Thursday, January 15, 2015

Combating bias: Google Images

At Fresno State, our administration has made student inclusiveness a prominent priority lately. As a caucasian male, I hadn't consciously recognized the issues until I recently became a university professor, and I'm sure I'm not alone in my propensity to overlook bias and equity issues. Indeed, Google apparently has diversity issues as well!

Should a white male professor fit in at Fresno State?

It took me a term or two at Fresno State, which is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and an AANAPISI (Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution), before I one day looked out at my class of sixty students and realized that I was the only one (or perhaps one of three or four) in the room with blonde hair. Fresno State, like all California State University campuses, has a mandate to serve students from the geographic region, many of whom are Hispanic.

Then came a moment when I started wondering whether I was an appropriate choice of professor for Fresno State. Last year, our Provost asked us to read Who Gets to Graduate?, a New York Times article by Paul Tough, and to think about how each of us on the faculty (and staff) can help all students feel welcome and feel like they belong. Could it be that I'm actually inhibiting the potential of my students because I'm not as good a role model as I could be if I were a first-generation college student, or Hispanic, or female, or...? I have since given the question of how to help improve students' sense of belonging considerable thought, but I hadn't come up with any steps I felt like I could take in the right direction, until today.

Professional development to the rescue!

A NSF WIDER grant recently awarded to my College helped us establish faculty learning communities (FLC) for redesigning courses using high impact teaching practices like active learning, to try to improve our student success, especially among disadvantaged student populations. At one of our FLC meetings, we were asked to participate in an online implicit bias test at Harvard, which is a good first step for those who are in denial that we all have biases. This professional development opportunity primed me for what I realized this morning.

An almost faux pas

I am working on an activity for my first day of genetics class tomorrow, and my goal is to try something new to get students used to talking and asking questions in the large classroom setting (I now have 90 students in my genetics class). I'm going to show a slide with many images (a labradoodle, a mule, a pea pod, a roulette wheel, and teosinte and maize) and ask the students to discuss and share why they think each image is relevant to society. I'm trying to represent diversity in these images, because I'm actively trying to make genetics relevant to the students and their lives. I have plants that are important crops, and animals that are possibly relevant to daily life represented, for example. Then I thought I would add an image for students who are thinking about the relevance of genetics to medicine, so I added an image of a needle being used to perform in vitro fertilization.

A quick exercise for you

There are always some students in my class who are interested in genetic counseling as a career, so I though I would add one more image: of a genetic counselor. I get all of my images for presentations from Google Images searches, so I did a search for "genetic counselor" and was about to use one of the top few images that were returned, when I realized that those top image hits for this search term provide a very un-diverse image of who can be a genetic counselor: a white female, apparently! I urge you to do this search for yourself!

Then, try Google Images searches for the following professions as well - you might be surprised the degree to which the internet says these professions are diverse!

  • medical doctor
  • pharmacist
  • forensic scientist
  • professor
  • politician
  • engineer
  • construction worker
  • nurse
  • physician assistant
  • farmer
  • day laborer

What other search terms did you use that gave you surprising results?

The bottom line

If you use Google Images (or any other method) to find images to represent examples in class, be mindful of the diversity of the set of options you're choosing from! This is my first simple step that we can use to help improve how well our students feel like they belong in the university classroom.

What suggestions do you have for helping students feel like they fit in?

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