I’m in the last few days of my 2-week summer vacation and I thought now would be as good a time as any to put together a post. It seems the closer I am to an institution, the more I get thinking about higher ed. Today, I’m at a Bruegger’s Bagels in Northampton, MA — home (or near-home) to a handful of colleges and universities. I’m also plagued by a very agile fly. He likes to fly around my hands. I can’t seem to get him, and fellow patrons are starting to stare.
This summer, we’re reading a book for professional development: whistling vivaldi by Claude M. Steele. I won’t summarize the entire book for you — admittedly, I’m only about a third of the way into it. Thus far he’s exploring the impact of stigma on performance. Stereotype threat is the idea that our performance (in anything) is impacted by the stereotypes placed upon our identities. The expectations placed upon us by virtue of those identities affect our performance whether we’d like them to or not. Often times, the fear of confirming a stereotype about one of our identities hinders our performance in that identity, regardless whether that stereotype holds merit. We don’t want to give truth to that stereotype.
Consider this situation: In graduate school, we had many conversations in class about identity. As someone with many majority identities (e.g., white, heterosexual, male, etc.), I constantly second-guessed my contributions to class conversations — afraid that everything I said would be an opportunity for a classmate to think “oh, he just doesn’t get it, he’s [straight, white, male, etc.].” You can bet this fear kept me from fully engaging in the class conversations. I didn’t want to be seen as out of touch — or worse, unable to understand.
Stereotypes blur the way we understand the world. In the book, Steele points out the difference between the “observer’s perspective” and the “actor’s perspective.” As we’re often in the observer’s perspective, we’re only able to focus on what we can see or notice. This perspective tends to be a view from the clouds and causes us to miss context in which the actor (i.e., person studied) is making those decisions.
To illustrate his point, Steele references the 1978 Seattle Supersonics basketball team. The team started out the season losing at an alarming rate. Local sports analysts were able to break down, in detail, all of the reasons the team struggled. Shortly after the beginning of the season, the team hired a new coach. From there, the team started to win — and would later reach the NBA finals — despite having exactly the same players with the same skill sets ridiculed in the first few weeks of the season. When viewed from a different lense, characteristics originally seen as contributing to their struggles were now the reasons for their success.
It’s almost as though our expectations highlight the things we expect to see, and hide those we don’t expect.