Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Hacking away at the groves of academe

I've written a lot over the years about the stressors and outside obligations my students face, some of them quite terrible and occasionally tragic. This past semester another couple of situations arose for two of my students--events so stressful and distracting that I can't imagine remaining enrolled or being able to complete the required work, though both these students did.

Every time I'm made privy to this stuff, especially when it's drama that involves a student's family of origin, I wonder why I see so much more of this at RU than I did as either a student or a teacher at my alma mater. I've long had two theories: the first is that I genuinely have a more diverse student population now: some of my students are putting themselves through college, working either full or part-time; some of my students have kids; some of my students are married. Nearly every semester I have a student or two who are veterans, and it's not uncommon to have a student with at least partial responsibility for a sick parent or a developmentally disabled sibling. A sizable minority of my students, then, are simply juggling more outside demands than your basic Ivy League undergraduate.

My second theory is that I just didn't know what was going on with my classmates and with my students when I was at INRU: my classmates would have been unlikely to share their personal difficulties with me, and as a grad student I never taught more than 18 undergraduates a semester (usually as a once-a-week TA), so there wasn't as much opportunity or necessity for them to confide in me. These days, by contrast, I teach at least 60 students a semester and have up to 40 advisees, so there's necessarily more reason and more opportunity for me to hear what they're going through.

Both these theories seem correct, and together they provide much of the explanation for the difference (Ivy League students probably do have fewer real-world distractions, but they don't have none--and some of their problems are every bit as serious as those faced by the students I teach now). However, I'm coming to realize that there's a third explanation that has to do with familial assumptions about what college and the college experience are meant to be.

Most of my students, even those who come straight from high school, who live in the dorms, and whose parents are footing the bill, are not understood by their families as being off in protected space of intellectual development where schoolwork and self-discovery take precedence. Many of their parents expect them to come home for every family friend's funeral, every cousin's first communion, or to help out with various family matters like helping them move households or doing emergency babysitting. This is more true when the family lives nearby, but I see versions of it even when the family lives several hours away.

I really didn't understand this at first: so your aunt's second husband's mother died. . . and your parents are coming by to pick you up tonight, and you'll have to miss a week of school for the wake and the funeral? What? Often the student didn't seem to want to go, or to be deeply affected by the death (or eager to do whatever else the family obligation may have been)--and I just couldn't figure out why their parents would think it was appropriate to demand their presence or participation at the expense of their schoolwork.

But I've come to see that there's a fundamental difference in the way that some of my students and especially my students' families understand the college experience, relative to how INRU students and their parents understand it. I suppose you could call this difference one of "class," but that's not really a useful descriptor, since it doesn't fully correlate with income or with whether one's parents went to college or not; the working-class kid from Charlestown who gets into Harvard may well have supportive parents who understand the nature of that opportunity, and who want to protect him from outside distractions. And on the flip side, many of the kids I see with especially demanding families are economically stable, second-gen college students.

Moreover, I don't think this is just about how expensive and prestigious INRU is compared with RU; many not-especially-selective colleges also cultivate a real sense of their community's specialness and separateness. What it boils down to is this: at some institutions and among some families, there's a kind of collective agreement their students live in the magical Groves of Academe, a charmed space, a space outside of time. And though that's almost always more the fantasy than the reality, the fantasy is still productive. At a regional state school like RU, however, attitudes are mixed. There are indeed students and parents who take the above view of the college experience--but there are many who don't, who see the degree as a means to an end and their coursework as something more like a part-time job, to be fitted in around everything else.

I wish all of my students were able to devote themselves full-time, for four years, to a process of education and self-discovery, but I'm not sitting here criticizing those who don't or can't. For one thing, I have students with messy, complicated lives who are still doing great things intellectually. And for another, the idea of college as a charmed space outside of time isn't always positive: it can actually produce or protect the irresponsibility and hooliganism seen at party schools, but not only at party schools. The insularity and self-containment of many colleges does not actually make them better or more productive learning environments.

I wouldn't want to lose the many wonderful students I have whose lives just happen to be really complicated; they bring a lot to the classroom and the classroom, I hope, brings a lot to them. But I do wish that all my students had families who really valued and respected the work they were doing--even if they still occasionally needed to drag them out of class or take up time that would otherwise be devoted to their schoolwork.


Miss Self-Important said...

What about when these two attitudes collide in the Magical Groves of Academe? Surely you saw some of that. Students from families more like those at RU come to INRU and assimilate to their peers' expectations about college and also life after college, but then have a hard time reconciling these expectations to their previous lives. This creates a sometimes poisonous tension as students respond to cross-pressures from their college friends and their families at home. The kind of thing where parents want you to be a doctor but all your friends spend their semesters choreographing ethnic dances and their summers traveling to ashrams while you cram organic chemistry. The Groves of Academe culture values "self-discovery" and "personal growth" and de-values the hyper-competitive, soulless slog of pre-med curricula, so which values do you choose? On one hand, this breeds recrimination against the wealthy and their opportunities, and on the other, a lot of unrealistic demands for the college to compensate the poor students with the same kinds of options that the wealthy ones have from their families. Obviously, there are some ways the college can help - through financial aid and summer fellowships and things like that - but it can't give everyone the same after-college trajectory that is open to a daughter of an NY governor, or a son of a newspaper editor. (Although the good thing is that you can meet such people at INRU and benefit from their connections.)

I always think about this when the inevitable "Don't go into evil banking and consulting jobs! Be soulful and poor working at a non-profit instead!" op-eds appear in the school paper during recruiting season. What about the students for whom those jobs are going to pay off debts and support families, and who are making their post-college plans based on factors beyond individual spiritual fulfillment, whether by necessity or not? As you say, the RU attitude is more than simply class or personal finances, and even some of the students who could afford to take the low-paying soul-satisfying jobs are simply not of the view that your job should lead to personal growth, and are more concerned with starting families or supporting existing ones in whatever way is most respectable and efficient.

But perhaps this is part of a broader problem of the cultural over-estimation of what a college education is supposed to do for you, and the RU crowd is more correct about the possibilities while the INRU crowd expects more than any college can really deliver?

Flavia said...


You're absolutely right that there can be some real conflicts between the values inculcated by an elite institution and the values of one's family back home--or between the aspirations that are developed at such institutions and the economic realities faced by students from less-wealthy backgrounds. (I was by no means an underprivileged student at INRU, but I couldn't pursue a career in book or magazine publishing, at least not right out of college, because I couldn't afford to take unpaid summer internships, or to "float" for a few months post-college without a job, waiting for a position to open up. So I got a paralegal job at a top-5 law firm, because they hired me in March, to start a week after graduation.)

That's a real and interesting thing to talk about: the pressure to do or to major in something "safe," often coming from the family or the culture or origin, combined with the peer-pressure to do something meaningful or to believe you can keep your options open indefinitely--which leads to dissatisfaction all around, class resentment, etc.

However, you dramatically overstate and skew the terms of that conflict. I know you're doing it partly for comic effect, but even allowing for that, your understanding of the conflict really doesn't reflect my experience at INRU (or, for that matter at RU). For one thing, everyone at an elite school is competitive. It may not be cool to show it, it may be more self-directed than other-directed, but those kids in Orgo are not all or even mostly working-class strivers. And those laments about the achievement-treadmill are not evidence that most students are living (or really seeking) blissed-out, feckless lives. Quite the opposite. They feel pressure to achieve, but also want more than mere achievement. And looking back at my own class, 15 years after graduation, I can think of hardly anyone who pursued an economically insecure path.

So I'm not sure where you get the idea that it's the economically disadvantaged who are going into "secure" jobs like banking and consulting and med school; it seems those are havens for UMC kids more than poor ones. Indeed if anything I've seen more working-class students shy away from law school or med school, because of the debt burden; many were inclined to set their sights lower, taking a lower-risk job, like teaching high school.

I guess it boils down to this: I agree with you that there are problems that many working-class/first-gen/immigrant kids experience at elite institutions, that have to do with a culture clash between their families/communities back home and the values of the institution. And I agree that the institutions aren't blameless. But apparently we disagree about the matter of self-exploration and -discovery: I think it's generally a good thing, though by "self-discovery," I'm not talking about navel-gazing or frivolity of the underwater-basket-weaving variety. I mean stretching oneself intellectually, encountering new ideas and new perspectives. I'm talking about, for example, understanding electives or distribution requirements as an opportunity to explore and learn something interesting--rather than as just a stupid box you have to check en route to getting your meal-ticket degree (which is what some of my students' parents tell them: those requirements are stupid hurdles, but you punch your card and you check the boxes, you keep your head down and serve your time).

I've got no problem with students who have their eyes on the prize, who make economically-driven decisions, and who don't have a lot of time to wallow around asking, "what am I going to doooooo with my life?" But what I'm talking about in this post is an attitude toward education that misunderstands (a) how learning actually happens, and (b) what college classes allow students to do and become. The time-serving attitude toward education sells students short--economically and professionally as well as educationally.

Miss Self-Important said...

No, I'm not saying that college itself should not be about serious study of things apparently "irrelevant" to making a living. That is in some respects one of the most egalitarian aspects of the university - once you're there, it doesn't cost extra to dedicate yourself to your studies. My point is that the groves of academe mentality is problematic when it extends to expectations about life after college, which is where the conflicts for RU-types at INRU can arise. The liberally educated person should be someone with an enlarged view who doesn't pursue such mean ends as pecuniary rewards, who works only for what is personally and socially "meaningful." That would be a reasonable attitude if America were an aristocracy. But for a democracy, what is the sense of an educational culture that devalues pretty much all the lucrative jobs available?

I also don't mean to suggest that all econ and pre-med majors are poor or immigrant strivers. I think there are a lot of legitimate reasons to go into business and finance and medicine, up to and including pure ambition to dominate everyone, which I would prefer to have channeled into investment banking than into regime overthrow. There also remains a strong subculture at elite schools that rejects the whole groves of academe mentality and celebrates materialism and vulgarity, but that subculture is also anti-academic, so it's not an ideal refuge for the kinds of kids who want to study seriously while in college, but who then go into what you call the "safe" jobs, either out of desire or necessity. The frat boy contingent is not inclined to feel guilty from things like anti-recruiting op-eds b/c they've set themselves against all that in advance. But the kids who major in classics or history and really like it, but who have such plans for the future are.

Jeff said...

Flavia, have you read Joe College by Tom Perrotta? It's about a kid from suburban New Jersey who experiences culture shock at Yale. It's an unassuming little novel that nicely gets at what it's like to be called by your old life while being tempted by an entirely new one.

Tenured Radical said...

Having moved from a place like RU to a place with students more like INRU, I would say that one big difference is that students like yours at Zenith often hid, balancing their many obligations to family in secret. Sometimes it is successful, sometimes the pressure on students to seem "like" their fellow RU students is borderline unbearable.

One thing the social scientists would say is that it isn't just the families: it's the kids. The dichotomy between individual success and family obligation tends to tip in the direction of the family because that's your support network -- not your roommates or the Zentith Alumni association. Nurturing that web of family obligations is an insurance policy against individual failure.

Flavia said...


Yes, I have! A very nice little novel indeed.


Oops, acronym confusion: INRU = Instant-Name-Recognition U (your Oligarch U, our alma mater); RU = Regional U (where I teach now).

But yes, I absolutely take your point and I agree: it isn't just parents, and there's often much more going on in the personal/family lives of students at elite universities than I realized when I was there (and that's true even regardless of a student's personal/family background); there's just a much greater taboo on showing it.

That, however, actually feeds into my point about how the shared fantasy of college as a place set apart works: at some institutions, everyone acts as if college students are or should be spared external and homelife problems, even if in fact they aren't. In some ways that can be a good thing (especially if the problems are of the minor, weekly-crisis variety), but sometimes it's decidedly not (e.g., the parents who decide not to tell their daughter they're divorcing until her exams are over--leading her to arrive home to find it a fait accompli).

Anastasia said...

So this is a little bit tangential since I teach secondary school but it resonates. I was pretty engaged with my own life and my own drama when I was an adolescent. Now, though, I somehow turned into the teacher everyone talks to about everything, so I am privy to an awful lot of messiness. We have a mix of students, some of whom are very, very wealthy, and some of whom are more toward middle class--kids whose parents have taken a second mortgage or are otherwise making a major sacrifice for their kids to attend CDS. The kids at the upper end of the scale are extremely careful about maintaining the outward appearance of (relative) perfection.

This is partly regional culture, I think, which is very appearance oriented. And since we're a fairly closed community and everyone knows everyone else, kids (and their parents) are careful to maintain the facade. But in any case, what I've experienced with those who have the most to lose, so to speak, in terms of reputation, is a tendency to very carefully manage outward appearances. Kids whose parents have less or have less standing in the community are more likely to be open about their problems.

What's really sad to see is when they can't even admit there's a problem because that would destroy how they see themselves and their families. The lie becomes too precious. Which is to say they internalize these things, which means I suspect that some of them are going to carry that impulse to keep up appearances beyond their little community--which is to say nothing of the kids who stay in town for college and effectively never leave the reach of this community.

Anastasia said...

I was also going to add that when I was at Grad U, which is a nationally ranked university, I knew a lot of kids (undergrads I taught) who were under a great deal of pressure to become doctors or lawyers, so there was a kind of conflict between the values we as humanities instructors were inculcating and the reality of this lovely, bright Indian young woman whose parents were paying for her to become a doctor, dammit, and not waste her potential becoming something stupid or studying something frivolous. I did experience a kind of tension there between understanding college as a time to get trained for a professional life and college as a time to explore and discover--but I think this was a tension between pre-professional majors and humanities majors.

My department chair (at the time, anyway) was all the time talking to us (and the faculty) about the need to introduce them to a humane way of looking at the world--to make them better readers of the newspaper rather than assuming we were training future scholars. These kids are going to be doctors and lawyers. Start there. Now what does a doctor or lawyer need to know about our discipline to be a better human being? I liked that approach.

Bardiac said...

What an interesting opening observation and conversation.

Do you think that some of the problems your RU students have wouldn't really be problems at INRU? I mean, if you're working and commuting and your car breaks down and you can't afford to get it repaired, it becomes a major problem. If, on the other hand, you're not commuting (but work on campus), and your car breaks down, but your parents can lend you money to get it fixed, it's not really a problem for very long. That was a big difference between my relative stability as an undergrad (at big ag state U) and some of my friends whose parents didn't have the financial ability to help in emergencies.

My guess is that money problems make everything more difficult, and with parents out of work, loan difficulties, and so on, those problems stand out more, probably at all schools.

Finally, with the smaller population of traditional aged college students, my school is actively recruiting students who wouldn't have gone to college a generation ago. This is great in many ways, but these folks seem to have less economic stability, and that means some of them are one the verge of disaster pretty regularly. They also don't have a sense of how to get what help the school offers, sometimes. The more traditional students know how to use certain sorts of services (though probably not other sorts of services).

Anonymous said...

I've been teaching at something lower down the totem pole than what you describe as RU - 70% of our students are transfers from community colleges, and our course load is a 4/4, to give you an idea. What you say about attitudes toward college is absolutely true in my experience - my husband and I have talked about this A LOT in trying to understand our students (he's at another RU ranked higher than mine). In response to Bardiac, even though my school caters to working class, first generation, and immigrant students, there really aren't that many resources they don't know about. Federal financial aid is drying up (not much call anymore for summer classes since the summer Pell money went away), for example. One of the problems at my school is that most of the faculty (older, anyway) have no idea how different other campus climates are, so they have no expectations, and, hence, no sense of college in the larger sense. My undergraduate education at a SLAC helps, I think, as does my grad work at INRU, but I have spent the last ten years trying to figure out how to reach my students. It's hard. Their lives ARE hard, and it's not just money. I know he's a controversial figure, but Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory is useful. My husband actually comes from a background similar to my students and the idea of estrangement from one's family through education is real.

Bardiac said...

I was thinking less of financial aid sorts of resources, and more of the local resources to solve immediate problems, such as librarians, the math lab, the counseling office, the dean's office, and so on. The people who are supposedly in place to help students. The more privileged of my students know and use these resources more. The less privileged don't seem to use these resources nearly as much, or at all, even.

Anonymous said...

You're right - I was just responding to Bardiac's comment. The sad thing is that we simply don't have that many resources that are reliable enough for students to consult - no writing center, dubious counseling services, no math lab to speak of. Students don't get much help from full-time faculty members, either - it's sporadic, at best, for several reasons. We have the worst full-time to part-time faculty ratio in the state, with less than 350 full-time faculty for a student body of about 15,000 FTE, and service responsibilities fall on us more and more. We don't even have professional academic advisors, so we do both transfer and regular advising. So students are understandably jaded about the extra-academic services on campus. I think the fact that it's a primarily commuter campus contributes to the lack of on campus spirit as well.

Bardiac said...

That sounds really, really rough. My school is in better shape, I think, with a reasonable faculty/student ratio and some strong services (though not all students use them enough).

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, coming from a first-generation background (and also kind of an immigrant background since my step-dad is an immigrant), here's the thing: it's not that schoolwork isn't valued or respected. It's actually valued a lot... as a *luxury* item. In other words: if you can do school and manage to do all of your other obligations, great, but school beyond high school (and in the case of some of my extended family, not even high school is required) is a privilege, not a right. Work and family come before the luxury/privilege of higher education. Because you're an "adult" and you need to start acting like one.

Also, to what anon says, the estrangement issue is a HUGE pressure. My biological dad throughout my time in college/grad school used to accuse me of thinking "your shit don't stink" (he was a peach) and my mom would get upset that I'd use words she didn't know or correct her grammar (I was insufferable). My response to that pressure (as you might guess from above) was to try to rebel from the attachment of family. The best support I got was actually from my immigrant stepdad, who would remind both me and my mom that I was still the same person. But then, he had changed his entire life - his citizenship - and he knew HE was still the same person, so not a whole lot freaks him out.

And it's worth noting: I had a pretty cushy situation as an undergrad compared with my students (scholarships, lived in a dorm, worked on campus). And yet those things I just mentioned were still pressures for me. And yes, I blew off classes as an undergrad because of those pressures, but I tended to lie rather than to confess to what was going on. I was a strong enough student to get away with that, but most students aren't.

Flavia said...

Thank you, beautiful people, for continuing this conversation in my absence! I'm at MLA and drowning in professional obligations--but I hope to be able to say something more substantive when I return.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think we've gotten away from the situation that Flavia originally described: not the normal tensions between family obligations and college, but families whose sense of the students' extra-scholastic obligations are surprisingly broad.

But what she's describing is a real thing, and it's worth thinking about. There ARE families who expect students to miss an entire week of school for the funerals of people one or two degrees of separation removed from the student. There ARE families where it's expected that you'll skip the first week of a summer class in order to celebrate another family member's (local) high school graduation properly. There are families who presume that a surprising number of obligations come before college.

There are also families for whom nothing is important enough to interrupt with college, to the extent that they will keep serious news from the student for months in order not to "interfere" with schoolwork. The family motto is "Don't you dare tell your brother until his exams are over."

But the thing is that the don't-tell-your-brother families and the you'll-have-to-come-home-for-two-weeks families typically come from exactly the same social classes. So this is not just working-class vs. the academy.

I wonder how many of the "come home because the family needs you" families would have the same expectations if it were the child's job rather than their education.

I think for many it would not, and the issue there is that education is viewed as the least of obligations: not like work, and open to endless rearrangements. And that vision doesn't leave space for an education that makes real demands on the student/

But other families would and will go on to applying pressure and guilt when their twenty-something children need to rack up billable hours instead of attending every second cousin's first communion. The question there is whether the family is fully willing to allow the child to pursue a career and do the things they need in order to advance.

Contingent Cassandra said...

My sense is similar to Dr. Cleveland's: that this has as much to do with individual family culture (including, perhaps, some inherited/shared traits, and even, in extreme cases, mental illnesses/personality disorders on the part of one or several dominant members of the family) as with shared class/ethnic/other background culture. Other factors definitely play a role as well, but I've had enough students (at a school pretty similar to RU) tell me that they need to miss class to drive a family member to the airport (in a region well-covered by airport shuttles with costs comparable to the tuition for a single class session) to think that it's not just about financial need. I also think there's a selection effect: families who think it's appropriate for their recently-adult children to be close by, and to continue to participate very actively in family life at home, tend to think, from the very beginning of the college-choosing process, in terms of regional Us for their children, because the location, and even the cost, fit their picture of where college should fit into the family's life, and budget.

I'm careful about this, because obviously some students really don't have much choice (and flying for a week to join one's now-far-flung family at a grandmother's funeral on another continent is a decidedly different, and to me more understandable, thing than spending a similar week with family who live a few hours away), but I sometimes push back, gently, when students tell me they *have* to miss school to go on a family vacation, or take a parent to the airport, by pointing out that they *are* missing something, that there *are* other options, and that they *are* making a choice. I don't push it, or try to make them feel bad if they stick with their original choice, but I do point out the choice. Sometimes they really don't seem to be aware that they're making choices; they're just going along with their family culture (which, even when it's presented to them as such, isn't necessarily the same thing as the culture of their country of origin, religion, etc., etc.)

And then there are others who really are juggling far too much, and all one can do is be sympathetic, while pointing out the limits to sympathy (i.e. the work really has to get done). Most students in such situations are, in my experience, pretty realistic about their situations, and aware that if the semester brings unforeseen events, they simply may not be able to finish. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. I'm still marveling at pregnant student who signed up for a five-week summer course, with her expected due date falling smack in the middle, and didn't drop in response to a coursewide email warning everyone how intense the class would be, or even say anything to me (it was a distance course, so her situation wasn't visually obvious to me) until after the baby was born (when expected) and she fell behind. Then again, she finished (somewhat raggedly, and with a low-ish grade, but finished nonetheless), so perhaps she knew best after all.

Flavia said...

Thanks for continuing this conversation, Dr. C and Cassandra, while I left it to languish. You're both talking more about the phenomenon I'm most interested in myself in this post. I read somewhere long ago that every family is a culture unto itself, and I think that's really true--whatever one's own family does or expects seems totally normative.

And I think, Cassandra, that you make a really good point re: student choices--and my approach is much like yours (and like Dr. C., I sometimes draw the work analogy as a part of this, asking gently if their boss would be okay with them missing a week of work for a funeral, or whatever).

Most of my students do get that the number of hours in a day or week is finite, and that if they take hours away from their schoolwork, they're probably hurting their performance--and may not be able to recover. Others, when I say, "yes, of course, you can miss class for that. . . but it doesn't qualify as an excused absence, so it might affect your participation grade" really just don't get it. If I'm giving them "permission" to miss, why isn't it an excused absence??