Whistling Vivaldi

For the past several years, Princeton’s incoming first-year students have been asked to read a common text selected by President Eisgruber before they arrive on campus and then to participate in special discussions about it over the course of their first year here. In selecting Whistling Vivaldi as the Princeton Pre-read for the incoming class of 2019, President Eisgruber said: "Events of the past year underscore the need for all of us to think carefully and critically about how stereotypes affect our campus, our society and the world."

As their instructors, you are central to students’ experience of the University, particularly as they look to you to learn the cultures of academic and campus life. Whistling Vivaldi contains important ideas you can use to enhance the engagement of students in your classroom and, by extension, life within the University.

What is stereotype threat?

Author Claude M. Steele describes stereotype threat as a phenomenon in which a member of a group feels pressure to disprove stereotypes about that group. It does not matter whether the individual believes the stereotypes are true, they still have a powerful effect. In an academic setting, the result can be negative impacts on performance (e.g., women perform worse on difficult math exams because they feel pressure to disprove that women are bad at math, white men perform worse on athletic activities when they are told the activities measure their athletic abilities while black men perform worse when told that the activities measure their sports strategic intelligence, etc.). Perhaps surprisingly, stereotype threat affects motivated students most.

No special susceptibility is required to experience this pressure. Research has found but one prerequisite: the person must care about the performance in question. That’s what makes the prospect of confirming the negative stereotype upsetting enough to interfere with that performance (Steele, p. 98).

As a teacher, what can you do about stereotype threat?

As Steele writes (p. 216):

  • By changing the way you give critical feedback, you can dramatically improve minority students’ motivation and receptiveness.
  • By improving a group’s critical mass in a setting, you can improve its members’ trust, comfort, and performance in the setting.
  • By simply fostering intergroup conversations among students from differing backgrounds, you can improve minority students’ comfort and grades in a setting.
  • By allowing students, especially minority students, to affirm their most valued sense of self, you can improve their grades, even for a long time.
  • By helping students develop a narrative about the setting that explains their frustrations while projecting positive engagement and success in the setting, you can greatly improve their sense of belonging and achievement—which if done at a critical time could redirect the course of their lives.

How can you implement these changes in your courses?

A number of teaching strategies Steele describes:

  • Emphasize a growth mindset, the idea intelligence is not fixed and people can get better at challenging tasks (pp. 168-9)
  • Increase intergroup interaction (pp. 207-10)
  • Remind students of their identities linked to academic success (i.e., Princeton student) (p. 94)
  • Expose students to positive, successful role models from their group (p. 159)
  • Support students’ sense of belonging (pp. 164-9)
  • Give feedback emphasizing your high standards and assurance that students can meet those expectations (pp. 161-3)

Where can you go for further reading?

Inclusive Teaching Strategies from the Working Group on Inclusive Teaching and Learning

Inclusive Princeton