“I’m the only one…” A very common experience among those studying philosophy is the feeling that “I’m too stupid to study philosophy.” The feeling of not being like the other students, for any number of reasons, often sets up an obstacle to success where there need not be any. Each of the reasons for feeling different and inadequate requires its own manner of address, but none of them is a reason for not succeeding in the study of Philosophy. Some things that often come up include:
I went to community college. I’m not adequately prepared.
I’ve been out of school for a while. I’m not as sharp as the others.
I am a woman.
I am a person of color.
I am a first-generation college student.
I have a learning disability.
I have a mental illness.
I am a recovering addict.
I have other things going on; I have to work, tend children, parents, etc.
I have suffered trauma, and continue to deal with its effects.
One important way that we know these factors can impact your performance in class is through stereotype threat. Stereotype threat occurs when we think we might confirm a stereotype about some aspect of our identity. That thinking can actually impede our performance in class, on the job, on the playing field. And anybody can be affected by stereotype threat. As Jennifer Saul writes in her article, “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Women in Philosophy”:
Stereotype Threat is sometimes consciously felt but also sometimes unconscious, and it concerns ways that a person’s (awareness of their) own group membership may negatively affect their performance. So, in the case of women in philosophy, implicit biases will be unconscious biases that affect the way we perceive (for instance) the quality of a woman’s work, leading us to evaluate it more negatively than it deserves; while stereotype threats may lead a woman to genuinely underperform in philosophy…. Victims of stereotype threat underperform on the relevant tasks because they are unconsciously preoccupied by fears of confirming the stereotypes about their group.
Thankfully, there are many ways to successfully mitigate stereotype threat. The philosophy faculty is committed to learning and employing practices that help reduce the likelihood of stereotype threat.
How can teachers mitigate stereotype threat?
Two excellent resources on stereotype threat and how to mitigate it are Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011) and http://www.reducingstereotypethreat.org/ Our suggestions draw extensively from these two sources and they contain much greater detail about these strategies, along with the research citations.
- One of the most important and simple ways that teachers can mitigate stereotype threat comes when talking about graded assignments, especially quizzes and exams. For instance, when explaining the exams for a course, the teacher can say: “The exams for this class are not a test of your intelligence, but rather of your preparation for class, your attention during class, and your work in resolving questions you have about the material.” That reframing of the task helps to mitigate stereotypes about intelligence that might harm student performance.
- Particularly effective is coupling the last technique with another mitigation technique - emphasis on the view that, contrary to widely held belief, intelligence is something that can be cultivated. People who believe intelligence can be cultivated are more likely to take on challenging tasks and have better focus than people who view intelligence as a natural, fixed trait. One result is improved performance for those with a view that intelligence is something that can be developed. While a teacher cannot make a student change their belief, the teacher can model the belief that intelligence can be developed.
- Another very powerful means of mitigating stereotype threat has to do with communication about the standards for the class, both at the beginning of the class and as feedback is given throughout the class. Teachers who communicate high standards and a belief in the students’ abilities to meet those standards are most effective in mitigating stereotype threat. Rather than just offering encouragement, this coupling of high standards and belief in the student signals that the student belongs in the class and can be successful.
- Another way to mitigate stereotype threat is to encourage students to think of themselves in multi-faceted ways. One way to do this is to note that all the students in the classroom are members of the class, but they are also members of several other groups, e.g. their families, a sports team, their friends. Encouraging students to think about the skills and experience they have gained from being part of other groups and that they can draw on to succeed in the class, helps to deemphasize stereotypes that might pertain to one group with which they identify.
“Over the last decade, a large psychological literature has developed on implicit biases. There is by now substantial empirical support for the claim that most people— even those who explicitly and sincerely avow egalitarian views—hold what have been described as implicit biases against such groups as blacks, women, gay people, and so on. (This is true even of members of the “target” group.) These biases are manifested in, for example, association tasks asking subjects to pair positive and negative adjectives with black or white faces: most are much speedier to match black faces with negative adjectives than with positive ones. They are also, it has been argued, manifested in behavior: studies have shown that those with anti-black implicit biases are less friendly to black experimenters and more likely to classify an ambiguous object as a gun when it’s associated with a black person and as harmless when it’s associated with a white person.”
Jennifer Saul, “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Women in Philosophy,” forthcoming in Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change, edited by Fiona Jenkins and Katrina Hutchison, Oxford University Press.