Monday, May 26, 2008

Diversity of Thought

At the end of our second year of graduate school, we begin to see who is going to make it (get a PhD) and who is going to leave with a masters. My program is not like all programs in all fields. You enter either with a bachelors or a masters degree and you basically have the same coursework and qualifiers either way. Some of my colleagues who started with a masters degree had an easy time with coursework (because they had seen so much of it before.) But many of us came in with only a BS set on a 4 to 5 year plan to get a PhD, or at least we said that so we could get financial support. (Masters students coming in must pay their own way, while PhD students are fully supported.)

The interesting thing is that all of the black girls (except one) in my entering class are leaving with masters. (Black people : Entering class my year, 6:50) And the one token black boy in the first year class is going to leave with a masters as well. (Black people : Entering class 1st years, 1:45)
The one black girl in my year who is still in the game is a year behind because she didn't pass the literature exams the first time. They all were a year behind because of lit exams, but only one has decided to stick with it.
As for token black boy, he made a C in his boss's class this semester. I think he made alot of other Cs in his classes as well so he doesn't have many options. (A,B = okay, C = fail)
And token black boy's boss is the token black male professor.

So what is going on here? I asked my boss about this, and about the statistics in general, and he said that African Americans usually have lower GRE scores than their peers because the GRE is racist. I believe that. It is easy to see that the GRE could reference some upper-class-white things (like going to see Cats or Phantom on Broadway) that is not as popular in the black culture. But this cannot be the whole story. I know some white people who had low GRE scores and are not smart at all, but they are doing okay because they work their asses off. Their lab-mates are pissed at them because they spend zero time in the lab because they are always working on classwork or lit exams but they know they need to pass this shit.

Here are the facts:

1. Black people are just as smart as white people. Sure, there is a continuum in all people, but the race is not a factor in determining if you are going to be smart or not.

2. Most black people drop out of my PhD program, even when they have black same-sex advisers.

So what the fuck is going on?

My Idea:

Obviously it is sociological. Most white protestants in this country come from the "work hard" puritanical mind set. This goes for the blue collars who start their own car mechanic shops and the countless business people. We as Americans are work-a-holics. Immigrating to America was hard, and a great number of people died. Hard-working people had an advantage, and they survived.

Now, Black people. There are two types: The descendants of slaves, and the recently immigrated. Slavery was a horrible thing. To give an intelligent being zero power over his or her fate is (under most circumstances) emotionally crushing. Slavery is not natural, it is brutal in all forms. If you are a kind white person who has one black slave nanny to take care of your children, you are still participating in a horribly brutal act. I had never experienced such an imbalance of power before I came to graduate school, and previously I was unable to begin to understand how horrible slavery is. I know that slavery is ten thousand times worse than graduate school.

Let us examine this situation. You are a slave on a plantation. If you work extra hard you get a backache and you still have to work the next day. If you work just enough to not get noticed, you have more time to have sex with your wife and you live longer. In slavery, working hard is not advantageous to your situation, but working just enough is. These people survived.

After the abolishment of slavery, the descendants of slaves were/are still treated like second class citizens by white people. Black people learn through experience that maybe they shouldn't trust white people, or maybe it is just that they feel more comfortable with other black people.

Fast forward to graduate school. All of the black girls that are leaving ONLY TALK TO OTHER BLACK GIRLS. And one of them sat on her phone sending text messages during the entirety of a course. Sure, it was boring as hell, and sometimes I graded a few lab reports, but text messaging? I saw a sign up on a black woman's office that said "Attitude is EVERYTHING." And I think that statement is esteemed in the black community, because if the white man is getting you down you still have your 'tude. But having an attitude is not going to help you pass an exam that you just didn't study for.

I think the problem is that post-slavery American blacks have a mix of a social thing and they lack the "you must work extra hard to be worth anything" when they were growing up. Now, the idea that you must work extra hard to be worth anything is not healthy, but it might get you a PhD.

Earlier I mentioned the distinction between recently immigrated black people who were not the descendants of slaves. All of these immigrants were extremely hard workers and totally lacked the social constructs prevalent in black America.

Black American's are less susceptible to the body-image issues that white girls struggle with. But maybe that same society makes it easier for white people to be aggressive and deny themselves in order to get what they want.


Anonymous said...

There is also the motivation factor. Why are you in grad school (specifically a PhD program)? For some, this has been something that other people have pushed on them their entire lives because they did well in middle and high school. It was just assumed you will acquire the pinnacle of academic achievement.

However, for many people, that's not what they want. So, you enter the program, do enough for a masters and finally realize that you are your own person and should do what you want. Suddenly, you don't care anymore about working too hard or studying. You know you're going to be out anyway.

For me, even before my dad overtly started the PhD push, I'd known what I wanted to get into. Though I will admit, the temptation to leave is strong. This summer, I've been using the conventional job hunting tools to search for summer internships or research. Every once in a while, you get pinged by a recruiter. Getting large figure offers or having my best friend get them does not make for commitment to the poor grad student life-style.

I'm not sure how long this will go on, but ever since I was on the verge of finishing my masters, I've questioned myself about why I want to goto grad school, what it would allow me to accomplish and achieve versus being in the workforce. Do I really care more about making contributions to the robotics/EE world than coming up with similar ideas and trying to commercialize them. If I end up with a PhD and never teach, will I feel like I wasted four years of my life?

Perhaps that is it. Maybe these girls just don't really see a viable future in continuing with a PhD. The big 'What do I do afterwards' question.

With PhD programs being designed to aggressively select only those who are smart, dedicated, and committed, people with doubts, lack of role models they want to emulate in the field, and perceived uh. . non-smartness, will continue to have a hard time.

Immigrants tend to have a driving purpose when they arrive here. They've already decided on what they're going to sacrifice and will do it for as long as it takes. For them (and I'm generalizing here), they are moving to something much better than they left.

Growing up here, one isn't leaving for greener pastures. One's motivation must thus come from other sources.

Fermi said...

what a great and insightful comment!

Thank you.

Tino said...

I think it's a cultural thing: we see the same thing in the AP courses at our high school--few black kids sign up for it because they'd rather get As in easier classes than sign up for a harder one and risk their GPA. It has to do with parents, I think. There is still an enormous achievement gap leftover from slavery and Jim Crow times. I mean when you think about it, civil rights didn't really get steam until almost 1970. And black kids have been demoted and written off in integrated schools for forever, and still are.

Anyway, as a black child, if you:
1. grow up in a house where no standard English is spoken
2. have your intelligence judged at a young age in school because of this
3. get fewer opportunities and get a slower start in all things Language Arts
4. Have parents who just want you to survive and keep on truckin,' but aren't exactly telling you to shoot for a PhD like the white parents are,
then I can imagine these things would combine to create fewer opportunities for you and encourage the philosophy of "take what you can get and play it safe."