My Experiences at the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 Conference: Part 1

All the attendees of Inclusive Astronomy 2015. My research partner, Allison Watson '18, and I can be seen in the very far back!

Note: This article is the first of two parts about this conference. This first part will focus on the content discussed at the conference’s presentations, and the second part focuses on the importance of conversations surrounding social justice in the sciences and beyond.

Inclusive Astronomy 2015, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, was the first conference of its kind within the Astronomy and Astrophysics community. The goal of this conference was to introspectively analyze the reasons for the lack of diversity in STEM, not only with regard to gender and race, but also sexual orientation, gender identity, and physical and mental disability. I attended the conference with an Amherst professor and my research partner from the SURF program. The conference’s panels and presentations, many of which are now posted online, were divided into four themes: Barriers to Access; Creating Inclusive Environments; Policy, Power, and Leadership; and Establishing a Community of Inclusive Practice. It was incredible to see professional scientists grappling with the same issues present at Amherst, and so many other college campuses. Below I will discuss some of these topics from the conference, both in the context of Astronomy and our own campus.

Impact of Standardized Exams on Diversity in Admissions

One of the most significant barriers discussed was the use of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and Physics GRE (PGRE) Subject Tests as metrics of admission to graduate school. Casey Miller, from Rochester Institute of Technology, presented preliminary results from a study that showed no correlation between high test scores and performance in graduate school in a talk shown in the video below. Among admissions processes, that used the Physics GRE as a “first pass” cut-off, there was, however a decrease in test scores among many minority ethnicities and races and a decrease in admitted women. This means that these applicants, with scores below a certain value, were not even considered. Hence, this metric is highly suspect, if not useless, as it actively discriminates against women and minority groups and isn’t an accurate representation of the quality of work done in graduate school. And yet, the GRE and PGRE are significant factors in almost all Graduate applications. The PGRE was even used at Amherst as a component of the Physics major this past year, and is under consideration for future use.

At Amherst, we use the SAT and ACT tests, the undergraduate equivalents of the GRE, as significant factors in our admissions process. Though the use of these standardized tests are the norm, many at the conference recommended using non-cognitive based tests, similar to some IQ tests, as first-pass cut offs, since these more accurately quantify the skills needed to perform in graduate school and conduct research (conscientiousness, trustworthiness, achievement orientation, initiative, adaptability, and optimism) and do not discriminate based on gender or race.

Disability Justice and Inclusion

The most powerful presentation, one that certainly transcends the realm of astronomy, was offered by Lydia Brown from Georgetown, titled “Beyond the Imagined Normal: Disability Justice and Radical Inclusion”. She focused on breaking down our constructed notions of “normal” and “healthy.” Rather than thinking of autism, schizophrenia, and other mental conditions as deviations from a “normal,” they should instead be thought of as neurological diversity that is a normal aspect of our species. It is the same case for physical disabilities. One way of conceptualizing this is imagining what it would be like if everyone was schizophrenic and blind. If this were the case, society would be constructed to support such individuals, and that would be the imagined normal. Therefore, there is no such thing as an objective “normal” or “healthy,” and traits labeled as disabilities do not need to be fixed. Though some life-threatening situations may require treatment, individuals should not be forced or pressured to have such deviations “corrected” simply because they are perceived as disabilities. It is impossible for me to capture how powerful this presentation was, or to effectively communicate its message, so I encourage anyone interested in Brown’s work to read their blog, Autistic Hoya and to stay tuned for more of the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 talks to be posted online.

Sexual Assault and Title IX

Because many astronomers work as college faculty, and in scientific field work and labs, there was also a presentation and discussion about Sexual Assault, an issue far too common on college campuses. The presentation focused on dispelling many of the misconceptions surrounding the issue, highlighting statistics showing that false rape allegations make up at most 2% to 8% of all allegations, similar to the statistics for any crime. The presentation also discussed how one in six men are sexually assaulted before they turn 18 and how over three in four disabled women are survivors of sexual assault, though these statistics are often ignored. Title IX and mandatory reporting were also discussed, emphasizing the need for faculty members to familiarize themselves with the Title IX rules at their respective institutions to be aware of their own responsibilities. There was some discussion challenging this system of mandatory reporting, and some Graduate students pointed out that some of Title IX’s procedures have created animosity between the organizations and student activists on some campuses.

In the light of the various media outlets reporting on an expelled student’s lawsuit against Amherst, we must remember as we continue this conversation that false accusations are a statistically negligible component of this issue, no more prevalent than with any other form of crime on this campus or in the world, despite the distortion often caused by media reporting. It is also important to ensure that faculty are aware of their Title IX responsibilities, and to encourage them to think critically about the way Title IX operates along with students. Mandatory reporting does everything possible to bring information about an assault to the Title IX office. At the same time, knowing that confiding in an RC or faculty member about a traumatic experience will launch a full scale investigation, and potentially lead to a culture of silence, may deter a survivor from reporting.

Like most conversations surrounding social justice topics, the conference wasn’t perfect, and its imperfections were pointed out both by participants and users on Twitter. But when these flaws were pointed out, the presenters recognized the criticism and apologized for their errors. Here at Amherst, I’ve found when discussing these types of issues there is a perception that one cannot be wrong, and to admit that one is wrong, and to grow from that, is somehow a way of admitting defeat, instead of showing strength. Thinking back to the contentious moments of the past year (the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter incident, the Mascot debate, and others), giving space for both ourselves and others to be wrong and change stances on an issue could have led to a less contentious campus political climate. Instead, our conversations have and will likely continue to operate in long-form articles where individuals refuse to both reevaluate their positions and think critically about unconscious personal biases. Perhaps we can change this by giving ourselves the freedom to change, to view campus discourse not as a debate to be won, but a conversation from which to grow.

This article continues in My Experiences at the Inclusive Astronomy 2015 Conference: Part 2.