Leiter has an interesting post on why undergraduate women give up on philosophy. A senior female philosopher diagnosed the problem, and started with the following comment:
My assessment of the undergrad women in philosophy thing: undergrad women get sick of being talked over and strawmanned by their peers in and out of the classroom, and get sick of classes where the male students endlessly hold forth about their own thoughts.
I will say that over two decades of teaching, it has seemed to me that the students who speak out of proportion to what they have to say are overwhelmingly male.
My experience is exactly the same as Leiter’s. And I’ve heard from countless female students that they just got tired of being ignored, both by prof and male students, and also tired of trying to get a word in among the ramblings of boys who think that they are really smart. Even in classes taught by women. And in classes, I’m embarrassed to say, taught by me. To make things worse I think that such behavior can be a very good strategy for learning – it gets you the professor’s attention, and the professor will correct you or argue with you, even if they are extremely irritated, and you can learn a lot from that.
Leiter goes on that “Maintaining control of the classroom, and creating a welcoming environment for all student contributions, can probably go some distance to rectifying this—but that, of course, supposes levels of pedagogical talent and sensitivity that many philosophy faculty probably lack.”
I almost completely agree with this, but would substitute the word ‘skill’ for ‘talent’. I’d say that if you really feel you lack the talent to manage the classroom in this way, so do not think it is worth investing in learning how to do it, I advise that you avoid teaching in mixed male/female classrooms, or find a job that doesn’t involve teaching. But I think most of us have the talent, we just lack the skill because as a profession, at least at R1s, we are spectacularly complacent about developing our pedagogical talents into skills. We focus considerable effort on developing our talent as researchers, consuming the research of others, discussing their research, our research, and other people’s research in a community of learner/researchers, putting our research out for comments from friends and, ultimately, for review and publication. We ought to become pretty good at it. But as a recent paper by David Conception and colleagues shows, we receive hardly any training in instruction, and once we become teachers we might try very hard, but we invest very little in the kinds of processes that would enable us to learn from experts, as opposed to improving through trial-and-error. It is like trying to become a good violin player without anyone ever listening to you, and without ever listening to anyone who plays it well. Possible, I suppose, but hardly a recipe for success.
So, from my own trial and error (combined with some watching of experts, and employing coaches to observe me) here are some things that I have learned how to do which seem to me to make the classroom one in which women participate at a similar rate to men and seem to reduce the problem of particular male students dominating the room.
1.Cold calling. This has to be done with sensitivity. You are not trying to put people on the spot, so you warn the class ahead of time, and tell them that it is fine to wait a moment while they gather their thoughts, and also fine to say that they don’t having anything to say right now. Students won’t like you when you start doing it (One student: “After the first time you called on me I called my mom after class and told her that I hated you”). It’s more effective if cold calling someone is not the first time you have talked to them – always get to class several minutes early and have casual boring conversations with particular students who don’t talk much (or at all) in class, so they are more relaxed when you call them.
2.Deliberately wait till women raise their hands, and do not call on the guy who always talks even if he has his hand up. In my current class there is a lovely, smart, guy (who is not at all like the students women complain about) who sits at the front and always has something to say before anyone else – I just say “I’m going to go for someone who doesn’t usually talk/hasn’t talked recently”.
3. When someone strawman’s someone else’s argument you always either point it out yourself, or get someone in the classroom to point it out. Always.
4.If your students write weekly online memos (as they should), you can immediately see which women (and men, for that matter) have things to say who are not talking in class. Call them out in class when the point they made is immediately relevant to the matter at hand – “Well, Hannah, you said X. Could you elaborate on that for us?”
5.Emailing a students about a comment they did make in class is very encouraging for them. A grad student subbing for me a year ago commented to me that A and B – both capable, and very reserved-in-class, women – had said particularly insightful things. He emailed them saying so, and it was like gold dust. Both were more participatory afterwards, and after the following class, as I was leaving I heard one of them telling a classmate with great excitement (but no pride) that he had emailed her about how interesting what she had said was. I have started doing this, though probably less often than I should.
6.Here’s a trick I have been criticized for (because it knowingly deploys sexist norms, albeit for non-sexist ends). In my large lecture classes, I break students into groups to address particular questions or think through thought experiments. I tell them to appoint a note taker. When they report out I ask the note taker to report. Naturally, the note taker is almost always female, and usually, even if not female, a non-talker. They get the experience of talking and, bizarrely, seem not to notice the patterns.
7.If you have a serious problem, directly tell a student (obviously, not in class) that they are talking too much, and that you want them to talk less. A strategy I once used was to tell a student I did not want him to raise his hand until at least 4 people had spoken after he had spoken. Compliance was imperfect, but he told me, later, that he learned more because he started listening to what other people were saying rather than thinking about what he was going to say all the time.
8.Conversely, talk to a student about why they don’t talk. Last semester I taught a (small) class which was 50/50 M/F, and about 25% freshmen, 25% sophomore, etc. Early on one particular female student was writing excellent comments and not talking in class – and looking very embarrassed when I would cold call her. I decided she must be a senior who was moderately hostile to the class, so felt bad when after I asked her what her major was she told me she didn’t have one because she was a freshman. I worked on getting her and another reticent girl to talk more in class. At the end of the semester I told her that I felt I had not really succeeded in my mission of making her talk more and she said “Well, I’m the kind of person who only talks if I think that what I have to say is really worth saying”, which made me laugh, and I told her that she needed to lower her standards a bit so that the rest of us could hear things that were really worth hearing even if she didn’t think they were really worth saying. A work in progress that one.
A final comment. I have taught all-female classes twice (with considerable overlap in the particular students). It is impossible to generalize, but I was struck both times by the level of freedom the students seemed to feel in expressing themselves, and the extent to which they seemed to form common bonds.
Leiter’s discussion is about the diagnosis of why undergraduate women give up on philosophy – you can discuss that over there. What I am interested in here are ideas about how to engage women – and reticent students more generally – and prevent particular students (usually male, occasionally female) from consuming excessive class time. And ideas about how to improve the pertinent skills of teachers.
UPDATE: the in the light of bianca’s comment I should make clear that I (more than) welcome comments from students and ex-students, and especially women who have experienced good, and bad, practice in the classroom; and request that they attempt not to be inhibited by the worries about being misinterpreted or accused of misunderstanding their own experience.
ANOTHER UPDATE Every college teacher should read Dipper’s comment.