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Discourse and identity in university physics education
2019 (English)Conference paper, Oral presentation with published abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Research topic/aim

University physics is a subject with a lack of diversity. For example, men constitute 70-80% of physics students in most countries. A growing body of research has used the concept of identity to explore how inclusion and exclusion operate in physics education. In my work, I have developed these perspectives aiming to study identity in terms of subject positions enabled in the discourse of physics education. The aim is to examine how the possibilities for being recognized as a successful physics student are structured in physics education at Nordic universities.

Theoretical framework

I have used poststructuralist discourse theory in a Foucauldian tradition, (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985) (Butler, 1990). This allows a focus on the construction and reconstruction of limits for identification in discourse, and moves away from the development perspectives often employed for identity studies in physics education.

Methodological design

To enable a detailed focus on the discourses of physics education, several case studies have been conducted in different contexts using semi-structured interviews with students as well as participant observation techniques in different contexts. I used single and group interviews to study students’ accounts of taking the Electromagnetism course, participant observation to study the discourse of quantum mechanics courses, and single interviews to study physics master’s students’ negotiations of stereotypical physicist positions. All the material was analysed with discourse analysis tools.

Conclusions/findings

A general conclusion of my study is that physics courses, when taught from a narrow physics perspective, may limit the possibilities for identification for many students. For example, engineering students on less physics-oriented programmes had difficulties seeing electromagnetism as significant for their programme-related and vocational identifications. Similar results occurred in quantum mechanics, where a strong focus on calculating can alienate some students. Concurrent with the particular appeal that quantum mechanics can have in attracting students to physics, a mismatch between expectations and course practice can cause an identity crisis for students investing in an identity as a quantum physicist. For physics master’s students, finding a place in physics meant negotiating norms about intelligence and “nerdiness”. These common and gendered stereotypical attributions for physicists took on specific significance in relation to subject choice in physics. More theoretical and pure physics directions were implicitly accorded higher status and seen as requiring more intelligence, but at the same time could also be positioned as more nerdy.

Relevance to Nordic educational research

My results have shown that in physics, one of the less gender equal subjects at Nordic universities, general and specific discourses of the education and its courses can work to exclude many ways of identifying as a physicist. This research contributes to knowledge about social justice and diversity in STEM subjects in general, and in particular broadens the scope of identity studies in education.

References

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony & socialist strategy. London: Verso.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
2019.
National Category
Other Physics Topics Didactics Gender Studies
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-378947OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-378947DiVA, id: diva2:1295184
Conference
NERA 2019, March 6–8, Uppsala
Available from: 2019-03-11 Created: 2019-03-11 Last updated: 2019-03-11

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