Carrie Yang Costello:”Professional Identity Crisis: Race, Class, Gender, and Success at Professional Schools”

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The summary: “The fact that women and people of color tend to underperform at professional schools is a source of controversy. Conservatives blame affirmative action, while liberals blame intentional discrimination. The extensive research reported in Professional Identity Crisis belies both conspiracy theories. The author spent over 400 hours observing how first-year students are socialized in two very different environments, Boalt School of Law and the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley, watching how they adapted to different expectations of how to speak, dress, and behave in the classroom.

“Costello found that students who were female, of color, disabled, or poor were not underqualified compared with their privileged peers. Nor did the research uncover intentional bigotry. Instead, the disproportionate success of white men can be explained by the fact that they are more likely to acquire appropriate professional identities swiftly, with little inner conflict. Students from less privileged backgrounds, however, suffered from “identity dissonance.”

“For example, Jasmine, a Filipino student from Los Angeles, explained, “In the legal culture you have to adopt a different way of being, a different vocabulary and way to carry yourself . . . That’s how I got this far. And when I go home, if I act the way I do here, they won’t get it. My cousins and my friends say, ‘You’re kind of whitewashed.’ And when I come back here I have to get back my law style.”

This Insider Higher Ed article: “Professional Correctness” by Scott McLemee, contains an interview with the author, and describes her book project as follows:

“One of the most durable metaphors used in making sense of the world treats social life as a kind of theatrical performance. Each of us is playing a part : more or less comfortably, more or less convincingly : while burdened, often enough, by the need to improvise”in character.”

“This idea is more than a Shakespearean conceit. It’s implicit in the sociological notion of”role,”for example. And it also helps make sense of what happens when people learn to play that type known as”the professional”: a much-sought social role, usually accompanied by substantial benefits in income, and even more in prestige.

“How people rehearse that character is the topic of Carrie Young Costello’s Professional Identity Crisis: Race, Class, Gender, and Success at Professional Schools (Vanderbilt University Press). Costello, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, takes on the thorny topic of why women and people of non-Caucasian ethnicities who enter professional schools with solid academic records often tend to underperform. She did extensive field research among first-year students enrolled in the law and social-work schools at the University of California at Berkeley.

“Costello finds that there is an undeclared yet unmistakable WASP accent to the professional roles that students are training to acquire. Along with technical expertise, they have to assimilate the necessary demeanor and attitude. For students of some backgrounds, that presents no real difficulties : so they can, as Costello puts it,”focus on the intellectual tasks of professional school with little distraction.”But for those with”a mismatch between the personal identities they possess upon entering their professional programs and the professional roles those schools proffer,”there can be a jarring dissonance.”Seeking to find a way to manage or resolve their identity dissonance distracts students from focusing on their studies,”writes Costello.”

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