‘Whistling Vivaldi’ Encourages Discussion of Stereotypes

Hannah Bartman

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Illustration by MaryAnne Bowen

To stimulate residence hall bonding, each year Whitman chooses a book for incoming first-years to read over the summer. For the class of 2017, the Summer Book Program, as it is formally called, chose the book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Do” by social psychologist Claude Steele, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University.

“Whistling Vivaldi” is the first book published by Steele and centers on the effects of the proliferation of stereotypes, a topic that holds significant personal weight for Steele. Growing up as an African-American just outside of Chicago at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, Steele has felt the impacts of stereotypes since second or third grade when he was first restricted from swimming in the public pool. 

“And that was, in some ways, the first realization I had of being black and that the other kids I lived around were also black, and that we had this contingency of identity, as I’ve been calling it, to deal with,” said Steele in an interview on National Public Radio.

Steele expanded upon this interest through academic research regarding the effects that stereotypes have on performance. In his book, he focuses more specifically on how minority stereotypes negatively affect academic performance. In addressing these issues, he also provides suggestions for reducing the distressing effects of negative stereotypes.

“It was super useful for people from a white-majority school to understand minority problems,” said junior Resident Assistant Annie Sirski. “It was a good discussion [in the residence halls] because we had people from all different backgrounds, like some who went to a majority white high school or some who had a more diverse upbringing. The book was a good guide on how to be an ally.”

The Summer Book Program is an annual institutional program that arises through a conglomeration of student and faculty input. In the fall semester, the Office of the President sends out a listserv email to the students, asking for recommendations of books for the next year’s first-year book. Then, a committee of students, faculty and staff come together and look through the recommendations and narrow their selection down to about 10 books. The decision is then left to President Bridges, who chooses a book in tandem with the cost and likelihood of bringing the author of the book to campus.

Though first-years’ reactions to “Whistling Vivaldi” have varied, most mention that the length of the book was slightly tedious.

“I think the general opinion was that it had interesting things to say, but it could have said the same thing in one chapter,” said first-year Alix Eisenbrey.

The theme of minority issues in “Whistling Vivaldi” also parallels Whitman’s goal of creating an awareness of diversity on campus. According to Jewett Student Academic Advisor sophomore Joel Ponce, the discussion of this book fed the discussions at the Gender and Sexuality Workshop that was required of all first-years.

“[‘Whistling Vivaldi’] had good information and a lot of interesting statistics,” said Ponce. “It made people more aware of social norms and it was also useful in discussions during the gender and sexuality workshop.”

Steele will be giving a speech on his book tonight, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m. in Cordiner Hall. His discussion of his book and of stereotype threat will be followed by a short question and answer forum.