There’s a joke that circulates among anthropologists: Social psychologists can tell you everything you need to know about
the human condition, as long as your definition of the human condition is limited
to American college students between the ages of 18 and 21. That’s because the
pool of research subjects used in such studies, more often than not, consists
entirely of student volunteers. Of course, it wouldn’t surprise me if social psychologists swap their own jokes about those of us who depend on ethnographic fieldwork–studying
human behavior in vivo rather than in vitro–given the diffuseness
of our methods,
which (to put it mildly) have a hard time controlling variables.

[Commitment to qualitative fieldwork, by the way, is the hallmark of Anthropology
& Sociology at Williams
. It is also the guiding philosophy of the amazing
Williams in New York
program founded by Bob Jackall and now co-administered by him and E.J. Johnson.
End of promotional message.]

In "Social Comparison of Abilities at an Elite College," Kugler and
Goethals nimbly dodge the ethnographers’ complaint by keeping their claims
modest and their focus on . . . college students. (As most EphBlog readers will know, Al Goethals taught at Williams for many years and served the college well in key administrative positions.) The particular aspect of educational
experience to which they direct their attention is "focused intellectual
discussion." They acknowledge that Williams students aren’t representative
of college students as a whole, but they use this limitation to good effect
in interpreting their research results. And the results are fascinating.

The authors find, among other things, that small groups of frosh and sophomores performed somewhat better on the assigned tasks when they were
matched with students of similar academic ability (as indexed by the Admissions
Office’s rating system), somewhat worse when the group was more
heterogeneous. Ethnic heterogeneity proved to have little effect on the results,
but gender was a significant factor. Women did better in single-sex groups, men slightly better in mixed-sex groups.
As the authors put it (p. 29), "[T]he data show that men pull down women’s
scores, and women pull up men’s."

One finding that made me chuckle was that male subjects thought more
highly of their performance than the evidence warranted (p. 24). This is consistent
with recent
suggesting that although American male freshmen are less ambitious
and have poorer study habits than their female counterparts, they continue to
have a high opinion of their ability. I frequently see evidence of this
in my own classes when male students dominate discussion but then drop into
the void when their written work is compared to that of two or three female
classmates whose intellectual brilliance might never be divined from their modest
classroom demeanor.

Kugler and Goethals close their article by expressing concern about whether the internal heterogeneity of American colleges and universities is in subtle ways
making it harder for students to achieve peak performance and experience
satisfaction in their studies. This point is well taken, although unless I missed
something, the authors present no evidence that heterogeneity in academic ability
is increasing in American colleges and universities. Such heterogeneity
is arguably increasing with respect to ethnicity, but the study revealed
that ethnic diversity was not in itself a significant factor in the subjects’
performance. Indeed, more than 20 years into coeducation and affirmative action,
they note that the heterogeneity of academic ability among Williams students is quite small, although
their research indicates that it still makes a difference. Whether it is greater
or lesser than in the past remains unclear. My hunch would be that Williams
had more academic heterogeneity in the past (say, pre-1970) simply because the college was less selective.

We are left, then, with the possibility (suggested
also by other studies
) that the biggest emerging "diversity" problem
may be performance differences between men and women. This bolsters the claim
of Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, and other women’s colleges that women thrive
in single-sex institutions, but it is hard to see how colleges such as Williams
should respond. It may be increasingly difficult to maintain a relatively balanced
gender ratio at Williams and other selective colleges because women are, on
average, better students. Could we soon be looking at affirmative action for
men? It’s not out of the question.

A final observation: Although ethnic diversity proved irrelevant to the results of the
Kugler & Goethals study, it is immensely beneficial to the classroom dynamics
of courses in the humanities and social sciences. The addition of greater numbers
of international students, for example, has had a palpable effect in anthropology
classes. Instead of describing social life in different cultural settings on
a second-hand basis, I can now reliably call upon students in the class to
describe such things in their own words, based on their first-hand experiences. Abstract concepts are given a human face, which makes for a livelier teaching and learning situation.

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