Monday, July 16, 2012

Different classes, same classroom

A couple of weeks ago New York magazine had a cover story, "Does Money Make You Mean?" about the effects of wealth on personality. It's a suggestive and interesting piece, though the research is still preliminary. But while I'm reserving judgement about how money affects individual personality, the article's discussion of the different values emphasized by working-class vs. more elite families seems pretty sound--and potentially important for those of us who teach students from a range of economic backgrounds:
"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."

[. . . .]

[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."
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.

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?


Belle said...

Wow, does that explain lots! Thanks. I do see it in my classes, particularly the individual/social focus. I hadn't thought of it in any but an individualistic sense - i.e. that a particular student is rather/intensely self-centered. Seeing it as function of class socialization is going to make me rethink how to handle it.

My encounters with it come via student responses to various processes and topics within the class. For example, if we're talking about working class life in 18th century Europe, students have a terrible time grasping family input/control of job choice. They are astonished that generations of people go into their parents' 'careers' without question. "What if they wanted to do something else?"

The most frustrating is their conviction that women 'starting working' only during the 20th century, and that before then they'd always 'stayed home and took care of the kids.'

Anonymous said...

Let me preface this by saying I am not an educator. To your point re attitudes towards group work, I wonder if some of it has to do with the strength of the student, too. At well known U maybe the students were typically strong students, that in the past had gotten stuck with doing much if not all of group work in order to get the grade they needed/wanted? The students at the other school maybe did not have a lot of experience with having to carry other, weaker students and so the groups functioned more in the way one want- e.g. all students contributing/achieving the end result? I know my daughter would run screaming from group work at the college level because of bad experiences in high school.

Flavia said...


That's a great observation. I do find that students--all students, really--have a hard time grasping the culture of intrusion in the Early and pre-Modern period (why is it your business what your neighbor does, and if his wife is a scold?). And I'd never thought of that as being about affluence, but you're probably right!


That's a reasonable objection, though at least in my classes I've never assigned students to complete graded projects in groups or to work together outside of class. What I'm talking about is generally just putting students in groups for 20 minutes or so to talk about a passage or brainstorm ideas about a text, and then report back to the whole class.

Prior experience with group work may play a role here, but I would think that extremely smart students, at an elite school and all at basically the same ability level, should be more likely to be trusting of their classmates' ability to say something smart or to provide new insights, than my current students who are more likely to range in ability (and where there usually are a few extremely smart and a few extremely weak kids in the same room).

My read is that my INRU students (who were good, sweet kids--I'm not trying to paint them as entitled or selfish!) had more of an instinctive spirit of competition, more of a desire to shine individually--and probably also identified more strongly with me and wanted me to approve their individual efforts--than my RU kids, for whom "four heads are better than one," or who at least appreciate a quick reality-check from a peer or two that their ideas sound good before they speak them aloud in front of me and 20 other people. And this seems to hold true, by and large, even for students who (to me) seem head-and-shoulders above the ability of most of their classmates. Granted, they're not doing anything high-stakes, and the point of this kind of group work is that even weaker students can come up with smart when the pressure is off, but I'm always surprised by how cheerful even my standout, smartest students tend to be about working in groups.

Anonymous said...

Ah- I see that you were talking about a different kind of group interaction than I was. I will guess that smart kids may be don't value what their peers have to say (as much) because 1)it's not the teacher and maybe the insights are not going to be what the teacher wants so are a waste of time/not valid and 2) what you said about individual recognition of their own insights/work- they want that approval.

Lucky Jane said...

I'm fascinated by your analysis. As a fellow loather of group work, I wasn't surprised by its cool reception in the socioeconomically homogeneous classes I taught in grad school, where we were trained to decenter our classrooms.

However, I did my undergrad at a huge, mostly but not completely plebeian public university of the sort that now employs me. My current students' accomplishments with group work just make me proud. I guess I had vaguely concluded that the difference between them and the students I taught in grad school was generational (most grad students were only a couple of years older than our charges), and that millennials or whatever they're being called value each other's ideas, because they've been socialized to value their own ideas highly and expect others to reciprocate. On occasions when I've taught (older) returning students, even in supposed seminars for our aspirational grad programs, they've occasionally asserted that they'd rather hear me, the expert.

What astounds me about the New York Mag piece and the study on which it is based is that they conflate income with wealth with social class, distinct categories that certainly overlap but are not interchangeable. Apparently, folks at Berkeley are setting a track record for research proving the meanness of one percenters: here are two annoyingly formatted articles from Time in 2011 and 2010.

PS: I love how the title of the article is "Money Makes People Act Less Human," and in order to post this comment, captcha requires me to "prove [I'm] not a robot."

Flavia said...

Lucky Jane:

First, good to hear from you again! I've missed you 'round the blogosphere.

And yeah, I'm not thrilled with the conflation of money & class in this article, either--especially when it comes to college students. Poorer kids can sometimes have more cultural capital or be more at ease in a college classroom than wealthier ones--those things vary by high school, family emphasis on education, hometown culture, etc. And the nature of the institution surely matters: I knew a few people in college who came from poorer families than many of the students I have now. But at an elite, residential institution, you learn the norms quickly (asking for an extension, learning to speak up, etc.). I'd bet that isn't as much the case for students at a bigger and/or more diverse school, esp. for students who are commuters.

Anonymous said...

I teach in a private high school, which means our population is middle class scholarship kids all the way through the girl who showed up at school in her father's private helicopter that one time. Most of them fall somewhere in between--that is, somewhere in the upper middle class. They won't end up at ivy league schools (we don't do that kind of prep). Our best placements are usually fancy SLACs with a lot of others landing at the Flagship State U. But so anyway, economically, they're pretty affluent kids.

In terms of their social dynamics...they live for group work. It's weird. In fact, the whole approach we take, the teaching method we use, relies on kids cohering as a class and working together to understand the material.

I think this has to do with the size of the school and the closeness of the community but its also the way we train them to be.

That being said, I'd also be tempted to say these kids have money but they aren't the same social class as the kids described in the article. There are certain norms and practices their missing, which is why they don't land at Ivy League schools. The college rep from a big ivy told us that academically, our students were prepared for them but not in terms of extracurriculars. So something cultural/social is missing.

There's also the question of religion. We are a religious school and we promote humility above all else. The ideal is a kid who leads her/his peers by helping and encouraging them, not be outpacing them. And that's entirely about religious values. So that's an additional factor.

Dr. Crazy said...

I have to say, I bristled a little at your post, as a person from working-class origins who was a first-generation-college-student, and who now teaches primarily working-class first-gen students. What you observe may be the case - that your students in your current set-up *accept* group-work more readily. But that doesn't mean that they like it better, or that they learn better with it. Are they less likely to complain about it? Surely. Are they even more likely to say that they want more of it? Potentially. BUT. That's not because they are more suited to it or that it "works" better for them. The thing with first gens is that they are JUST as interested in pleasing and impressing as other sorts of students. If they think that YOU are invested in group work, then they will go along with it, whether they like it or not. A lot of this post read to me much like George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, or Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy - that the working classes are more "community minded" than people of higher classes. I'm not saying that you wrote it that way or intended it hat way, but that's how it came off. Seriously: first-gen students, or working-class or poor students - don't necessarily care more about community than middle-or-upper-class students. They may acquiesce to authority more readily because they think that they'll be kicked out. That's not the same as doing what they want, though, or the same as thriving.

You make a GREAT point about wanting to nurture students to advocate for themselves in order to level the playing field. My point here isn't to be entirely dismissive - just rather to say that if "group work" IS a good pedagogical strategy, then it's good for those "privileged" students who immediately and vocally resist it, too. Just because your students now respond better to it doesn't mean that it "works" better with them. It just means that they wouldn't challenge you in the same way. At least in my experience.

Flavia said...

Dr. C,

My apologies if this post seemed dismissive. I'm not sure I have any independent evidence that the working classes are "community-minded," or less individualistic, or whatever--I'm taking what studies allegedly have shown, based on this one article I read, and trying to think about whether this is actually reflected in the classroom or not. Group work seemed potentially to be an instance of it. What I'm really suggesting, in my comments on the thread, if not in the post itself, is that it seems to me that my on-balance-more-first-gen-than-not students see more of a chasm between me and them than I think my INRU students did (which, granted, might be partly because I was a grad student then--but I think they also saw their professors as totally plausible models or future-peers in a way that my students now, largely, do not). So I suspect the greater affinity for group work is about identifying more strongly with their peers and feeling (at least in that immediate context) less competition with them than I think I saw among my INRU students. Maybe that has nothing to do with a difference in "culture," but I'm considering that as a possibility.

(It's also, of course, possible--I hope likely!--that I'm a better teacher now, and that that means my group assignments feel more worthwhile and more organic.)

In any case, I'm not interested in patting the working classes on the head and talking about how fascinating or virtuous or whatever they are. I'm interested in whether I can learn anything that's useful to my teaching from any legitimate differences among my student body, especially those that might otherwise be invisible to me.

Betsy Willard said...

Might also be interesting to think about this across humanities/sciences divide. My experience at INRU was that there was lots of informal group work in the sciences, at least when it came to completing problem sets and, sometimes, studying for exams. And lab work was always done with a partner. But we formed the groups ourselves without any intervention from professors, as far as I can remember. I hated group work in high school, too, but it seemed like the natural approach in college, at least in science classes. Never in humanities classes, though. I wonder if student appreciation of/desire for group work has as much to do with disciplinary expectations that students absorb (whether these are stated or unstated) as with social class?

Flavia said...


That's a really interesting possibility--that it's more the unfamiliarity of the group work, rather than the group work itself. Students at institutions with larger class sizes are probably, of necessity, more familiar with group work. (When I was hired by Big Urban, I was really puzzled by the phenomenon of the 30-40 person "discussion-based" class--I knew what a seminar was and I knew what a lecture was, but it was only through talking with a tenured professor in the department that I really grasped how that might work: frequent use of pairs and groups.)

Anonymous said...

Dr. Cranky,

While it may sound condescending to you to hear that working-class students are IN GENERAL taught by their parents to be more "community-oriented," the science cited in the NYT article indicates that this is precisely the case. This is not Orwellian sectioning of the state, but sound research on cultural differences between different socioeconomic groups. Your tendency to "bristle" at Flavia's attempt to be more sensitive to these cultural differences in the classroom suggests that you have unresolved issues about class and identity.

Flavia said...


You're very welcome to comment on the substance of this thread, or any others, but please don't engage in ad hominen attacks or name-calling. Thanks.