New insights on stereotypes

Chloe Schama’s thesis evolved into “Wild Romance.’’ Chloe Schama’s thesis evolved into “Wild Romance.’’ (Hatnim Lee)
By Alex Spanko
Globe Correspondent / May 25, 2010

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Columbia University provost Claude Steele made an academic name for himself with his theory of “stereotype threat,’’ a term he uses to describe any situation where a person feels afraid of acting out a stereotype — sometimes to the point where it adversely affects his or her behavior. He brings his research to the masses in “Whistling Vivaldi,’’ a more informal work that illustrates how we are influenced by preconceived notions.

Steele, who discovered the phenomenon while studying achievement gaps among female and minority students, took the book’s title from a story told by New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Staples noticed that his mere presence as a black man in casual clothing would make some white passersby uncomfortable.

“He knows, at that instant, even though it’s not conscious he knows he’s being seen through the lens of a stereotype about his race and social class,’’ Steele said.

But if Staples walked down the street whistling a Vivaldi movement, people stopped seeing him as something to be feared.

Steele emphasizes that awareness of the problem — specifically, workplaces and classrooms where employees and students are made to feel safe from preemptive prejudice — could help foster a more even playing field. He will discuss “Whistling Vivaldi’’ at the Harvard Book Store tonight at 7.

Nick Bunker goes far beyond the grade-school retelling of the Pilgrim story in “Making Haste From Babylon,’’ his extensive analysis of New England’s original Puritan settlement.

Bunker initially set out to write about rural England in the 16th and 17th centuries, using the well-documented Pilgrims as a guide. But the sheer amount of archival information available in his native United Kingdom inspired him to create a fuller picture of the Plymouth colony, which he said has traditionally been seen only from the American perspective. Bunker said the relationship between England and the colony is best understood as “a circuit or loop between the two continents,’’ or a metaphorical telephone cable laid down underneath the ocean floor.

“You have to look at both ends of the cable,’’ Bunker said.

Bunker will discuss “Making Haste From Babylon’’ at the Harvard Book Store tomorrow night at 7.

When she was an undergraduate at Harvard, Chloe Schama had major doubts about her thesis topic: Victorian-era sensation novels.

“I realized I couldn’t spend a whole summer reading them,’’ she said, calling the books “terrible’’ and “purple.’’

Instead, she decided to research Theresa Longworth, whose protracted 1800s legal battle with lover — and perhaps husband — William Yelverton caused a real-life Victorian sensation. Five years after graduation, that thesis evolved into “Wild Romance,’’ Schama’s account of the civil case that captured a bygone public’s imagination.

Longworth took Yelverton to court four times to recognize their two alleged marriages, both of which Yelverton claimed were unofficial and nonbinding. Schama said that Longworth’s continued pursuit of a man who no longer wanted her as a wife speaks volumes about the limited role of women in Victorian England. Were she to return to single life after years of living with a man, Schama said, Longworth would have been labeled a “ruined woman.’’

“She would have had a hard time finding anything to do after that,’’ Schama said.

Schama will return to Harvard to discuss “Wild Romance’’ at the Harvard Book Store Friday evening at 6.