Thinking like a man is good for girls

March 13, 1998

Changes in Oxford University's marking system to accommodate a more 'women-friendly' approach will discourage risk-takers, says Jennifer Davey

Finals. That one word can drive me into a state of panic. My whole future will depend on what I write in eight three-hour examination papers this June.

As a final-year English literature student, particularly as a female English literature student at Oxford University, I have more reason to worry than most. Research in Oxford has shown that a gender gap exists between the number of men and women who get first-class degrees. And English literature has been identified as one of the worst culprits.

At the end of last year Oxford University's equal opportunities committee funded a steering group to look into reasons behind the "problem". It found that women come to Oxford with slightly lower A-level results than men. After adjusting the A-level results to account for this inconsistency they still found that women consistently underperform in their final examinations.

Jane Mellanby, a research fellow at St Hilda's College, carried out a private study with colleagues in the psychology department. Her preliminary findings were published in the Oxford Magazine ("The Gender Gap - The case of PPP", Trinity Term, 1997) and the final results are due to be published this June.

She argued that Oxford gives firsts in PPP (psychology/philosophy) for flashes of originality, not for well-balanced arguments. One idea put forward more broadly is that men are more likely to take intellectual risks than women. Men are more likely to show a clear line of argument and confident style in their essays, it is argued, whereas women prefer to stick to carefully balanced and less original pieces. A more confident style, shown mainly by men, so the argument goes, is more likely to be rewarded by the (frequently) male examiners. Some quarters of the university have decided that any system that rewards the "masculine" approach is due for a shake-up. It has been suggested that a marking style that awards originality may be too male centred. Instead, it is argued that Oxford should learn to accommodate a more "women-friendly approach".

After all, if most women in Oxford do not live up to these ideals, why keep them? By classing well balanced, if not necessarily original, essays on a par with essays that contain original ideas, women, we are told, will benefit. Women, it seems, are more likely to miss out on a first than men, primarily because, despite showing evidence of hard work, they are less confident about putting forward their own ideas. By altering the marking scheme this could all change.

While I may be keen to boost my marks this approach to "improvement" does not appeal. Learning to read critically is a key skill that we all need to learn. Rewarding originality encourages students to take their discipline and their own ideas seriously. It encourages us to push our work one step further continually.

Without the desire to develop new ideas that occasionally surpass current understanding, reading can become a passive process. Striving to make an impact on a debate pushes you to think things through in a critical way. By encouraging the development of independent and original ideas the Oxford system has tried to ensure that students take responsibility for their own intellectual development rather than rely on tutors' handouts.

During my first year literary theory course I was expected to read Derrida and Habermas. Only through actively seeking to find an "original" perspective could I create an effective niche for my study. In essays where I failed to do this I would resort to ineffectually repeating existing arguments.

While it may be arrogant and "masculine" to assume that established arguments are wrong, critically assessing the good and bad points of a text helps you to develop your own ideas and take your work seriously. If every established critic is respected as a voice of authority we can never go beyond their arguments. Only by developing an argument that takes a particular perspective on a text can you put your own ideas to the test.

I cannot be incisive and ground-breaking every week, and in every essay, but the aspiration to question everything and think critically has been an inspiring part of the Oxford system. If academic achievement is redefined by placing ventriloquised arguments on a par with original and incisive insights everyone will suffer. The desire to make a subject your own requires that you think through the ideas for yourself.

Taking away this aspect of academic achievement will do no one any favours. Instead of arguing that women should stick their necks out and take some intellectual risks it seems that everyone will be rewarded for playing safe. If the university fails to reward originality it can only encourage a stagnant intellectual tradition in which students no longer try to think for themselves. Arguing that originality can be equated with a well-balanced (and well-rehearsed) argument misses the point. It fails to recognise that a competitive and thriving intellectual culture can only be based on testing new ideas.

Changes to the marking system are a misguided attempt to help women. Being pushed to think critically and responsibly about texts helps me to develop my own thoughts and ideas. Changes like this can only do women down. Altering the marking schemes will foster a culture of passivity. We all need to defend critical thought as a key part of academic life and strive to ensure that it remains so.

Jennifer Davey is a third year English literature student at Hertford College, Oxford University.

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