Eva’s Excerpt August 2020

“Differences must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” ~ Audre Lorde

In the month of July, some of us engaged in a discussion about polarities. Polarities are often thought of as opposites- things that cannot co-exist or that result in diametrically opposing opinions or beliefs. As a result, polarities frequently result in OR thinking: stability OR change, health OR economy, compassion OR objectivity, confidence OR humility.

However, the poles of a polarity are interdependent- a ying and yang. When we hold strongly to a particular value or polarity, it can be challenging to see the upside of the opposing polarity and the downside of the polarity we identify with. Yet, each end of the polarity has positive results when appropriately attended and negative consequences if overly attended. You can learn more about this by watching this webinar. For both personal growth and to address complex system changes, we can try to move our thinking from OR to AND: stability AND change, health AND economy, compassion AND objectivity, confidence AND humility. By working through the upsides and downsides of each polarity, utilizing something called a Polarity Management Map, we can engage in creative thinking and problem solving to maximize the interdependence and work to achieve the upsides of each.

Those of us working on curriculum renewal have decided to use this framework to explore a specific issue around assessment: equity AND differentiation. As I have discussed before, significant concerns have been raised about racial equity in assessment, both with regard to standardized tests (MCAT, Step exams, Shelf exams) and clinical evaluation. In the OR way of thinking, this results in advocating for either pass/fail grading OR differential grading (A, B, C or honor, high pass, pass, fail). As is undoubtedly transparent, both of these options have upsides when done well and downsides when overemphasized. We began a Polarity Management Mapping Process to elucidate these in more detail. From this, we hope to identify action steps that allow us to maximize the upsides of both.

Led by Dr. Amanda Emke and supported by the myriad of exceptionally gifted educators we have here at Washington University, I am confident that we can develop strategies that mitigate the critical concerns that have been raised about racial equity in grading locally and nationally, while allowing our students to differentiate themselves for their unique skills and attributes. Moreover, it is my belief that this work, combined with the coaching and support programs led by Dr. Nichole Zehnder and supported by Dean Lisa Moscoso, will help us to train truly self-aware, lifelong learners who are able to create a brighter future for medicine, science and society. Like diversity itself, working through polarities to see the beauty of our different perspectives is what allows us to achieve true excellence.