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Relationship to Achievement: Ed.D. Student Elizabeth Blair

Elizabeth BlairWhen doctoral candidate Elizabeth Blair set out to research how college women make meaning of their intimate relationships, she anticipated hearing stories about romance, care, and love, especially considering the decades of research that associated these narratives with women. However, what she discovered was almost the opposite: These women were not focused on marriage or romance, but maintaining autonomy, even in their relationships.

“The idea is that women want relationships, want to fall in love, and want romance,” says Blair. “In this moment of their lives, that is not what they are saying they want. Instead they are saying that romance can be dangerous and if you get caught up in it, it can take away from what you want in life. It’s a different kind of story from what’s in popular culture.”

After spending years working as a sexual violence prevention educator and as a college administrator, Blair came to the Ed School interested in gender, education, and adolescent relationships. While working as a tutor in Harvard College’s Adams House, her interests focused, as she recognized how romantic relationships may impact a student’s learning. “It is a big piece of the social life of undergraduates, but it is not necessarily something ever talked about in the classroom,” Blair says.

Today there is increasing press coverage around the “hooking-up” culture in college and most recently, a public uproar surrounding a Princeton University alumna who wrote a letter encouraging young women to find husbands in college. However, Blair’s research finds there was something missing from the story being told in the media -- namely the students’ voices.

Blair, who received an American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellowship, was interested in how cultural logics influence individuals’ understandings of their relationship experiences. What began as a qualitative pilot study of nine college freshmen evolved into a dissertation study of 29 academically high-achieving women, of diverse backgrounds and interests, attending a highly-selective liberal arts college.  She first interviewed the women about their educational background, family, and college experiences. Then, in later interviews, she spoke with them about friendships and intimate relationships.

While research literature historically has painted a picture of college women focused on romance and relationships, these women revealed an apparent shift taking place. “They construct their identities through their achievement,” Blair says. In fact, the women’s focus on academic achievement had become such a part of the way they defined themselves that it was trickling down into how they defined intimate relationships. “This is somewhere you’d least expect such logics to be powerful,” Blair says.

The women – some in relationships and some not – spoke about intimate relationships as something that could threaten their achievement. “[T]hey were making sure that a partner supports their achievement rather than more traditional narratives around romance, wanting to fall in love, and have a partner to care for,” Blair says. “They were suggesting that relationships can be threatening and take away from academics or even [from] becoming the person you want to be.”

Many of the women shared a desire to keep relationships under control, manage emotional investments, and be strategic in how they acted in a relationship. “It was an attitude of not giving too much of yourself, so you can hold on to that achievement identity,” Blair says.

Blair says college women’s focus on achievement raises some concerns about the future.

“In the larger neoliberal narrative, they have found success,” Blair says, noting that the students have worked hard, achieved, and were admitted to college. “At the same time, a lot of them reported not feeling very happy and always feeling like they have to do the next thing, stay on a treadmill, constantly show their worth, so that they can continue to achieve.”

Having recently completed her dissertation and teaching a course on gender and education at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Blair hopes to continue this research by comparing her findings with those on women in other educational settings, with various relationships to their achievement.

“With so much focus on academic achievement for kids today, what might be the unintended consequences?” she wonders. I’m interested in how this constant façade of success might influence how you connect to other people.”


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