Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reflections on Slaughter, Althouse, classroom participation

Like Ann Althouse, I found much of Ann-Marie Slaughter's recent Atlantic Monthly cover story frustrating.  One, as Althouse says, it feels like we've been over this ground too many times. To her credit, Slaughter avoids getting my libertarian hackles up much by suggesting the traditional governmental responses to this problem, such as more comparable worth legislation or federally funded day care. Among her more concrete recommendations is a call to change the school calendar to one that's less driven by 19th century agricultural needs. All well and good. (Is it too crankishly libertarian to note that this is exactly the kind of inefficiency that would probably long since have faded away if government schools faced more market competition?)

But I do find frustrating that the audience for this piece is so ill-defined. Slaughter tells us that her former life as a tenured professor at Princeton allowed her an extraordinary amount of flexibility, which seems like a fair claim, given what I've seen of my many academic friends' lives. But then she contrasts this lifestyle with the hectic pace of a senior-level job in a presidential administration, which she casts as more "typical." She at one point praises her immediate boss, Hillary Clinton, for protecting her aides' work-life balance by permitting them to arrive only at 8 and leave at 7. But most employers are, if less flexible than Princeton, much more so than the pressure cooker environment that Slaughter describes the highest levels of State to be. So yes, it might be true that it's really hard in the current world for women to "have it all" in the sense that it is hard to rise to the most elite jobs available within the State Department. But it is apparently nonetheless possible for a woman to "have it all" in the sense of getting a tenured job at Princeton -- no small feat, that -- or to become, say, a successful insurance defense lawyer in Omaha. And, in the hands of anti-feminists, I'm afraid that Slaughter's piece can become intellectual ammunition for "don't aspire to become an insurance defense lawyer in a small firm in Omaha," even though the latter is really quite do-able,* and I'm not so keen on that.

That said, I do find the Althouse critique to be too harsh. I don't think it's the case that inability to speak up for oneself in a classroom setting is necessarily a strong sign that any student shouldn't have been admitted. I can readily think of 1L classmates who seemed shy and reticent when cold called, but who nonetheless got really good grades at exam time, and also of examples in the reverse direction. Indeed, I'd be somewhat surprised if Althouse hasn't noticed the same phenomenon in her teaching career.

For what it's worth, I have been both kinds of student at different points in my educational career. Despite having had high grades in high school, I was at best an indifferent classroom participant. I was perfectly comfortable giving factual answers to concrete questions and shone in settings where the teacher demanded that. But so many of my classmates there thought that the height of sophistication meant throwing out the most extravagant metaphorical readings that could possibly be remotely tethered to the text (to take an example that is actually from one of my husband's friends' academic careers, imagine Shakespeare's Macbeth as a plea for vegetarianism.) Those exercises didn't interest me, not even to bother debunking them, and so I usually kept stone silent. In law school, by contrast, more of my classmates felt comfortable retreating behind their laptops.  I often felt sorry for the poor professor trying to tease answers out of them, and so I'd step up to help. I guess I also appreciated that the mode of thought encouraged felt more rational and linear. College was for me somewhere in between those two extremes.

So... yes... it is bad for a classroom participant to be at either extreme, as Slaughter's husband says. It is never easy to be in the middle, as I have learned by tending to overshoot the mark at different points in opposite directions at different times. The question is, I think, not to accept male behavior as the default or the ideal. It is to find a happy medium between the two extremes. Both men and women have something here to learn from one another.

*I have been told that I have a weird tendency to worry too much about the influence of figures who are really quite marginal. This may be a reflection of having grown up in a place that was more socially conservative than many of the people who have the same kind of job/similar educational background to me, and also, of being a libertarian who's spent a lot of time in wonky D.C. conservative circles. If I'm having an idiosyncratic reaction to Slaughter's piece for this reason, please accordingly ignore me.

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