Who cares if a professor is a woman or a man? And an addition

Maybe if you are a journalist taking a week-long science course at MIT, having a female teacher makes a HUGE difference.  Want to generalize from that?  Well, maybe.

Here’s the NY Times’ Judith Warner:

I was attending a journalism workshop called “Frontiers of Brain Science.” The other participants were all real science writers, people who don’t have to rack their brains to remember the meaning of the word “ion.”

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.

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.

If you don’t teach, you might want to know that the “container model of education” – the professor is to pour knowledge into the students’ mind by lecturing – is not very admired. A thoroughly engaged classroom is considered a wonderful goal to aim at, at least in the US. Every book on improving university teaching I have seen has such engagement as a primary mark of fine teaching.

Of course, women profs can drone on with the best of them. It’s so interesting, though, that the journalists saw the women in this example present knowledge in terms of a personal engagement.

Addition: There are great observations in comments (1) and (3). Let me try to add to the discussion by quoting a bit more of the article. The second part seems to me really worth thinking about. The author, it should be said, worries about the sort of reaction she records.

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.

“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 [Saxe – jj],” 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.”

Take back the blogosphere?

I went to a very interesting event this week, organised by Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy.  A bunch of left liberal bloggers got together to talk about how blogging might engage with and have an impact on national (UK) politics.

The second part of the session (read more about what went on in the first part, and see pics here) addressed the question ‘where are all the women bloggers?’.  Some of the points raised and issues aired in the lively discussion:

  • there seemed to be a failure, by some male bloggers, to properly reference or acknowledge their discussion of topics raised by female bloggers.
  • it was suggested that women – especially feminist bloggers – might be put off blogging by the nasty trolling that might occur.
  • it was mentioned that sometimes women’s comments were ignored or not properly addressed in threads of some of the blogs.
  • that feminist blogging is seen as separate from ‘mainstream’ political blogging was discussed as a problem.
  • it was asked how men might engage with women bloggers, given the complaints of, on the one hand,giving insufficient attention to women’s or feminist’s bloggings from male political bloggers, and on the other, their alleged ‘hijacking’ of debates or comment threads (answer: respect required!). For more on this topic, see the post at the F word, here.

In the spirit of the discussion, and of drawing attention to women bloggers (and on the viral linkage, ourselves!), here are some left liberal blogs by women, that I discovered at the session. If you have such a blog, or know of others please do share the links in the comments!

 Also at the session, and on the women bloggsters scene:

( And for UK politics junkies, see this:

  • Westmonster (comment from the corridors of parliament))

Updated: More from the comments-

From JJ:

Jeralyn Merritt and her main writers are lawyers; they are interested particularly in issues about criminal law and politics

This is a widely admired blog and well cited in the blogsphere.
I’ve heard from good sources that Digby is a woman. While not a feminist blog, its take on things is at least congenial to a feminist approach

From QuestionThat:

Clairwil (http://clairwil.blogspot.com/)
Cheryl (http://bettertobefree.blogspot.com/)
Trixy (http://more-to-life-than-shoes.blogspot.com/)

Ambush predator (http://thylacosmilus.blogspot.com/)


(Updated from comments, thanks! Keep the links coming!)


Take a movie break: “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman”

 Flying is out on DVD this month, and lucky feministphilosophers got a screener for reviewing.  When this was a feature at Sundance, the buzz was that it was about “gender issues,” but it’s both more and less than that.  Flying is Jennifer Fox’s episodic autobiographical documentary about her own search for what it means to be a woman, and to be happy, two fundamental philosophical questions treated deeply at somes times, trivially at others, with a good dose of humor lightening up the self-indulgence.  If that’s the way you’d describe conversations with girlfriends over a bottle of wine, it’s no coincidence. Such chats with her friends in multiple countries are half the film.


 In an interview Jennifer Fox said she was a “typical modern woman trying to make sense of my life by talking to other women,” and although she was way off the mark with regard to how typical she is, the project of talking to other women to make more sense out of life is both instantly relatable and innovative.  The six-episode series begins with what Fox calls her personal crisis: entering her forties, lacking the milestones of other women – marriage, kids, long-term relationship – and touched off, in the first episode, at the moment she calls her married lover and gets his wife on the phone (which is interesting, but I’m just saying, not a universal experience).


 Fox embarks on the project of interviewing the women she knows, and at times, passing the camera to them to interview her, in a collaborative effort to make sense of how to be women, and to be happy, which are not always the same things.  The series has been compared to Sex and the City (oh, please), to soap operas, to Annie Hall, etc., but in the spirit of feministphilosophers, I reject the comparisons.  This show is its own animal, going to the source to ask real women around the world about their experiences with sex, abortion, birth control, divorce, abuse, love, motherhood, marriage, and friendship.  Philosophers will smile sympathetically when I say Fox suffers from Nussbaum syndrome, i.e., this worthwhile project could still use more editing and goes longer than it needs, but at least in a series, each episode gets to end with a cliffhanger! Excellent.  Worth a viewing, and for another week, $3 from each DVD sale will benefit the organization, Our Bodies, Ourselves.