Lisa Carney Anderson, PhD
Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology
University of Minnesota
I live in Minnesota and work at the University of Minnesota.
I’m sure you have read and heard about the Twin Cities in the news. George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. In addition, in the past few years, members of the Minneapolis Police have killed other Black citizens. Consequently, a large number of people of all ages, colors and creeds poured into the streets to protest police brutality. I am a White cis woman with privilege. Though I feel confident about my abilities as a physiologist and an educator, I’m not confident about the work of diversity and inclusion. Nonetheless, I am trying to figure out how I can use my privilege to provide a better learning and life experience for my students of color.
In 2018, at the Institute on Teaching and Learning, Katie Johnson of Trail Build, gave a powerful presentation on diversity and inclusion (2). In her talk, she met us where we all lived. She started by saying that she was a scientist and teacher. If it was her job to be objective, what could she possibly do to promote diversity and inclusion? Then she said something amazing.
We as physiologists ask our students to think in new ways. We ask them to learn a lot of new terms: homeostasis, contractility, permeability, peristalsis and clearance. Then we ask them to learn a lot of concepts. Negative feedback mechanisms can maintain the cellular environment. Increased intracellular calcium increases the strength of a cardiac contraction. Permeability is related to the number of open ion channels in a membrane. Peristalsis is a wave like contraction that moves contents along the gut lumen. Clearance is defined in terms how much plasma per unit of time is cleaned of a given substance. Then we ask our student to put the terms and concepts into a framework that explains how the body works. And we don’t ask students to do this sequentially, we ask them to accomplish this simultaneously. Holy Smokes. That is hard work. We ask our students to struggle with physiology.
So here is the amazing part. If we ask our students to think in new ways to learn physiology, then we, as faculty, should be willing to think in new ways to address racism and equity in science and education.
Dr. Johnson also gave us insight into the student experience. For example, cold calling students is not a fair classroom practice. I’ve learned that this is where small group discussion or Think-Pair-Share exercises (3) can be very helpful. If students have a chance to try out their ideas on a peer, then they may gain confidence to share an idea with the whole class.
For example, I’ve also learned to be intentional when I set up student groups. Here in very White Minnesota, I might have a few students of color. I look at my class list and I look at the students’ pictures and try to make sure there are at least two students of color in a group even if that means some groups are all White. My process for assigning groups is far from perfect because, I may not recognize that a student identifies as non-white. I don’t assume to know the comfort level of my students but my sense is that this practice addresses at least some of the stress of being the only person of color in a small group. I have a colleague that calls imperfect classroom interventions like this, “filling in the gaps when a systemic solution is not available to address stereotype threats.”
So, what is a stereotype threat?
Before Mr. Floyd was murdered, I read the book, Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do, by Claude M. Steele (4). From his work I have learned universities are power structures that can be very intimidating for students. Through rigorous experimentation, Dr. Steele demonstrated how stereotype threat, or the stress of feeling marginalized interferes with a student’s performance. The burden of constantly feeling like you don’t belong is exhausting. As I read this book, I thought back on my own experience as an undergraduate, first-generation, female. I was the only female in physics lab. I felt like no one wanted to be my lab partner and no one wanted me there. The lab teacher made jokes at my expense. I got Cs in physics. Was it because I’m bad at physics? Was it because I felt marginalized? Is this how my students of color feel?
First of all, I’ve learned from Dr. Steele in Whistling Vivaldi and Dr. Johnson from Trail Build that there are things I can do to help my students with stereotype threats. I can help them practice affirmation. I’ll share with you how I do this in my Clinical Physiology Class. This is a two-course series in which students from nursing anesthesia, biomedical engineering, physiology, kinesiology and other biological sciences come together to learn about pathophysiology and clinical physiology. I assign the students to interdisciplinary groups such that representatives from all majors are distributed as evenly as possible throughout the groups. I try to balance genders and make sure that no student of color is alone in a group of White students. Then I encourage them in their discussions to think about the assets they bring to the conversation: leadership, math ability, problem solving, biochemistry knowledge, clinical experience, research experience, practicality, being a peacemaker and so on. Because, as the American humorist, Will Rogers, is reported to have said, “We are all ignorant, only on different subjects.” I try to get them to see that they have knowledge their peers don’t have and that is why it is important for them to be present.
Second, I try to help my students have an incremental mindset rather than a fixed mindset. This comes from the work of Carol Dweck (1) also described in Whistling Vivaldi. An incremental mindset is one in which a student might think “today, not possible but tomorrow, POSSIBLE.” I tell my students that physiology is a way of thinking and you have to practice it. No one is born knowing physiology and just because physiology is hard does not mean it is the wrong field for them. I want my students to realize I have had failures but they don’t define me. For example, I tell my students about the first time I took biochemistry when I was a senior in college. I got a D and not because I didn’t work hard. I spent many lonely hours going over my notes but when it came time for the test, and I just couldn’t remember a single glucose molecule. Then in graduate school, I took biochemistry again. I got some large pieces of butcher paper. I drew molecules and pathways and enzymes. I drew them over and over from memory. While I rode the bus, I reflected on how the pathways were related. For fun I would predict what would happen if a particular enzyme did not work. I used retrieval, mental models and reflection (though at the time I did not realize that’s what they were called). I learned a lot of biochemistry, I earned a lot of confidence, and I got a good grade. Now people call me Dr. Anderson. Not because I’m a genius but because I know it is possible to grow into goals and aspirations.
Leading a classroom with an incremental mindset (also called a growth) mindset, in my opinion, is a powerful way for me to promote equity in my educational mission. If I am honest with them about the struggles I’ve had, they might be willing to come into office hours and get some help. If students know that I went from a D to an A, they might think that they can do it too. Instead of seeing a poor grade on a test as the limit of their knowledge, they might see it as room to grow and work they need to do. If they stay in the class, they can realize that improvement; if they drop the class, they are behind in completing their program and behind financially. If I can keep a student of color from dropping the class and help them with study skills, then that is one small step for equity.
Finally, as we make our way towards the fall, it is important to acknowledge that some of our students, especially our students of color and our Black students may have experienced trauma in their lifetimes. They are traumatized by the isolating effects of the pandemic. They are traumatized by seeing repeated airings of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. They are traumatized due to societal inequities that value their lives and bodies and education less than others. We must acknowledge their experience.
Two weeks ago, one of my medical physiology students invited me to a rally at the St. Paul State Capitol as part of “White Coats for Black Lives.” At first, I didn’t want to go. I was scared of getting exposed to the Covid-19 virus. But nonetheless I found myself typing in an email, “How can I participate?” My student invited me so I had to be part of the solution. So, I put on my black mask and my white coat and I headed to the State Capital. I spoke to my students, and they offered me a sign. “SILENCE IS COMPLICITY.” I found my spot on the lawn and I held up my sign. The lawn was full of health care providers and educators from all over the Twin Cities. I listened to an inspiring student-led protest in favor of providing health care access for all, increasing the diversity of student and faculty bodies and ending race-based medicine. I was deeply moved by the experience and I was glad I came. Our students of color and their allies are demanding more of us as faculty, departments and institutions.
I’m getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’m ready to listen because I am not an expert in anti-racism and I’m ready to work even though I might make some mistakes along the way. I’m hoping to cultivate a growth mindset around issues of racism and spending my time listening to experts, reading on my own and learning. We ask this of our students every day and we as faculty can do no less.
- Claro S, Paunesku D, Dweck CS. Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016;113(31):8664-8668.
- Johnson, K.M.S. Inclusive Practices for Diverse Student Populations. Plenary. APS Institute on Teaching and Learning, Madison, WI, June 18-22, 2018.
- Lyman, F. “The responsive classroom discussion.” In Anderson, A. S. (Ed.), Mainstreaming Digest. College Park, MD: University of Maryland College of Education, 1981.
- Steele, C.S. Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and what we can do, W.W Norton & Company: New York, 2010.
Lisa Carney Anderson is an Associate Professor and Director of Education in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota. She completed her doctoral training in muscle physiology at the University of Minnesota. She directs the first-year medical physiology course. She also teaches nurse anesthesia students, dental students and undergraduates. She is the 2012 recipient of the Didactic Instructor of the Year Award from the American Association of Nurse Anesthesia. She co-authored a physiology workbook called Cells to Systems: Critical thinking exercises in Physiology, Kendall Hunt Press. Dr. Anderson’s teaching interests include encouraging active learning through retrieval and assessment of student reflection. She has joined the APS Teaching Section Steering Committee as Secretary.