Review: Whistling Vivaldi

Whistling Vivaldi, by Dr. Claude Steele, currently provost of Columbia University, is mainly a summary of studies performed to investigate “stereotype threat”, a term coined to refer to decreased performance as a result of perceived negative expectations.

Steele opens by discussing what he calls “identity contingencies” – the fact that some things in life that we have to deal with will depend on who we are or who we are seen as being.  Stereotype threats are presented as instances of this, and the majority of the book is dedicated to examples of various experiments done to demonstrate that they actually exist – and perhaps most disturbingly, can be easily created artificially but intentionally simply by imposing divisions on a group and attaching expectations.

The remainder is spent discussing ways to address the problem.  The method Steele mentions more often focuses on creating positive expectations or otherwise offsetting the negative ones, by using vocabulary meant to be less threatening, by specifically addressing a negative stereotype fear with reassurances, or other techniques to create positive expectations among a population that would typically be stereotyped with negative ones.  He also briefly mentions addressing these problems by making sure that students learn to work in the ways that do work already for groups with high performance.

The circumstances under which the book was recommended to me – to say nothing of the title – suggested to me that Steele’s work would be reliant on anecdotes of mainly emotional value, an impression which proved quite misleading.  In fact I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit and would recommend it.  I found it disjointed in places: the “disjoints” come when he mentions various experiments or discoveries related to his main topic, and then reverts to the main point.  In a way the book is far too short – another way of looking at these rough connections would be to emphasize one of the book’s chief values, that Steele sticks to his point and doesn’t try to do too much.