A case study of pinkification as a failing strategy for diversity

[Guest posting this on our college’s dean’s blog]

I came across this story about the brilliantly hilarious criticism that BiC, the pen company, encountered upon launching a line of pastel-colored pens “for her.”

The product has almost 500 reviews on amazon.com, and I’ll let them speak for themselves by sampling a couple:

“I picked up these pens to fill out a job application as a research scientist, but the only thing they would write on were the subscription cards for Good Housekeeping and Cosmo in the lobby (but not Newsweek or Time- which at first I thought was weird, but after looking at the pen for a minute, I realized I was better off without those dense, hard topics). I eventually got one to work on an application for a nanny, so thank you Bic for giving me proper direction in my career!”

-and-

“Before I purchase such graceful, dainty, gender appropriate pens I want to be completely confident that I will still think math is hard. My role model, Barbie, used to say that she thought math is hard and I don’t want to stray from her guidance. What has been your experience?”

The story is amusing, but also very interesting because it points out society’s response to a strategy I like to call “pinkification.” I am sometimes worried that our college’s diversity efforts may fall into the pinkification trap.

Why are people (men and women alike) so upset with some cheap plastic pens? Because they reinforce stereotypical gender roles. We are fortunate to live in a society where individuals are free to become who they want, rather than follow cultural prescriptions of gender-appropriate roles and jobs. We have excellent airplane pilots who are women and men who dream of becoming flight attendants. And it’s about time we stop marveling at the “weirdness” of it all – this is the new normal.

Without claiming that genders are identical, I beg that we be wary of “pinkification” as a strategy for increasing diversity in our college. Ideas such as:

– offering “easy” classes because women don’t like the “technical” ones;

– changing the curriculum because women care about making a difference in society (what, men don’t? not the students I encounter… when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, most of them say that, in one way or another, they want to help people);

– putting Hello Kitty posters on the walls or the interior decor equivalent;

… are all troublesome because they manifest stereotypes and biases about gender roles and preferences. Rather than defining gender roles, why not create a kind, respectful and encouraging environment where everyone can feel free to manifest their full personality and potential?

So, what can we do instead? I, of course, do not have the solution to such a complex problem. But I can make some suggestions, and hope you can add to them in the comments below.

Maybe we can start becoming aware of our own deep-seated ideas and biases (we all have them). As we notice our mind producing thoughts such as, “women typically don’t do well in this subject” (let’s call them women, not girls nor ladies), or “this woman is successful because of political alliances or luck”  – maybe we can stop and consider where the idea comes from; what is the root of the problem; and how this opinion manifests in subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors that actually influence women’s performance. What if we try to play around with the thought that “all students who work hard can excel in this subject, regardless of biological sex or cultural gender” – and let that idea transpire through our subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors?

Maybe we can begin to consider how the toys we give children teach them about what they are supposed to like and be good at; that little girls are taught to want to be princesses in pink tutus. There are many subtle and not so subtle behaviors that communicate to young, impressionable people what we expect of them – and contribute to shaping their sense of self.

Maybe becoming aware of our own beliefs, of how they manifest through behavior, and how these subtle behaviors influence students’ sense of who they should be is one little step towards creating change from within.

What other ideas do you have?

Dare to create

[cross-posted from my CGT 512 blog]

One of the things I love most about Purdue (and makes me feel at home here) is that I get to work with so many people from all around the world. I can’t help but notice the legacies of various educational systems leave on students. These are just my observations, and I’m most probably over-generalizing here, but here I go:

We often hear complaints about the American education system: kids don’t learn the fundamentals; they can’t spell; critical thinking suffers. People coming from educational systems such as China, India, and (I’d say) Romania do learn the fundamentals. They can understand and synthesize ideas. Their work endurance is much higher. They simply put in more hours without expecting to have as much fun.

And then I saw in the news this story about a 17-year old girl who built a neural network that diagnoses breast cancer that’s 99.1% sensitive to malignant cells, in her trials.

And then I stumbled upon this company that makes plush toys from your dog’s photos in order to generate funds for animal shelters. It began with a little girl’s idea and her insistence, and, of course, parents who went along with it. 

My observation is that people like me, who come from the Romanian, Indian, Chinese educational systems (they must have some things in common) are really good at learning, understanding, explaining information. But we are afraid to create. I know in Romania at least, we are told that we first have to master all that came before us before we can start creating. It is a daunting task, and by the time we’re done, it’s often too late. We have this reverence for the “great thinkers”… I remember how shocked I was when I first started grad school in the U.S. that you could argue with Aristotle. “What do you mean, question Aristotle? He is ARISTOTLE!” I am still amused, outraged, and in awe of American irreverence and the freedom people take (even people who don’t understand Aristotle well) to just argue – to improve, to innovate, upon Aristotle’s ideas (and by “Aristotle,” of course, I mean any big name).

Creativity and innovation cannot be attributed solely to the educational system. Culture and economy inform entrepreneurial spirit. And yet, the question has been bugging me, What kind of educational system does it take to foster creativity and innovation? What are some practices that we should include in the way we teach and learn, that will encourage and foster creative, innovative thinking?

I leave you with a TED talk by IDEO’s David Kelley on building creative confidence. It doesn’t answer my question, though, so please let me know. What have been your experiences in school that you feel have helped foster your creative, innovative thinking?

Social media research seminar offered again this Fall

I’m really excited to teach the graduate social media research seminar again this Fall – TECH 621: Research Focus: The Social Internet.

This semester, the course will be offered Tuesday evening from 6-8:50 pm.

Each week, we read and discuss research about core social media topics such as: Internet culture (lolcats!), online communities, crowd sourcing, online identity, attention and distraction, etc. Students’ grades are based on social media immersion (tweeting, blogging, experimenting and reviewing services), article analyses, and an original research paper on a topic of their choice. Last year’s syllabus is embedded at the bottom of this post.

The course is open to all students at Purdue and usually enrolls an interesting and diverse group of people. No technical expertise required.

This is what students who took this course in the past had to say about it:

The informal operation of the class helps to support an environment of participation and collaboration. I felt like classmates were really my teammates in the learning process.

Prior to enrolling in TECH 621, The Social Internet, I had not received formal education on how to effectively design and carry out a research project at the graduate level. Dr. Vorvoreanu’s course structure not only introduced me to these important aspects of graduate education, but also enabled me to develop my first-ever research paper on society’s use of emerging, Web-based communication technologies. I now look forward to submitting my paper to an upcoming high-tech conference.


Because of this course, I feel ready to undertake new research endeavors in both my academic and professional career. It is my hope that Dr. Vorvoreanu continues to offer her students practical, hands-on research experience.

I really do like the implementation of Twitter into classroom assignments and learning. It was not only epicly awesome, but social media as a whole is something that is going to play a big part in the future of companies development. Though me, as well as other classmates, were not a fan of Twitter to begin with, Dr. V’s assertion of using the media outlet lets one respect how powerful, and helpful it is for not only classroom purposes, but business potential as well.

Finally, I enjoyed how this technology class can be adapted to fit the needs of any student from any department on campus! I hope that you continue to allow the final project and class presentation topics to be selected by the students.

She talks about a fountain of learning and encourages open discussion. I feel like I learn a lot more out of it when the thoughts of myself and others are free flowing. Her readings she assigns are also current to the medium we are studying, nothing it outdated.

Dr. V is a wonderful instructor and always willing to help students in any way possible. She was able to find a good balance of knowledge about social media that wasn’t too challenging for the beginner students, yet introduced new topics to students with quite a bit of experience in social media.
Also, I really liked the lessons about how to effectively read a journal article in a short amount of time. This is something I haven’t been taught in my previous two years of grad school.

If you took this course and would like to comment below, please help others decide whether this course is for them. You can do so by sharing your opinion of the course and/or answering questions such as:

  • what kinds of students should take this course? what majors?
  • looking back, do you think this course helped you? why? why not? how so?
  • what advice do you have for students who want to succeed in this course?

If you are a graduate student interested in this course and have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

Looking forward to seeing you in class,

Dr. V

Learning with social media: Best-case scenario

I believe there are many benefits of learning with social media, and have been working to document them in formal scholarly research. But here is some anecdotal evidence – an example that shows what can happen in some of the best case scenarios.

In my social media research seminar, students are required to blog analyses of 5 scholarly articles of their choice. This assignment rewards students for reading in their own area of interest. In this particular case (and it’s not the only one, though it doesn’t happen as frequently as I would wish), the author of the article the student analyzed found the blog post and commented on it.

This shows how learning with social media extends beyond the classroom – students learn from people who are not in the class, and even long after the course is over. It’s a beautiful thing.

So, if you read this, or you read any student work in your area, please consider taking the time to leave a comment. It is a very satisfying learning experience for students to engage with you, and to learn outside the classroom.

P.S.

Thank you, David Barnard-Wills!

Plagiarism explained by Common Craft

Common Craft created a neat public service video that explains plagiarism. The video is done in characteristic Common Craft style: easy to understand, light, funny, but very clear. Embedding is not available for people who don’t have a membership, but please click through and watch:

The Common Craft Plagiarism video

I would not hesitate to show this in undergraduate – but maybe even in graduate courses.

Fall 2011 Courses

I get to teach my social media research seminar again this semester – what a treat! Needless to say, it is my favorite course, though I am happy to be in the classroom, no matter what I teach. You can follow along on the blog for TECH 621 – Research Focus: The Social Internet and on Twitter – #TECH621

I am also teaching the graduate interface usability course, CGT 512 – Human Factors of Computer Interface Design (#CGT512 on Twitter) It’s a fun and intense class, and once again, we have great research partners! We’ll be working with nanoHUB, LearnVest and iKneer.

It’s going to be a busy but FUN semester! Join me online and help me teach & learn in these classes!

🙂

Dr. V