Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg
By Lynn Vollbrecht’06
When he was a young, African-American graduate student at the University of Chicago, New York Times columnist Brent Staples found people crossing the street to avoid him, or evading eye contact as he made his way down the sidewalks of his Hyde Park neighborhood. Out of nervousness at this perception of how other people were viewing him—termed stereotype threat—he began to whistle, everything from the Beatles to Vivaldi. He noticed that whistling classical music seemed to put people at ease and changed how they reacted to him. Instead of sidestepping, they even smiled.
The threat of having elements of our identity prove a negative stereotype true is pervasive, according to social psychologist Claude Steele, whose book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, took its name from the previous anecdote.
We’re so aware of stereotypes that they become like “a threat in the air,” Steele writes. “This means that whenever we’re in a situation where a bad stereotype about one of our own identities could be applied to us—such as those about being old, poor, rich, or female—we know it.”
It could be a negative stereotype that attaches fear to a black male simply walking down the sidewalk, as recounted by Staples, or about women’s shortcomings with math, or about Asian students academically out-performing their peers. Whether or not these kinds of stereotypes are being intentionally applied or believed, they are known. It’s that knowledge, Steele and his colleagues posit, that can negatively affect performance, whether on tests, in the classroom, on the athletic fields, or just about anywhere. Much of Steele’s research has to do with how students themselves perceive a negative stereotype during a test or an academic or social situation and how that distracts them from the task at hand, even though—or perhaps especially because—they would normally do well, if not for the anxiety-inducing threat of being stereotyped.
Whistling Vivaldi is “about the experience of living under such a cloud and the role such clouds play in shaping our lives and society,” writes Steele, the I. James Quillen Dean for the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Steele’s book is part of an “Issues of Our Time” series, which Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the series’ editor, describes as “some of today’s leading thinkers [exploring] ideas that matter in the new millennium.”
Because Steele conducts much of his research about stereotype threat in the context of performance in higher education, his work is a natural fit with issues facing colleges like Beloit, which is taking a hard look at minimizing the effects of stereotype threat as it builds a more inclusive and welcoming community.
“The market niche of a college like Beloit has changed dramatically in the last 50 years,” says Steele, who visited campus in September. “Traditionally these schools have served a more homogeneous population, with respect to ethnicity, race, and social class. And now that is changing very rapidly—in another 10 years, what will it look like?”
Walking the talk
Talking about issues of diversity, inclusion, and privilege is one thing, but actually changing entrenched problems like the kind Steele researches—stereotype threat and how it affects academic performance—is another.
Prior to Steele’s campus visit, Whistling Vivaldi had served as the common reading for Beloit’s 2012 Fall Conference, a day of development for faculty and staff.
“We chose Whistling Vivaldi as a reading last year with the intent of initiating a broader and deeper institution-wide conversation about how we can foster an environment that successfully attracts, supports, engages, and develops students and employees with a broad range of social identities and experiences,” says Provost and Dean of the College Ann Davies.
“One of the attractions of the book was that it seemed to invite conversation among people who may not have previously thought very deeply about identity and the ways in which Beloit may be experienced very differently, depending on who you are,” Davies says.
The conference and related conversations in Staff Council, an advisory group composed of Beloit College staff, provided some framework for campus initiatives related to the concept of stereotype threat, focusing on everything from the way a physical environment can unintentionally promulgate that threat to how it might influence the work of search committees during hiring processes. Through it all, the core question remained: How can Beloit not only attract faculty, students, and staff from diverse and underrepresented groups, but also engender their success?
This is not the first time college leadership has addressed the subject. In 2008, Beloit launched a diversity plan that was followed four years later by a Committee for Diversity and Inclusion, which made recommendations for building a more diverse campus in light of anticipated federal cuts to U.S. Department of Education programs, such as McNair, TRIO, and Student Support Services.
At the same time, intercultural literacy is one of three core skills called out in Beloit’s newly implemented curriculum, along with writing and quantitative reasoning skills.
Not long after the college adopted the new curriculum, four faculty leadership groups came together to discuss teaching and advising and to offer faculty development. Assistant Professor of Anthropology Lisa Anderson-Levy facilitates one such group, focused on the intercultural literacy requirement. The C-group (“C” is shorthand for the intercultural literacy component) has offered a series of Walking the Talk workshops this fall, covering everything from advising to fostering student reflection. A faculty forum featuring a Q & A with Steele on alleviating stereotype threat was among these offerings.
“These workshops, broadly conceived, are intended to improve our practice,” says Anderson-Levy. “Practice writ large, and practice in terms of teaching, advising, research.”
Another related initiative getting underway this fall is called Sustained Dialogue, aimed at developing 12 to 14 student leaders each semester who facilitate dialogues, build relationships across social groups, and then choose a divisive issue to work toward solving. “While the emphasis is on student leadership,” says Davies, “I think we see Sustained Dialogue as a means of developing our whole community’s capacities in this way.”
One of the challenges of enacting institutional change is finding ways to measure whether or not the efforts are succeeding. Part of the C group’s work included creating mechanisms for measuring whether Beloit students are absorbing the intercultural literacy component of their education.
“The members of this leadership circle developed evaluation criteria for students, where we asked them to think and write about the class they were in and the assignments, and whether these helped them develop intercultural literacy skills,” Anderson-Levy explains. “That’s one kind of assessment that can happen in the context of the classroom.”
Determining whether or not the college has successfully transformed into a more welcoming place will be harder to measure.
“Institutional change takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Anderson-Levy says. “In the same way that it takes a while for us to get our legs under us, to get walking the talk—it takes a while to measure success, too.” One way is to look at the kind of students Beloit attracts, she says, and whether students from all backgrounds and walks of life really do feel comfortable at Beloit.
Beloit’s institutional commitment to this concept can be seen in the literal change in one department’s name—from women’s and gender studies to critical identity studies. It reflects the college’s focus on diversity and inclusion, says Catherine Orr, professor and department chair.
“I think the critical identity studies (CRIS) major is going to be a location where a lot of work can get done,” Orr says. “If we’re serious about intercultural literacy, if we’re serious about our mission, and we know that students who are going to be applying to Beloit in the next 25 years are going to be more diverse racially, they’re going to be more diverse in terms of their class—all kinds of diversity that CRIS could then take up—that’s about being serious. It’s about institutional change, both reflecting it and promoting it.”
Challenges, and challenging conversations
The days and weeks after Steele’s visit to campus saw a rise in conversations regarding the topics he addressed and strong reactions from the Beloit College community.
While many see his work as an accessible point of entry for people who might not have previously considered stereotype threat and its implications, others felt that Beloit was ready for more challenging conversations about race, class, gender, and other identity factors.
Some people took issue with Steele’s approach to presenting his work when he opened his lecture to a packed house in Eaton Chapel by showing an excerpt from the movie, 8 Mile. The scene depicts a white male rapper being booed off a stage by black men and women when he failed to perform under the pressure of being negatively stereotyped.
Steele’s presentation had Professor of Religious Studies Debra Majeed questioning “whether it is possible for us to engage in the dangerous and challenging conversations necessary to thoughtfully interrogate discourses of race, racism, white supremacy, and whiteness as privilege and power in any/all the forms we encounter.”
While focusing on curricular opportunities is an important step, Majeed says, difficult conversations also have to take place on an individual level.
“The difficult, dangerous, challenging conversations I mention must occur on the personal level as well,” she says. One way that she suggests doing this is “beginning with faculty conversations about our own positionality and reflection on the biases and presuppositions that we bring to the classroom and our encounters with students.”
While Steele’s visit spurred a lot of dialogue on campus, Orr points out that it’s important that the college not let this opportunity for institutional change slide.
“I think Claude Steele’s visit is an event—he hasn’t come to save us from ourselves,” Orr says. “The work is ours. The work of changing an institutional culture and really reflecting on who it is we are, and who we welcome, and who doesn’t feel welcome here, despite our best intentions—that’s on us.”
Steele himself echoed those sentiments when he talked about the work the college has cut out for itself. The key, he says, will be experimentation.
“We keep thinking that somebody’s going to show up with exactly the right package to take off the shelf to make a wonderfully inclusive over-the-rainbow kind of campus, and that’s just not going to happen. It’s going to be hard work, down-on-the ground, trying things out, jettisoning some things, developing other things,” Steele says. “It’s easy for me to come in for a day and talk about it, but it’s very hard to keep institutional focus on it.”
Davies said Steele’s visit and the dialogue it generated emphasizes how much the college is motivated to change and that many of the ideas about how to build a more inclusive campus will come from the college’s own community.
“Institutions of higher education have been discussing issues of power and privilege for 30 years, and not enough has changed,” Davies adds. “Our aspiration is to learn by doing—try things, undoubtedly make mistakes, and, we hope, learn from them.”
Lynn Vollbrecht’06 is the associate editor of Beloit College Magazine.