Friday, August 21, 2009

Getting Ready

Setting this site up, I've been wondering whether it might be overwhelming or even worse, like making all the preparations for a big birthday party when it turns out that none of the guests show up. This must be the writer's equivalent to performance anxiety and I suppose it is inevitable. There is no way for me to tell ahead of time how students will react to the site. I suppose we'll just have to roll the dice.

Last night I was watching some of the video from the Nobel Prize site on Muhammad Yunus. The interview and brief documentary were fine but with his speech, the video stalled about 2/3 of the way in. I felt compelled to find an alternative, so posted the video interview from Charlie Rose. I don't recall how I first learn things very well, but that Charlie Rose interview is likely the way I became acquainted with Yunus. I watch Charlie Rose a lot. Sometimes he is a little too much, offering up his opinions when he should let his guest speak instead, but the diversity of his guests is excellent. I watched most of that interview again last night. Rose and Yunus linger for some time on why the recipients of microcredit are mostly women. We'll talk about that in class.

Here I want to use that observation as a launch point to ask about differences in student inclination and performance that are gender related. I don't write about gender very much at all. On my main blog I've got only one post on the topic, with well over five hundred posts in total. The reason I don't write much on it is that I'm not comfortable doing so. Sometimes I generalize from my own experience when it's not appropriate and then might cause offense. Once in a while, however, those generalizations are right on, so here goes.

Intellectually I believe we all have a math/analytic side, a dispassionate part of the persona, and a humanistic and expressive side, a compassionate other part of the persona. In many of us one of these sides trumps the other. When I was in high school I was a math nerd (high scorer on the math team my senior year)! Looking back on that time, I had opportunities for my humanistic side to come out more, but I didn't know where those opportunities would lead so I chose not to pursue them. I started the blog I mentioned in the previous paragraph soon after I turned fifty. Now I'm convinced that it is my humanistic side where most of the exploration occurs. It's not that my analytic side is dead. It's just that in the main I find those sort of questions less interesting. The switch over happened somewhere later in life.

There may be guys who in high school are quite at peace with their humanistic side, but looking at the population as a whole I'd guess most guys have arrested development in this area while the women are further along. Even if that is not true in general, it probably is true for those with pronounced math/analytic abilities. A disproportionate number of the students in the class are engineering majors. Draw any conclusions from that fact that you will.

I'm belaboring this because the skills required for instituting effective change are mostly of the humanistic variety, a lot of which is the ability to listen and express empathy, and this often must be accompanied with some demonstration of personal vulnerability. Expressions from the analytic side convey something else --- insight perhaps, competence certainly, but also coldness if none of the humanistic self shows through.

So I'm guessing that emotionally the women students in the class are likely more ready for it than the men. And if that is right, I'm wondering what can be done to even things out. After thinking about effective teaching for more than a decade, I've come to believe that among the most important things I can do as a teacher is to help get students ready for what is to come next and I look to create certain experiences that will encourage the right mindset. In teaching economics, I felt on more terra firma in this regard. With this course, I'd welcome suggestions about what we might do.

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