Demotivation and Privilege

Mar 20, 2015 • Andrew MacDonald

Our assignment this week was to describe an occasion when we felt demotivated in the course of our education. I think this is a useful exercise, but I think we should try to go farther! Demotivation doesn’t affect everyone equally – it is particularly tied to privilege.

I’ve definitely experienced good and bad teaching, and corresponding highs and lows in motivation, over the course of my education (example above). But I’ve also mostly been told that I belong in science / computer stuff – for example, everywhere I look in those fields I see people who look exactly like me. Frankly, I don’t think I’d be too demotivated by somebody dropping a careless “just” or “it’s easy” during instruction. Somebody else might, and I think that this has less to do with our individual histories and more to do with systematic inequalities that benefit one group at the expense of others.

We learned that motivation is damaged by indifference and unfairness. It seems to me that certain groups of people (those underrepresented in science, computing and therefore, probably, in SWC classes – basically anybody who isn’t a middle-class white man) are much more likely to face indifference and unfairness, both from individual instructors and from wider society. I think as instructors we should strive to understand how that happens, and how we can bring that awareness to our classrooms.

As I understand it, the point of this assignment is to help us empathize with our future students and avoid demotivating them. I think that it is a great way to ‘activate’ our prior knowledge and experience about the causes of demotivation. I’d like to use this as a starting point for learning more about how the work we do runs into these issues of institutional inequality and privilege.

I asked some friends for input, and here are some of the suggestions that Susannah Tysor came up with (Thanks!) (edited to put into the context of our training so far):

  • Try to use universal examples to explain things (not sports betting!) or use weird stuff and explain it.
  • Don’t ignore class. Don’t comment on how old/inexpensive/beat-up someone’s computer is. Don’t disparage designing for older platforms.
  • Never, ever, ever make heteronormative, sexist, racist, or other -obic or -ist comments. I don’t care how funny, innocuous, or inoffensive they are. It’s a way to signal in group/out group and it just adds up over time.
  • When you use images or stories about programmers, include programmers whose inputs are often marginalized like men and women of color, white women and feminine presenting people.
  • Follow this advice for giving feedback

I really liked this last link, on giving feedback constructively. It has lots of small tips, like removing the words “no” and “don’t”, when offering criticism. I think that perspective comes in handy most of all when we are assisting, rather than instructing. I mean its one thing when you are at the front of the class, conducting a prepared lesson – then maybe its easy to avoid errors. But when you’re walking around the room, looking for red sticky-notes that indicate problems, I think its much easier (speaking for myself) to make mistakes. When you’re leaning over somebody’s shoulder, trying to solve their problem, it’s probably easier to forget yourself and reveal bias without meaning to.

Anyway, these are a few thoughts on the topic. I’d be really interested to discuss this with anyone else – I know i have a lot to learn!

Thanks very much for comments on an earlier version of this post from Kara Woo, Susannah Tysor, Bill Mills, Angela MacDonald and Daniel Randles. Most of the improvements are theirs; the errors are mine.