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Michele Cooke Receives Award for Inclusive Geoscience Teaching

Michele Cook signing the word 'deaf' with her right hand and gesturing with her left hand.

The International Association for Geoscience Diversity recently named Dr. Michele Cooke (UMass Amherst) as the recipient of its 2020 Inclusive Geoscience Education and Research Award. Organizers recognized her work as a “foundational leader in accessible and inclusive geoscience teaching in both the classroom and field for over 20 years, all while maintaining a successful research career in geomechanics and structural geology." The Awards Committee also commended Dr. Cooke for her "continued support of D/deaf and hard-of-hearing geoscience students and teachers from primary to postsecondary education." Learn more about the award on the IAGD website.

Dr. Cooke's research is focused on the deformation and evolution of faults and fractures in the upper crust of the Earth (and sometimes other planets). She uses engineering mechaniacs, numerical modeling, and scaled physical experiments, combined with geologic and geophysical data, in order to shed insight into how faults evolve and to constrain the seismic hazard of active faults. Over the past two decades, Dr. Cooke and her students developed 3D numerical models of active faulting in southern California that have contributed to our understanding of subsurface fault architecture and deformation partitioning in southern California. She previously served on the SCEC board and as one of the co-leaders of the San Gorgonio Pass Special Fault Study Area.​ Currently, Dr. Cooke serves on SCEC's Science Planning Committee and is a member of the SCEC Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. 

We asked Dr. Cooke a few questions about her experiences and insights as an accessibility and inclusivity leader, and here are her responses:

Q1: What lessons have you learned about advocating for policy changes to improve accessibility and inclusivity in academia?

A1: People tend to listen more attentively when you advocate for others rather than for yourself. Part of this is the issue of numbers. Folks are not likely to want to make any changes to what they perceive as a system that works, to be inclusive of just one person. What isn’t recognized in those conversations is the iceberg effect. If one person is advocating for change, there are many more people who are impacted but not saying anything. This is true for all advocacy and inclusion of disabled folks in STEM has added obstacles because academic ableism discourages disclosure of disability. Academic ableism accentuates ability and stigmatizes any weakness. In this environment, people fear disclosing their disability or advocating for themselves. If you advocate for yourself, the response might be that if you need accommodations, you must not belong here.

Q2: What innovative initiatives have made the most difference in improving accessibility and inclusivity, and were there challenges implementing them?

A2: I’m an experimentalist in everything I do. I run numerical and laboratory experiments where I change parameters like fault geometry to see the response of deformation. So too, I experiment in the classroom, in meetings, within advising strategies and try new approaches. Everything we do can be made more inclusive. For me this was never a radical idea because traditional classroom and meeting formats never worked for me as a person with deafness. We know that the way we’ve done geoscience doesn’t work because the % of Black geoscientists hasn’t increased in 40 years (Bernard and Cooperdock, 2018). It is imperative that we change our system. 

Some of the impactful changes I’ve been able to implement in my department include removing the GRE, instituting holistic review of grad applicants and instituting a course for 1st year graduate students on the hidden curriculum for academia. I also started a department-wide professional development seminar series so we can share ideas and ask questions. Outside my department I started, with Ana Caicedo a UMass Biologist, a blog by and for deaf and hard of hearing (deaf/HoH) academics called The Mind Hears. This is an effort to reduce isolation of deaf/HoH academics and build a network to crowd source strategies. 

The challenges are first taking the risk to make a change and then measuring the outcomes that assess if the change has been impactful. For example, I posed to the faculty back in 2017, that we would ignore GRE scores for two years and see how the admissions process is impacted. In 2019, we did that assessment, dropped the GRE and we have now added supplemental questions to assess within applications the traits for success in our program. 

Q3: What other advice do you have to others at other institutions or organizations who want to make similar changes?

A3: If you are in a leadership position, dare to change the system. If you do so thoughtfully, you will learn something whether the effort succeeds or fails. Listen to students and early career folks. Because they have fewer presumptions about how things ought to be. Their ideas might sometimes seem radical but even unfeasible ideas will guide you to recognize what needs to be changed. Encourage your institution to value mentorship and inclusion efforts as much as research grants and number of papers. Following business as usual is excluding too many brilliant minds that we need working alongside us. We can’t leave the job of inclusion to just a few with designated roles. To reduce racism, ableism, sexism, and all the -isms we all need to do the work and to have our efforts valued.

If you are not in leadership, find others to join your advocacy.  Since starting The Mind Hears blog, I’ve met many deaf/HoH academics who are grateful for someone to give voice to their own concerns. Validation of our lived experience is empowering and helps us recognize the weaknesses in the system that need to be changed. The last AGU meeting I spent more time connecting with deaf/HoH and disabled geoscientists than I did in talks – and it was the most rewarding meeting I’ve ever attended.  BTW: Reader, I’m sorry that I missed your AGU talk, I’m sure that it was fantastic. 

Q4: What changes (initiatives, policy, trainings) do you think have had positive impacts in the geoscience community, and what is still needed?

A4: I’ve been very impressed with the community’s efforts to recognize that field camp requirements can be exclusionary to many students. The valorization of remote and tough field areas does a lot of harm to our field and deters students from pursuing geosciences. Some of the creative alternatives to field camp that are arising are really interesting and the adjustments that we’ve made for the pandemic will likely improve our efforts.

To reduce ableism in our community, we need to resist thinking about inclusion as compliance with federally mandated accommodations. Outside of the US, academic institutions approach disability accommodations as an equity issue, rather than a list of actions to take in order to avoid lawsuits. For example, in the US we typically don’t provide captions unless someone requests this. Why should folks be required to disclose their disability in order to be access the presentation? From an equity perspective, providing multiple modes of communication (oral and text) is more inclusive and should always be provided whether someone asks or not. You owe it to all your students to ensure that all course materials (e.g., videos, field trips, lab activities) are accessible to everyone. While you might not anticipate every need, building in flexibility, soliciting input and expecting to make changes moves us towards Universal Design.

Q5: Like many organizations, SCEC has created an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, for which you are a member. Based on our experience, what will help such groups succeed?

A5: These committees work best when the decision makers are not present. This allows the committee to strategize the best arguments to present to the decision makers.  The committees can also benefit from members who can express resistance to the changes, so that the proposed strategy considers those concerns. If the decision makers are present for the early discussion of initiatives, then they might gatekeep and squash the idea before it has gotten its legs.  While having the decision makers on the committee might seem like a time-efficient way to make decisions, it disempowers the committee from developing creative strategies. Finally, these committees are more impactful if they are empowered and given the resources necessary succeed. This includes full support of the leadership or decision makers.

Key Resources:

Reporters seeking interviews and other needs should email Mark Benthien and Jason Ballmann (SCEC's media contacts), and consult SCEC.org/media.

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