Stereotype threat and Philosophy’s problem

by Harry on December 3, 2013

On the topic of Philosophy’s uneven sex ratios: Gina Schouten has a really interesting paper about stereotype threat as a possible explanation of those ratios (PDF). Her paper is, as she says, an armchair reflection on the hypothesis, but I think it would be useful to anyone wanting to study the causes of the sex ratios empirically.

The reason she has to do an armchair reflection is that Philosophy is a small discipline, and one the composition of which does not have huge social consequences, so the incentives for empirical researchers to give it the kind of attention they give the STEM subjects, the subjects for which the stereotype threat hypothesis was formed, and has been tested, and for which treatments have been devised, are small (Kieran seems to do it as a strange sort of hobby – but I don’t think his discipline promises great rewards for this part of his work).

Her reflections, though, are interesting and useful. She points out that the main leak in the pipeline is between the first philosophy course and the major. It would be really handy if it turned out that stereotype threat explained the exit of students at this point in the pipeline, because psychologists have devised interventions to counter stereotype threat that are extremely cheap and easy to implement, and seem to be highly effective (see footnote [1]). We could adapt some of those interventions relatively easily to Philosophy courses. (Then we could continue to be completely insensitive and rude in the way we teach, without suffering the consequence of depriving our discipline of talent!)

Problem is that we don’t have a lot of evidence, and some of the features of stereotype threat seem to be absent. For example, the fact that girls get lower average grades in any given STEM course is prima facie evidence that they are underperforming (one indicator of stereotype threat). I don’t have data on how well girls and boys do in intro level courses, but anecdote suggests that girls do not get worse grades than boys (Ok, ok, I’m writing this, and realize I should just get someone to check for my dept, and I’ll report back if it’s legal to). Of course, “underperformance” means something like “lower performance than the student should perform given his or her prior achievement”, and given that girls at most institutions have significantly higher prior achievement on most measures, they could be getting higher grades than boys and still be underperforming.

Another problem with the idea that stereotype threat explains why girls leave after the first one or two courses is that they just lack the stereotype. After all, philosophy is a found major, and because they have no experience of it, our students lack the relevant stereotypes: girls don’t think that philosophy is the kind of thing that girls do badly, or that others think that, because they don’t know what it is. In so far as they do have beliefs about what philosophy is [1], those beliefs are usually quite wrong, and we disabuse them pretty quickly.

However, as she points out, their first encounter with the subject might easily introduce a stereotype to them:

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A non-violent, unfunny trolley problem

by John Q on December 3, 2013

So, you’re a controller for a municipal trolley system with a perfect safety record. You’ve just been alerted that one of your tracks, serving a community of 5000 people has suffered unexpected damage which could cause a trolley car accident involving fatalities among philosophers. You have no budget allowance for this, so the only way of fixing the line is to abandon planned maintenance of another line, serving 1000 people, which would then have to be closed until more funds become available. Presumably, in these circumstances, most people will decide to fix the more important line.

Now, we change the situation. You no longer control the funds for the other line, which are within the jurisdiction of your colleague the Fat Controller, so named for obvious reasons. If you draw management attention to his obesity problem, HR will force him to take leave until he can get his weight within acceptable limits. You will then be given temporary control over his line and the associated budget, which you can divert to fixing the more important line.

What should you do?

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Because I Love You

by Belle Waring on December 3, 2013

I think it’s possible–nay, probable–naw, it is a nigh-certainty that you have not seen one of the best music videos ever made, quite randomly for French electronica duo Justice (they aren’t even, they’re sort of a rock band. But not.) It stars a young Snake Plissken (presumably before he is inserted into, and subsequently [SPOILER ALERT] escapes from, New York, in the movie “Escape From New York.” I strongly encourage everyone to go on and click full screen and listen to the song and everything. Dudes this is so fucking awesome. C’mon. Did they actually program a computer from the 1980s to make some of the “high-definition” graphics?

My best friend from middle school and I once wrote a program like that which, by displaying a series of screens on which we had drawn the lines point to point, created the image of a rotating green wire cube on a black screen on her Apple II c. It took us like four hours or something. More? Her family’s cook made killer shrimp tempura, though, so that was sustaining. And then coffee milkshakes and chocolate cookies for afters. Actually she would ask you egg preferences the night before and bring us breakfast in bed every morning that I ever slept over, which was a billion. With fresh-squeezed OJ. With sugar in the coffee already how she knew you liked it. Mrs. Hong was the shit, but she was prone to get angry and would not let anyone go in the kitchen and make a peanut butter sandwich or anything. Or even a bowl of cereal. Eventually Sacha’s mom had to fire her when Mrs. Hong threw a huge-ass knife at her during an argument over menu planning and it stuck, quivering, embedded a good two inches in the plaster of sloping ceiling of the back stairs. Even then it was a struggle (internally, for her mom). Mrs. Hong claimed it was a “warning shot” and hadn’t gone that close to Sacha’s mom’s head, which was kind of true but kind of not super-relevant. Anyway, A ROTATING CUBE YOU GUYS RLY! We were siced. Just like how siced I am about this video right now.
ETA: sometimes the frame isn’t quite wide enough, so watch on YouTube if not.