Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Monkfish Medallions with Tomato Lemon Coulis (Page 292)

  • Date: Saturday, February 16, 2008 --8pm
  • Location: Somerville, MA
  • Kitchen: Matty's Apartment
  • Dining Companion: Matty
  • Recipe Rating: B

Now that I have moved to the middle of the country and my special gentleman friend will also be doing so quite soon, I am trying to cook as much seafood as possible when I make trips to Boston. Otherwise I fear that I will end up with many recipes left in the Fish and Shellfish section of The Book, and no way to acquire the appropriate seafood. I have informed Matty that when I go to visit him in these next 6 months, we will be eating seafood -- everyday (mercury poisoning, here we come!). He accepted this without any complaint, and I chose this monkfish recipe to start. Monkfish is an extremely meaty fish, to the point where it is often prepared using cooking methods more reminiscent of chicken or beef than of other fish. For example, in this recipe the monkfish was cut into medallions which were then sauteed on the stovetop. After the fish was cooked some tomatoes and lemon juice were added to the pan to form a tomato lemon coulis, and this was served atop the fish. There was nothing bad about this recipe, but neither Matty nor I felt terribly inspired by it. I found it to be an odd choice of sauce to accompany monkfish. It was so tomatoey and light -- it would have been perfect on a flaky white-fleshed fish. But monkfish is so meaty -- it demands a heartier, bolder sauce to stand up to it. Although I liked both the sauce and the fish, in my opinion they weren't terribly compatible...

This recipe isn't online.

The subject of women in math came up in the comments from yesterday's post. Lately this topic has come up a number of times -- even the guys over at the Secret Blogging Seminar were questioning their all-male blog presence today.

Magdalen's comment asks several questions, the first of which is whether my airplane companion and I spoke yesterday about how to encourage elementary-age girls to approach math with confidence. Indeed we did, and what I found terribly interesting was the following: according the to fifth-grade teacher in the seat next to me, after so many years of emphasis on encouraging young girls in math and science (making sure to call on girls in class, making sure that they are seated up front, etc...) the girls are now out-achieving the boys, and the emphasis has flipped to help the young boys catch up (making sure to call on boys in class, making sure they are seated up front, etc...). Her question to me was whether that flip in achievement is reflected in higher math education.

In short: I don't think so. There are women in math. And there are more now than there used to be. But as a field we are certainly not in a position where the women are even close to outnumbering the men. And, as has long been the case, the higher you climb up the academic ladder, the fewer women you will find around you (the percentage of tenured math faculty who are female is smaller than that of postdocs, which is smaller than that of graduate students, etc...).

The obvious question is: why? I don't believe it is an issue of ability. I lean more towards theories about confidence than anything else. There was some study (I am sure I will mess up all the details, since I heard about this long ago) where they gave male and female students the same, unsolvable math problem and asked them to solve it. After everyone failed to do so they interviewed them and asked why they couldn't do the problem. The male students tended to give answers of the type: "I couldn't do the problem because the problem was hard." The female students tended to give answers of the type: "I couldn't do the problem because I'm not smart enough." The truth is: math is hard. Barbie said so and she wasn't wrong. At a research academic level, math is hard. And if your persistence is damaged by self-doubt, that may encourage you to choose another career.

Supposedly girls are also more likely to have an entity theory about intelligence (you either have it or you don't) while boys are likely to have an incremental theory (if you work hard, you will learn it). Since math often has a high initial investment before complete understanding, the theory goes that the people with entity theories of intelligence will give up ("I am bad at math") while the people with incremental theories of intelligence will try harder ("If I work hard, I will eventually understand it."). Research suggests that this entity/incremental distinction is at least partly a gender distinction, which may explain gender differences in math.

I don't really know though. I do know one thing: anyone who thinks girls are inherently bad at math has never taught calculus. Calculus is not easy, and female students excel just as much, if not more, than their male counterparts. In all honesty, I don't think about this issue so much. I have, over the years, gone through various theories about why there are so few women in math. But in recent years I have come to think of myself as just a mathematician, rather than a female mathematician. I think the fact that it is easy to do that reflects something positive about the math community as a whole.


Magdalen said...

Thanks, Teena -- I appreciate your answers, and the timing as well, as I was able to tell my cousin (the one with the 7-year-old daughter) to check your blog out this week. (I got to teach her daughter about Roman numerals this morning. Way cool.)

I strongly agree with your theories, and can augment them with my experience in law school. I matriculated at a top-ten, Ivy League law school in 1992. I was the oldest in my class (36), although there were older students in the class behind me and the one in front. Lani Guinier was a professor at my school at that time (although I didn't take a course with her). She wrote a book, Becoming Gentlemen, on the subject of gender-specific results among law students in the 80s and 90s. I believe (I didn't read the book) she argued that the attitude and behavior of male professors had something to do with the disparate results of men and women students.

At that time (it may still be true), the students at the very top of the law school class are much more likely to be male. I disagree with Lani's theory that the professor makes the difference -- I think along your lines, that women (particularly young women in their 20s) find fault in themselves not with the professor, whereas my male classmates believed the professor was an idiot when the student got an answer wrong!

Actually, I think women did just fine in law school when I was there, and were proportionally represented in the top ten percent, top quarter, etc. What they didn't do was concentrate on law school to the exclusion of all else. They maintained other aspects of their lives during those three years: relationships with family, friends, romantic interests, etc. By contrast, the men were better able, and more prepared, to narrow their focus exclusively to law school. Some of those men worked very hard to get the highest grades, which is why the top 1-2% of students were disproportionally male. (I suspect the records would reflect similar biases in favor of certain cultures and ethnic backgrounds, with some Asians doing well even though there were few or no Asian professors.)

Of course, law school is essentially a language course: all you do is learn to read, write, speak and reason in a foreign language. There's no cause for women not to do well as lawyers. And the skill set needed to get high grades isn't precisely the same skill set needed to be a good lawyer. (There's no oral exam, for example, even though so much of what a lawyer actually does is verbal.) So, in addition to a complicated set of factors in the question of why men do better in getting the very highest grades, there's the other question of why that should matter. In other words, do law school exams accurately track the performance of lawyers?

That's different, I would assume, in math: being able to do a difficult math problem is what the exam shows, right? So a good exam taker is likely to be a good mathematician, although a good mathematician might not be as good an exam taker if stress is a factor.

I really appreciate and enjoy your blog. And I'm grateful that you allow me to post silly & serious questions in the Comments section. But that you answer them: Priceless! (Next silly question: do you or any of your friends watch Numb3rs, or is it cringe-worthy TV the way ER is for emergency room physicians...?)

Anonymous said...

Here is another possible explanation for the gender gap in math: men and women simply have different priorities. Math is hard, so to succeed you have to be highly intelligent. Moreover, the early years in a math career are very stressful. No job security, having to move around a lot, difficulties with 2-body problems and so on.

If you are highly intelligent you have options. Options which include choosing a career where you will make more money and have more flexibility. I think women, being less single-minded than men, are simply more likely to consider these factors when choosing a profession.

Teena said...

Magdalen: your obersvations from law school are very interesting! As for your question about Numb3rs, I don't watch it, but the general consensus is that it is more or less mathematically accurate. Maybe the "applications" are blown a little out of proportion, but they have math advisors to make sure that what they are saying isn't complete nonsense.

Anon: Yeah, there might be something to that. It's so hard to generalize though -- for any assertion I could make about the way men versus women make career decisions in math, I can think of a handful of people who contradict my assertions...