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.”