The star rower whose research examines teachers’ perceptions of intelligence - Daphne Martschenko
Daphne Martschenko, president of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club, is determined to make the sport of rowing more accessible. Her mission to pave the way for greater diversity in rowing chimes with her study of the charged concepts of race, socio-economic status, intelligence and genetics.
In 2015 I became the first person of colour to row in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Races. The Men’s Boat Race originated in 1829 and the Women’s Race in 1927. To realise that I was the first non-white face to take part was a shock. Rowing has always been seen as an elite sport but I hope this is changing. I would like for people to see me and think there is a place for someone like them in the sport as well.
As a child growing up in the USA I absolutely hated sport. My parents thought it was important for me and my younger sisters to do outdoor activities and they tried very hard to interest me. I did swimming, ice-skating, baseball, soccer and basketball. I didn’t really click with any of them, and most certainly not with swimming and ice-skating. I thought of myself as more of a nerd than an athlete.
One day I spotted a rowing eight on the Potomac River. I did lots of drama and I was in the school mini-bus on the way to a Shakespeare theatre competition in Washington DC. I said to the friend sitting next to me “What’s that?” Her sister rowed and she explained what rowing was. I liked the idea of being on the water and not in it.
My state school in Virginia offered rowing. I knew I needed to get fit before the season started so I joined the cross-country running club. I was a big kid and one of the slowest. But, when you’re learning the basics of rowing, it’s all about strength. I was strong, even if I wasn’t the most fit. At last I’d found a sport I was good at.
Rowing opened so many doors for me. It gave me confidence and that helped me to do well academically. Without rowing, I wouldn’t have applied to universities on the west coast which seemed a world away from Virginia. I went to Stanford University where I majored in Russian language and literature and medical anthropology.
My father is Ukrainian and my mother Nigerian. At home we speak English. For several years when I was a child we lived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia — Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Ukraine. Because of this, I love learning languages. At school I took Latin and at Stanford I studied Arabic in addition to Russian. Languages are like a superpower, I would love to be able to speak every language in the world. In Cambridge I’ve continued with my Russian.
At Stanford I continued to row. I took part in the Under 23 World Championships in 2012 and 2014. In my four years there I learnt how to pack a lot into life. I love lists. In my room at Magdalene College in Cambridge I have a white board with a weekly schedule of tasks I need to do. Just at the moment writing up my doctoral thesis is top of the agenda.
I came to Cambridge to do an MPhil and stayed on to take a PhD. My MPhil was in Politics, Development and Democratic Education. My doctoral research looks at the social and ethical implications of behavioural genetics research. It examines teachers’ perceptions of intelligence, class, and race — and the possible effects of these views on student achievement.
In the USA, where I carried out my fieldwork, people don’t want to talk about race. They avoid it. I think this happens in the UK as well. This reluctance made it very difficult for me to carry out my research — I deal with sensitive topics. Fortunately, I managed to run focus groups in two schools and survey over 600 teachers. I think having these critical and open conversations is a key to avoiding misuse and misinterpretation of scientific research and to ensuring that marginalised and historically oppressed groups are not further harmed.
Research says teachers perceive non-white children as being less ‘bright’. This bias has a huge effect on teachers’ expectations and subsequently on student achievement. We urgently need far greater diversity in the teacher workforce. In my case, I was placed into a remedial reading programme when I started primary school for what seemed like no reason to my parents.
Both my parents immigrated to the USA. My mother arrived in 1993 so she spoke with an accent. Because my mother and grandmother went to enrol me in school, without my dad, the school assumed I was growing up in a single-parent immigrant household with low level English. When my father, who’s white and grew up partly in New York, went into the school to ask why I was identified for special education, I found myself back in the ‘regular’ classroom.
Genetically-sensitive schooling is one of the latest ideas coming from behaviour genetics. Essentially, it’s the notion that you can tailor education to a child’s genetic profile. It’s problematic because it can be essentialist and deterministic. Categorising and labelling children influences teachers to think of children in certain ways, especially in the USA where there are achievement gaps along socioeconomic and racial lines.
There’s an ugly history behind the founding of behavioural genetics that was used to justify race- and class-based differences. These implicit associations between race and class and ability remain — and the re-emergence of behavioural genetics into the popular domain runs the risk of re-inscribing bio-determinism into education, an institution often seen as a way to achieve social mobility.
People told me that Cambridge might be a culture shock. But I quickly felt at home here. Rowing helped a lot because right away I met inspiring and amazing women. I joined the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club and rowed in the Blue (first) Boat in the 2015 and 2016 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Races. This year I rowed in the reserve boat (Blondie).
Rowing has been a big part of my life at Cambridge. Training takes up so much time and energy. Three times a week in term time, I’ve been getting up at 5.18am — yes, it’s that precise — and catching the 5.55am train to Ely where we train on the River Ouse. In the afternoons there’s yet more training on land in the Goldie Boathouse back in Cambridge.
In May 2017 I was voted in as CUWBC president. This was a huge honour and I’ve loved it. To have the chance to represent Cambridge University in the biggest university rowing event in the world is a true privilege. I’ve seen it as an opportunity to talk about increasing diversity in the sport of rowing and put across the message that we need to be making it more accessible. Our Blue Boat won against Oxford in 2017 and again this year in 2018. In fact, all our boats won, both men and women. The last time that happened was 1993.
What will I do next? At present I’m concentrating on getting my dissertation written. I used to think I’d apply to the Foreign Office given my love for languages — but now I’m considering either staying in academia or going into education. I’m involved in a non-profit organisation called Camp Phoenix that seeks to empower low-income youth through academic learning in the summer months. That kind of hands-on work has direct impact in the fight for social justice.
I love reading — especially memoirs. Most recently I’ve read Educated by Tara Westover. She was brought up in a Mormon fundamentalist family in Idaho and didn’t go to school until she was 17. She educated herself, got into university, and eventually took a PhD at Cambridge. Her story is inspirational. If you haven’t read it, you should.
Daphne Martschenko is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education.