The University Record, January 30, 1996

Race and gender---do they really matter?

By Matthew Thorburn
News and Information Services 

Faculty and students gathered in the Rackham East Conference Room on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for "Diversity and the Academic Disciplines: Do Race and Gender Really Matter?" The event featured a video presentation of two interdisciplinary faculty panel discussionsheld last year produced by the Office of the Vice President for Research, followed by group discussion.

Julie Ellison, associate vice president for research and professor of English, moderated the group discussion. "`Do race and gender really matter?' is a rhetorical question," she said, "which leads to the topic: do they matter, and how?"

Panelist Michael Awkward, associate professor of English and of Afroamerican and African studies, called race and gender "political and social constructs" that scholars must "interrogate."

The term "English" is itself a racial and national label, added Stephen Sumida, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of English.

Although differences between races are no longer an issue for genetic researchers, racial differences remain an issue for the social sciences, John Vandermeer, professor of biology, pointed out.

Still, the panel agreed that a diversity of perspectives enriches the work of the academic community. "In all disciplines, the question of access is critically important," added Patricia Gurin, professor of psychology and of women's studies. "Human beings from all backgrounds need to be represented."

Lemuel Johnson, professor of English, agreed, stressing that the academic community is not an "immaculate conception," but a mix of "many influences." He said it was "not surprising that the academy produced both The Bell Curve and the opposition to it."

"In engineering, the impact of races and the mix of genders is not so much in the way we do engineering, but perhaps in the questions we choose to ask," said Herbert Winful, professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Still, he noted, the tendency for pigeon-holing is strong. "Just because one happens to be a Black engineer, one is touted as the `expert' on Black issues in engineering," he said.

The video-taped panel discussion and the live discussion that followed provided many points of departure for open-ended discussion of the issues of race and gender. The discussion group speculated on how research, particularly in the natural sciences, might be different today had researchers been more diverse a century ago. The group also discussed how female researchers and researchers of color might have provided different perspectives on the same results interpreted in the past century by white male scientists. Steve Goldstein, assistant dean for research and graduate studies, Medical School, said one of the primary influences of race and gender is to make academics ask themselves "how we prioritize which questions and issues to address."

Discussion of race and gender also led to discussion of more fundamental, pedagogical issues. "We have to be careful when we talk of race and gender in these fields [scientific research]," Winful stressed to the panel. "We're really talking about the absence of power."

Copies of the videotaped discussion, "Do Race and Gender Really Matter," are available from the sponsor of the event, the Office of the Vice President for Research.