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Elaine Blakemore

An Interview with Elaine Blakemore, Recipient of the Lowell W. Beineke Medal

Elaine Blakemore

Elaine Blakemore, interim Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychology, joined IPFW in 1986. Since then she has been instrumental in shaping the university, serving in many capacities on campus, including 14 years as chair of the psychology department. She is also a distinguished scholar of children’s gender development, who has published a well-regarded textbook, Gender Development (2009), more than twenty scholarly articles, and has given more than forty presentations related to gender development.

Blakemore’s accomplishments were recently publicly recognized when she received the Lowell W. Beineke Medal for Outstanding Contributions to the Liberal Arts and Sciences, which is awarded to COAS faculty who exhibit excellence in service, teaching, and scholarship. To learn more about the interim dean and award winner, we asked her a few questions.

How did you become interested in psychology?

I took a psychology class my first year in college that was taught by a senior psychology graduate student, and I really liked that class. It’s kind of ironic, because the way he taught it, I would be appalled if someone taught an introductory psychology course that way now. It was more experiential, touchy-feely. As a department chair, I would have never hired anyone who taught an introductory class like that. There was subject matter, but a lot of what happened in class wasn’t driven by the science of psychology. But I really liked him and the subject matter. So then I started taking other psychology classes, and that’s when I declared the major.

Tell me a little more about your specific research interests.

I study developmental psychology or, more specifically, the development of gender roles. You can look at gender development in different of ways, and when I started it was more about sex or gender differences, or “how do males and females differ,” which existed as an important question in psychology from the 1900s until about the 1960s.

I was in the middle of graduate school when Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin’s The Psychology of Sex Differences (1973) landed on my desk. This fundamental book on gender and development summarized what we knew about gender differences, and examined what we knew of their causes. That shaped the generation going forward. Now there is more focus on the developmental underpinnings of gender development with strong theoretical focus Earlier research would have been atheoretical, like creating list of things that boys and girls were interested in, or how they might differ in special skills like in math or aggression. All that information is valuable and important, but for a developmentalist—for any psychologist—the reasons for behavior are far more important than the descriptions of behavior. Now scholars primarily examine reasons for how behavioral differences between boys and girls develop and how to understand it.

You’ve done a lot in your career. You’ve written a book, chapters in books, served on committees, and taught many classes. Which is your proudest accomplishment?

I think my most important overall accomplishment is the gender development book, because it is a summary of research that has been really well reviewed. It’s treated as both an upper-level textbook and as a reference work, a scholarly book. There are very few books that are treated as both a textbook and a scholarly work. Because it has the potential to both influence students—a generation of scholars—and to summarize a field, I believe it is my most important scholarly accomplishment.

But my proudest accomplishment is probably that my professional life is balanced. Part of the reason they give you the Beineke medal is for accomplishments in teaching, research, and service. I enjoy teaching and imparting knowledge. And I enjoy service work. I was Speaker of the Purdue University Faculty and presiding officer of the College of Arts and Sciences about six times. I think it’s important to be part of the faculty governance process.

I’m also still involved in scholarship. One thing that seems to be particularly special about IPFW is that, for a predominately undergraduate institution, its value and support of research seems unparalleled. You can look at almost every department in the College of Arts and Sciences and find someone who’s nationally or internationally known for their scholarship, which is rare in a predominately undergraduate institution. It’s something that seems to be part of the core of IPFW.

What do you see for IPFW in the future?

IPFW and other state institutions are under pressure to increase student success. The graduation rate for incoming students is not as high as it ought to be, and there certainly will be efforts in that direction. The graduation rate of students who return or who transfer to IPFW is better, but the numbers are calculated based on people who start here, walk in the door, and graduate in six years. They don’t include those who drop out to transfer, or who come back to school after a break. So it’s kind of a peculiar statistic for modern college students. It’s based on past generations of residential college students who went somewhere for four years and graduated. Still, we will be under that pressure and there will clearly be efforts to improve that number.

I don’t know what will happen growth-wise. I think the statistics tend to imply stability or small shrinkage. And there will be administrative changes. I’m only in this position for the next year, so there will be a new dean after next year, and eventually other senior leadership changes.

You talked a bit about IPFW and its mission or core qualities. How much have you seen it change since you started here in 1986?

When I started, the IU and Purdue missions were more separate. There were two schools of arts and sciences—IU’s Arts and Letters and Purdue’s Science and Humanities—which were separate schools with their own deans. When IPFW began it was like two different campuses, then it started to grow together. IPFW’s School of Arts and Sciences was formed during my probationary period. I was on the first curriculum committee for untenured faculty that built a common curriculum for the School of Arts and Sciences, which was a huge undertaking because previously they had different curriculum. All the IU arts and sciences degrees required foreign languages, but Purdue’s degrees did not. So we had to develop a single, unified curriculum.

This was the first time I worked with IU faculty. Before that, I never saw them, because we had separate committee structures and everything. Now we are definitely a unified College of Arts and Sciences with an IPFW faculty. It’s not very often that you hear people say “Purdue faculty” and “IU faculty.” Even though the degrees are still either Purdue or IU degrees, I think we’re much more united now and will continue to be in the future.

We also have more traditional-aged students, and more full-time students than when I first came here. But other aspects of IPFW seem unchanged to me. We continue to value excellent teaching and active scholarship. I don’t see those things changing.