Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Stereotyping of students based on intended career

There is a commonly sited and widely believed in stereotype of a certain group of biology undergraduates, and this stereotype, I have reason to believe is frequently used in labs in my department to determine which students are desirable to have in one's class or section or lab, and how much responsibility and trust to give students. This stereotype is based not on race, sex, religion or socioeconomic background, but rather on intended career. I have heard faculty, grad-students and even other undergraduate students (including other pre-meds and pre-vets) rail against the pre-meds and pre-vets. At the new-grad student orientation last year the first response to the question, "What are the undergrads here like?" was, "too many pre-meds."

The stereotype goes something like this:
They only care about grades and letter of recommendation, they aren't interested in learning, they have no interest in science but will apply for any and every research position just to put it on their resumes. They will do a desultory job at any task you give them, so you may as well give them menial tasks. They are unpleasant to teach because they aren't interested and they spend all their time grade-grubbing. They are motivated to cheat by their fanatical devotion to getting A's.

This stereotype is, in my opinion, quite destructive. Not to say it has no basis in fact. I have had students who match the stereotype fairly well, both in classes and as lab assistants, and I will admit to finding myself hoping never to find myself or a member of my family in their medical offices. Our campus has both pre-medical and pre-vet undergraduate clubs, and while I have no direct knowledge of the advice these clubs give their members, the students who seem to be living up to the stereotype will occasionally say that they want the A or want the job because their pre-professional society told them so. (See here for my thoughts on how and why undergraduates should get involved in research. One important point, don't apply because your pre-med society told you you should, and if you do, don't admit to it, and if you do, expect menial tasks from most labs.) I suspect that some students really are led astray by receiving advice that emphasizes grades over learning and items on a resume over experience.

But honestly, the best undergraduates, bar-none, I have worked with have been pre-med and pre-vet. When I was a teaching assistant for Animal Behavior last year, the student in my section who asked the best questions, was the most enthusiastic and was the most helpful in explaining the material to her fellow students was a pre-vet student, very active in the pre-vet society. She also happened to get by far the highest grade in the course, but the high grade was clearly not her only reason for being there. My most accomplished lab assistant, whose thesis is nearly ready for publication, just applied to 20 med schools. I will admit to trying to talk her into a career in research, but I also have no doubt she would be an excellent physician. I could give as many examples of excellent pre-med and pre-vet students as I could examples of terrible ones.

Why do I think the stereotype is damaging though, if it is at least sometimes at least partly true? Partly because it colors interactions with undergrads. Some very large portion (well over half, I think) of students taking classes taught by my department are on pre-health career tracks. If one goes into interactions with more than half of one's students assuming that they are uninterested in learning, this affects one's teaching. If one offers only menial lab tasks to more than half of one's students, this affects their opportunity to learn about science. If instructors try to avoid teaching the classes that pre-med students flock toward, that doesn't say anything great about the educations of our pre-med students. It is also damaging if students feel compelled to live up to it. I had a pre-med students say to me that he was not interested in participating in anything that didn't contribute to his grade because that wasn't how pre-med students worked. I had the distinct impression he was striving to be the stereotype.

What actions do I suggest? The first would be for people on all levels of the department to be aware of this stereotype, and the biases it causes, and to be careful about how those biases affect their actions. The second would be for the pre-vet and pre-med clubs to make their members aware of this stereotype, and urge them to avoid being pigeon holed. Just as racism cannot be combated without acknowledging that it exists, I feel that carrerism must be exposed to the light of day.

1 comment:

Laura said...

I've only met one pre-med who closely fits the stereotype you've described.

Stereotyping (especially in this case)=fault-finding??