One of my students this last semester wrote his final paper on the myths that members of one sex like to dredge up about the other. “Girls mature faster than boys” was one. He said he was sick of hearing that trotted out, after having been a witness to several episodes wherein some supposedly mature female had an emotional meltdown and hijacked an entire class period. He also said that it was impossible to make generalizations about an entire sex, because there will always be people who don’t match the profile.
Having all my life been a female who does not match several points of the prevailing profiles of femininity, I can sympathize with Michael’s frustration. I remember my mother telling me on several occasions that something I was doing wasn’t feminine, to which I replied, “I am female and I am doing it, therefore it is feminine.” She said she didn’t think it worked that way.
I can especially sympathize with the frustration of being categorized as less than capable, because of my sex, in some important way in which I was actually far more capable than my counterparts of the other sex. Generalizations can offer us privileges which we do not actually deserve, and they can bar us from opportunities that we would otherwise make full use of.
However, I think I disappointed Michael when I mused that teaching my 9-year-old Cub Scouts was not a great deal different than teaching many of my college-age male students. I’ve been thinking about my statement ever since. It is a true statement, but I did not mean it derogatorily. My 8- and 9-year-old Scouts are waking up to the possibility of all they can be. It is like the babies they have been all their lives suddenly crack open, and real human people stand up from inside those baby-shaped shells and said, “Hey! Let’s do this!” (People with babies may be offended by this analogy. I can only say that it is my experience that children start to become worthy conversation partners at around age 7 or 8.)
When college-age male students come into my classes, many of them are trying to make sense of the world and their place in it. (Female students, too, but I’m talking about the males here.) Their questions and their potential to do and to become interest me in the same way that my Cub Scouts interest me. I have found that male students of any age often come at issues in certain ways, and female students often come at questions in certain other ways. The male students often want to know, “Why are we doing this? What is the practical application of this learning experience? What are the steps I have to take to succeed at this?”
The female students may also wonder these things, but they are less likely to challenge me directly. They are also more likely to immediately and directly apply the philosophical stuff to their own experience. One significant exception is when I get female students who have raised a family or had many years of work experience. These women often want me to clarify the why and the how, just as the male students do.
If I have male students with more life experience, they will also make direct applications to their own experience, without my prompting. Perhaps this is the sort of mental connecting activity people are thinking of when they say that girls mature faster than boys. On the other hand, I’ve had young female students who are more concerned with getting a grade or being attractive than they are in learning what I am teaching. I must agree with Michael that no generalization can be completely accurate.
Still, I must use the tools I have to try to serve the needs of each student. I try to guess what each one needs, based on my past experience with other students, and this means I have to generalize. Once engaged with a student, I alter my tactics based on the kind of feedback I get from that student. But I am still generalizing; I am simply narrowing my generalization into “this kind of brain” or “that kind of brain.” Generalizing means I can use a fairly manageable set of teaching tactics to reach a large number of students. It also means that sometimes, there are students I either don’t know how to reach yet, or I simply cannot take the time necessary to specialize as much as that student requires. Every classroom teacher faces this dilemma, and every classroom teacher solves it (sort of) with a proprietary set of generalizations and responsive tactics.
So I must disagree with Michael over whether generalizations serve a sufficiently useful purpose. I will not outlaw generalizations, because they allow me to do my job as effectively and efficiently as I can. I will concede that generalizations can be irritating, discriminatory, and damaging, especially when they are used as a weapon to keep some goods out of the hands of some people.
And I will freely admit that Michael is more mature than most of the people he knows. Is that a generalization you can live with, Michael?