Coleen Carrigan is on a mission to make Cal Poly a more inclusive environment through her Advancing Cultural Change (ACC) project. Carrigan, her Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (ANT 201) students and research assistants are working collectively to unearth and combat exclusionary behaviors on campus.
Since 2015, 565 of Carrigan’s students from a variety of majors have investigated cultures among majors on campus. Throughout the quarter, they develop research questions and gather data through participant observations and interviews. They utilize ethnography — listening to stories and observing behaviors — until patterns emerge.
Carrigan and her research assistants then analyze the data students collected using qualitative coding techniques. They then participate in consensus-building exercises to collectively strategize on how to increase cultural change at Cal Poly. Carrigan and the ACC team share their ethnographic findings by creating case studies to engage students, deans, department chairs and faculty
When Carrigan, a feminist anthropologist and assistant professor of social sciences and science and technology studies, first came to Cal Poly, she wanted to share her excitement about ethnography with her students. In order to do this, she started the ACC project.
“One of the great thrills of my life is ethnography,” Carrigan said. “I wanted to let students know that they don’t have to go far away to learn about a culture.”
Carrigan refers to this as making the familiar unfamiliar.
Because students must select a major prior to coming to school, Carrigan saw the importance of studying cultures within disciplines at Cal Poly, as a major is a large part of a student’s identity.
Data analysis has revealed three major themes: ‘majorism,’ gender bias and racial bias. Majorism grants prestige to technical fields and denigrates liberal arts. The ACC team works to connect this phenomenon to broader social issues in U.S. education and economy. Gender bias is evident when female students in male-dominated fields, like engineering, report feeling intimidated and are presumed incompetent. Finally, racial bias is evident when historically underrepresented minority students report feeling left out in classrooms and are assigned inferior tasks in groups.
Carrigan’s passion for ethnography inspired sociology sophomore Noah Krigel when he took her cultural anthropology class last year. After participating in the study, he became a research assistant and currently works on coding student data.
“We are starting to understand that diversity is important, but we don’t always understand why,” Krigel said. “I think this project helps more people understand why diversity is so important.”
In the past year, ACC has presented findings at local conferences, student group meetings, engineering and liberal arts classrooms, faculty meetings and industry advisory boards. In June, they will present a paper on ACC methods at the 2017 American American Society for Engineering Education annual conference in Columbus, Ohio.
ACC lab manager and English senior Michelle Bardini said she thinks the program has already created more awareness.
“Because of this project, people are talking more about majorism as well as issues of gender discrepancies in specific majors,” Bardini said, who was in Carrigan’s first ANT 201 class in 2014. “Participating in the Advancing Cultural Change study has made me more familiar with issues we see every day and being able to pinpoint them for what they are and their larger impact.”
While the project was funded by the Cal Poly Provost and Chancellor’s Office in the 2015-16 academic year, Carrigan has big plans for the future.
“In five years, I hope to secure external funding that funds a qualitative research center that collaborates with other schools to promote social and intellectual change in science and technology fields” Carrigan said. “I have a firm belief that to solve inequality, science change agents and humanities change agents need to find ways to work together.”