In his comment on the subject of stereotype threat, Charles Parsons reports that when he knew Steele, twenty years ago, Steele had worked on a way to circumvent stereotype threat. That got me thinking about why it was that we in the UMass Afro-American Studies Department had such success with students who, on their GRE exams, clearly exhibited signs of the condition. I think several factors contributed to our success, all of which are relevant to a much broader variety of stereotype threat situations.
First of all, as I mentioned, when I saw the discrepancy between the test scores and the student performances, I stopped requiring the test scores. It would have been a colossal waste of time to try to devise some way of administering the Graduate Record Examination that compensated for the baleful effects of stereotype threat. We had not worked and struggled and argued and pleaded with those responsible for approving our program so that we could ask people for their GRE scores! The supposed purpose of the GRE scores was to identify promising candidates for our doctoral program, and when I saw that the test was not working as it was supposed to work, I stopped looking at the scores. A little experience proved that the very best identifier for promising students was the writing sample, so after the first year, the Admissions Committee, which was everyone in the Department, read every applicant's sample. This sounds so obvious as to be trivial, but in fact it is not trivial at all. People obsess about PSAT scores, SAT scores, ACT scores, LSAT scores, GRE scores, and all manner of "objective" [i.e., easy to grade] tests, as though the goal of a successful educational system is to raise those scores as much as possible and eliminate any variations associated with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity [or height, weight, and hair color, for that matter.]
Notice that our decision was grounded in a certain self-confidence and also in a capacity for patience. We were quite certain that we were perfectly capable of judging whether a student was progressing satisfactorily to a doctoral degree that we could be proud of, and we were willing to wait the years it would take before we had been proven right by the dissertations, publications, and job placements of our students. In a curious way, we were aided and abetted in this self-confidence by the fact that most of the rest of the university thought our program was an academically low-quality sop to Black folks, so they did not expect our students to measure up to their distorted standards of excellence. Indeed, as I recount in my Autobiography, the Provost as much as said so to our faces in the one meeting we had with him.
The second important fact is that when those students showed up to begin their graduate education, they found a Department all the members of which, save myself, were Black and very, very smart. I was the Graduate Program Director, of course, but the students pretty quickly twigged onto the fact that I knew very little about Afro-American Studies. As I liked to joke, I was the shabbes goy of the Department, the little White boy brought in from the next village to do all the scut work no self-respecting academic wanted to spend time on. There were White students [and Latino and Asian students], but Black, not White, was the "unmarked racial category" in our Department. Could a Black student make it as an academic? The question simply never came up. Since John Bracey and Mike Thelwell and Esther Terry and Bill Strickland and Ernie Allen were all Black, the question was as fatuous as asking, in the Harvard Philosophy Department in which I studied, whether a man could be a good philosopher.
The third reason is that for all of the faculty in the Department, the success of our students was desperately important. Everyone save for myself had wanted a doctoral program in Afro-American Studies for many years. Now we had one, and these were our students. They were in no sense an elite group of students. Not one of them had come either from a major research university or from an elite private liberal arts college. One of them was a woman in middle age, and as the years went by, we enrolled a number of such atypical students. We made very heavy demands on them as students, and held them to a high standard, but we were prepared to give them all the attention and help they needed to succeed.
In the dinner with Steele to which I alluded in my blog post, Esther Terry [the Chair] and I talked about this collective commitment to the success of our students. Steele said, rather wryly, that in the Stanford Psychology Department, of which he was then Chair, his colleagues viewed graduate students either as useful lab workers or else as an annoyance.
I think there are some interesting lessons to be learned from our experience at UMass. But if anyone wants to replicate our success, maybe the first thing to do is cancel the Graduate Record Examination.