AHS Thoughts

Registration fast approaches! Some thoughts on AHS from someone who took a lot of failed attempts to find an AHS concentration that fit:

The approach to humanities that sees it as a supplement or fortifier to STEM education is effective for some people and ineffective for others. I got little out of a Drawing I class by framing it as a way to up my MechE skills. Then I tried to take an education class from the perspective of an engineer looking to teach engineering. I’m sure that it works well for many people to have their entire curriculum working toward one unified goal or idea, but with all the talk of cross-disciplinary integration here, it took a while to realize that I could keep my peas and carrots on opposite sides of the plate. So, if by chance you were looking for permission: contain multitudes, if you want.

Something that worked well for me was to sit down with an hour or two free and go through the entire Wellesley course catalogue, marking off classes with names that interested me. Once I’d gotten through the whole list, I reviewed all of the class descriptions and wrote down groupings that emerged as concentration possibilities. I came up with two that I was really excited about and ran them by my advisor. I ended up with a concentration in history, specifically nationalism and partition – something I never, ever would have guessed that I would like. Because history was boring in high school, and I “just wasn’t a history person”. Turns out history is very different at the collegiate level, which lets professors get specific enough to do their subjects justice. And there were so many other options to explore – anthropology, psychology, American studies, political science, religion, classics…

Investing time in finding the right AHS concentration was arduous but worth it. I could babble endlessly about how much the history classes I’ve taken have enriched my life. There’s an amazing breadth and depth of opportunity in the arts, humanities and social sciences available to you, if you’re interested in finding AHS that does more for you than check off a requirement or further your engineering education.

PS. Fran Malino, My Favorite Professor Ever, is offering a seminar next spring on the history of anti-Semitism. So. Just a casual plug.

Climate Survey

This week, Student Affairs and Resources (StAR) is putting out a climate survey. It is not a two-question, ten-second survey. I’m not here to grovel to convenience or laziness. The survey is about the sexual and relationship climate at Olin. It takes about fifteen to forty-five minutes, with some variation – for example, many questions are “if yes to previous question”-style. The survey will be open for two weeks and then Jeremy Goodman will parse the raw data into anonymized results, which will be reviewed by a group of students, faculty and staff. This group will release statistical results to the community and recommended action items.

As you can guess, accurate surveys rely on a non-biased response distribution. It’s to everyone’s benefit if these results are as accurate as possible, because as we know from past experience, the survey will have an enormous bearing on Olin climate and policy.

Kate Maschan (now Kate Scully), who graduated last spring, conducted and published a survey on sexual misconduct at Olin. 19% of cis female respondents and 5% of cis male respondents identified being assaulted during their time at Olin; an additional 8% and 2% (respectively) were not sure if they had been. Non-cisgender students and alumni, lumped into one category to preserve anonymity, reported no assaults at the time the survey was done. This was two years ago; a lot has been done since then, and now we look to see quantitatively if we were able to change these staggering numbers.

Staggering is not an overstatement: one in four. Shockwaves rolled through the Olin community, often under the radar, on an individual scale. Kate founded the Peer Advocates to provide a trained and confidential resource for the Olin community. The Honor Board, StAR, the R2s, and many other student and administrative groups significantly reevaluated and reworked how they support survivors on campus and promote campus safety. Some examples of this are the increase of on-campus sessions about Title IX, active bystanding, and supporting friends; PA involvement in the consent discussions during first-year orientation; and the Sexual Respect Team’s policy recommendations to the administration last semester.

I tell you all this to drive home the fact that this survey will do more than be numbers on a sheet – it will do more than we can imagine right now. It will motivate changes, like those I wrote about above, that uniquely address the needs of our current student body. It will bring light and air to experiences that, when held inside individuals, can be unbelievably isolating. It will tell us if things have improved since Kate’s survey. If we are lucky, it will mobilize us to find ways we might support each other, look out for our friends, and empower ourselves.

The survey contains some heavy and potentially triggering questions. Stay tuned for an email from the PAs – we’ll be opening up our rooms to provide spaces for questions, discussion, or just a safe, quiet place to step back from your busy life and get the survey done (plus snacks).

There is a lot I haven’t gone into here about the months of research and discussion that created this survey. If you want to know more, good contact points are Alison Black (Asst. Dean of Student Affairs, Title IX Coordinator), Jeremy Goodman (Director of Institutional Research and Evaluation), or Gabrielle Ewall (student/PA, currently studying away).

A Conversation on Race at Olin

(Disclaimer: I hope that some of the discussions on race and future actions by Olin pertaining to race will be beneficial across the board. That said, Matt Huang’s article “Racial Challenges at Olin” speaks more specifically to challenges faced by Asian/Asian-American students here, and it’s on Frankly Speaking’s website if you would like to check it out.)

Congratulations, Olin! You did the gender thing. It’s great. But what about the race thing?

Olin’s a pretty determinedly colorblind place. Colorblind admissions, colorblind team dynamics, people here love to talk about diversity and its benefits, as long as it doesn’t involve skin color. But racial diversity is a demonstrable asset in situations that involve teamwork and creativity. Sound familiar?

A HuffPost article by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville on diversity in engineering demonstrates a common tendency to brush over matters of race. They mention it briefly, but emphasize the importance of gender, personality, and aspirational diversity. These are all good things to have, of course, but they certainly are not more important than racial diversity in a historically discriminatory field. And this refusal to talk about race and treat it as important is an unfortunate trend here at Olin.

Maybe you’d like to cut the college a little slack. After all, it is a private school, and under no obligation to be racially diverse. Except that it sort of is, especially if you read the founding precepts, or any publicity material centering on how we ‘pioneer creative innovation.’

The precepts are self-described by the F. W. Olin Foundation as “the principles upon which the College was established as well as the Foundation’s hopes for what the College will accomplish and the good that it will do.” The third precept, only surpassed by ‘must be named after Olin’ and ‘must offer only engineering,’ is this: “from among the students who qualify [academically], the College shall endeavor to develop as diverse a student community as is possible.” The first axis of diversity named is race, and the second is gender. How did we end up skimming over that first one and then awarding ourselves monumental back-pats for a 50/50 gender balance?

There is a reason I implicated Olin’s pride-in-innovation as a commitment to racial diversity. A lot of research around diversity and team performance suggests that if Olin really wants to produce the best ideas and the best teammates, it should take a hard look at diversity. Teams with variation along any axis – race, gender, even politics – outperform homogenous ones simply because different types of diversity give people unique perspectives and experiences, the lenses through which we generate ideas. Furthermore, if the variation presents visually (as race and gender often do), so much the better: not only do different identities and perspectives bring more ideas to the team, but perceived differences among teammates cause team members to think more about team topics and have deeper, more productive discussions at meetings. Especially in matters of creativity and – wait for it – innovation. Diversity is an asset, not an obligation.

Interested in reading more on this? Katherine Phillips’ article “How Diversity Makes Us Stronger” in Scientific American (online) is a good place to start.

Want to hear more? Next month’s issue of Frankly Speaking will feature a follow-up to this article.