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.”

6 thoughts on “Who cares if a professor is a woman or a man? And an addition

  1. Fascinating that the interactions can be described in 2 very different ways: (1) the students were far less respectful of the female profs, and kept interrupting them; (2) the female profs created a much more productive, and therefore better, classroom environment.

  2. Jender, I hope they were self-aware enough for that not to be the case. Of course, when she says “consciously” she raises a serious issue, because the sort of gender schema effects are so buried for most people. But then they were at MIT, and here that carries such enormous prestige. They couldn’t doubt the women were highly, highly accomplished. At least not most of them.

    Further, I have certainly been on the receiving end of a lack of respect from a class of students, and I saw it just recently when a young female prof was addressing grad students and profs; I wouldn’t really describe it at all the way she does. One thing that happens is that the engagement of the audience has a different texture from a “super-engaged” audience. What happens is that there are a number of different agendas being played out; the audience are boring each other and some people sense what is happening and get very uncomfortable and annoyed.

    I could have asked Rebecca her take and reported back had Mr. jj not hidden my glasses and prevented me from being at the conference where she is speaking! It was an accident, he says, that they got put away with his clothes.

  3. I think the two are related – it may be good (for the class) not to have an excessive amount of ‘respect’ if that paralyses interaction. Something similar may be true for younger and older lecturers, where the younger more approachable types tend to have more interactive lectures but less ‘respect’.

    So I presume an aspect of sexism, but one that can make women better lecturers. Of course that depends a bit on the audience… other audiences will become unproductive like the one JJ mentions.

  4. Bernice Sandler has researched and written extensively on the “chilly climate” often experienced by women in academia, and one hallmark of that chilly climate is a general lack of respect for women. To mention just a few examples, women students are less often spoken to, asked easier questions, and interrupted more by their professors than men students. Women professors’ credentials are routinely questioned by their students, even after decades of experience, and their ownership of their research is challenged by colleagues.

    I am a young, white, female college instructor at a state university, and I am becoming increasingly aware that my students do not respect me as much as they would an older or male instructor. For instance, a young, white, male student recently approached me after a guest lecture to provide unsolicited feedback. In part, his “constructive criticism” was that, although I was “articulate” during my off-the-cuff remarks, the planned portions of my talk were punctuated by too many “um”s – which made it difficult for him to concentrate on the material. He behaved as if he were a peer who expected me to gratefully receive his advice. It was really quite surreal. Amused and appalled, I asked him what year he was in college (second), and encouraged him to find ways to attend to the wide variety of speaking styles he is sure to encounter as he continues his education. I find it impossible to believe that he would have taken it upon himself to interact in such a way with an older or male instructor.

  5. I concur with Michelle. I have had similar experiences of male students interacting with me in ways that would be unimaginable with older male professors. The same can be true of female students too. What always amuse me (better laugh than cry) is that I am more likely to be criticized as harsh and too demanding in my assessments than my male colleagues. Recently, I adopted the assessment scheme of a colleague, since I was teaching the courses he was usually teaching. Almost every student complained about the assessment scheme as being overly demanding. I asked him if he ever received such complaints. Guess his answer… Almost never!

  6. Here too, including, in the first lecture of a feminist philosophy course, a male student who, when we were discussing stats about violence against women, commented that we couldn’t conclude anything about gender inequality because ‘it might just be a bunch of slags fighting outside weatherspoons’. He may have been right about the specificity of the data we were looking at, but his expression clearly left something to be desired. I don’t *think* he would have used such manners of speech in other philosophy courses or with more senior members of the department than myself.

    On this topic, Rebecca Hanrahan and Louise Antony have a paper on women’s authority, and they draw on examples of and discuss women’s authority in the lecturehall/classroom. It’s in Hypatia, 2002 (I think): ”Because I said so’ Towards a Feminist Theory of Authority’.

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