Welcome to Race on Campus. A culturally sensitive classroom strives to make every student, including those from marginalized backgrounds, feel like they can excel. But a new study found that some East Asian students can struggle in classrooms where being assertive is expected, like in business or law courses. Our Katie Mangan spoke with the author of the study about how to offer outcomes for all students.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Not a Monolith

Efforts to promote a culturally sensitive classroom where diverse students can thrive typically focus on Black, Hispanic, and Native American students — groups that are underrepresented and are more likely to be economically disadvantaged. But a new study suggests East Asian students are also struggling in classrooms where assertiveness is expected but not necessarily encouraged within their cultures. That’s especially true in business and law classes where rapid-fire discussions can feel, to some, like verbal sparring.

I spoke with Jackson G. Lu, an associate professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, about the research article he co-authored last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The title lays out the provocative premise: “The surprising underperformance of East Asians in U.S. law and business schools: the liability of low assertiveness and the ameliorative potential of online classrooms.”

Education and government statistics often lump all Asian people together, Lu said. His research distinguishes East Asians, which include ethnic Chinese, Korean, and Japanese students, from South Asians, including those of Indian and Pakistani ancestry.

Treating Asian students as a monolith, he argues, obscures cultural differences and perpetuates harmful myths about the “model minority” who excels in all educational settings.

Flaws of the Socratic Method

From kindergarten through high school, ethnic Asian students tend to earn the highest grades in math and reading, the study notes, a pattern that extends through their GMAT and LSAT scores. But six studies of more than 19,000 students found that ethnic East Asian students had lower grades in M.B.A. and law-school programs than their white and South Asian peers. That was true for both students born in the United States and in Asia, and it wasn’t because the students were any less academically motivated or less proficient in English. The differences were more pronounced in discussion-heavy classes like leadership and strategy than in quantitative classes like accounting and finance.

“East Asians, given their cultural background and values on harmony, humility, and hierarchy, tend to be less assertive, less likely to speak up and share their opinions,” Lu said. While a Western adage asserts that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil,” a Japanese proverb cautions that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

South Asian cultures encourage more verbal assertiveness, the study said, noting that the most popular nonathletic extracurricular activity among Chinese students is music, while for South Asian students, it’s debate.

The study focuses on law and business schools because they prize assertive participation, Lu said, and because “business schools and law schools are what we call gateways to societal influence.”

At Harvard Business School, class participation often accounts for half of the course grade. In law schools that emphasize the Socratic method, faculty members cold call on students and ask them to defend their positions by answering a series of questions. Although some law professors have pulled away from that method, arguing that it reinforces an unnecessarily combative approach to the law, it remains an integral strategy at many schools.

So what can faculty members do to draw out reluctant students? Some are more talkative in an online classroom, Lu said, when they aren’t feeling that all eyes are on them and they have more time to prepare their answers. There’s less pressure to adhere to cultural norms by yielding to classmates and deferring to the professor. But online classrooms are no panacea, the study says, since it’s too easy for unmotivated students “to hide behind the computer screen.”

Other suggestions for an inclusive classroom: posting discussion questions before class and asking students to share their responses privately. A professor could follow up on an insightful answer from a quiet student by telling them they’d be called on in class.

Faculty members should also value both the quality and quantity of classroom participation and not assume that students who raise their hands less frequently are less engaged. They might, as a Korean student whose case was cited in the study explained, be waiting until they had substantive contributions to make before shooting up their hands.

Fake-Out, Psych-Out, Strikeout

The study stems from another released in 2020 that examined the underrepresentation of Asians in leadership positions in the United States. In that study, Lu and his co-authors — Richard E. Nisbett, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Michael W. Morris, professor of management at Columbia Business School — found this to be the case despite Asian people having the highest educational attainment, highest median income, and lowest unemployment rate of any racial or ethnic group in the country. But big companies like Citigroup, Google, and Microsoft have all had South Asian CEOs. Lu wondered whether the same pattern they found with leaders would hold East Asians back in academic venues where assertiveness is particularly prized. The answer, the co-authors of both studies concluded, was yes.

Writing in The Harvard Gazette in 2011 and excerpted in Lu’s article, a then doctoral student in education leadership described the familiar pattern.

“There’s a fake-out in the beginning where my trigger hand jumps up to answer a question from the professor, only to pretend to caress a stray hair and tuck it securely behind my ear,” Susan Cheng wrote. “Then there’s the psych-out move. Ideas flow, but they’re not perfect yet, nor do I have quite the right formulation of words. I don’t want to make a fool of myself. Time passes and I know I need to get into the discussion but can’t manage to raise my hand. Finally, there’s the strikeout, where just as my hand is about to spring up, someone else makes my point, and the discussion careens forward in a different way. Class ends. Another missed opportunity.”

Cheng, now a diversity and inclusion administrator at Georgetown University School of Medicine, was surprised to see her anxious younger self highlighted in a major study, but said, like Lu, she’s working “to encourage students from different cultures to bring their full selves to the discussion.” —Katherine Mangan

Read Up

  • For the first time in the University of Pennsylvania’s history, three of the law school’s seven law journals are led by Black women. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • The fashion designer Ralph Lauren collaborated with two historically Black colleges, Morehouse College and Spelman College, to create a line that nods to the garments worn by Black students between the 1920s and ’50s. The line has drawn praise and criticism alike, with some students asking if the campaign will bring lasting change. (The New York Times)
  • Last week, President Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Some legal experts are skeptical that the law will actually help prevent hate crimes. Here’s why. (NPR)


Corrections: Last week’s newsletter misstated the year that Melissa K. Nelson was hired at Arizona State University and the number of tribal nations in Arizona. Nelson was hired in 2020, and there are 22 tribal nations and communities in the state.