Jeanie K. Allen, Diane R. Dean and Susan D. Bracken, eds., Most College Students are Women: Implications for Teaching, Learning, and Policy (Stylus 2008) and Linda J. Sax, The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men (John Wiley &Sons 2008)

What constitutes equity within education? Some argue that equity means all students must be treated in exactly the same way.. Critics counter that such practices reinforce the status quo and entrench existing inequities. The issue of equity is becoming increasingly contested in higher education, as a result of forces, labeled as neo-liberalism and new managerialism, that pervade the academy. Neo-liberalism gives primacy to the power of competitive economic markets, at the expense of less profitable pursuits, such as teaching, that are less likely to attract external research funding. Further, what counts as knowledge in our globalized world translates into a discourse of efficiency that values quick and efficient responses to changing global markets. Thus, the faster and more easily that educated workers who can compete successfully in the global economy can be produced, the better. But “efficiency” is in direct tension with higher education approaches that value inclusivity and that are grounded in the belief that no single approach to knowledge production, or scholarship in general, should be accorded primacy. However, inclusivity — valuing and recognizing others’ differences — can be an inefficient process that takes time, energy, and thought. Consequently, those of us labouring in the academy are often left struggling to reconcile these opposing conceptualizations of the mission of higher education.

Critical theoretical and pedagogical practices challenge us (faculty, others working within academia, and students) to conceptualize the ways how we are implicated in ongoing processes of domination and oppression. In the context of academia, such thinking requires a commitment to the visibility of marginalized identities and the systems of oppression that seek to silence these perspectives and thus reinforce status hierarchies. Two recent books, both of which acknowledge a myriad of entry points into a critical analysis, enter the debate through the lens of gender. Linda Sax’s The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men contributes to the field through a large-scale analysis of the significance of gender at the undergraduate level. Most College Students are Women: Implications for Teaching, Learning, and Policy, edited by Jeanie K. Allen, Diane R. Dean, and Susan D. Bracken, as well, challenges the conceptualization of students as a homogeneous consumer group and highlights the need to remain cognizant of various forms of difference when we carry out academic duties. A fundamental thrust of these works is the theoretical and practical exploration of the salience of gender to higher education. The authors thus pose a challenge to traditional pedagogical practices, which are grounded in the belief that all students should conform to a single approach to learning and that students should adjust to the practices of the institution rather than the organization adapting to the needs of the students.

Central to both books is their contention that intellectual engagement is the key to learning. This simple statement opens the door to an array of issues, including how pedagogues may alter their practices within and beyond the classroom to cultivate engagement. Sax’s research uncovers some surprising gender differences, such as that interactions with faculty outside of class increase the confidence of male math students yet have the opposite effect on women students. Resisting simplistic analyses, Sax suggests that this may or may not be correlated to differential treatment of students by faculty and raises the possibility that these differences may be caused by the pre-existing attitudes of students, the gender of the faculty member, or a myriad of other sources. Ultimately, the author calls for further research in the area.

Acknowledging the salience of the context in which these interactions occur, Sax questions the accountability of institutions of higher education and their willingness to reflect on their organizational practices. In this way, her research echoes widespread concerns about the gendered composition of university faculty. A growing body of scholarship in Canada has documented the ongoing under-representation of women and especially those from groups traditionally marginalized on account of race and other social markers (see, for example, Frances Henry and Carol Tator’s analysis in the February 2007 issue of Academic Matters). Although the situation is complex, one of the key arguments is that student engagement will benefit from a diverse teaching force, where the professoriate and other sectors of the academy better reflect the racial and gender composition of society and the student body.

The gender composition of the ranks of faculty and university administration is but one of many interrelated issues which must be considered when investigating how student engagement may be strengthened. How much the academy values teaching, for instance, will influence the extent to which faculty makes teaching a priority, given their ever-increasing workload. Traditionally, research has been accorded greater prestige and recognition in terms of assessing scholarly productivity, which has a discernible negative impact on the educational experiences of students and their level of interaction with faculty members. Such considerations cannot be overlooked in any analysis of higher education.

How we define “engagement” is also critical to such discussions. To what extent, for instance, do we interpret the term to encompass the need to engage with communities? The need to conceptualize the salience of including the community becomes ever more significant as we head towards an increasingly global world; universities tout the value of “internationalizing” the curriculum. Approaching the issue from this perspective introduces provocative questions, such as, Whose knowledge is valued? Put somewhat differently, we may ask: To what extent are non-Eurocentric ways of knowing legitimated in our teaching and scholarship? In a related vein, do we see a place for experts whose credentials are not derived from traditional academic sources? Each of these questions challenge us to move beyond the mainstream approaches that reify certain canons of knowledge and to respond to well-organized challenges from those whose scholarship has been largely relegated to the margins of the academic enterprise and labeled as somehow less legitimate.

The Gender Gap does not engage explicitly in such analyses, acknowledging that the complexities created by the interplay of identities is beyond the scope of the book. Sax cannot be faulted for this decision, as her stated goal is to highlight the significance of gender in a variety of institutional contexts. Indeed, one of the strengths of her contribution is her explicit admission about the limitations of her findings and her willingness to frame her conclusions as exploratory and to highlight the need for further research in the area. As Sax aptly indicates, future research will need to target efforts to ensure that adequate numbers of students from non-dominant backgrounds are included in the sample, if a more nuanced analysis of identity markers, such as race, were to be developed. This finding offers us a stark and disturbing glimpse into who is and who is not participating in academia.

The edited collection Most College Students are Women takes on an even more ambitious task, making the analysis of gender more complex by acknowledging the significance of multiple sites and sources of identity. Throughout the book, its contributors theorize from differing standpoints, consistently challenging the reader to consider the myriad of challenges — and related opportunities — to improving students’ overall learning. The contributors forge provocative links among different bodies of research and how these links may inform and enhance teaching practices in diverse academic disciplines. Each chapter challenges the status quo, stripping away the power of arguments like “but we have always done it this way”. Unflinchingly, each contributor in some way challenges the reader to envisage the ways in which we cannot merely accept women’s increased representation in higher education but embrace the opportunities thus presented as well. We need to develop innovative pedagogies both within and beyond the classroom that will enhance women’s learning and participation within the hallowed halls and walls of the ivory tower.

One of the most striking conclusions in Most College Students are Women is the statement that although race and socio-economic status have repeatedly been proven to be more predictive of academic performance than gender, it is nonetheless gender that has captured the media and public attention. This finding alone should lead us to question what is being collectively ignored, silenced, and marginalized. We are exerting considerable effort to sustain a focus on the socially constructed gender binary, most likely at the expense of other, perhaps more salient, social characteristics. From a critical stance, we might ask: which hierarchies are being reinforced through such analyses and at whose expense?

Such dynamics may be understood as paralleling past crises in the feminist movement, during which middle-class white women were criticized for not engaging with the realities of women who did not share their privileged status. In other words, women of colour and those who did not self-identify as heterosexual, able bodied, middle class —women who in some way differed from the normative construction of “woman”—, did not see their reality being reflected in the movement. Issuing this challenge ruptured any idealized notions of sisterhood, which had provided privileged women a means of retreating into the comfortable belief that we should all get along because of our shared experiences of gendered oppression.

Similar critiques have been leveled within institutions of higher education. Over the past decade, we have witnessed a progressively more pronounced demand by critical theorists and educators in Canada that the academy make meaningful efforts to increase equity practices and the representation of equity-seeking groups on campus. They contend that encouraging meaningful participation of women from diversely positioned standpoints can be expected to increase the breadth of scholarship, making it possible to theorize the ways in which women’s marginalization may be compounded by their positioning in systems grounded in race, class, sexual orientation, and “able-ism”. It would be naïve, however, to assume that such analyses would be broadly embraced. Challenging the status quo is a fraught endeavour, especially for those positioned tenuously on the margins.

As an increasing body of scholarship attests, challenging the existing power hierarchies and attempting to reform academia puts academic activists in a vulnerable position. The system is organized to reward those who play by the established rules and navigate the systems of scholarship through formally recognized venues. Hence, those that seek to “do” academia differently, often find themselves peering in from the wrong side of the gate. Systems of tenure and promotion serve as tools to reward conformity and, alternatively, can serve to punish those perceived as biting the proverbial hand that feeds them. In this way, the status quo is maintained and hierarchies remain intact. Of course the situation is not uniformly bleak. As these two books attest, there is also room for innovative approaches which, cumulatively, will result in meaningful reform.

Ultimately, both of these books reinforce the belief that any attempt to introduce change in higher education must be multifaceted and occur at all levels of teaching and learning. Although grounded in the American context, both address issues which are equally prevalent in the Canadian context, and both offer creative and practical approaches to envisioning the change process. The issue of resistance to change is acknowledged, albeit briefly, in both texts. Those of us who have attempted to introduce systemic change in a bureaucratic structure are undoubtedly aware of the monumental effort that this entails. The enormity of the task may be expected to increase exponentially, in relation to the degree of change envisioned. Consequently, to fully explore the barriers to implementing some of the more contentious proposals, an exploration that could be interpreted as a threat to entrenched hierarchies of power, would require another book. Nonetheless, both of these works are valuable as they raise the issues and may serve as an initial stimulus to those less familiar with the systemic barriers that continue to position some many women at the margins of the academic enterprise. In addition, the authors offer readers a welcome reprieve from the tiresome and commonplace arguments grounded in neo-liberal thinking.

Anne E. Wagner is an assistant professor in the Department of Child & Family Studies at the Muskoka campus of Nipissing University.