We Need to Know Our Own Field’s History
Last summer, I started to hear a particular kind of hallway conversation. In discussions about historical figures from biology, people would start to say, “Oh, that person is actually really controversial: he was a racist.” The frequent follow-up question was, “What about their work?” From such conversations, members of my department wondered how to view past scientific contributions, particularly ones that are fundamental and deeply woven into the field, through an anti-racist lens.
Those conversations cultivated an eagerness amongst the graduate students in my department to take a critical eye to our work to ensure it promotes anti-racism. Some of us have learned about the problematic aspects of our subfields and their histories independently in piecemeal ways. We have deepened our understanding of the impacts of historically racist and eugenicist research agendas on society writ large, but we have largely felt under-equipped to make changes in our research and teaching that address these harms. This has led to circular conversations that leave us feeling hopeless. Our graduate committee had been iteratively offering reading groups and workshops addressing biological research and teaching in a social context, but we began to feel like further structure would make a difference.
Structure Helps Conversations Go Deeper
More and more, academic departments are recognizing the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Duke Biology’s IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism) committee, for example, has led workshops addressing bias, hosted a diversity and inclusion mini-series, and provided resources for inclusive classrooms.
Beyond the obvious ethical benefits, diverse groups produce better science and are better able to consider the impact of their work on communities. The historic exclusion of marginalized groups from academia thus has implications for science itself.
Yet, despite their relevance for today’s scientists, these messages often get lost in formal graduate education, perhaps because the dark history of biology is rarely taught at the graduate level. Instead, young biologists must seek out this information within other disciplines, such as the social sciences. Social forces have affected biological research throughout history, such as gynecological research done on enslaved Black women or early academic genetics work funded through Departments of Eugenics.
As graduate-level researchers, part of our job is to understand our field and its evolution through time. Ignoring the historical context that has shaped our field of study leads to an incomplete education. To address this gap, Raymond Allen, Lauren Carley, and I—all of us IDEA committee members—developed a syllabus for a course called BIOLOGY 750S: Introduction to IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Anti-Racism) in Biology. We worked with departmental leadership to build terms under which such a non-traditional course could be offered. In the process, we consulted with faculty in fields like African and African American Studies; Science and Society; and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies to make choices about discussion topics, reading accessibility, and course structure.
What Our Course Looks Like
Graduate students in the course explore the history of racism and oppression in biology. We divide the course into three sections: theory and history, contemporary issues, and professional development. These themes inform our learning objectives for the course—that students should be able to recognize inequities in the history of biological research; describe ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in universities; and apply best practices for equity in their own careers. It is a once-per-week 0.5-credit S/U course. In order to solidify this work’s legitimacy, it’s been important that the department grant course credit to students and a TAship to the instructor as a way of valuing this kind of exploration.
The course has allowed us to meet two goals. First, it has provided a venue for the graduate community to engage in sustained self-reflection about the intersections of oppressive forces with their field of study. Compared to workshops, a semester-long course has allowed us to dive deeper. Second, this course created an opportunity for our department to value this self-reflection by offering course credit and investing monetarily in the IDEA committee’s work through a graduate TAship for the course.
It’s clear that this course, the first and only of its kind at Duke, is addressing an unmet need. In an interest survey sent to Biology and allied departments, 94 respondents indicated a desire to enroll in the course. We had initial enrollment of 18 students with a 9-student wait list for spring 2021. Given the high demand for the class, we have coordinated with our department for the class to be taught annually each spring.
You can check out last year’s syllabus here to learn more about the course. We encourage you to join us and sign up for BIOLOGY 750S in Spring 2022!
Professional Development Tag
- Collaboration and Teamwork