I've been reading the recent articles (e.g., New York Times), letters, and essays on the issue of the differences between male and female college students in their approach to their education, and how having a majority of women students in the student population affects academic culture. I can't really relate to most of the anecdotes and scenarios described, perhaps because I mostly interact with science students. The non-biological sciences are still rather male dominated, although there are definitely more female science students than there used to be.
I do interact with non-science students in two classes. Most years, I teach either a small seminar (15 students or fewer) or a very large introductory class. In the seminar, it's the male students who dominate the discussion. To get women students to participate, it takes quite a lot of gentle encouragement, eye contact, sometimes private discussion/conversation/email, and weeks of getting familiar with the class environment before most women students will speak out. There are prominent exceptions, but the majority of women in these settings are much quieter than the guys. When the women do finally speak up, they have lots of interesting things to say and the class gets much more lively.
In the large intro class, with an auditorium full of non-science students and me up front with a wireless microphone and a big screen, it's hard to get to know students, although maybe 15% will make an effort to come to my office or talk to me before/after class. I get lots of email from students, though, and at least 80% (conservative estimate) is from the female students asking me questions about the course material. Last semester, there were a couple of male students who got very excited about the science and talked to me a lot, but they were the exception. Based on my experiences teaching the big intro class, I can relate to some of what is in the articles. The women students do seem to take a more active role in the class than the male students, although at times I have considered other hypotheses:
- The women ask more questions because they are less secure about the class because it is Science (all science professors have surely heard the dreaded I'm-not-good-at-science from students, and mostly from women students).
- The women are more comfortable asking me questions. My male colleagues get significantly less email from students - male or female - than I do, perhaps because I seem friendly and approachable (and, as I've discussed before, some students don't believe I'm a real professor anyway).
- Male students don't like to ask (me) questions. I wish I believed that this meant they were working hard to figure out the answers themselves, but in a big introductory course, it is the rare student who does this.
One real difference between male and female students in their interactions with me is that, every semester, there is at least one (though seldom more than 2-3) male student(s) who will walk up to me, stand very close (to emphasize their much greater height, and aggressively question their grade and my fairness or something like that. This has never happened to any of the male colleagues with whom I've discussed this. Staying calm and giving an articulate response that demonstrates their lack of understanding of the situation of course material always works to defuse the situation, but I always wonder: What are they thinking? What does this mean about the rest of their lives re. their interactions with women? Wouldn't it be easier if they just studied more instead of turning every grade into a power struggle? What if I were really tall?
But I digress.. Just another day in the life of a conflicted and only semi-effective Role Model.
12 years ago