Will My Colleagues Judge Me?

Home  sick, I’ve been clicking around  the web and came upon this post on Corporette, a blog read by thousands of young women seeking advice about clothing and etiquette in the corporate workplace — in other words, they come to this site for coaching in middle- class based norms of dress and behavior in professional settings.

This post made me sit up straighter.  Rather than asking about maintaining fashion sense in footwear even on snowy days (the more common sort of conversation on this site),  one young woman, an aspiring law student identifying herself as being from a poor background, asked this:

My fiance is a mechanic – he loves his career and would not change it for the world, however, I am worried – will my colleagues judge me because of this?

And the author of blog, and  202 commentors  (to date) weighed in.   What unfolds is a fascinating discourse on class and education, though it’s rarely named as such.
The owner of the blog first weighs in with classic blue-collar stereotypes (on which she’s called by several commentors):
Can he make dinner conversation with people on “educated” topics? On a more basic level, are his table manners and his grammar good (or is he open to improving them)?
In the discussion that follows,  a number of lawyers mention that they never encounter any working-class people in their work lives.    Many lawyers frame the issue personally — lawyers are by nature “self-absorbed” so they’d either not notice others or would possibly, as individuals, be snobs.  Others tell tales of working-class partners who behave in professional settings.   Only a few mention that many highly educated lawyers are lousy conversationalists and slobs at the table.
And there are stories here of other women who have experienced exactly the kinds of judgments that the questioner feared.
As is usually the case with blogs that generate this much response, nothing is resolved, but I’m fascinated that a young woman with high aspirations (and apparently, the accomplishments to justify them) knows, at this juncture in which she’ll take the next step into daily interaction with those from class backgrounds much higher than her own, that class matters in ways that her new colleagues may never understand.
The comments are worth the read.
What catches your eye in this complex conversation?

Denied

From an article from today’s NYT that has come to my inbox from multiple sources today:

The admissions team at Reed College, known for its free-spirited students, learned in March that the prospective freshman class it had so carefully composed after weeks of reviewing essays, scores and recommendations was unworkable. Money was the problem. Too many of the students needed financial aid, and the school did not have enough. So the director of financial aid gave the team another task: drop more than 100 needy students before sending out acceptances, and substitute those who could pay full freight.

Over 100 kids who would otherwise have been denied, admitted because of thier family income.  And over 100 kids who played by all the rules, got admitted to their “reach” school, and were  then were sent away.

So, if you’re mentoring kids who will be high school seniors next year, what do you tell them?  To reach and dream big or to be “realistic”?

As my favorite social philosopher B. Springsteen once asked,

is a dream a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse?


Tuesdays at 11:00

For weeks now, I’ve been doing — and too seldom writing about — Education and Class.

Every Tuesday at 11:00, I gather with a group of remarkable students who, next week, will begin mentoring  low-income/first generation high school juniors through the college application process.  I am their faculty adviser, and the instructor of record for the course in which they are all enrolled.

It’s been quite a ride.

Based on a program initiated four years ago on our flagship campus,  The Dream Project is student led. Students plan and lead the class sessions, arrange for speakers, make the  initial and follow-up contacts with the high schools, navigate campus bureaucracies to get things done like printing and banking, and — because this is a program to add, not dilute resources —  do fund raising.

The program has an explicit dual-focus:  Our university students will learn more about education and social mobility, college access and educational inequalities.  And high school students will learn more about writing powerful essays, finding scholarships, and aiming for colleges that they might not otherwise have considered.

Gathering on Tuesdays at 11:00 are single moms, returning students, a woman who waitresses until  2:00 every morning and a man who works the night shift in a hospital every night.  There are immigrants from Taiwan and the Middle-East, and a young woman who grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand.  There are freshman and seniors, and they’ve accomplished a great deal in these past weeks.

We now have an official university account.  We have very cool T-shirts that they all wore on Inauguration Day, newly conscious that day that they were part of something much bigger than a local campus project. We hosted a festive campus “roll out” where administrators sang their praises.  We’ve learned about “students without citizenship” and about empathetic mentoring.  We’ve started negotiations for free SAT prep courses. We’ve talked about framing stories of disadvantage as stories of resilience.  We’re ready to start with the high school kids.  We’ll never be fully ready to start with the high school kids.

On the flagship campus, the Dream Project students gather for bonding over burritos every Friday afternoon, arriving on foot from the dorm rooms and frat houses and nearby campus apartments.

Our students thought that this was a great idea.  We are a commuter campus;  they spent an hour one day trying to agree on a central location, trying to find a time that could work with their work, class, and family schedules.  They settled on Thursdays at 9:00, at a place known to be very low cost.

Only two people showed up, in spite of their best intentions.  In the end, their weeks were  just too full.

And next week, the planning comes to fruition, and we meet the high school juniors.  My students, many of whom themselves stumbled one step at a time into college, will begin talking with and listening to students much like them and will offer support, perspective, and information that they themselves may not have had when they were applying for college.

It is a student-led project.

They’ve added this project on top of  work, courses, family, and commuting.

Much of this is brand new to many of them: The public speaking on campus, the work of organizing their own learning, the challenge of cold-calling busy high school counselors,  the prospect of asking potential donors for money, the responsibility of launching what essentially will become a non-profit.   I call, email, chat in the hall, spend time one -on-one in my office, suggest readings, cajole, thank, steer, back away, buffer, nudge, recommend, and mediate.

And I’m reminded of how I learned so much of this over years, not weeks, and by trial and error (mostly error), not within this sort of collaborative endeavor.

The flagship campus students speak powerfully of how much they’ve learned in this work.

I think that our students will potentially learn even more, and will potentially learn very different things about themselves and  their own educational journeys.

Learning for Learning’s Sake…

It was yet another conference paper on first-generation college students, and yet another lament about how “they  don’t value learning for learning’s sake”.  “They want to know how everything relate to careers”, the presenter said.   “They complain about having to take courses like the history of pop music”, she sighed. I’d long ago stopped making snarky tabulations on my notepad every time she emphatically said “they” when talking about these students.

During the Q and A, I sat on my hands for awhile and then asked what the middle-class students said about learning for learning’s sake.

But the study wasn’t about them.  So no one had asked. The assumption seemed simply to be that if students from working class backgrounds expressed frustration with courses, curriculum, or the relevance of what they were required to do, it was evidence of a flawed values system.

But someone else on the panel then spoke up. “It’s money that they value”, she said.  She cited studies of the value that middle-class kids place on their college education. For them, she said, the intellectual took a backseat to the  earning potential that a degree would confer.

The middle class didn’t value learning for learning’s sake, either.

I haven’t seen those studies, but am still somewhat amazed when Ph.D.s who often are in it for the love of learning are surprised that anyone else isn’t.

And when I see studies like this recently released report on the alarming rates of cheating among high school students, I wonder how anyone can still think that students anywhere are driven primarily by a hunger of the mind.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  Middle class kids know how to intellectualize their complaints, how to feign interest, how to just stay quiet when it’s in their strategic interest to do so.  Working class kids may well wonder often and loudly why the hell they’re borrowing hundreds of dollars for a course on the history of pop music.

But learning what we’re teaching purely for the love of learning?

In my dreams.

Because if we really value learning, we have to value the learners, even when what we’re teaching isn’t self-evidently interesting to them, even if they’ve grown up within cynical times, even when they’re from backgrounds very different from our own.

…even if we have to be willing to look past the surface level differences to see the complicated lives withn which all of our students now contextualize their education.

Needs Blind/Blind to Student Needs

There’s an interesting article in Today’s Inside Higher Education newsletter on “needs blind” admissions policies. While promising applicants that their financial need will not be considered in admissions decisions, most public and private colleges then offer financial aid packages with considerable “gaps” between need and actual costs.

Further, different groups of students (athletes, legacies, under-represented ethnic groups) are more likely to receive different sorts of financial aid packages (more grants and scholarships, fewer loans) than other students — and first-generation students are infrequently targeted for either full financial aid for for more favorable “packages”.

And finally, in these times of soaring college costs, the shift from needs-based to merit-based financial aid continues:

In 1994, when NACAC conducted a similar survey, colleges reported that 27 percent of their institutional aid funds were purely merit-based and 66 percent based on need. In the current survey, 43 percent of institutional aid funds were based on factors other than need, compared to 49 percent need-based.

At my institution, there is speculation that tuition will soar in the coming years under withering state budget cuts.

I’m not at all clear how, given headlines like that in the paper and the complex and contradictory system of financial aid, first-generation students can even imagine themselves getting in and getting through.

Promises Lost

From today’s Inside Higher Education is news of a new report Promise Lost: Why So Many College-Qualified Students Don’t Enroll in College from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

With these students — who are disproportionately low-income or students of color — schools are doing their part:  These students have taken a college prep curriculum and gotten decent grades.

But, because of the high costs of college, inadequate information about financial aid and loans, and guidance counselors responsible for hundreds of students, these students are not applying for or enrolling in college.

There are so many ways that low-income kids are left behind.

With achievement gaps in schools, it’s all too easy to scapegoat teachers.

But when kids are achieving and still have no way up and out, there are no obvious scapegoats, and thus, it seems harder to get anyone incensed.