November 19, 2018

GUEST ROOM | How Our Courses are Designed for Chris from Long Island

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For the past two weeks or so, my economics professor has been using golf examples to explain a popular behavioral economic model to us. When a student raised their hand and asked, “Will questions like this be on the exam? What if we aren’t familiar with the rules of golf?” The professor responded, as any considerate and fair one would, that if he were to use golf on the exam, he’d properly cite the rules at the top of the page. The student contested, saying that people who are already familiar with the sport will still have an advantage. The professor assured the student not to worry, that he probably wouldn’t use a golf example on the exam and would use a concept we’d all surely be familiar with.

I couldn’t help but become reminiscent of when the word “regatta” was on the SAT.

There’s more to it than just explaining the rules and calling it fair. Imagine yourself in a room full of people that are perceived to be more well-off and privileged than you. Then, imagine they all start talking about some ritzy pastime that is historically associated with upper-class, white men. Then, imagine you’re meant to understand this conversation and apply it in an exam for your 3000-level economics course at the Ivy League institution known for grade deflation. How is this fair at all? Even if the rules to the sport are explained in layman’s terms, there is a certain elitism that is exuded by the nature of using it as an example. It becomes a situational cue that ensues social identity threat — the fear of being seen as less capable because of one’s group. Social identity threat has been proven to impair working memory, learning and performance. Further, it can contribute to academic achievement gaps based on students’ race, gender, and social status.

In The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman analyzes globalization and argues, metaphorically through the title and throughout the text, that “the playing field is being leveled,” that all competitors have equal opportunity. In the international best-selling book, Friedman discusses ten “flatteners” that he believes have leveled the field for competitors across the globe — the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Netscape, workflow software, uploading, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, informing, wireless voice over IP and file sharing. “Today, the most profound thing to me is the fact that a 14-year-old in Romania or Bangalore or the Soviet Union or Vietnam has all the information, all the tools, all the software easily available to apply knowledge however they want,” argues Marc Andreessen, creator of the first commercial internet browser.

In his essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, Langdon Winner discusses the Moses Bridges built by Robert Moses on the Long Island Parkway, and how they were built purposefully too low, so that buses could not travel under them, inhibiting low-income residents from getting to Jones Beach. Jones Beach was a public beach, but was essentially privatized by this type of urban design and the implicit bias it imposed. Winner’s observations here can be generalized to the interweaving of political institutions into other technological devices. I am left wondering, what are the Moses Bridges built into our educations? While we go on preaching notions of “a flat world,” “any person, any study,” and greater accessibility, we have to stop and ask ourselves, who are we making this world harder for? So long as our courses are designed by certain groups of people, they will cater to those types of people.

So, what next? Greater diversity in higher education? Well, duh. But, I think we can also start with an increased cognizance toward these implicit biases on a micro-level. Think about how we are designing a world for a very particular group of people and how this makes it easier for those people to succeed and harder for everyone else to do so. Imagine all the innovation, creativity and breakthroughs we are suppressing by designing people out of education; all the great minds that are put down at an early stage, while we are telling ourselves that policies like affirmative action, technologies like free online courses and initiatives like Girls Who Code are making higher education more accessible. We all lose in a world designed for Chris.

Anna Kambhampaty is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Guest Room appears periodically this semester. Comments may be sent to [email protected]