Wednesday, August 27, 2008

College for the Underclass

I'm using the word "underclass" here intentionally, as opposed to working class, or even lower-middle-class-whose-parents-didn't-attend-college, although I suppose those other ways of putting it would be less charged. Before I begin, let me tell you where I'm coming from. I started thinking about posting something about this when I read Heu Mihi's incredibly thoughtful post on "de facto elitism" a few days ago. And then I was thinking Monday night, as I listened to Michelle Obama's really amazing speech, it's so interesting how she made a point of eliding the fact that the "college education" she received - first at Princeton and at Harvard Law - is not the "college education" that most Americans - especially those working-class Americans that the Dems are trying to win over - can ever hope to receive. And then finally Tuesday morning I thought about it further, in relation to Dean Dad's post, which I may well have misread or projected onto because I've been thinking about these other things, though I do think that my response over there is related to what I'm about to discuss, whether Dean Dad himself would admit that or not.

So I've talked about my class of origin on this blog before. I started out working-class. My parents had high school educations. My dad worked in a steel mill, until he was laid off, and my mom worked first in a hospital, then a credit union, then in a bank, throughout my upbringing. I'd say that we were further down on the class ladder than a lot of people who might identify, or whom we as middle-class people might identify, as "working class." My parents didn't have city jobs with great benefits; my mom didn't have the choice to stay home and not work. And perhaps this is because both of their families of origin could probably be characterized not as working class but as the working poor. My dad was one of 7 and his mom was a single mother. My mom was one of 10, and while both she and my grandfather stayed married, and my grandmother worked, neither finished high school and they never got ahead, never owned a home, never really got their heads above water. So yeah, that's where I come from.

And my parents (well, my mother, to be honest) wanted college for me. As my mom will tell you to this day, she couldn't get her mind around anything other than that maybe I could go to community college and keep living at home. An actual university degree? Going away to school? People like us couldn't afford that kind of thing. People like us didn't "go away to college." Nobody in my extended family had, that's for certain.

And so I fought with my mom, and I took her to college night at my public high school (in a working-to-middle-class border suburb, home to lots of Catholic cops and firefighters, where we moved after our house in the inner city was foreclosed when I was 13) and she met with advisers and they helped her with all the forms (which "people like us" have no experience filing) and told her what to do, and calmed her down, and well, I ended up going away to college. With a small amount of student loans, a good amount of grants, and a small amount of money from my mom and stepdad, working work study jobs a minimum of 15 hours a week throughout and full time every summer, and some scholarships. There was no "college fund."

I don't remember the GPA you needed to have in high school to get into Undergrad State U when I applied, but today, 17 years later, it's a 2.5 on a 4.0 scale. I also applied to another state university whose admission requirements were about as low. And that was it. I never took the SAT because neither of the schools required it. See, I was going to be a journalism major. Those two schools had fine journalism programs, and so why apply anyplace else? Nobody clued me in to the fact that education was about more than getting a degree that would get me a white-collar job. So that's why I "wanted college." And I had no clue about college rankings or the fact that where you go to college "matters" in the broader scheme of your life and what opportunities you can hope to have later.

This was not because I wasn't a "smart" student. Or because I didn't care about learning things. I was and I did. It's just that those things sort of weren't the point. Those things were luxuries that weren't for people who came from my background. Looking back, I could have gone to a "better" school, with my GPA in high school and all of my activities, etc. But the list of possible choices for me was narrow - even if it felt, in applying to those two mediocre regional schools, like a world of possibility was opening up to me. In a world where my parents' (mom and stepdad's) combined income was about 40K, after 20 years of full-time work, the idea that I could make more than 20K a year when I graduated seemed like I'd be rich.

And so off I went to become a journalist. Because you picked a career and then you picked a major based on that and then you took all of the classes that you were supposed to take to finish as quickly as possible. And grades kind of didn't matter very much, as long as you didn't lose your scholarships. So how did I get from there to here?

Well, that path begins because I was admitted to the honors program at USU. We were required to take a year-long seminar in English, one that was in lieu of traditional comp and instead was about literature. The theme of the one that I chose was "Women and Literature" and I was enthralled. And it turned out, I was really good at that class. And my professor told me in office hours at some point over the course of that year that I should consider the English major and that I should consider graduate school when I was done. And I told her that she was crazy. I needed a degree that would get me a job. I didn't want to teach high school (what I thought was the only job for English majors), and there was no money for graduate school. I was no fool: I knew that I needed to graduate from college and to make some money. Period. Who did she think I was?

And that's where the conversation ended.

Now, throughout that year I was also, "smart" student that I was, trying to "get requirements out of the way" - requirements that would fulfill gen. ed. but that also served as pre-reqs for the journalism major and political science minor that I'd chosen. I did not choose courses because they interested me because that wasn't the point of college: I chose courses that "counted." Let's just say that my GPA that first year reflected that. Let's also note that once my path changed, that GPA mattered.

Looking back, I am certain that those professors whom I took in the first 2-3 semesters of my college career probably thought that I wasn't interested in the pursuit of knowledge or in being changed by my education or in expanding my perspective on the world. I was a B-C student, and I sort of did my time and that was that. The world that I thought was open to me was very, very small. The only classes that I felt really compelled by were my English literature classes, but who would ever be an English major? What in god's name would a person do with such a useless degree? So sure, I was "smart" and I was taking courses I "needed." But I'm sure I didn't look terribly "smart" to my professors and I'm sure that I was the sort of student about whom they complained to their colleagues: anti-intellectual, who thought that all that mattered was getting a piece of paper that would get me a job at the end, doing time in college as opposed to really learning. And you know what? They were probably right.

The point is, however, that even though that's who I was to them, that isn't who I would turn out to be. Ultimately, after many tears and heart-wrenching conversations with my mom, I decided to change my major and minor (the minors would become writing and women's studies). This was totally a scary choice for me, and scary for my mom, too. It was not how things were supposed to go. It meant that I wasn't at all secure about where my future would take me. It also meant that I would be flying without a net in a world that I had little mentorship in entering (the world of academia) and little clue about how to navigate once I got there.

All of this ultimately did lead to graduate school, and I was able to squeak my way into a well-regarded PhD program after doing time in a middling MA program. And now I've seized that brass ring that is a tenure-track job, and it turns out I'm teaching at a school whose students on the whole look a whole lot more like the student that I was when I entered college than the student that I would become after a few years. I teach classes in a discipline that most look at with disdain, a discipline that's not for "people like us" who have bills to pay, a discipline that offers a degree that will get you a job working at a fast food place. Even most majors are very career-driven, aiming at high school teaching and not at a broader "life of the mind."

I suppose where my background influences my approach in this setting is that I'm keenly aware of the fact that "college" doesn't mean the same thing for this class of students that it does for students who end up at elite SLACS, selective public R1s, or, and I probably don't even need to say it, the Ivies or Fancy Private Universities - the non-Ivy Ivies. No, I teach at a "College for the Underclass," and what that means, as schools like this become increasingly corporatized, is that administrative ideas about what "serves" this student population ultimately reinforce the idea that college is just a path to a job better than the one your parents have. Those students who start out with the fewest privileges and advantages in P-12 education ultimately are relegated to institutions of higher learning that care more about offering programs and courses that attract students who are looking for that magic piece of paper that will get them a white-collar job, and those institutions invest their resources in ways that put that way of thinking ahead of the mission of educating the whole person. This is all part of the institution attracting students, increasing enrollments, and looking like they're "serving the community" by producing workers. This then brings in more money (not only in tuition dollars, but also from the state).

So what are instructors in disciplines like mine, that aren't easily attachable to future employment other than teaching, supposed to be doing in this sort of institutional setting? The fact is, particularly when we teach general education courses, we're usually teaching to a pretty hostile - or at least ambivalent - audience. What is our role not only in the classroom, but also in the broader institution? What should we be doing in our classes, but also what should we be fighting for at the institutional level in terms of program development and curriculum? Because the reality is that the models that are most readily available for what we should do, which we usually internalize in graduate school, have little to do with the kinds of institutions at which we work.

I realize now that I've thought a lot about this stuff without consciously thinking about it (if that makes sense) throughout my time here, leaving the grad school model behind and returning to what I needed from my discipline when I was first an undergraduate. I was always deeply suspicious of professors who indicated that the Pursuit of Knowledge was an end in itself, and deeply suspicious of professors who believed that The Study of Literature was in itself meaningful. No, at Colleges for the Underclass that approach typically doesn't really get a professor very far. Dude, what's meaningful to most of my students, as it was to me when I began college, is a paycheck and a career you don't hate (notice I didn't say a career that you love and that inspires you).

So what is a professor to do in the classroom? Well, what I try to do, and this is in no way to say that this is the only thing to do, is I try to show my students that having an intellectual life, a life in which one is curious and in which one thinks about new things and in which one takes pleasure in things that aren't directly related to a paycheck or the day-to-day, is not something that is a luxury for other people, but rather that it can enrich the lives of "people like us" whatever they do after college. Sure, they may go off to be accountants or teachers or to own their own businesses or to work in a human resources office somewhere. But college can give them, in addition to that qualification that gives them entry into the white collar workforce, new ways of seeing the world around them, new approaches to problems in that world, and new avenues for experiencing pleasure in that world. In other words, even at a College for the Underclass, education need not be just about job training. And I'd go even further and say that it shouldn't be.

In terms of the institution, it's integral, I think, for people who believe the above to fight at the level of curriculum and policy-making to make sure that those "extras" don't get lost. It is sickening to me that people who have had educational advantages and privileges, people who bemoan the fact that students are too anti-intellectual to be engaged, are often responsible for insuring that our students will become a permanent underclass that has little respect for broader knowledge and that will go on to live anti-intellectual lives post-college. And those people who have had educational privilege and advantages then congratulate themselves for wanting to help those poor kids who wouldn't otherwise have had a college education to get a job they wouldn't otherwise be qualified for, now that college is pretty much required for most work.

If we allow ourselves, with the educational privilege and advantages that we have had, to settle for this version of higher education in institutions like mine, I do feel like we're giving up on our students. We're saying that they don't have the abilities or the ambitions that students at other kinds of institutions have, or if they could, that it's not important to foster those abilities and ambitions. I mean, most of our students are not going to go on to "great things" and most don't aspire to much more than "normal" lives, in the communities in which they grew up or very like the ones in which they grew up. My thought is, wouldn't those communities be better if at institutions like mine, at Colleges for the Underclass, we graduate students who come away from their educations with more than just a piece of paper? Isn't it really our responsibility to do that?

I'll close with this: I am not saying that job training isn't a part of what we do at this sort of institution, nor am I saying that it shouldn't be. I'm not saying that there is not value in applied majors, nor am I arguing that all colleges and universities should serve students in identical ways. I have taught comp classes filled with business majors; I have taught general education courses in literature where the greatest insights came from students outside of liberal arts majors. And I don't try to "convert" these students to the English major, though I do give them advice if they ask me about it. The point isn't that an institution like mine shouldn't be investing in programs that offer a direct path to the world of work. The point is that what I want, when I teach those students in those programs, is to give them tools to have a richer life in whatever they choose to do post-college. I want for them to see that there is a "point" to reading and thinking about literary texts even if the most visible "point" is only intellectual pleasure in their non-working hours.

But when we talk about higher education, I really wish we'd acknowledge more explicitly that it doesn't mean the same thing for all people. I wish we'd acknowledge that often really great students who have incredible potential end up at universities like mine not because they don't care about learning but because they didn't know any better: that they thought all colleges were the same. At the end of the day, that's not their fault. It's ours.


Flavia said...

Amen. Your educational background isn't mine, but your beliefs about what students from such backgrounds deserve and can do are. I know too many academics in our field, teaching at regional institutions, who wash their hands of the masses, don't expect much of them, and only get excited about the true standouts (or the MA students).

But. . . you can't know in advance who the standouts are, or might become.

life_of_a_fool said...

I teach in a different field - one with an applied major - so many of my students choose this major for job/career reasons. And I'm equally frustrated by my colleagues who a) dismiss them as being unengaged/not smart/whatever other derogatory description, and b) don't want to be "tainted" by these career-oriented students or "stoop" down to them.

I see teaching these students -- even in an applied major -- as a huge opportunity. I *want* to expose them to new ways of thinking, which will help them do better in their future careers. It also gives me a tiny little opportunity to help shape their fields in the way I think they *should* be, one by one, by exposing them to my field (yes, I realize that sounds incredibly egotistical). Of course, I can complain about students as much as anyone, but most of them *are* willing, able, and interested in being engaged and learning new things/perspectives. They do have the potential.

Plus, (I think I remember this) their future employers don't *want* or expect us to give them job training -- they are perfectly capable, and far more qualified, to do that. We give them a suitable intellectual background to go into these careers.

Anyway, that's just a long, rambling, possibly incoherent way of saying I agree with you.

Sandra said...

As someone who comes from the same class that you did, I have to thank you for this post. You put into words much better than I could how one thinks about higher education when you are the first one in your family to even consider it, let alone go.

As my friend who is a the tail end of a PhD in clinical psych says, "we are only one generation away from peasants". And this is literally the truth, not an insult to either of our families.

Kate said...

This post was just so lovely. Thank you, Dr. Crazy.

I think something some faculty miss out on is that not only does bringing the idea of an intellectual life to these kinds of students enrich their lives, it enriches ours. The times I have inspired students to learn about something simply because it was interesting have moved ME so much more than those times I simply helped a middle to upper class student achieve whatever was already part of their plan. Those latter students can be interesting too, but because they "look good" to faculty they already get more attention.

Susan said...

What a lovely post. And you know what I thought about Michelle Obama? That today the odds of her getting to Princeton were much slimmer . . . even with all the concern for economic diversity. It really was different back then!

Snarky Prof said...

This brilliant, insightful post is a perfect illustration of why I read your blog. I am amused by your kitties, but I am inspired by your posts about teaching (and even a bit infuriated by this one though not at you!). I recognize myself here, but more importantly, I also recognize the vast majority of my students. Some of my colleagues shake their heads with disdain and lament constantly how "mercenary" our students are, how they just want the credit on their transcript. This isn't a character flaw! It is a really rational reaction to the lives they (we!) live. Helping them understand that they have a RIGHT to more requires serious commitment, understanding, and patience. In other words, it is a lot more work than simply deciding they are hopelessly flawed. You go, Dr. Crazy!

Dr. Virago said...

If we allow ourselves, with the educational privilege and advantages that we have had, to settle for this version of higher education in institutions like mine, I do feel like we're giving up on our students. We're saying that they don't have the abilities or the ambitions that students at other kinds of institutions have, or if they could, that it's not important to foster those abilities and ambitions.

Right on! That "giving up" on our students is exactly what makes me angriest about the attitudes of some (or even many) state legislatures, board of trustees, and uni administrators -- the ones who think that our students at our universities need only or mostly "practical" education to get and create the jobs they and their economic area need. How is it that these people can't see that the subtext of what they say is, "This will do for our kinds of students. They don't need more. They can settle"? How can they not see that they're creating an even deeper divide between our students and the students of the elite colleges and universities?

Oh, it makes me SO angry.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Thank you for this.

Argh. The kitten is getting destructive, gotta go. Maybe I'll have more later . . .

Belle said...

Oh yes. Lots of this sounds familiar. The family that hoped for, at most, a community college degree? So mine. I didn't get the support from anybody; I went back to school at 30 because I needed that piece of paper for worklife.

Imagine my pleasure at finding the joys of 'the life of the mind.' Astonishment all 'round. I also share your frustration with those in the academy who give up on the career-focused. My class roots are showing...

Dr. Crazy said...

Wow, everybody. You read this whole big long thing? Thanks for that in and of itself. And thanks for your comments, too. I'm glad I'm not alone in thinking about this stuff, and I'm glad that what I've written has voiced things that others are thinking about. But still - just wow that you read this long-ass post!

heu mihi said...

Haven't read the comments, but yes, thank you for this marvelous post. The issues that you describe here are so incredibly central to what my college is going through right now, I sort of wish that I could send this out to our entire faculty and administration (don't worry; I won't). You deal beautifully with the real crux of the issue: that education can be *both* an entry into a job *and* provide a person with a fuller experience of life.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Excellent post -- and one I really needed to read this week. My CC is very vocationally oriented, and teaching philosophy isn't easy -- but it is worthwhile.

I love your idea that the view that our students don't really "need" our courses is bogus and elitist. Who needs our courses more, the students at fancy-pants schools who may run across the material on their own -- or students like ours who are so busy making a living that they have no time for intellectual curiosity.

Have a great year!

k8 said...

This really is an excellent post!

Really, what you've written reminds me of the reasons I give students for the necessity of gen. ed. requirements and why they should see them as opportunities. The journalism or business major might see some beauty in literature or geology, and s/he might even see ways to integrate this new interest into his or her professional plans.

And I think that our common understanding of going on to "do great things" is a little out of whack. Going on to be great community members/citizens/sons or daughters/parents/whatever are all doing great things. The extras aren't extras - they're essential if the everyday great things are going to happen.

James said...

A very insightful and resonant post--we do have a responsibility to do more than job training. Even the departments that are more directly connected to careers experience the same pressures to become more applied and focus less on theory. Most students aren't just focused on their careers; they're focused on what they need to know to get their first job, without worrying that technological change is going to make that kind of training obsolete in three or four years. However, if tempered with what you say above, that pressure to be applied can be good for us as teachers, forcing us to understand and be able to explain the importance of the theoretical aspects of education as you begin to do here.

Liz said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!, says the former steelworker Phi Beta Kappa librarian from the Rustbelt!

Brigindo said...

You know I've read a lot of your posts on the class and higher education issue, and not that I haven't enjoyed them and agreed with them--because I have, but this one--this post--you really hit the nail on the head.

Bardiac said...

Wow, this was a really fine post.

I wish all our administrators, legislators, and tax payers would read it and think.

Comet Jo said...

Wow-great post. I come from a very different background and teaching at a somewhat different place (one of the great things about Canada is that it doesn't do as efficient a job of segmenting students by class). But what you say still resonates, both with ways I want to reach my students and with the hopes I have for the future of our country (I'm American even if I'm up here in the "true north, strong and free).

This post hits me an the same places Bill's speech did.

Comet Jo said...

By a strange coincidence, I read this while figuring out the "Anthropology in Everyday Life" day of my class, where I want to move beyond normal "applied" stuff and talk about using what we've talked about as a way to get insight into our own lives (might use a nice piece on cultural themes in the ways people tell their life stories).

Professor Zero said...

Great post. And yes, this is what I try to do at my school, which I think is like yours. And it works, too.