Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Convert to the Importance of Women's Colleges

Za has been teaching at a small women's college this year. The students are extremely diverse-racially, ethnically, and nationality-wise. Many of these women are coming from very underprivileged backgrounds and are the first-generation in their family to go to college. When Za was putting together his courses, especially for Neurobiology, he did a lot of hand-wringing over which textbook to choose. He didn't want to discourage the students with a textbook that presupposed a lot of preparatory courses, for example. He also worried over the type of assignments he was devising and how well the students would take to them because of the kind of initiative and creativity they demanded.

Well, those fears have decisively been put to rest. His students are engaged, work very hard, and excel. Yesterday I decided to read the blog entries that he is having his Neurobiology students write in response to a Carl Zimmer's The Soul Made Flesh (which is, by the way, a fantastic book). I was absolutely stunned by the work ethic, the seriousness with which his students took the assignment, the willingness to make connections between courses, and the intensity with which the students engage each other. I hate to say this, because I know my students read this blog, but I have never experienced this kind of quality of work--across the board--from my students at a college with a reputation for being much "better" than Za's college. I am not trying to start fights or nothing, but it is a fact.

I spent some time reflecting on why Za's students are so much better and it dawned on me that it has everything to do with his college being a women's college, i.e. no male students. When I think about the work my students often hand in, their struggles to participate in class, to take risks, I am always frustrated because I know they are well educated, smart, and therefore have all it takes to be excellent and to turn class discussions into heated debates. I know they can write well, because all you have to do is give them an F when they hand in something they wrote the night before (to test how hard of a grader you are) and then the next paper will be polished, reflect effort and thought. But, my students--obviously not all of them--don't put forward the best work and effort first. The students who do get pretty discouraged early on in classes when they realized they will be penalized by their peers for participating and getting excited by the material. As I have said many times before, quoting an old article from Harper's Magazine, our students suffer from the "Tyranny of the Cool."

What does this have to do with men, you ask? A few things. First of all, at our college the quality of male students--on average--is much lower than the quality of the female students. This is not unique to our school, but a trend at LACs across the country to maintain "gender parity" which has become of interest to journalists (see here, here, and here for example). The male students, however, have much more social power than the female students, despite the fact that they are often not the intellectual equals. What counts for status is not being smart, but being a jock, a frat guy, and a "playa." The power that these male students have in the classroom is intense. I haven't spent enough time studying this phenomena yet, but after starting to read Peggy Orenstein's School Girls, I am starting to be convinced that male students get more attention from professors, even if they are disruptive. We somehow indulge (yes, I am guilty of this) the jock or frat guy who wants to make wise cracks, who barely does the reading, and nonetheless feels self-possessed enough to dominate the classroom conversation. Meanwhile, we ignore the polite, quiet and less self confident female students who have been fairly demoralized by the campus climate to assert themselves, at least publicly, as smart. Obviously there are exceptions to this very general picture I am painting, but you get the point.

Za's campus is next door to a co-ed university and the two schools share a library. Another faculty member told him that comparing the women's college students to the co-ed college students (women and men), the women's college students were far more assertive, hard working and risk taking. What this also suggests to me is that the "voice" that women find in a women's college isn't dampened after they leave and enter the "real world," rather they have, in the absence of the tyranny of the cool climate at my school, developed into assertive students who won't back down or alter their behavior to be more "attractive" or less threatening to the men.

I have always been ambivalent about women's colleges before seeing first hand how different the students are in this environment. I am now becoming a believer, but the sad truth is that women's colleges are hard to maintain. Not only will they continue to be attacked by folks who want to call them "sexist" in the same way that all male colleges were, but they are not as well endowed. This is concerning since clearly the work they do is very valuable for the students.

What I want to know is how can you achieve this same kind of intellectual atmosphere among male and female students at co-ed institutions? Off the top of my head two things seem necessary: (a) all the students need to be intellectual equals and intellectually curious and (b) the social life should not be dominated by sports teams and Greek life.

What do you all think?