Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How Do You Talk to Students About Gender Differences?

John N. Gardner

This posting is occasioned by my happening to do a pro bono presentation this week to a group of high school, college bound, high SES, private school, students. Topic was college choice and accomplishing this in a partnership with family, school, and self. It is impossible, of course, to talk about selecting a college without talking about the college experience itself. And when I think about the most striking components of the college experience I can’t help but mentally noting and usually commenting on, how that experience differs significantly by gender.

And when I do mention that, it usually gets the college bound students’ attention. Of course, I have often discussed this with currently enrolled college students. Like many higher educators, I am concerned about the many evidences of under performance by our males. Other than reporting that factually, there are many questions about how one might deal with this topic constructively with the students themselves.
I do start by describing what we know empirically about performance differences and some of the data about how the genders experience college differently. I try not to do this judgmentally or with anything remotely approaching scare tactics. I certainly don’t want to set up negative predictions for the males, nor do I want to over reassure the females about their own probabilities for greater academic success and potential for degree attainment. I guess what I want to do most are several things:

  1. get students reflecting on how their own school experiences to date may have yielded different experiences for the genders
  2. asking what are the cultural influences that suggest models for male vs female behaviors—not only in educational settings but in the larger society
  3. picking generic categories of the student experience and asking them to reflect on how men and women might chose to behave similarly or differently faced with the same responsibilities or challenges.

I find that students do want to talk about this. They are thinking about this. The women have observed that they are doing better in school and while they accrue advantages from this they are concerned about what this may indicate about male potential. The women are also concerned about this because of the implications for their social lives, and ultimate mate selection. On a very fundamental level: what am I going to talk to these guys about? Actually, I find women to be much more concerned about this than young men of college entrance traditional age.

In my own work with students on this topic I have decided that the most productive routes of thinking and discussion have to come down to getting them to think about:

1.     What are the behavioral choices that I make every day that determine my success, or lack of it, and the quality of my daily life experience?
2.     How do I feel about those choices? Are they working for me the way I want them to?
3.     How are my choices influenced by the norms of the groups of which I am a member?
4.     What are the consequences of my choices, particularly when combined with the broader patterns of my choices?
5.     How similar am I to the people with whom I associate, and their choices?
6.     Do I really want to be like these people?
7.     How much in control of these choices am I allowing myself to be?

Where I am going with all this is to get them to conclude, as I finally did in my own development, that “if it is to be, it is up to me.”

Monday, October 17, 2011

Moneyball? What Role Loyalty (versus money)?

John Gardner

I was out for dinner and a movie this past Saturday night, with two very smart women, one of whom is my wife, Betsy Barefoot. They selected the movie and we went to see Moneyball, with Brad Pitt. I didn’t look at him like they did but I noted that he reminded me of graceful aging and taking on some resemblance to Robert Redford. But I didn’t come away from the film primarily thinking about the lead actor. Instead, I found myself focusing on what is the role of “loyalty” to the concept of “team” in today’s world, for which major league revenue sports is such a grand metaphor.

As most of my readers will probably know, this movie is really about the need to challenges one’s cherished assumptions about how your “game” really works. In this case the “game” is professional baseball, and in particular, the Oakland Athletics in the early twenty-first century—how they moved out of the cellar and accomplished an historic winning streak.

I did get caught up in the story line and the drama. But what really stayed with me was my thoughts about the players who can be bought, sold, traded, moved up or “sent down” at any time. They appeared to have absolutely no certainty, and no control over their own fates. And they were moved around incessantly by the protagonist, the manager Billy Beane, played by Robert Redford.

So I found myself asking: what motivates these guys? Money? In this kind of a culture how could you possibly generate loyalty to the team? So what else would motivate them?

I must admit, I have told students what they have to do in the era of the fast economy is to learn a body of knowledge and skills that makes them both unique and perpetually marketable. I know I cannot tell them what my father told me: “Son, find a good company and stick with it.” Actually, I am a paradox for I really did both. I learned a body of information, knowledge, wisdom, coupled with my skills, which combined to give me value in an information based economy—and value no longer tied to any one employer. Yet I had one employer for 32.5 years and was very loyal. And my loyalty was a very powerful motivator, significantly moreso than my compensation. A few years ago I actually had a work colleague  tell me that I was still so fixated on loyalty that “you would have made a great manager in the 50’s.” Actually, I became a higher ed manager in the mid 70’s, and have remained one to this day, still trying to act like he is in the 50’s. But back to Moneyball.
Moneyball made me think about how this film must speak to traditional aged college students, thinking about pursuing careers for money, not loyalty, while being completely dispensable to their employing organizations. And some of our students don’t like this prospect, which is why some of them are joining the OCCUPY Wall Street movement. I’m betting that this protest movement just might make a difference. It is certainly speaking to me, even though by the standard of capitalism I have it made.