Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Not Alone

So my previous post was talking about some of the difficulties I was having with the SAS/Stats class I am taking. After, the last week of confusing lecture (and what actually felt like torture for 3 hours), I got to work on my homework (that I had been somewhat putting off just because I wanted to file it away and not think about it).

I went to the lab myself in the morning, and then I asked the professor a question. He reminded me that the codebook was located on UB learns, which I had forgotten. That helped. Then I brought up the e-mail I had sent him last week and explained something in words that I was not able to express in the e-mail. I also wanted to apologize in case he felt I was being too critical in the e-mail after all he is the instructor and I am just a student (though, I do not think I would have felt angry if a student had articulated their concerns in a similar way). It took him 4 days to reply to the e-mail, and he told us that he generally takes less than a day to do that (and that had been the case with previous questions), so I told him I wanted to apologize if I crossed some sort of line. He assured me that it was not the case and he found the suggestions reasonable (he actually plans to use them), so I will see if they are, in fact, helpful.

Later, I went back to the lab to finish the homework because my conversation with him lasted a long time. I found one of my classmates there and we started to work together, but in some ways it was a case of the blind leading the blind. Neither of us was very sure, and found being questioned just made us more uncertain. It was very easy to break out the eraser and change without really knowing if that was the right thing to do. Then one more showed up, but the answers she had were somewhat different from ours. And then two more showed up, and we worked through the problems together. The problem was that we all had the same questions and did not really know how to go about getting the answers.

It brings me really back to what I was writing about last week. Finding that it was not only me, and that these others were also having trouble. What was striking was that we were all female. In conversing, the others said they did not really feel comfortable addressing their concerns with the professor (in fact, they had said they liked the new way, but in reality, it was for different reasons--and the first week was ok, but it got more confusing). These students are not asking questions during the class and are not contacting the instructor after the class. They suggested that they did not want to rock the boat because if they were looking to work with this professor in the future, they wanted to stay on the good side. In other words, it seems like they viewed expressing dissatisfaction or lack of understanding would harm the relationship they had with this professor. There was little confidence in expressing this. In my mind, I wondered if this attitude would be different if the professor was non-male non-white (as a student mentioned in class the other day). In addition, two of the people who were there were non-native English speakers, a third was from working class roots. Which in my mind, are somewhat marginalized positions where questioning authority may be more challenging.

This experience really ties in nicely with what I am trying to write about for my paper in Sociological Bases in Education. I am very curious about gender and math achievement and the reasons that girls generally underperform boys in math, but when girls do get math they generally do better than boys. It is somewhat of a contradiction, and I wonder if much of these barriers are in how the math is being taught and who is teaching it.


  1. I suspect all of this is true. As a working class type of person as an undergrad, I was always worried about exposing my lack of academic sophistication, so I would only go so far in questioning when I was confused. I'm not aware of the grad school kind of politics you mention, not having participated at the level you are.. I met a woman on my trip to Germany who has a rather well-regarded blog called teachingcollegemath.com
    She has lots of interesting stuff to say about teaching math, but I don't know how much she has approached it from a sociological point of view. You two could have an interesting conversation.

  2. We had the same sort of fear thing about questioning or disagreeing with certain professors in Michigan -- although, then again, it was only with some. All of the profs were female, so it wasn't about sex. We were told explicitly that there were some people who could be vindictive, and you had to be careful because they would write negative things on job recommendations ...

    But, to some degree, I think that is overestimating the influence different professors have. A person might be "famous" in your department, but do you really need his or her recommendation to get a job anywhere? I think people sort of get this tunnel vision when they are in a grad program, because it is all-consuming. It's like they start to think their program is the whole world ...