Wins on 'Whistling': Student Essays Lead to Dinner with President McCartney and Noted Author

Claude Steele, author of Whistling Vivaldi, will meet with Smith students, faculty and administrators and give a public talk on campus August 30.

Azhar Gulaid said it didn’t take her long to get drawn into this year’s book choice for first-year students.

From the opening pages of Whistling Vivaldi by social psychologist Claude Steele, Gulaid said the book struck a chord with her.

“I found a lot of things I could identify with,” Gulaid said of Steele’s book, which explores the impact of stereotypes and what can be done to combat them. The title refers to the experience of a young black man who finds he can ease white people’s fears by whistling melodies from Antonio Vivaldi.

Gulaid said dealing with stereotypes was part of her own growing up in the suburbs of Hartford, Conn.

“My dad always told me being black in America, being female and being Muslim, you’re going to face some things,” said Gulaid, whose parents are Somalian immigrants.

“I love the fact that Smith chose this book for summer reading,” she added. “I feel like it opened my mind a bit. I’d like to ask him some more questions.”

Gulaid and fellow first-year student Emily Ruppel will have a chance to do just that when they meet Steele on campus August 30.

The two are the winners of an essay contest sponsored by the college summer reading program about what students learned from Steele’s book. Their prize: Dinner with the author and college President Kathleen McCartney.

Other Smith students and faculty—including those who helped select Whistling Vivaldi for the 15th year of the summer reading program—have been invited to the gathering at the president’s house.

Following the dinner, Steele will give a talk to the community at 7 p.m. in John M. Greene Hall.

Smith’s summer reading program is designed to give entering students a chance to connect with their peers by sharing a book selection over the summer and in small discussion groups led by faculty and staff in the days leading up to the start of classes September 4.

Jin Rui Yap ’17, one of the students who helped choose Steele’s book for this year’s program, said she liked the way his work focuses on identity.

“There are so many ways in which we hold ourselves back because of the way we think we are perceived,” Yap said. “If we remove all of these self-imposed barriers, there is so much more that we can achieve and so many more ways in which we can thrive.”

Marjorie Litchford, assistant dean of students and the creator of the essay contest, said she received about 20 submissions from program participants about Whistling Vivaldi—all of them well written.

What made Gulaid and Ruppel’s essays stand out?

“For me it was the fact that they were able to articulate how the book would lead to further learning,” Litchford said. “It really inspired some thinking.”

Ruppel said Steele’s book gave her a framework for understanding her own experience with labeling and stereotypes.

As one of the openly gay students at the private high school she attended in Seattle, “anything I did was expected to be representative of that group,” she said. “It made it harder to be who I was.”

Ruppel, who is a STRIDE (Student Research in Departments) program scholar at Smith, said she is looking forward to assisting Hannah Karpman, an assistant professor in the School for Social Work this fall on a study of the lives of lesbian parents.

Ruppel sees the choice of Steele’s book for the summer reading program as “a really good sign” about Smith. “It’s clear that these are issues Smith feels are important,” she said.

Gulaid feels the same.

“The book deals directly with minority performance in higher education,” she said. Reading it “lessened the impact for me of being a minority and helped me feel more accepted.”

Following are the students’ winning essays on Whistling Vivaldi.

Azhar Gulaid:
While Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us is mainly about the effect of stereotypes on performance, it reminds me of the questions I had about identity growing up. Whistling Vivaldi also makes me wonder about the effect of perceived stereotypes. I, like many other people, have been referred to as a myriad of ethnicities that are not what I identify as. Each time, the negative stereotypes of each group weighed on me even though I knew that I was black and not Arab, Indian, Native American and so on. Not only would I like to discuss with Claude Steele the minority performance in higher education that is dominated by white males (or as I assume to be Smith’s case, white and cisgender females), but also the effects of stereotypes on an individual’s mindset during social settings and high-stress situations. Identity is such a fluid and abstract concept, but at the same time it is considered to be rigid and unyielding. There are still discussions on whether or not sexuality is a spectrum, and recently there has been discourse on the changing of answers about ethnicity on the census reports. As many people change their views on their own identity during their lifetime, I would also like to discuss with Claude Steele the subject of identity itself and if our own self-perceived identity can shape stereotypes, experiences and so on.

Emily Ruppel:
Dr. Steele’s research holds personal significance for me. His description of the paralyzing effects of stereotype threat rang true to my experiences: when you spend your time worrying about fulfilling stereotypes, you are unable to express yourself authentically, and the diversion of your energy diminishes the quality of your work. His book gave me a vocabulary for my experiences and helped me recognize the impact of stereotypes on my own behavior. Furthermore, as a prospective sociology major, I’m very interested in the structural implications of stereotype threat. Where do stereotypes come from? Some claim that most stereotypes have evolved because they hold a grain of truth, but I would argue that they exist because those in power find them useful. When members of marginalized groups are impacted by stereotype threat, their power is diminished and dominant groups benefit. Therefore, in order to combat stereotype threat, we must ask what power structures stereotype threat upholds and how they can be addressed. Stereotypes about women, for example, are tied to sexism; by fighting sexism in all its forms, we reduce their power. I’m interested in hearing Steele’s perspective on the sociological implications of his research.”