So, I stayed away longer than I intended, but I have now submitted what I hope to be the penultimate draft of the first two chapters of my thesis to my supervisor! That's 40,000 words. I am very, very relieved. So I celebrated today by doing nothing but exercising. I went to a yoga class in the morning (which was filled with little old ladies who were much more flexible than I am), and then a long run in the sunshine. I really cannot express how good all this exercise is for my mental health. I'm not saying that you can cure depression and anxiety with a daily run, but it does help to keep the awfulness still and quiet for a little while.
We have our annual student conference in our department. I helped organise it in my MPhil year, and I presented at it in the first year of my PhD, but ever since I've just gone along for the fun of it. We've got our friends J, L and C staying with us for the weekend. J is going to be presenting there. We're going to spend tonight eating take-away and watching cheesy medieval films, and then head off to the conference in the morning. Our new house is very conveniently located - only fifteen minutes' walk to the department, and very close to the college where the dinner will be. And then on Sunday Matthias and I are going to see Paloma Faith.
One of my friends (one of my group of friends from uni, who mainly studied maths or other sciences) posted a link to an article
about a study which found that the number of girls studying maths in the HSC (the equivalent of the A Levels for students in NSW; Australia doesn't have a national education system) has increased dramatically in the past decade. While I think there is a problem in encouraging girls and women to pursue study or careers in mathematical or scientific fields, and that mathematical literacy is pretty poor in the Australian adult population (I used to work as a newspaper subeditor, so I have some first-hand experience of this), I'm not sure exactly what the right way to go about fixing this is. Some of my friends were suggesting that maths be made compulsory up to Year 12 (the final year of high school - right now it's only compulsory up to Year 10, and the only compulsory subject is English), but I'm a little dubious about whether forcing people to study something would increase their enjoyment of it (or encourage them to pursue it after secondary school).*
I am going to tell you my own story, because this is the only way that I manage to work out what I think about such issues.
I did (mostly) okay in maths and science classes in secondary school up until the end of Year 10. I was in the top class for both (out of four levels in Maths and three in Science), and managed solid Bs, with the occasional A. As long as I did my homework and studied a little bit before tests, I could keep up. But when I started Year 11, and maths became much more abstract, I really, really struggled. I had to stay in the top class because I was doing the International Baccalaureate, and only the top class covered all the IB material.
I spent every evening doing maths homework. I failed every single test. The highest grade I got on a test was probably around 35% (because of the way my state's education system worked, that scaled up to about 75%, which meant it didn't affect my overall grade). Can you imagine what it feels like to spend all of your studying time working on one subject, and get results like that? It was the first (and only) time where there was no correlation between my effort and the outcome.
In contrast, in my literature class, everything just clicked. I'd always found it very easy to spot themes, stylistic devices and all that stuff in works of literature - I'd been doing it since I was a child, every time I opened a book, for fun. After a long struggle during the earlier years of high school, where my grades steadily improved from solid Bs to lower As,** I could write reasonably good essays. I found literature study easy. My grades reflected my effort: as long as I listened and participated in class, as long as I put in time with my essays and presentations, I would get very good grades. In fact, I was consistently in the top three students in the grade.
It was pretty clear, by the time I was in the final years of secondary school, that I was going to study something related to words and writing, and that I would ultimately work in a field related to that. And yet, because all of my friends were excellent at maths, I felt that I was incredibly stupid. About 60 per cent of what I angsted about during those two years was whether I would pass my IB maths exam. (The other 40 per cent was why the guy I liked didn't want me back.)
I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with this. I don't think I was bad at maths because I'm a woman - I think I was bad at maths because a) my brain simply doesn't work that way and b) I did better in subjects that were assessed primarily through essays or assignments rather than in exam conditions. I don't even necessarily think that I would have been better off if I'd been able to drop Maths entirely. I wonder if I would have been okay if I'd been able to go into the class one level down. But I think I disagree with making the choice of subjects of study more rigid and restricted in the final years of high school. If anything, I'd go in the other direction, and have more options - especially more vocational options and opportunities for internships or work experience. I feel the way to encourage more students to study specific subjects is to make them more geared towards those who have a deep and genuine interest, streamed into different levels if necessary. I think something needs to be done earlier on in education to make maths and science more appealing to girls, but I think by Years 11 and 12, it's too late, and making such subjects compulsory at that stage isn't going to solve the problem of the lack of women in those fields.***
* If I had my way, English, Maths, Science, Modern History (or a combined History and Geography class) and a foreign language would be compulsory up to Year 10, but I think there should be more choice after that. I also think a course on managing money, and another on managing your mental health, should be made part of the curriculum.
** I will always be grateful to my English teacher during those years. She could see that I understood stuff, but wouldn't give me amazing grades until my written expression improved, and every essay it got a little bit better until I wrote one on Macbeth
and she actually said to me, 'You finally understand how to do this'.
*** In any case, there are fewer women in fields which are supposedly more popular for girls - fewer senior female academics, even in the humanities, and fewer women in senior positions in the media, or working as journalists and reviewers in top, well-paying publications. My position on all these issues is that the later years of secondary school, and university (both undergrad and postgrad) is the wrong time to be addressing this problem. It needs to be dealt with both earlier (in primary and the earlier years of secondary school) and later (when adults enter the workforce).