"Parents in working-class contexts are relatively more likely to stress to their children that 'it's not just about you' and to emphasize that although it is important to stand up for oneself, it is also essential to be aware of the needs of others and to adhere to socially accepted rules of behavior," wrote a team led by Nichole Stephens. . . . Parents with higher incomes "more often tell their children that 'It's your world' and emphasize the value of promoting oneself and developing one's own interests."Reading this, I had a sudden insight: this is why my students at Big Urban University and Regional University have been generally cheerful, even actively enthusiastic, when I assign them to work together in groups--and the students at my Ivy alma mater tended to hate it. I'd never been able to figure this out. I hated working in groups when I was in college, and as a grad student teacher I saw that my own students disliked it, too, and I assumed that this was just a natural response to a crappy pedagogical strategy--until I started teaching at non-elite institutions and was astonished to get feedback to the effect that I should put them in groups more often.
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[Studies] have found, broadly speaking, that the affluent value individuality--uniqueness, differentiation, achievement--whereas people lower down on the ladder tend to stress homogeneity, harmonious interpersonal relationships, and group affiliation. . . . Lower-class people wanted to be the same as their peers, whereas better-off subjects showed. . . "a preference for uniqueness."
Now, there are other variables here, to be sure: introverts may feel differently about group work than extroverts; the specific make-up of the group matters, and so does the make-up of the class as a whole. The classes I taught at BUU, for example, were two or three times as large as anything I taught at Instant-Name-Recognition University, so group work gave more students a chance to really get into a conversation about the material. This generally isn't true at RU, though, where most of my classes have 25 or fewer students and where even students in a 12-person seminar usually seem happy to work in pairs or quartets.
But beyond explaining a previously mystifying phenomenon, the article made me think about how a classroom can address both tendencies and not privilege just one. This goes beyond group work--though I do need to think more about that. Most of us have probably noticed that while some students have no hesitation asking for extensions or extra help or other special treatment (sometimes justified, sometimes not) others are diffident and won't advocate for themselves even when they have a compelling reason. If they've missed a class or missed a deadline, no matter the reason, they just seem to figure that they're out of luck: the professor doesn't care, doesn't want to hear their sob story, and would never adjust his or her policies just for them. And in my experience, the second group consists disproportionately of first-generation college students, especially when they're also economically disadvantaged.
When members of both groups are in the same classroom--the strong self-advocators who identify with and want to please Teacher and the reticent, blank-faced ones who never explain why they missed class or speak up when they're confused--it can be hard to be sure you're being fair, or really giving everyone the same opportunities and the same treatment. I've learned over the years to seem like a hard-ass in my syllabus policies, but to include a "crisis policy"--which I also read aloud, at the beginning of the semester in every class--telling students that hey, life is hard and they all have lots of outside commitments and pressures, but when an emergency arises they should TELL ME, because I'm willing to be flexible when I can.
That seems to help with that particular problem. But the New York article has made me think about the other ways in which the cultural differences between working-class and more affluent students might cause problems in the classroom, or simply not be fully legible to me as a teacher.
What do you think? Is this a problem? Where have you seen it in action, and how have you dealt with it?