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Book notes

Posted by Melissa on October 13, 2008

One of the simple pleasures for me this year has been finding the time in the evening to read books. Recently I’ve read two different books that I’ve found rather interesting: Elizabeth Aries’ Race and Class Matter at an Elite College and Linda Sax’s The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men. Both explore differing student experiences and outcomes based on race, class, and gender. Aries’ study qualitatively explores students during their first year at Amherst College. Sax’s study is a compilation of survey results of 17,000 students at 204 different institutions. The data is from the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s Freshman Survey in 1994, and the College Student Survey, a follow-up study in 1998. I may write about Aries’ book later, but here are three results from Sax’s work that caught my attention.

1) Both women and men majoring in fields such as the physical sciences, engineering, and computer science tend to become less interested in broader societal and cultural issues than when they entered college.

We are doing our students and society a disservice if science majors leave college less interested in societal and cultural issues than when they started. It’s important for science minded folks to remain engaged in societal issues both for the heath of science fields and of society at large, especially when you consider the growing importance of science related issues like public health, responsible development, and alternative energy. I can’t say this result was surprising to me, particularly based on conversations I have had with students when I ask them to do assignments exploring the connection between the topics we are covering in intermediate level physics classes and the broader public sphere.

2) Men working with faculty on research become less supportive of traditional gender roles, but women who work with faculty on research become more committed to traditional gender roles. (Here support of traditional gender roles is identified through student agreement with the statement that “the activities of married women are best confined to home and family”.)

I find this interesting. Sciencewoman has already discussed this on her blog, and my thoughts are very similar to hers. Do faculty subconsciously treat male and female students differently, or do female students pick up on the lack of balance that many faculty exhibit in their lives and then change their views accordingly?

3) Schools with a larger percentage of female faculty are often thought to provide positive role models and benefits to female students, but male students actually experience more developmental benefits than female students at institutions where there are a higher percentage of female faculty.

As Sax notes in the book, her results provide a broad overview and point to many areas where follow-up research needs to be done. Nevertheless, it’s got me thinking about the importance of intangibles in this enterprise called higher education.

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3 Responses to “Book notes”

  1. Adriana said

    Number 2 especially grabs my attention. I also wonder, as a humanities professor, whether these results would hold true in other disciplines. In grad school, I certainly didn’t feel I had any female role models (in spite of the many women faculty) that showed me what it might be like to lead a balanced life. Women in my cohort explicitly discussed this issue–how do we become strong researchers, writers, publishers, teachers without compromising the home life we want? For many of us, the question of children (whether we imagined ourselves having children) especially influenced how whether we saw our overworked, stressed-out female faculty as role models.

    This gets to #3. While male students see strong female faculty in roles which are not stereotypical (i.e., as producers of information, of knowledge; as authorities; as leaders), women students see the ways in which these non-stereotypical roles lead to imbalanced lives. I think this would be true in most disciplines, given my experience…

    Thanks for the great post.

  2. meblen said

    Excellent point, Adriana, particularly with respect to the potential connection between 2 and 3. One point of clarification, for #2, the study doesn’t break the results down by discipline so the findings include all students doing undergrad research with faculty, though I’m guessing based on disciplinary tendencies that this group includes more math and science majors than humanities majors.

    Following up on your comment, the thing that strikes me is that the study considers only undergrads. While as a grad student I too paid attention to the lack of balance exhibited by some faculty (only men for me to observe), I certainly didn’t notice that as an undergrad—-maybe because I was oblivious or naïve or maybe because I wasn’t at a point where I felt work/life balance was personally relevant. If indeed the poor balance exhibited by faculty is found to be relevant to some of these differential student outcomes, then institutional efforts to promote work-life balance for faculty might have very broad benefits indeed.

  3. adriana13 said

    Only undergrads? Hmmm. I agree that at that point I was not paying attention at all to faculty work/life balance. I didn’t see them–yet–as potential role models. It really is funny that I immediately thought of this dynamic as one that could happen in grad school, not earlier.

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