“White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world.” In December, 2018, Julian von Abele, a college sophomore majoring in physics, was caught on video ranting at students of color outside Columbia University’s dining hall in the early hours of a Sunday morning. It was the aftermath of an argument about identity politics elsewhere on campus. “We built the modern world,” he shouted. “We invented science and industry.”
I’m a woman of color, and a student of science, technology, and society, or STS, a field that examines how things like culture and politics shape and intersect with the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). As such, I’ve found myself focusing on the specific words that von Abele used in his rant–this idea that white people aren’t just responsible for inventing new technologies, but for inventing science itself. And I don’t think it’s a surprise to hear this argument coming from a physics student.
I believe that we need a new model of STEM education that pushes back against this kind of narrative. There’s a term for this: “decolonizing the curriculum.” As English literature academic Priyamvada Gopal explains in The Guardian, it means actively resisting the perspectives and interpretations of the world that have been the bedrock of Western education systems for centuries:
To decolonize and not just diversify curriculums is to recognize that knowledge is inevitably marked by power relations. In a society still shaped by a long colonial history in which straight white upper-class men are at the top of the social order, most disciplines give disproportionate prominence to the experiences, concerns, and achievements of this one group.
Scholars from around the world have been engaging in this process for decades, and I myself owe them a considerable debt–from the 1950s work of Martiniquean psychiatrist and social theorist Frantz Fanon, who examined how Western psychology justified colonial violence, to more recent work from anthropologist and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe member Kim TallBear, who has explored how to counter systemic racism in STEM institutions.
From the ways in which science aided and abetted racism and colonialism for centuries to the structural reasons some communities are centered over others in histories of innovation, there are many ways we can expand and diversify who is allowed to lay claim to human ingenuity. “Ultimately, to decolonize is to ask difficult questions of ourselves,” writes Gopal. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to sit down with four women–teachers, educators, and science communicators–who are doing exactly that when it comes to their own conversations about STEM subjects.
Wiseman is a professor in the science education department at Bishop’s University in Quebec. She is best known for her teaching and research on connecting science education to Indigenous knowledges, as part of K-12 science education and beyond.
What kind of courses do you teach, and how do you incorporate ideas about decolonization into them?
I teach a number of science education and methods courses. In the science methods courses, I focus on relationships with and within science, and between different ways of knowing, being, and doing as students of science.
For instance, during the development of the Indigenous Teaching & Learning Gardens at the University of Alberta, my students and I examined the challenges of soil erosion in Alberta through consideration of the relationships between erosion and the slaughter of buffalo herds on the prairies (and the subsequent removal of indigenous grasslands) as a way to forward the aims of colonial expansion, Indigenous genocide, treaty development, and industrial farming–all in order to figure out how make soil from scratch as a class using sheet mulching. Over multiple classes and activities, we explored how such ideas might circulate together, and reflected on cognitive, scientific, and teaching processes and skills involved in learning science, and how such learning can feel on a visceral level.
I also begin all my courses with an acknowledgement of territory and a discussion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada, as well as of how my work and being as a teacher and researcher have emerged alongside Indigenous people, peoples, and communities. The TRC links reconciliation between peoples and reconciliation with the natural world, and the natural world is the very focus of science teaching and learning in Canadian provinces and territories. And so taking the TRC seriously suggests that reconciliation requires deep reflection on the what, how, and why of what is taught within the sciences.
As an educator, what does decolonization mean to you? How do you practice it?
I’ve been trying not to use the term “decolonial” in most of my work–I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with the word, because I find that a lot of writing about it (not all) is writing that doesn’t talk about how we might undo existing not-so-healthy systems and relationships, [when instead we should] think about how we might work toward more healthy, sustaining systems and relationships.
When I do use it, I tend to make it a verb, so that the process is active and ongoing. My sense of the term is that it acknowledges colonialism as present and active (and trying to reproduce itself)–and then positions it as something we all need to unlearn on an ongoing basis because of the unbalanced influence that Western ways of knowing, being, and doing have had on educational (and other) systems (pretty much globally). I also like it because, for me at least, it places some responsibility for the process in people’s willingness to question their own complicity in systemic inequities.
As a white woman, and an immigrant to Canada, I will always be in the process of learning in the Indigenous territories that Canada is mapped onto, but given the experience of half a lifetime alongside Indigenous people, peoples, and communities, I also have the obligation to share what I have learned and to give back to the communities who have supported my learning. I know that this is a process that is never complete, but rather one that I must commit to over and over again, much like reconciliation and unlearning colonialism.
I screw up sometimes, and I am explicit with my students about those screw-ups–as well as the successes–because the students have some fragility around their own privilege. So it’s important for them to know and figure out that it’s OK when people call you on mistakes, that there are appropriate (and less appropriate) ways to learn from those mistakes, and how they can recognize their privilege and complicity to undo it and do better.
Glabau has taught the social aspects of science and technology to engineering students at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering since 2017, with classes on everything from medical anthropology to cyborgs and cybernetic theory. She is also the founder of Implosion Labs, a consultancy firm specializing in design, technology ethics, and digital culture.
How do you build the syllabi of these courses?
When building my syllabi, I often start by mapping out emerging priorities at the intersection of science and society that provide students with a background on the topic and that would allow them to collaborate attentively with others in interdisciplinary groups. I try to balance challenging the traditional canon of engineering education and science history with providing students a shared vocabulary suitable to the field and topic. I use concepts from anthropology, political science, human-computer interaction, history and history of science, sociology, public health, and even law, as needed.
What was your motivation behind doing this kind of work?
To an extent, I am informed by my own experience going from an under-resourced, rural public school to an Ivy League college. When I arrived at Cornell as an undergrad, I found that I was not always prepared in terms of debate or key cultural and disciplinary background, especially in fields like history, social studies, civics, and math. So, yeah, I would like my engineering students to challenge status quos when necessary in the future, but I also want them to feel like they understand the terms of debate they might encounter, whether in the area of public global health, a graduate program in anthropology or STS [science, technology, and society], or industry.
What’s it like teaching engineering students?
I love teaching engineers! Before I started teaching at Tandon, I had a vague idea that I would like to teach STS in a more vocational (engineering, medicine, or design) setting rather than in a straight STS or anthropology department. I even had serious chats with several much more senior faculty about the experience. Mainly, they warned me away from it because of the soft-money aspect that full-time jobs in professional fields often involve. But I’m very lucky that right now I can combine teaching on a contract basis with consulting to make a good living, and have the benefit of working with engineering students.
I find that these students really relate to historical and ethnographic case studies that they can connect to other aspects of their training, and to their future career paths. Topics like gender discrimination in the history of computing, algorithmic decision-making tools, and cybernetics have been big hits. They also really connect with historical cases that help them describe injustices they see around them in the world–for example, Typhoid Mary, the Tuskegee syphilis study, and AIDS activism in New York City. These cases help them to reflect about scientific authority and the relationship between scientific research, engineering, and science communication in ways that are thoughtful and go well beyond traditional engineering education.
The diversity of the students at Tandon is also a real strength of the student body, and a valuable resource in the classroom. Students come from different religions, regions of the world, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and are really willing to put their experiences out there in a way that I hadn’t seen with undergraduates before. At the same time, they do a lot of group work throughout their training, and really know how to be respectful and manage the group dynamics on their own, which sometimes feels like magic to me. Sometimes they don’t really need me, and I get to be just a facilitator!
I really feel that I’ve found my own calling in teaching engineering students. And I think that STS perspectives are increasingly valued in the tech industry, yet they are not being taught widely enough to students yet. There is a huge opportunity for STS education to become more integrated with engineering curricula, via STS classes as well as in established fields like tech ethics. It should be an area of pedagogy that STS departments prioritize in the coming years.
As a person of Hawaiian and Filipino descent, Flanary-Olayvar grew up determined to address the lack of diversity in science education that she sensed throughout her time in school. As a teacher, she has built a science curriculum that spans earth and climate sciences, astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics, all based on Indigenous perspectives.
What is the course you teach called? Where do you teach it?
I am based at a Seattle alternative high school called Career Link, which is associated with South Seattle College, as a science and math instructor. My course is called “Indigenous science.” I was inspired by Indigenous approaches to science through reading works such as Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, by Gregory Cajete, and Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, by Linda Tuhiwai-Smith.
What’s the reception been like? What age groups does this course address?
My school has been very supportive in helping me develop and teach this course. My course can be taught to both middle school and high school students, and I have taught many ages, but I like teaching high school the most. I guess because they seem to be at an age when they are really finding themselves and thinking about their future, and I love playing a part in helping them through that and exposing them to the possibilities science has to offer for them.
Taber is well-known for her presence on Twitter, counting filmmaker Ava DuVernay as part of her large following. She has been a farmworker and a crop scientist in the past, and is now a podcaster, using her show Farm to Taber to talk about the social issues in agriculture in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. in plant medicine at the University of Florida.
How did you get so interested in farming, and how did you start connecting it all to broader social issues?
Although I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a landholding farming family, I spent years doing odd jobs at farms across the U.S. I want to stress that I have never been in the same category as migrant farmworkers, and I was definitely not exposed to the same working conditions and labor practices, but over the years I have gained a few insights on how white farmers across the U.S. think and work.
At one point, I realized that my findings from my work with farmers needed a larger audience; that’s why I started Farm to Taber, to reflect on the ongoing issues in U.S. farming that are echoes of past race and gender relations, including the creation of a racial underclass composed of migrant workers and workers who are from marginalized ethnic backgrounds.
Right now, you work both as a consultant/strategist on farm and food systems and as a podcaster, talking on Farm to Taber about pressing issues at the intersection of farming, agricultural and food policy, the environment, and politics. How did this become a way for you to start talking about colonization, white supremacy, and their connections to farming?
My husband, Rob Taber, a historian of the Haitian Revolution, has really enriched my understanding of long-standing historical and cultural forces related to race, ethnicity, and gender that are linked to contemporary farming, agricultural labor, and food production issues. When learning about agriculture in the context of the Haitian Revolution, there are some things you learn about how agriculture functions in today’s world, and you cannot unsee them, so now I use my agricultural knowledge along with this history to talk to people about race. I try to make clear the connections between the history of racial categories and racism in U.S. society and the farming practices that enabled and cemented them institutionally to this day.
In your work as a consultant of farming and food systems, a strategist, and an auditor, do you talk to farmers about race and colonization? If so, how do you do it?
Since I have the privilege and authority to advise farmers on how to best run their farms according to regulations and standards, I have a very particular in, and rapport, with them. I can incorporate my understanding of race, gender, and power in the history of the U.S. to address these mostly white farmers, frankly, on their treatment of migrant farmworkers, their place in the U.S. racial totem pole, and complex issues such as climate change, to effect change from a grassroots level. The farm clients are relatively receptive, since I’m someone who can speak with experience as a former farmworker, but also much of what I do can be understood as anti-racism work catered to the white experience.
Using this rapport with farmers, I am able to talk about even more sensitive subjects, such as how the white American farming family was central to American expansionism, the displacement and genocide of native populations, and slavery. Recently, I wrote an article for Slate in which I explored the connection between recent food safety issues in the U.S. and the decreasing number of migrants able to come to the U.S. to work farm jobs thanks to Trump’s immigration policies, effectively highlighting the important role that migrant farmworkers play in maintaining food safety.
At the end of the day, I think much of human decision-making comes from an emotional place, and is often guided by transgenerational prejudices and ideas about farming, labor practices, and politics. So when I am auditing farms and talking to farmers, I try to meet them at that place of emotional decision-making, and guide them toward a direction with racial and economic justice in mind.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our How We Learn section, on the future of education. Click the logo to read more.