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April 16, 2001

The Main Idea of Education

By Eric Rangus


Eleanor Main understands the misconceptions, and the pitfalls, that can befall educators.

“I can remember being a freshman advisor in the early ’90s,” she said, leaning across her desk to tell a story. “One of my advisees was a young man who had been born in Vietnam and had come to this country and graduated high school in West Georgia.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m one of those Asians who’s not very good in math.’ He felt through his educational experience that people would assume he would be very good in math.”
The dangers of stereotyping students, be it by race, sex or national origin are easily apparent.

“You know, political science was not an area women were supposed to go into,” Main said, appearing to change subjects, but not really. In 1966, Main was just the second woman to earn a doctorate in political science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Women now make up more than half the Ph.D recipients in the subject.

The new century, as well as the last decade of the old one, has brought a proliferation of women into higher education.

The effect of this demographic shift is still being felt, and it could result in a fundamental change in the teaching process, Main said. Whether this is a good or bad thing, or a little of both, is

“The first question you have to ask is whether you have to change [teaching], and if so, how do you do it?” Main asked. “There are some people who think women and men learn differently. I worry about carrying that kind of analysis too far. You could get to the point of saying, ‘Women can’t do this, and men can’t do that.’” It’s a line that sounds suspiciously like very old-school thinking—not the sort Main has ever been involved in.

“There are real challenges here,” Main said, “here” being the Division of Educational Studies, of which Main is director. She was named to the position in January after spending the last 15 years as an administrator (two in the college and 13 in the graduate school), most recently as associate provost for graduate studies.

“Education is so much at the forefront of the needs of American society today,” she continued. “We at Emory have the opportunity to look at these issues.”

Located in the North Decatur building with a roster of just eight faculty, educational studies sometimes might be overlooked, but that doesn’t mean it’s invisible or irrelevant.

“What we are doing is trying to rethink and recalibrate our focus, which is concentrated on urban and comparative education,” Main said, adding that she hopes to expand the faculty, as well as fill a couple of open positions in the near future. She also is looking to promote one of the division’s most interesting offerings: the Bridge to Teaching program, which offers students an easy transition from undergraduate work in the college to a graduate-level education curriculum.

The Bridge to Teaching program, as well as the division in general, will be on display at an open house next Monday, April 23, in the Harris Hall parlor from 4–5:30 p.m. The target audience is sophomores and juniors who might be interested in earning teacher certifications in middle or secondary education.

The 2-year-old Bridge to Teaching program is unique in that students can enroll in graduate education courses during the second semester of their senior year. When they graduate with their bachelor’s degrees, they have just 12 months of coursework remaining until receiving their Master of Arts in teaching.

Main’s move to educational studies marks a new beginning. She first came to campus in 1969 as an assistant professor of political science. At the time, she was one of just four female faculty members in Emory College. She helped form the Emory Women’s Caucus in the 1970s, which eventually became the President’s Commission on the Status of Women.

Her service appointments and professional activities take up several pages on her CV but here are some of the highlights:

She was a founding member of the Georgia Women’s Political Caucus; she started the political science internship in the college (which led to a longstanding professional relationship with former governor, now Sen. Zell Miller); she’s an adviser to the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship; and she has sat on dozens of Emory committees.

Main first met Miller when as lieutenant governor he spoke to Emory’s political science interns. In the late 1970s, she invited him to teach a course at Emory, which he did for three straight years.
After Miller became governor in 1990, he appointed Main to several task forces and committees, several of which (the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission Review Panel) she remains on.

“I believe that a university’s relationship to museums and schools and government is extremely important,” Main said. “We have a role to play in interacting with other institutions of society. That doesn’t mean everybody at the university has to be doing it, but there should be some people building on these kinds of relationships.”

A native of Queens, N.Y. (she still has a slight Northeastern accent), Main, perhaps surprisingly, is an expert on state and local politics in the South. She chairs Emory’s task force on Southern studies and sees subtle differences among all the states of the old Confederacy.

“Given the growth of the Atlanta metropolitan area and the influx of people from outside the South, Georgia is different from Mississippi or Alabama,” Main said. “One of the wonderful things about state politics is that no state is exactly the same as another.”

Not only does her move to educational studies give Main a new beginning, it also marks a return to the old days. For the first time in 10 years, she will re-enter the classroom, teaching a freshman seminar this fall in the politics of education. It’s a responsibility that makes her both excited and nervous.

“But I’ve always been nervous before a semester begins,” she admitted. “One of the nice things about being in academia is that you’ve got a new beginning every year.”


Back to Emory Report April 16, 2001