Saturday, February 3, 2007

Teaching Female Students

The physical science blogosphere has been humming recently about the role of female students and faculty in the physical sciences.

It is an ongoing (and somewhat defining) issue with the blogs at FSP [Link] and Propter Doc [Link] but a recent confessional at a popular chemistry blog (The Chem Blog [Link]) initiated a wider discussion.

My history with female students and professors goes all the way back to when I started University in 1979. I was fortunate to fall into a group of students that was more than 50% female and while the larger fraction of my professors were male ex patriot Brits there was a significant and constant presence of female instructors and faculty in my academic life. It is true that in the Chemistry building I was there when the space crunch was so bad that they renovated a women's washroom for the office of a new male faculty member. In all my years as a male student in contact with female students it was my overall impression (from both observation and discussion with my fellow students) that the issue from their perspective had both positive and negative aspects. Chemistry, as I knew it, was enough of a meritocracy that intelligent, motivated women were encouraged by the same system that encouraged me.

When it came time for me to get a faculty position the difference became stark and clear. I came into the system when the hiring cycle was at a low and in all of Canada there were only eight positions advertised for my sub-discipline. In the competition that I won there were 56 applicants. It was clearly explained to me that up to the time that the Board of Governors signed my contract my job offer could be withdrawn if any equivalent female applicant from any country applied for the position that I won. The hiring pendulum was swinging strongly with a bias against my gender.

In that faculty position I found that the student evaluations were rather elaborate and involved a self description by the student. It was in this way that I found that I in fact had a significant communication problem with below average female students. I attended special professional development weekend seminars and presentations and eventually came to understand that the communication problem was due to my difficulty with stupidity. It turned out that the weak male students were used to being bluntly told in the public school system that they were going to fail if they did not change. The weak female students were not used to this message. Indeed, in conversations with some of them it came out that I was the first person in their entire life that seemed willing to fail them for not meeting a standard. Their interpretation of this situation was almost universally that I was going to fail them because I did not like them (not that they had not mastered 51% of the material covered). I was never able to bridge that communication divide.

My research group at that same time consisted mostly of undergraduate and graduate students with the post-doc du jour (I was never able to afford 2 at the same time). I always had a significant female % of my research group. What was very, very, very aggravating was that the female honours students I supervised all said they wanted careers in science and I cultivated them and published their work only for them all, yes all, to fly off the medical school at the first opportunity. Now all-in-all these women were vibrant, bright young women (I remember one that travelled with my research group to a conference and the night before she was to present her poster she "discovered" something called Electric Jello and she spent the morning wearing sunglasses and leaning on her poster ... she still got second prize for the best undergraduate poster ... remember that Chemistry is a meritocracy) and they are probably good medical doctors. My problem was that the most important thing I needed from my undergraduate students was not publishable research but for them to go from my group to the research group of one of my senior colleagues and thus build up my credit in the academic community. I will not say that I wasted my money but the benefits to my research were minimal.

I walked away from that faculty position (ironically the same year that I was granted tenure and promoted) to help start a new Science program at a small liberal arts and science University. The demographics here are probably typical for our type of institution (about 60+% female). It was my experience here that lead me to make the following comment on The Chem Blog when the women in science issue was broached.

"This issue needs to be addressed for more than just academic reasons of fairness of opportunity. Look at the demographics of your undergraduate programs our university undergraduate populations have become predominantly female (in some cases up to 60%).

It is not overstating the case that the modern University has got to be able to understand the 17 year old female student (to retain her until graduation). The modern university needs to create a learning environment that is welcoming to the young female scientist.

What your post in fact is addressing (somewhat obliquely) is a belief that academic environments and learning environments promote male OR female participation. I think that to an extent you are mistaken. There is enough of a meritocracy in what we do (that in my experience is gender blind) to allow anyone to succeed. It seems however that success is coupled to personality traits (ambition, stubbornness and self confidence) which some people (male or female) for one reason or another simply do not have. Every chemistry department that I have been in has the “Failed Genius Professor” that is so clearly more intelligent than anyone else in the department but for one reason or another the potential was never realized. We either have to change our definition of what it means to be a successful university academic or we change the system.
" [Link]


Ψ*Ψ said...

Most of the chemistry students (male and female alike) at my university end up in med or pharmacy school, too.
I'm lucky enough to have encountered only one prof who was sexist in clear but unspoken ways. (Needless to say, I never stopped by his office hours.) I think you're right that the problem is rooted in communication, but it isn't limited to weaker female students and I think it can extend to some men as well. It definitely helps when professors make an effort to be as approachable as possible. Impatience and condescent are to be avoided at all costs.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Yes, I have to admit that the response of some (both male and female) students to a professor that is impatient and condescending is quite often to retreat (not respond to the challenge). I do not think that an educational system that carries the "rugged individualist" as a model for the successful academic will ever be able to teach students that require inclusiveness or community. For better or worse university professors that must compete to win individual research grants must conform to the individualist frame. The implication is that the system can "do without" those (both faculty and students) that do not conform. I do not think we can continue to progress if we do not change.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.