Friday, October 15, 2004

My standard of living, as a non-blonde 

I remember David Strom remarking a few weeks ago on his show that his standard of living rises "when I get smarter more intelligent people to talk to each day". David was once an academic, and one of the things that has kept me being one was just this. My additional benefit is that by being a professor at a teaching university, the smart people I spend time with are often students. Energetic students with intelligence, making the trip from naive through unjaded (with an unfortunate terminus at cynical for most), who come and ask to learn things. A few keep learning after they graduate and stay in touch: They are the special few who've kept me from ever leaving academia and who nourish me still.

Like this letter I got from one female former student this morning. She is still in touch with me semi-regularly, and listens to our show. She had heard that we would have Ann Coulter on the program -- we will, currently scheduled for 10/30 but subject to change -- and said she was a Coulter fan "because she made it OK to be a blonde woman and intelligent." She explains:
On my college graduation day, I went to the breakfast sponsored by the College of Social Science. Before you or anyone else from the seminar class arrived, I was approached by a woman who judged me, the first and only time she encountered me, as incapable of earning a degree in economics, probably based on my appearance. This woman approached me and asked me if I had ever taken a class from her. Assuming she knew who I was from the economics department, I said, "No. You must be Dr. X ." And it was a reasonable guess based on her question, as I had never met Dr. X. (I've changed the name of this professor --kb) This woman was rather insulted, and said that she taught social work classes. ... I told her that I had never taken a social work class and I studied economics. She said, "Don't women like you find that a hard subject?" Since I really didn't want to ruin things, I said, "People were upset that Barbie said 'math is hard.' Just because something is hard does not mean that people do not find a subject necessary or enjoyable." I hoped that looking away from her would cause her to go away. Unfortunately I had no such luck. She asked another question, "Isn't it hard being in a male dominated field?" I really needed something to say that would make her disgusted enough with me to leave, and since she obviously did not consider me worthy of economics, I decided to play on her prejudice and confirm her beliefs. "I think that the marginal cost of being the gender minority is certainly worth the marginal benefit of being the gender minority." She got this blank look on her face. Apparently someone didn't either understand economics or sexist comments; so I explained, "As one of the few women, I did not have to compete for attention from straight men. If I were into social work, I'd have to compete for such attention." She became outraged at my comment, which I thought was pretty funny, and walked away. I'm assuming that this professor judged me incapable because I'm blonde. She said, "Women like you," and not "women." Either way, what she said was wrong, and similar to many comments that I've heard since high school.
It may be just the sin of high standards as well. "Women like you" could mean "women who can do math" making other women feel worse for their innumeracy. Truth is, I don't know what the professor meant. To say that to a student about to graduate in a few hours?

As if to prove her wrong, my student now works with government statistics daily. And writes.

I'm a lucky guy.