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Male professors play vital role at College

Nicole Zook | Monday, September 5, 2005

Editor’s note: The is the last in a three part series exploring the role of men at Saint Mary’s.

While some may see the all-female environment at Saint Mary’s as unusual in today’s world of co-ed colleges and even co-ed dormitories, philosophy professor Kevin McDonnell says he knows the value of a single-sex education – he attended an all-male school for his undergraduate courses.

“In the mid-1960s there were 300 women’s colleges and at least as many men’s colleges,” McDonnell said. “I dated women from several women’s schools and respected them and their education.”

While the American public’s outlook on single-sex colleges had changed by the time McDonnell was hired as faculty at the College a few years later, he viewed Saint Mary’s not as outdated in a quickly dwindling field of all-women’s colleges but as an opportunity to educate students in a different kind of environment.

“By the time I came to Saint Mary’s, soon after the merger negotiations with Notre Dame had broken down, almost every school was rushing to go co-ed,” McDonnell said. “Saint Mary’s offered a wonderful opportunity to take part in rebuilding a great school and to preserve a diverse kind of institution. While there were certainly differences between single-sex male and single-sex female schools, there was also a great similarity in that no one was putting on a show for what I will call extracurricular benefits. Students could be quite frank in class. In contrast to the co-ed college in which I had been teaching, the atmosphere was freer. Also, women participated in class – if the women didn’t, who would?”

It’s a woman’s world

Most male professors on campus agree with McDonnell that there are benefits to single-sex education. Thomas Parisi, a psychology professor at the College since 1980, is one of those professors, though he said teaching at Saint Mary’s was “challenging at first.”

“At this point, I would find it odd – and an adjustment – to be in a co-ed classroom,” he said. “Young men are more likely to spout on even when they don’t have much to say. A dangerous generalization, I know. Let me temper it by saying that, as time goes on, most people talk too much, men and women alike. Seriously, though, I think that a product of socialization in high school and grade school is still that boys are reinforced for talking, and girls for fading to the background. Which is one reason why there is still a valid argument to be made for single sex education.”

Saint Mary’s newest male addition, music professor Daniel Party, said he feels Saint Mary’s is a good learning environment because of those benefits.

“In a mixed-sex environment, men and women tend to fall first into traditional gender roles, and only later individual personalities arise,” he said. “Without the gender divide, their personalities come out earlier, and it’s nice to have female students taking roles that are traditionally occupied by men, like being a leader or a clown, to name two extremes.”

History professor Bill Svelmoe, who taught classes at Notre Dame and Bethel as a graduate student before coming to Saint Mary’s, said he is used to teaching all women and does not feel a lack of men in his classrooms.

“During my first few years here I kept asking myself the question of how my classroom was different without men. I’m not sure I ever came up with a satisfactory answer to that question,” he said. “Perhaps I had too little experience in mixed classrooms, or perhaps I’m remarkably insensitive. My hunch is that teachers in the sciences might notice more radical differences. I think women historically have been strong in the humanities, so perhaps we notice it less.”

Svelmoe also said the all-female environment is positive for empowering women.

“Recent research has shown that women even at the lower levels are much more assertive in the classroom now than they used to be, demonstrating that the focus during the past several decades on helping girls assert themselves academically has worked,” he said. “Some are even talking now about needing to get boys into all boys’ academic environments to ‘protect’ them from assertive girls. Go figure.”

Ted Billy, a longtime professor in the College’s English department, has taught at not one but two women’s colleges, which he said led him to believe strongly in the importance of women’s education.

“I had the good fortune to teach for a year at the College of Saint Benedict, a Catholic, all-women’s college, a few years before I came to Saint Mary’s,” he said. “That experience prepared me well for teaching classes composed exclusively of female students. I am an equalitarian, and I believe that educating young women is as vital as educating young men.”

History professor David Stefancic believes in it so deeply that he recently sent his daughter, Regina, to Saint Mary’s.

“My daughter just graduated from SMC last May and loved the experience,” he said. “It was great seeing her grow in confidence while here.”

Lessons of ther own

While Stefancic is teaching the women of Saint Mary’s, he said they have also taught him in his time here.

“Since coming to SMC I have become a better listener, which is oftentimes what my students need. They are great problem solvers but they often need a sounding board for their ideas,” he said. “I just received a copy of a book written by one of my former students and she credits my mentoring for accomplishing this. I felt rather humbled.”

Theater professor Mark Abram-Copenhaver, whose daughter Tori is a junior at the College, said that while he had questions about all-female education before coming to Saint Mary’s he has “come to see the great value of the single sex environment.”

“When I was first touring the campus I was going through the scene shop and a student was welding some steel. The student wore a large mask and the sparks were flying as the job was completed. At that point the worker lifted the mask and, to my surprise, was a young woman,” he said. “The fact that I was surprised and that I realized that in this environment I should not be surprised by such an occurrence went a long way toward helping me to realize the value of studying theater at a women’s college.”

Most male professors say their time at Saint Mary’s has altered their views on women’s issues.

“Of course, my views on women’s issues must have changed, but I have been here long enough that I would put it differently: my views have been shaped in many significant ways by the culture I have been embedded in for the past 25 years,” Parisi said.

“I will admit that I’ve become a real supporter of women’s education through what I’ve experienced here,” Svelmoe said. “That doesn’t mean I’m marching in the streets … but from what I’ve seen of the experience of young women here in the classrooms, in athletics, in student government … well, let’s just say I hope places like Saint Mary’s always exist.”

Although challenges – and quirks, such as “students coming to class in slippers,” Abram-Copenhaver said – are presented to male professors teaching at an all-women’s college, the Saint Mary’s professors seem to step up to the plate and swing their hardest.

“I guess I have learned that the great Tom Hanks line, ‘There’s no crying in baseball’ doesn’t apply to a college,” Svelmoe said. “I haven’t learned yet how to deal with the weeping student in my office.”

Party, who just began to deal with those challenges, said that while he does “find it challenging to try to think like a 19-year-old woman,” he is not necessarily shocked or overwhelmed by the all-female environment.

However, Party said he does get ribbed by friends when they find out he teaches at Saint Mary’s.

“I do get laughs and jokes from friends regarding teaching at a women’s college,” he said. “It’s always the same joke: “Lucky you!”