Sarah-Jane Leslie, dean of the Graduate School, the Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy and founding director of the Program in Cognitive Science, encourages all undergraduates to attend a biweekly lunchtime lecture series with cognitive scientists. However, she makes one appeal: “I invite the brave senior pursuing the certificate to step up and present.”
Although students pursuing the certificate, with its first class in 2015, are not required to lead a discussion, they are encouraged to engage with the guest lecturers who are top practitioners and researchers in a range of fields. “We’re hoping through exposure to cognitive science students will explore ideas across disciplines, most notably, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience,” she says.
Leslie’s own research is tied directly to her academic and professional careers. In recent work, Leslie found that women earn fewer degrees in fields in which “raw brilliance” is perceived to be the key to success. Conversely, women are better represented in fields where success is seen as largely a matter of hard work and dedication.
The effects of these cultures of brilliance are found across the entire academic spectrum. “It’s not about science versus humanities. It’s not about measurable quantities, such as selectivity of the discipline or even the test scores of students in the field. It’s a matter of social perception: the belief that you need to be a special type of person – with a certain ineffable brilliance – to excel in the field,” Leslie explains.
To illustrate her argument, she turns to pop culture. “It’s very hard to come up with examples of a fictional female character who has that wild, raw flash of insight that you see in, say, the male private detective Sherlock Holmes,” says Leslie. “Women in pop culture who are portrayed as intellectually accomplished tend to be more like Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. She is very accomplished, but those accomplishments are rooted in hard work and dedication.”
In her lecture this past summer at the Freshman Scholars Institute, a seven-week immersion program, Leslie reminded incoming students that it’s okay to have doubts – but those doubts do not mean you should not pursue a certain discipline. “In every respect in which I interact with students, I do my best not to foster beliefs of ‘innate brilliance,’ but in fact, to challenge those beliefs,” she says.
In addition to her responsibilities within the philosophy department and Program in Cognitive Science, Leslie oversees the Program in Linguistics, which allows undergraduates to pursue a certificate or an independent concentration. “When Linguistics was hiring new faculty last year, we asked undergraduates to serve on the interview committee and provide feedback on the faculty applicants. The input from students was invaluable, and we were so glad to be able to involve them in this crucial faculty hiring decision,” she says.
Leslie earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton in 2007, and she chose to continue her tenure at the University for many reasons. “This place has a fundamental commitment to decency and to supporting students and faculty in all their pursuits,” she says.
She acknowledges that because her work is interdisciplinary, she hasn’t always fit the traditional mold of philosopher. “I don’t know of any other university in the country that is able to maintain such a strong focus on students while also supporting faculty in being the best researchers they can be. Princeton finds the balance.”