If Only

‘Stereotypes are dangerous not because they are wrong, but because they are incomplete.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, taken from her TED talk on the danger of single stories, reverberate around my brain. I begin to realize the grandeur of this statement. Single stories miss the essence of humanity, nay of life itself.

My perspective comes from that of a biologist. And looking at nature, I can tell you one thing: diversity is fundamental. How do I know? There are over 1000 species of jellyfish. And that’s just an example. If diversity wasn’t a good thing, it wouldn’t be here. That’s how natural selection works. In fact, the whole system would fall to pieces like a flimsy jigsaw puzzle on a bumpy car journey without it.

Thinking of these ideas in an academic context, diversity increases the quantity, and much more importantly, the quality of research output at all levels of focus (within a lab, within a department, within an institution). It’s not rocket science; you’re less likely to do something stupid if you have multiple perspectives assessing the problem at once. The single story in research is the recalcitrant professor who operates a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude towards collaboration.

The single story in teaching is the rigid syllabus, the standardized exams, the lectures that only appeal to certain types of learners et cetera. In this case, we often generalize out of pure laziness; it is a much more straightforward task to teach 30 clones than it is to teach 30 individuals and so we treat them as such. The convenience of viewing an audience as one however, does not justify the indirect result of denying people’s identities and alienating large swathes of the room. The fact that we have acknowledged the problem shows how far we have come; the fact that it is a problem show how far we have to go.

Diversity is one of the key constituents of life, and embracing diversity requires empathy and tact in equal measure. In her talk, Chimamanda also reminded me of my love for Rudyard Kipling, and thus it seems fitting to let him sum up:

‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
then you will be a Man, my son.’

7 Replies to “If Only”

  1. You are right!! diversity in education is important as you said a rigid syllabus are designed to test and evaluate one single goal that all students have to meet, however, students are different in their skills and abilities. Thus, a syllabus must be designed to meet all student backgrounds and stories.

    1. Well said. But this makes designing a course orders of magnitude more difficult… but it is the only way to maintain that diversity of thought throughout the educational system. One could force everyone through the same mold, but we’d be doing a disservice to society.

      I guess the burden falls on us teachers, not to do so…

  2. I love your post, because this quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk also stuck with me, but I didn’t give myself enough time to determine why it was so meaningful. But having read this post, I understand what I hadn’t acknowledged yet! Your extension of the single story vs. diversity in nature to research and then to teaching is right on. I really appreciate your insight!

  3. I really enjoyed your post! You made a lot of great and interesting points and connections between diversity in nature, research, and teaching. I am interested to hear your thoughts on how you might get away from the “rigid syllabus, the standardized exams, the lectures that only appeal to certain types of learners” and encourage multiple perspectives in a classroom setting. Thanks for your post!

  4. ” it is a much more straightforward task to teach 30 clones than it is to teach 30 individuals and so we treat them as such”…. this statement is the reality that is still perceived in many classrooms. And I think is great that we are getting the opportunity in this class and other space to think how we can start the change, but there is also the “sad” part of the many years that faculty that are fixed with their “teach to clones ” approach will continue to do so… Definitely we need to shift the classes when we have the opportunity, but we should also reach current faculty and try to work with them to change their ways….liked your post

  5. Excellent post. We must remember that it is not just a diversity of ideas and experiences we are dealing with, but also a diversity in the manner by which students process information. We cannot force them all through the same pedagogical mold.

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