18 September 2017

Innovative Like Me: Best Practices for Writing Unbiased Job Ads

Below is a post @anthrolens blogger @JennLong3 wrote on LinkedIn. In this post, I write about diversity and bias in Canadian job ads.


While drinking coffee this morning, I came across a job ad for an internship at a Toronto-based subsidiary of a FP500 Corporation.

In addition to one’s resume, cover letter, and copy of transcripts, the employer asked for:

  1. An overview of projects the applicant had worked on in the past - be they work or school-related or a personal project;
  2. Two in-depth case studies about any of these projects which highlight the process, insights or design principles, the output generated, challenged encountered; and,
  3. A list of the top three books or articles with the biggest influence on their practice and a description of why they’re important to the applicant.

For such a tall order, the employer explained their wishes:

They wanted to understand ‘how the applicant worked’ because ‘the documentation process was just as important to the final product’. They also requested that applicants provide specific details about their methods and frameworks because they were interested in understanding the why and the how of their process.

As a Communications instructor for the W. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology – I saw myself mic drop and walk away from this glorious display of the importance of communication in technical fields. This sophisticated call for applicants helped prove the importance of many topics covered in my class including: project documentation, reading widely in one’s field, the importance of discipline-specific vocabulary, putting theory into practice, self-reflection during project work, tailoring documents to specific audiences…I could go on.

In the end however, the ad stated ‘feel free to use whatever format or length…’ to showcase the applicants work. That’s where I stopped.

I teach my students that there are prescribed methods of communication in Canadian workplaces; that is, whether they know it or not, workplace correspondence and documentation follows long-standing formats of technical and professional communication. To do otherwise slows down progress, creates confusion, and has the potential to ruin work relationships. In class, we learn about direct and indirect writing styles, best practices of professional communication, and more. I tell my students that in following these best practices, they will get more done and make a better career for themselves.

The brief overview request aside, how should we teach students to write case studies and describe their favorite book without returning to the genre of essay writing or book reports that they left behind in primary or secondary school? Do the employers think their applicants will have sufficient expertise to write a business case study? If so, what are the implications of sharing such intellectual property during a job search process?

Perhaps this open-ended request is a symptom of the creative industry, that is, that they want to see what applicants can come up with; yet, there remain standards for communication in all workplaces that the intern will have to follow. Will they end up with a creative soul who can't interact professionally with a client? In a more practical sense, do they want to read thousands of book reports? (Obvious answer: No, you don't) As someone who has faced stacks of essays and literature reviews, it was those well organized, efficiently written (length requirements be damned) submissions which caught my eye and won out.

As a social science scholar teaching in STEM, I’m often struck by the ‘isms’ of Canadian workplace culture that bubble to the surface in everyday practice. In this case, I imagine that such a job ad would locate an applicant whose creative expression matched the recruiter's and whose well-loved book list matched their own. It begs the question: Is this the best way to source an applicant? In a word, no. Innovation – a word sprinkled throughout the ad – does not come from sycophantic following but productive conflict, i.e. difference in thought, in life experience, in world view. Written as such, this ad reflects the implicit bias found in the Canadian hiring process (see Ottawa Citizen, the Star) where employers hire similar and like-minded employees - and so the inequitable hiring and promotion cycle continues.

If you want an applicant who knows about the design process – why not have a quiz to test their individual knowledge? If you want to see creativity in practice, why not have a second stage where culled applicants respond to a past company project filled with real world issues. This would allow them to respond to situations from the brainstorming to production phase. Along the way, ask them to reflect on why they made the decisions they did, and how they would deploy their methods. Otherwise, include a template of a case study to level the playing field (and limit the page count). If you want different thinking, why limit creative knowledge to books and articles – a genre biased toward a particular readership? Instead, suggest potential interns submit a photo and write 250 words as to how this photo inspires their perspective on innovation or design practice.

In the end, I advocate the same thing to employers as I do to my students. Write reflectively, in a manner that considers the audience’s needs and which follows best practices of workplace communication. To do less, creates unproductive communication and has the potential to stymie innovative work processes.

14 September 2017

Solutionism - The Role of Technology in Solving SocioTechnical Problems

It all began, over a year ago (June 2016), with what author Ethan Zuckerman described as hate-linking. Through this practice, Zuckerman stumbled upon and read an article by Shane Snow who is the co-founder of a content-marketing platform. Briefly, in his article, Snow advocates for change in US prison systems - to lessen the financial burden and remove instances of violence - by locking everyone in a room...indefinitely and by feeding them the Silicon Valley version of Ensure. The role of technology - a crucial point to Zuckerman's response - in this prison life would be to give all those incarcerated access to VR (virtual reality) equipment and video games to socialize and learn. Snow's thought is that with less contact, there will be less violence and deaths.

In his lengthy response, The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People's Problems for the Atlantic, Zuckerman systematically pokes holes in Snow's proposed solutions to the US prison system (as a design developed out of context and without input from those living and working in such a system) and questions the role of technology as the prolific savior in sociotechnical issues.

As an engineering instructor at MIT, Zuckerman is interested in finding ways to: disrupt better, challenge knowledgeably, and engaging (or codesigning) new and better technology alongside the intended or target audience. Zuckerman drives home what he sees as an issue in (most) engineering design processes where many of the technologies we benefit from, weren’t designed for their ultimate beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely.

Zuckerman draws attention to Evgeny Morozov's critique of “solutionism” which Morozov describes as the act of focusing on problems that (only) have “nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” The problem with the solutionist critique, Zuckerman argues, is that it tends to remove technological innovation from the problem-solver’s toolkit. He advocates that robust solutions to social problems must incorporate technology as one of many levers toward social change.

Zuckerman mentions the work of Genevieve Bell at intel to briefly mention the role of ethnography and ethnographers in collecting important user information in the design process. He writes:
Understanding the wants and needs of users is important when you’re designing technologies for people much like yourself, but it’s utterly critical when designing for people with different backgrounds, experiences, wants, and needs.

Although an older article, Zuckerman's response to Snow's design situates anthropological and ethnographic analysis into the heart of the design process, where the heart does not represent the centre of a process, but the life blood of design and innovation. It's here that the expert - that is the user or client or target audience - and their knowledge is paramount.

Quick Links: 
  • Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People's Problems: What will it take to design socio-technical systems that actually work? Ethan Zuckerman in the Atlantic (June 23, 2016)
  • How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix The Prison System (A Thought Experiment) - note, this has been revised due to feedback from the wider community - Shane Snow (Sept 23, 2015) 

  • For more links about technology on AnthroEverywhere!
  • Isuma TV - Indigenous Media collective (Sept 4 2017)
  • Anthropology Podcasting (Aug 24 2017)
  • Remembering & Memories: there's an app for that... (Jul 17 2017)

  • 11 September 2017

    Resources for Anti-Racist Pedagogy

    As a scholar who "grew up" in anthropology decades after the crisis of representation debates emerged, I am well aware of the colonizing power dynamics in our discipline's past, and how these power relations continue to reverberate through our work today. But, what does it look like to address these kinds of questions in the everyday of our classrooms?

    In 2013 I took a teaching course offered through my university's Teaching Commons. It was free for students to complete and was specifically directed at Teaching Assistants, who do the bulk of small-classroom teaching and assessment for larger lectures at my university. It was a really valuable experience, and I learned a lot about things like pedagogy in general and creating and evaluating assessment tools.

    During this semester and since, one of the questions that I have kept coming back to has been how to create inclusive classroom spaces for all of my students.

    How do I strike the right balance for inclusivisty in my teaching between my intersectional privileges, the diverse identities and experiences of my students, and the course content? 

    As anthropologists, we may be used to critiquing the complexities and nuances of power relations and underlying structures in the context of our research -- but are we examining or accounting for our own positionality in the classroom, vis-à-vis our students, our topics, our pedagogical choices...?

    Hopefully, yes -- even if it demands an ongoing process of growth, including missteps and teachable moments for ourselves and our students. I'm sure we can all think of a few of these missteps, and what we've learned from them.

    It's with these questions and issues in mind that we share some new resources for anti-racist pedagogy, and point up a few more of these kinds of discussions from previous posts and pages:

    There Is No Apolitical Classroom: Resources for Teaching in These Times (2017, National Council of Teachers of English)
    • This page contains a wealth of resources on anti-racist pedagogy. These resources are not intended for university-level educators, but offer important points for reflection, strategies, and approaches for thinking about race/ racism and other forms of discrimination in the classroom grouped under headings like: Resources for Working with White Students, Resources for Understanding White Supremacy, Resources for Understanding Bias, and additional articles.
    Inquiry into Practice: Reaching Every Student Through Inclusive Curriculum (2011, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto)
    • This edited volume includes discussions of research into a variety of classroom issues, especially in the Canadian context. Again, these chapters are not directed at university-level educators, but are written by academics specializing in education. The end of the document also includes an annotated reading list of further resources that "have been selected for their relevance on issues of inclusion in the Canadian context, their focus on classroom practice and strategies, or their ability to raise awareness of individuals or groups in society" (2011, 124). Resources include texts as well as multi-media sources.
    From anthro everywhere! here are a few relevant posts and pages for thinking about anti-racist pedagogy, collegiality, and the role/ perspective of anthropology:

    07 September 2017

    Fake News: Questions and Resources for Back to Class and All Year Round

    Ah, fake news.  As a phenomenon, its truthiness is both fascinating (from an epistemological perspective, at least) and highly troubling (from the perspective of anyone who cares about information literacy, quality research, social justice, ...). Many anthropologists and others have spent a lot of time not only countering fake news messages -- the recently infamous Google Memo is a good example -- but trying to understand how and why fake news works. For instance, take Scientific American's Anthropology in Practice articles on "Understanding The Social Capital of Fake News" (28 November 2016) and "Three Historical Examples of "Fake News"" (1 December 2016).

    Discerning valid arguments based on evidence from what might be called "fake news" has always been an important part of a university education. Yet, the challenges we face in how we teach this kind of critical thinking seem to be becoming ever more difficult in the current climate and through the proliferation of messages in our contemporary media.

    Luckily, hardworking librarians exist to help uphold information literacy teaching and learning, like those at the Toronto Public Library. Toronto librarians have put together an accessible page on How to Spot Fake News that poses important questions to consider (and why to consider them) when assessing the validity of a message, article, post, or news site, as well as links to additional resources. While some of these additional resources are available only to TPL patrons, many more are accessible to anyone, such as this list of Research Guides:
    Now that you are armed with these great resources and questions, happy back to class!

    Quick Links and further reading:

    04 September 2017

    Isuma TV - Indigenous Media collective

    We recently came across Isuma TV, "a collaborative multimedia platform for indigenous filmmakers and media organizations. Each user can design their own space, or channel, to reflect their own identity, mandate and audience."

    The result of this non-profit collaboration is an amazing collection of "over 6000 videos, and thousands of other images and audio files, in more than 80 different languages, on 800+ user-controlled channels, representing cultures and media organizations from Canada, U.S.A., Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and all over Latin America."

    Where some viewers might be attracted to content in channels like Inuit knowledge and climate change, others might be interested in how Indigenous communities are using the platform to help teach and share knowledge about Indigenous cultures and languages.

    Check it out, and let us know how Isuma TV might be useful in your classroom via twitter @anthrolens or email anthrolens@gmail.com.