missing variable in intro courses

Lynne Murphy lynnem at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK
Mon Aug 14 13:08:57 UTC 2000

Joe Pickett asked:

> So, what do you say to your students? Are your classes on this subject chiefly
> exercises in stereotype bashing? are there was of eliminating some of the
> variables so that male/female generalizations are meaningful?

Whose stereotypes are being bashed?  It's social scientists' stereotype that men
try to dominate conversations and women are cooperative, but I find that this
isn't the stereotype that my students usually have.  When I teach about gender
roles and speech, I start by asking the students for their stereotypes of men's
and women's speech, and stereotypes I usually hear are things like "women nag,"
"women gossip and bitch," "men talk about sports".  I usually get to gender
discussions after discussing cross-cultural communication.  I introduce the
notion of "solidarity" and "deference" cultures, and ask students whether men or
women can be typed as belonging to one of these cultural types, and at least half
of them associate men with solidarity (more cooperative) and women with deference
(more hierarchical).

Rather than trying to discard stereotypes, I try to get the students to look for
the causes of them and  what value judgments come with them.  We discuss how the
miscommunication that arises through differing assumptions in the conversation,
and how these lead to stereotyping and judgments.  Some of it ends up being the
kind of thing that you might read in _Ladies' Home Journal_ ("Does your spouse
understand you?!?"), but with 19-year-olds who are just starting to play the part
of independent adults, it's new to them to think critically about their own
communicative styles and how they interact with others'.  So, while we do look
discuss individual variation and contextual changes (e.g., women physicians'
style may be closer to male physicians' than to their women patients), a lot of
what we focus on is comparing communication in heterosexual couples to that in
same-sex close friendships.  And while I point out that we're dealing with
statistical generalizations, I also note that you can't do social science without
generalizations (and the realization that they are just generalizations).

Every time I've taught this, women have far outnumbered men in the class.  Often
there's only one guy.  That's unfortunate.  Another thing that disturbs me when
teaching this is the occasional one-up-woman-ship among female students.  In a
couple of the places I've taught, the classroom discussion degrades into "well MY
boyfriend does this", "well MY boyfriend does that", "well my FIANCE..." until
each of them has proved that she has a boyfriend.  (My British students didn't do
this, this year. Hurrah!  I've found civilization!)


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