Friday, May 6, 2011

Preconceived Notions

Number Crunching in SPSS
Hopefully, as you get older, you start to learn that first impressions, while important, aren't the best gauge of a person's worth.

I've been doing a final project in Psych Research Methods involving self-segregation in college lecture halls based on race and gender. Because we weren't allowed to choose our group members, I happen to be in a group with a young woman whose initial impressions early in the semester left me feeling less than enthusiastic about working with her. We had a few minor conflicts in the first few weeks of class which showed her to be a self-centered snob with a very low opinion of me. For my part, I was probably a bit petulant, and unwilling to let her off-hand comments go unchallenged. To be fair, out of the four of us in the team, she and I are probably the most dominant personalities of the group, as evidenced by our performance during our in-class presentation. But, after getting a chance to work with her and have a few normal conversations, I've come to appreciate her contribution to the group. Of course, she now comes off as another one of those overachievers that I've encountered here at NC State who wants to have her entire future mapped out in detail. However, getting a chance to learn that she and I have both been frustrated with our grades in Psych Research Methods, and that we both have issues with how the grad student instructor of the class has taught the course, has allowed me to see her a little more three-dimensionally than before. She still has a little bit of an air of haughtiness about her, but I get the sense that it, probably, is more a guard against her minor insecurities than an actual excoriation of people as being less important than her.

And, since I mentioned that both she and I had issues with the grad student teaching our course, I should explain that my notions of him also took a turn this week. Because we have been under the gun to complete our final project before the final exam, which is next Monday morning at 8 AM, I have been engaging in a marathon of emails with the Grad over how to work the statistics software, SPSS, and how to interpret the results of our data from the program. The Grad is a very tall, lanky fellow in his mid-twenties who is ludicrously intelligent. If he weren't my instructor, I would love to have the Grad as a friend, because he comes off as a really charming guy. The main issue that my team mate and I have had with the Grad is that, because of his insanely high intellect, he often makes mental connections which are difficult for outsiders to follow. And, as a result, he doesn't communicate effectively in class during lectures. What makes this worse is that when we don't understand material, the Grad doesn't seem to comprehend why we don't understand the material as easily as he does.

Almost in defiance of my preconceived notion, the Grad has been incredibly helpful over email. Perhaps it helps that, in writing, I have the chance to read his words at my own pace and really pay attention to what he is saying. Since I don't get that luxury in class, following his lectures has always been a challenge. His explanations for how to operate the software and interpret the results have been simple, to the point, and, above all, really useful. I almost wish he could have taught the course via email! I had given him a fairly harsh evaluation when filling out the online course evaluation survey for the class. After getting his help these last few days, I wish I could go back and amend some of my comments. Naturally, I still stand by my criticisms of his teaching style, but I would include that he does have the capacity for good communication and explanation of concepts, even if it is limited to textual conversation.

There is one more preconceived notion that was dispelled this week, as well, though it doesn't involve an individual. As part of our research project, my team and I took photographs of lecture halls, then categorized everyone in each class by their sex (Male or Female) and race (White, Black, Asian, or Hispanic), and entered that data into SPSS to evaluate whether groups self-segregate. We basically determined that there is more segregation based on sex than race, but that Whites tend to self-segregate from other racial groups quite a bit here at NC State. Now, my original notion about college, having come from Wake Tech, which was very racially diverse, was that college was naturally a culturally diverse environment where young people get the opportunity to interact with people of different backgrounds and expand their social horizons. At least at NC State, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Even looking at the photos alone reveals an extremely homogeneous campus. Out of 595 participants (the students we photographed in the lecture halls), only 51 were black, 53 were Asian (although for simplicity we broadened the Asian category to also include Asian Indians and those of Middle Eastern descent), and a startlingly low 8 were Hispanic. Granted, we didn't get photos of any engineering courses, but just based on stereotypes I suspect our Asian numbers would grow more than those for Blacks or Hispanics if we had included some engineering courses in our sample.

We had originally hoped to get a sample size of closer to 2000 students, which would have been more representative of the university. Unfortunately, due to the Grad not giving us more time for data collection, we had to scale back our data gathering considerably. But, even considering this, I'm still shocked by how few Blacks and Hispanics are on campus. According to the US Census, those groups are the number two and three most populous racial groups in the nation, with Asians and Middle Easterners coming in a distant fourth and fifth, respectively. Don't misunderstand me... I had no visions that colleges were some bastion of racial equality. However, I expected the racial diversity to be broader than what has been represented in our admittedly haphazard observational study.

Clearly, we have a longer road to travel before reality meets up with personal expectations.

Have fun, and keep living life... Or Some Approximation Thereof.

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