Image is taken from NBC News

By Toni DiMella

After two years of virtual conferences and webinars, when my email dings with yet another online anything I usually just ignore it. But when I saw that Sandra McGuire and Bonni Stachowiak were the keynote speakers for the 2020 Focus on Teaching and Technology Conference presented by the University of Missouri – St. Louis, I registered (and attended!) yet another virtual meeting.

Sandra McGuire is a familiar name at USC Upstate, as she presented during Fall Faculty day in August 2019, and we often refer to her and her work surrounding metacognition in our CAIFS professional development sessions. However, you might not know Bonni Stachowiak. In addition to being the Dean of Teaching and Learning and a Professor of Business and Management at Vanguard University of Southern California, Stachowiak is the producer and host of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, which “focuses on topics such as excellence in teaching, instructional design, open education, diversity and inclusion, productivity, creativity in teaching, educational technology, and blended learning” (para. 1). As a regular listener of her podcast, I was eager to hear her keynote presentation “Igniting our Collective Imagination.”

Early in the presentation, Stachowiak shared a clip from “This American Life” about a woman named Ethel. Ethel lived in Hale County, Alabama which, in 2013, had the highest rate of disability claims in the U.S. Reporter Chana Joffe-Walt went to Hale County to dig deeper into why this was happening and spoke to several of the residents receiving disability. One of these residents was Ethel. During the interview, Joffe-Walt asked Ethel, “In a dream world if you could have a different job that you could do with your back, what would it be?” At first, Ethel said she couldn’t think of one but, after 45 minutes, Ethel had a response: to sit at the Social Security desk and “weed out all of the people who come in and file for disability.”

If you’re thinking that Ethel wanted that job because she thought she would be good at identifying people who are trying to scam the system, you’re not alone. That’s what I thought too…as did Joffee-Walt. Listen to Joffe-Walt share Ethel’s reason below:

At this point in the presentation, Stachowiak asked the audience if anyone had experienced a “lack of imagination” in their jobs; a time where we thought “Gosh, I didn’t even know there was a job like that?” As the responses came in, I was surprised at how different they were from Ethel’s. They were largely about different types of white-collar jobs, focusing on the selection of college majors or following non-traditional pathways into a career. Ethel wasn’t looking to be a professor or to major in chemical engineering instead of nursing. She was looking for a job where she could sit. That’s it. Ethel couldn’t think of a job where she could sit because she had never seen one. After the interview, Joffe-Walt would scour the help wanted ads in Ethel’s area and found, in fact, all of the jobs required manual labor, something Ethel was no longer able to do.

We spend a lot of time in higher education guiding students towards achieving their goals… as we should. However, we also have a responsibility to expand the list of options students are choosing from to help them see beyond the bubble of their lived experiences. It may not be that they didn’t choose a particular path; it may be that they didn’t know it existed. To ensure that students have equal access to the full range of options, we have to be honest with ourselves about any biases or assumptions we may hold about our students.

The human mind processes more than 11 million bits of information a second, but our conscious mind can only handle about 40 or 50 bits. So much of what gets stored in our minds is done without our awareness. Hence the term, unconscious bias. Unconscious bias, also called implicit bias, is the set of subconscious biases, stereotypes, and attitudes we form from and through our experiences, upbringing, and surrounding environment. These biases can be incongruent with our conscious beliefs and often surface during times of stress. Sometimes they seem to appear out of nowhere. Other times, you may not even be aware they surfaced at all.

I’ll share a quick example of a time unconscious bias snuck up on me. I was scrolling through Facebook (my first mistake!) and came across a former student. She had just gotten engaged and was sharing the news. This was about a year after buying a house with her now-fiancee and about 2 years after their second child. “She did it backward” popped into my head and I was shocked. It was like didn’t even realize what I thought until I heard it in my head! “Where did you come from?” I thought. I don’t believe that (right?) and, frankly, what she does is none of my business. After reflecting for some time, I concluded that 12 years in Catholic school had left some hidden gems in my unconscious. Ones that I didn’t realize were there and, consciously, I don’t believe. Yikes. Unfortunately, these types of incidents are not uncommon.

Did you ever suggest majoring in education instead of engineering because the student was female? Did you recommend nursing instead of biology or chemistry because the student was a person of color? Did you think Ethel wanted to find scammers because she was possibly scamming “the system”? Your initial reaction may be to say “no, of course not!” and that may be true, but without critically reflecting on what you do and why you do it, you never truly know what is guiding your words and actions.

Want to learn more about unconscious bias? Listen to the 12-minute podcast below: