Friday, June 27, 2008

Women in the classroom

Interesting comments from Judith Warner of the Times, as she reports on a brain science workshop for journalists, held at MIT. The audience was more engaged (less intimidated?) by female lecturers. I find as well that women are less likely to try to get by with "proof by intimidation" than men, and that their presence tends to improve the quality of scientific discussion, assuming an equal level of competence.

Anyone familiar with Feynman idolatry knows that "man crushes" are just as real as what is described below for women.

At M.I.T., we were mostly spoken to by men, various kinds of men, of different ages and with different speaking styles, and we interacted with them with typical reportorial formality. Some were more popular with us than others; some were more engaged with us than others. Some spoke right over our heads; some reached even me with perfect clarity.

Something very different happened, however, on the two occasions when we were spoken to by women. The atmosphere in the room changed. We all became more familiar. We asked more questions. We interrupted more. We made sounds of assent or dissent; we questioned methods, concepts, base assumptions. It was as though, with the women, the boundaries dissolved. We were all immediately drawn into relationships.

How much of this had to do with the fact that the women tended to speak more relationally (“I think,” “I feel”), I don’t know. I don’t know if it was created by the fact that the women — to varying degrees — turned the story of their work into personal narratives.

I know that there was no conscious desire on anyone’s part to talk back to them or treat them with less respect. But one woman in particular, Rebecca Saxe, a young, dynamic professor of neurobiology at M.I.T. who gave a riveting presentation on social cognition — “how we reason about the desires and intentions that motivate others’ actions” — was interrupted so much by her super-engaged audience that she didn’t have time to get through essential portions of her talk.

I did not ask questions of this amazing young woman. I was struck, once again, with one of my crippling bouts of shyness, and besides that, I was too busy writing down her every word and wondering why on earth I had never taken science and whether my daughters might attend M.I.T.

Maybe I could send them to do summer study, I thought. (Once they’d both learned their multiplication tables, of course.) Maybe I should sport little wire glasses and wear my hair in a long braid. Or buy Birkenstocks.

“What did you think?” I breathed to a fellow female fellow, as we filed out of the classroom for lunch.

“I have a crush on her,” she said. The women around us made approving noises.

“It was her passion and energy and approach that was infectious,” she later explained in an e-mail. “I really had an emotional reaction to her, and found myself day dreaming about being her friend.”

What is this thing we so often do, when confronted with an impressive woman? Why do they, in particular, set off such a Pavlovian rush of emotion? Why, for women in particular, do they set off this me/not me engagement, this game of my friend/not my friend, this eternal, sometimes infernal play of positive or negative mirroring?

Men do a version of this with women, too — though I think it plays out more in terms of validates me/doesn’t validate me, which may amount, in slightly altered form, to much the same thing. I don’t see them doing it with other men. I don’t hear of men getting “crushes” on other men because they’re impressed with them. They don’t seem to get so flooded with the desire to be them, to try on their skins; they don’t appear to be constantly testing their identities against another man’s example, calling into question, at the drop of a hat, their clothing style or hair or general sense of being in the world.


Anonymous said...

There are some very intelligent women out there. Thanks for the interesting read. Signing off as one of those women

Anonymous said...

Intruiging observation. There are many dynamics at work, I'm sure, explaining the different manner of interaction: alpha male versus alpha female, competition versus cooperation, etc. But what I'm really wondering about is, how would a male MIT professor who is unused to being interacted with and interrupted like these female professors have reacted? Would he have "allowed" the informality, or would he have (subtly or otherwise) tried to take control of the situation and force it back to a lecturer/listener dynamic? With luck, we have some MIT students reading this that are willing to conduct some "experiments" and report on it ....

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