Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Fear of Falling by Barbara Ehrenreich.

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Saturday, December 7, 2019

Ehrenreich, Chp. 2

I don't have it in me to type out a complete summary of this chapter, but I will highlight some interesting points.

First, the academic and cultural establishments reacted so strongly to the student revolts of the 1960's because the university is in some sense the incubator of the professional middle class.  I suppose I am similarly reactionary in how I view the kids promoting political correctness, seeking safe spaces, etc.  One thing that I find interesting about my peers is how many of them are more defensive than reactionary, seeking to prove to the student radicals that they too seek Disruption, Transformation, etc.  It's like everyone believes that to be a good academic is to pursue the destruction and recreation of the academy.  Yes, there's a very important sense in which we have to pursue that in our research, seeking to uncover error and replace it with insight.  Still, in STEM you prolific researchers who speak of the need to Transform And Disrupt the very systems in which they thrive.  Of course, they never actually do that, but it's striking how they feel the need to say they're doing it.

Ehrenreich identifies an interesting tension in the middle class, and how it differs from both the rich and poor:  The middle class is kept in a state of unease and insecurity, with no guarantee of remaining as comfortable as your parents.

If you're born rich you'll usually remain rich.  You might not get on well with your family, you might not get or retain a good job in the family business empire, but you'll get your trust fund and if you aren't completely stupid with it you'll remain comfortable.  And if you are just moderately smart about what you do with your opportunities you'll do quite well.  Even if your career collapses in scandal, well, who ever heard of a disgraced financier living in a shitty apartment and eating from the local food pantry?  There's a safety net.

Likewise, if you're born poor to lower-middle class, you'll probably remain that way.  Yes, there are a few who rise, but most don't.  It isn't much comfort, but it's stable.  At the risk of romanticizing it, if you know that you'll remain in the same place, with the same people, struggling to survive in the same hustle, there may be a level of security.  You're used to shit, and you know who will be there beside you.  If the picture I pain seems romantic, it's because of the human capacity for adjustment to predictable conditions.

In the professional middle class, you could rise high (probably not to the top, but high) or fall low (probably not to the bottom, but certainly below your comfort zone).  You need to study hard, train hard, and "pay your dues" in jobs with long hours before you achieve some security in your profession.  There are far worse fates, but it's certainly a system that can induce anxiety.  If the question is whether the rest of the world should pity them, the answer is no, but if the question is "Why are they so neurotic?" well, there's your answer.

I feel like I've blogged before about the ways in which the rich and poor resemble each other more than the middle class, but I can't find them now.

She also discusses a tension in the characterizations of the counter-culture, and the ways in which it was and wasn't the apotheosis of consumer culture.  The desire to "do your own thing, man" was in some ways the ultimate consumer ethos:  You do what you want for your own fulfillment.  However, if "doing your own thing" should threaten corporate profits, if it should involve consuming less, that would hurt the consumer culture.  Today we have excellent systems for co-opting rebellion.  We have Woke Capitalists who will make sure that your consumer goods come packaged with whatever logos and symbols are favored by your socially just cause, and make certain that the stores in which they are sold use all the preferred pronouns of both the staff and customers...because that's easier than paying living wages or polluting less.  (Don't get me wrong, I'll use your preferred pronouns without objection, but I think it's a pretty small thing.  I'd like to also buy something less polluting.  Or, better yet, not buy as much cheap plastic crap.)

In the middle of the chapter, she talks a lot about the history of child-rearing, and manages to show that simplistic narratives are too simplistic.  What the middle class tells themselves about their parenting has fluctuated over the years.  Sometimes they boast about the structure and order that they give their kids.  Sometimes they boast about the freedom and exploration that they allow their kids to enjoy.  Sometimes they lament how the poor are harsher disciplinarians (so unsophisticated!).  Other times they lament how the poor let their kids run wild.  The truth, of course, is that parents of every social class are varied.  I'll let social scientists determine if some styles of parenting really are unevenly distributed among classes in ways that conform to narratives, but certainly it's messier than an era's favorite narrative would have us believe.

Finally, she talks about how prosperity gave teenagers identities as consumers, and also gave an extended adolescence that the rich and middle class enjoy (the rich with a bit more leisure, the middle class with more training and apprenticing).  The poor mostly work the same types of jobs as their parents once they reach a certain age, but the professional middle class goes to college, then "pays their dues" in jobs that are much lower on the ladder than their parents' jobs.

So far, so good.  But then she goes on about rock and roll and the values it allegedly reflected.  Eh, whatever.  Rock lyrics are varied.  She's trying to shoehorn them into a narrative.

On to chapter 3.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Fear of Falling, Chapter 1

This book is apparently about the attitudes of the "professional middle class" (comfortable middle class people who have nice office jobs, but not so much wealth as to truly have substantial individual influence in their communities).  She starts by recounting the ways that Good Respectable People talk about the aesthetics and lifestyles of the lower classes.  She's writing in 1989 but she could be talking about post-2016 hand-wringing over lower-income whites who voted for Trump.  From there she skips back a few decades, to the 50's, in order to chronicle the post-WWII journey to 1989.  She visits the sociology textbooks of the 50's, and I'm surprised by the condescension towards the poor.  Not because I'm surprised that people hold such attitudes (duh), but because I can't believe they'd write them so explicitly in textbooks.  I thought they were supposed to say those things indirectly.  Well, I guess some things really do change.

She describes 1950's pundits simultaneously celebrating the wealth of post-war America and also bemoaning materialism and consumerism as tacky symptoms of "affluence."  Things I like about her critique:

  1. She notes the interesting shift from "wealth" to "affluence."  Critiquing wealth means you might go after the wealthy.  But affluence is a society-wide condition.  It's not so different from how the post-2016 critiques have focused on "working-class whites" while ignoring high-income Republicans who voted on the basis of tax policy.
  2. She recognizes that post-WWII prosperity depended so much on the rest of the world being messed up and unable to compete.  Yes, the post-1950's economy in America is in part a product of choices by elites, but it's also in part an inevitable consequence of global competition.
  3. She is ruthlessly economic in her critique of keeping middle-class women as housewives: It was a waste of educated minds.
  4. She is also ruthlessly historical in noting that lower-class women never had the option of being housewives.  It was either something they did out of necessity (somebody had to care for the kids and do the in-home production of goods via sewing, scratch cooking, etc.) or didn't do out of necessity (they needed to work for money).  Choice had precious little to do with it.

I found it fascinating how elite commentary didn't "discover" poverty in America until the 1960's.  I need to read more about that.

Finally, she talks about patronizing attitudes towards the poor in 1960's commentary.  She notes that pundits regarded them as unworthy of trust with money.  Thing is, poverty is multi-faceted, and while I largely agree that most people can handle money, some people do make bad choices.  In fact, some choices are the products of poverty rather than the cause of poverty:  If you can't afford to buy reliable goods you buy unreliable goods and incur greater costs down the line.  If you keep facing emergencies that drain you, long-term plans are something you rationally avoid, because what's the point?

If poverty were all about unforced bad choices, the paternalists would be entirely right.  If poverty were all about forced bad choices, the libertarians would be entirely right.  And if poverty were about circumstances beyond the realm of choice, the leftists would be entirely right (or, um, left, I guess?).  But the real world is multi-faceted.  Still, the facets that she highlights here are important.

On to chapter 2, which addresses the 60's and counter-culture.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Next book: "Fear of Falling" by Barbara Ehrenreich

My next reading/blogging project will be Fear of Falling by Barbara Ehrenreich.  It supposedly explores the anxieties of middle-class professionals.  It seems relevant to academia...

Monday, November 25, 2019

The problem of ASSessment

This column at Inside Higher Ed elegantly summarizes the problem with assessment:
The faculty already have a language about teaching and learning. If you ask a math professor what students will learn in calculus, she may point you to the table of contents in the textbook, where dozens of topics are enumerated. If you ask how the class is going, you might hear that “they were fine with the derivative rules, but related rates problems are killing them.” This language is an integral part of teaching. 
The assessment bureaucracy -- those periodic checkboxy reports -- can only be justified if the formal learning outcome statements and their standardized assessments are superior to the native ways faculty know their students. Otherwise we could just ask faculty how the students are doing and use course registrations and grades for data. We could look at the table of contents to find the learning outcomes. 
These two worlds -- the report writing and the lived experience -- coexist, but not easily. While the assessment office depends on the informal channels of faculty knowledge to do meaningful work, in most regions of the country each program requires a formal report. These “cookie-cutter” reports fail miserably at generating new knowledge (something you couldn’t learn by just asking faculty members what they think) because they are based on faith in the special meaningfulness of the learning blurbs.
Exactly.  We already know how to talk to each other, and some of us also know how to talk to the people who hire our students.  What we don't know how to do is talk to people who need boxes checked so that they can justify their phoney baloney jobs.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A couple quick links

I agree with the woman whose profile leads in this IHE article:  Many people want to read diversity statements that address delicate social issues in exactly the right jargon.  They are ideological filters.

Also, I echo this Areo article.  The public makes so many contradictory demands on k-12 that it makes no sense to speak of reforming k-12 until we figure out what we want from k-12.  As for me, I want two simple things from k-12:  I want them to send me students who can do high school algebra and write grammatically correct sentences.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

"This One Student"

A popular genre of academic story involves This One Student.  This One Student defied all expectations, succeeding when you never would have imagined it.  Therefore, we should assume that everyone can totally succeed at whatever they're currently trying and we shouldn't discourage them.

Well, no.  While I do grant that most people can, with sufficient time and effort, do most things to at least some level of competence, it does not follow that a person with precious little preparation can succeed in the class in which they are currently enrolled.  Maybe they need to go back and make up deficiencies before attempting this course of study.  It's insane to think that they should be able to remedy any and all gaps on the fly.  There's a reason why courses have prerequisites.

If a student is showing fundamental weaknesses in, say, algebra, they can still learn physics, but they should probably spend a substantial amount of time first remedying those gaps in algebra knowledge.  Yes, yes, they passed a math placement test that was approved by people who answer to officials who need a certain level of throughput.  Yes, they passed an introductory calculus class taught (and, more importantly, graded) by somebody who has no job security and answers to a system that wants to see students pass classes.  That does not mean that they actually know high school algebra, as is demonstrated to me on a daily basis.  Most of these students will flounder for years, fail and repeat classes, and eventually rack up enough partial credit to pass and graduate.

Nonetheless, from time to time we see This One Student who starts off doing terribly in algebra but goes on to do remarkably well.  That's wonderful when it happens, but it's rare.  It is inhumane to think that everyone should be encouraged to invest prime years of their lives and take on substantial loan debt in the hopes that they'll replicate This One Student's success story.

Moreover, it is often the case that This One Student has some unique advantage or compensating factor that we cannot easily replicate.  Sometimes it's a special personal factor that couldn't help them with algebra but could help them succeed in an internship that gave them the motivation to push ahead.  Sometimes it's an extraordinary personality characteristic or raw talent.

I was recently talking to somebody who started telling the story of This One Student, and it turned out that the student had served in an elite military unit.  (I rarely believe claims that somebody served in an elite military unit, but the fact that This One Student pulled off an extraordinary feat suggests a level of self-discipline and work ethic consistent with their claimed military background.)  Well, your average student does not have that kind of dedication.  In fact, even your average soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine does not have that level of mental tenacity.

They also told the story of This One Other Student who had the immigrant work ethic required to spend half the year working full time in shitty jobs, saving money for college, then attending college full time during the other half of the year.  Well, most students do not have that immigrant work ethic.  Nor do they have the humility and self-knowledge required to accept that they'd be better off EITHER working full-time OR going to school full-time, rather splitting their time and failing at both.   You could say that it's my job as an older, wiser mentor to help them see that, but I can't even get most students to follow instructions regarding algebraic steps, let alone major life decisions.

There are few tales more destructive than the tale of This One Student.  It gives us endless optimism, which is the bane of useful advice.