5% each.

Separate from those statistics, Muslim students make up about 10%, with students being a mix first and second generation in America and also some international students.

What about the Physics and Astronomy department faculty?

  • Full professors (6): all male, 1 faculty of color (Ethiopian)
  • Associate professors (2): both white males
  • Assistant professors (2): one male faculty of color (Nepalese) and one female faculty member.
  • Full Time Instructors (4): 3 white females and one male faculty of color

So we are a lot less diverse than the students we teach.

Some plans for making plans:

  • There is a faculty learning community on inclusive teaching I will apply to be a part of. I’m excited about this.
  • I have at least one other colleague who will be helping me to gather and analyze more of the institutional data needed to get a more comprehensive picture. I
  • Over the next two months, I am consulting with several different colleagues and critical friends about some sensible starting places.

2 thoughts on “Canaries in the Classroom

Add yours

  1. Your classes look very different from mine, which are Asian>white>Hispanic>black, with blacks making up 2–5%. Because my class is required of biomolecular engineering students, it is about 35–40% female (unlike most engineering classes, which are much more heavily male).

    I have not attempted to look at grades by race, but if I did, I’d be limited to Asian/white/Hispanic, as those are the only groups large enough for group differences to be discernable. I have looked a bit a gender disparity, and have been disappointed that 80–90% of my students eligible for become undergraduate group tutors are male—it would be good to have female role models among the group tutors.

    1. Given our respective state’s demographics, it’s not too surprising how different our populations are. If I look look at physics majors, we are almost 100% white, and definitely more
      male than female. We had a fairly large cohort of female physics majors go through recently, but my sense is that we did not build on that. I’d have to look closely to know for sure. As I was so engaged in intro course redesign the past two years , I was slightly isolated from physics majors.

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