I’m one of those women. The ones who studied science and gave up on ever being a member of that community. I studied computer science as an undergraduate, and even though I did well in my courses (I graduated with highest honors), I never felt that I was a “computer scientist” in the way that came naturally to many of my male colleagues. I have quite a few female friends who came out of this experience unharmed and went on to do PhDs in computer science. Not I. I shifted to education, found my passion, and did my masters and PhD in that. Whew. Found my niche. And it’s not something I regret, particularly. And when I see all the rage about teaching coding to kids, and, uh, empowering girls to code, I think, “Yeah. Tried that. How again is that meant to empower girls?”. When I taught teachers about ethical and social issues in ed tech, I asked them to explore the many ways in which technology and the ways parents and teachers introduce it to girls, can make it difficult for girls to advance in tech, or to remain in technology fields. And I asked them to explore the contexts around them and the ways in which our social construction of the relationship between girls and computers creates barriers for girls to have good relationships with computers. I’ve made my peace with computers. I used them to empower me, not through programming, but through social media and online collaboration. That was enough. Or so I thought.
Upon the passing of Seymour Papert, Frances Bell shared this article (originally shared by Audrey Watters) he co-authored with Sherry Turkle, entitled Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete, and reading it now re-opened some wounds, but also gave me some good ideas as an educator and faculty developer. The article highlights how many women (and some men) gravitate to an approach to programming that is different than what is traditionally accepted and expected, and how the example of computer science transfers to other disciplines as well - which is why they focus on epistemological (not merely computational) pluralism. It reminded me of some of the feminist critiques I discuss in my PhD of the North American approach to critical thinking.
What’s Epistemological Pluralism?
Simply put, Turkle and Papert define epistemological pluralism as “accepting the validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking”. There is a very important gender angle here, in that,
Our culture tends to equate soft with feminine and feminine with unscientific and undisciplined. Why use a term, soft, that may begin the discussion of difference with a devaluation? Because to refuse the word would be to accept the devaluation. Soft is a good word for a flexible and nonhierarchical style, open to the experience of a close connection with the object of study. Using it goes along with insisting on negotiation, relationship, and attachment as cognitive virtues. Our goal is the revaluation of traditionally denigrated categories. We do not argue that valuable thinking is not soft; we explore ways in which soft is a valid approach for men as well as women, in science its well as the arts.
Turkle and Papert give good examples of how some students’ natural ways of working with programming receive negative feedback from teachers and teaching fellows. That they feel either compelled to give up their own style, their own inner selves, in order to succeed, or they basically leave. They say these women “represent casualties of this war. [They] deny who they are in order to succeed”. Where “this” refers to emphasizing that “there is only one right way to approach the computer, a way that emphasizes control through structure and planning”. I agree with the authors that this approach applies to disciplines stifle variability in approach, beyond computer science or even just sciences.
How Can We Nurture Epistemological Pluralism?
I remember a math teacher I once had. He would ask students to go up to the board and explain how they solved the problem. But he wouldn’t stop there. He would then ask if someone else had a different way of solving the problem and allow the different approaches to be shared with the class. This validated that there were multiple ways a problem can be solved, and that it was not enough to know just one way... It also meant no one remained in doubt about whether their (different) approach was “incorrect” (there was room to clear up misconceptions, for example). It’s not as deep as epistemology, but it’s a start. A start to plurality of the “how”, but we should consider maybe also the plurality of the “what” and “why” (because which questions we choose to pursue for learning and why they matter to us are deep ontological and epistemological questions).
I think nurturing epistemological pluralism needs to come not just from the teachers, but from peers. My computer science teachers (save one or two who were really sexist) were really good to me and made time for me and cared. But it was more about how my male colleagues made me feel about myself... that I was less than because I hadn’t deconstructed a computer and put it back together before (my dad would have killed me?) or because sometimes I wanted to imagine the program before I started writing it, or because I really liked elegant and meaningful variable names even if we were debugging some really pesky code together. Or that, yeah, it wasn’t cool to sometimes go finish the class project the weekend I couldn’t be there because I was at a Model United Nations conference (this only happened once, but it still hurts).
I question myself, as a critical-interpretive researcher, and if I had a student who wanted to do postpositivist research - I question if I can support them if I were their only choice of a supervisor, for example. Then again, as Frances Bell said in a response to my Hypothes.is annotation “if people don’t acknowledge this pluralism then the possibility of alternatives is invisible to them. Someone once said, the problem with positivists is they don’t know they are positivist.” I am wondering if one way to introduce plurality is to expose learners to different guest speakers (or simply articles with different worldviews, not all of which agree with our own).
I admit I have struggled to do collaborative research with people from different epistemological backgrounds than myself. I think that question is harder to unpack and might be really complex to solve. I don’t know. It’s early days yet. But I think we should at least consider how, as teachers, we can ensure that we nurture epistemological pluralism, creating safe spaces for learners to explore learning in ways that speak to them, without fear of the instructor’s or their peer’s reaction or censoring.
If you think all of this is irrelevant to science teaching, watch this TED Talk by Ryan Derby-Talbot, a mathematician:
How do you think we can nurture epistemological pluralism? Tell us in the comments.