Monday, March 19, 2007

The Silence of the Students

[apologies for the temporary break-induced silence. now back to your regularly scheduled peanut butter]

One of my classes last semester was a small one, comprised of four women, a guy, and an older female professor. Throughout the class, getting the group to answer questions was a painful, painful process. In part this was because the professor asked either really tangential questions or really obvious questions - she once literally asked, "And when we add one to this number we get..." and refused to move on until someone assured her that we could add. Throw in twenty seconds to tune back in to what was already an easy and ignorable lecture, plus a minute of everyone staring at her in disbelief, and you have an ample amount of wasted time.

What got me is that, half the time, when a person decided to pipe up for the sake of moving on, it happened to be the guy - the class focused on his particular subject of interest (not true for the rest of us) and the professor was his adviser, which encouraged a lot of "eager-to-please" sentiment. However, whenever he answered she would jump down the girls' throats for letting the big bad boy trample our voices and "get" all the questions. Because, clearly, we're too meek and feminine to brave the pressure and answer "1+1". In addition to reminding us loudly that we were, after all, the poor oppressed female majority in the class, it made the poor guy feel like a white male entitled jerk who mowed down his female friends in class, all for daring to express interest in his subject.

At first I was just flat-out annoyed: "My vagina has nothing to do with whether or not I talk in class!" Thinking about it a little more, however, it seems that this is not an entirely ungendered behavior - although perhaps not in the way most people think.

When I don't talk in class:
1) I don't know the answer. Simple. Some people love to pipe up with harebrained guesses, but usually professors take these off on a long and pointless tangent. I prefer not to be the cause of that.

2) The answer is indescribably obvious, i.e., "1+1". The moment a question like this is asked, I am off to the next page of my notes to finish the to-do list I am writing or get back to my proofreading. Everyone in the class unarguably knows the answer - let someone else answer it, I'm busy.

3) I've recently tuned out, probably from the question asked in #2. At this point I usually have something of an urge to answer the question, sparked by guilt, so I'll put a super-contemplative look on my face and pretend I am intently focused on working out the mysteries of the question. This can sometimes be rather ridiculous when it turns out to be another question along the lines of #2. When singled out I'll usually just say I wasn't paying attention. Why not? It's the truth.

4) This is the one that strikes me as gendered: I won't pipe up if I know the answer. By definition, if I am certain of the answer then I assume the question must be easy. If someone like ME knows the answer, so must everyone else. And answering an easy question is like answering a "1+1" question - what sort of tool bothers to show off their mastery of something so easy? If I answer such a easy question, people will think that I actually find it challenging and worth answering. And that's embarassing. And embarassing is bad. Girly silly bad. I highly doubt that guys think this way, that they have this fear of being assumed incompentent because they actually admit they KNOW something. Quite a weird thought process, if you think about it.

Honestly, the only time I'll answer a question is the exact situation when most psychologists think females WON'T - I'll pipe up if I'm unsure of the answer but have an idea. It seems to be the only situation where I - or anyone else, for that matter - will benefit from my speaking up, i.e. "I have an idea, I wonder if it's right, if I answer the professor will tell me and explain, if it's wrong, why that is." (of course, in a discussion-based or journal-club sort of class/seminar, this model is a bit different and we all talk substantially more).

Do other students think this way? Do other WOMEN think this way? Why don't you/didn't you talk in class? (come on professors, you sat quietly and squirming just like all the other boys and girls, admit it). Was it a serious sexist issue? (I've BEEN in a class where being female = uncomfortable speaking up. Not fun.) Did the males overrun the class by never shutting up (also not fun)? Did the teacher simply suck? Was the material too hard? Too easy? We're a pretty vocal and confident and intelligent group, so why exactly are grad classes so silent?

1 comment:

Propter Doc said...

So what you are saying is that when a question is asked in class, rather than just seeing the simple thing: question asked, will answer; you do a whole little thing there to yourself, tie yourself into a wee knot and make thinking about the question conditional on about 5 different things which, at the end of the day, stop you answering the question in time, then you think about it way too much.

Yeah, I do that too!

Men: Question Asked: must give answer.
Woman: Question Asked: how was the question asked? was the tone right? where will I be in the room hierarchy if I answer, or not? is it beyond/beneath/above me to answer this?

Men solve the immediate problem, women like to talk (or in this case think) about the problem. Maybe I'm making big generalizations but I often ask Dr R this sort of stuff and he agrees men think "problem ergo fix it", women go for "problem ergo analyse perhaps fix". Knowing that makes life easier.
I know in a class the males will answer first given the chance. I also know that to make the females answer you have to change the environment and make them feel more involved. I find that directing questions to people by name (which should be simple in a class of 6 people) can help with this. Also not insulting intelligence with 1+1 nonsense.

Interestingly I used to have a male lecturer who picked on me by name every lecture, no one else. I used to get questions like what dividing by zero did, and other menial math tasks. I just put up with it ;-) But somehow I felt I had power in that class because no one else was being asked. I'm such a teachers pet when given the chance.