Monday, October 25, 2010


My writing students have been reading some essays about education and liberal arts, specifically. One of those essays (I'm not going to name the author or the essay because I don't want it to be googled easily) argues that students from working class backgrounds experience conflicts with their families when they go to college. In the essay, the author talks about his/her experiences, and other peoples' experiences, and talks about why s/he thinks the conflicts happen.

My students almost universally hate this essay. If they don't identify as working class, they don't see that the author is talking very specifically about working class experience, and claim that s/he's wrong. If they identify as working class, then they say that they'll never have these sorts of conflicts with their parents.

And they want to write about how wrong the author is. The thing is, the author may not be speaking for all working class experience, but s/he's reporting his/her experience, and the experiences of other people. And you can't really write in a comp essay that those experiences didn't happen.

You can write that you hope your experience will be different, and here's why (and there's another essay they can turn to for support with that). You can say that the author's wrong in interpreting his/her experience, and thus wrong in talking about the reasons for these experiences (but my students don't go there because they really don't get that deep yet).

I just chatted with a student about his/her paper. This student has asserted that the author is basically wrong, and that his/her parents and s/he can talk about anything without serious conflict. So I asked the student to think about the fact that s/he is living in dorms, and unlike the author, not trying to find a space to study in the house every day, not discussing school stuff with parents every day.

Have you gone home and visited since you came to college? "Yes," the student said. And did you talk about school stuff? The student pondered, and said, no not really. "Why not?" I asked. And the student suddenly got it. S/he had chosen not to talk about school stuff much, because his/her parents wouldn't "get" it.

Then s/he said that a sibling had recently graduated, and had lots of arguments with their parents about just the sort of think the author was talking about.

So, now s/he's got a new take on the essay, about how s/he's going to make an effort to not let conflicts interfere with the family relationships.

I have a feeling this is going to be a much better essay.


  1. Neither of my parents went to college. College was pretty much looked on as a luxury and something of an extravagance. When I decided to go to college, my folks thought it was sort of cute. When I went back for my master's, they thought I was putting off "real life." When I went on for my PhD, they thought I was a down-right snobbish bitch. Everyone in my family thinks that I think that I'm better than them. I'd love to read the essay you're talking about. I'm pretty sure I could identify. Could you email me the article info? fieuponthisquietlife at gmail dot com

  2. Pretty exciting to hear about that classic turning-on-the-light-bulb moment with the student. Glad to hear that you get to have such moments, from time to time!

    Apropos of nothing except propinquity, can I point out how difficult it is for me to remember that your friend Fie upon this quiet life is female? Thanks to that blog icon, I can't help but envision a man who bears a certain resemblance to Shakespeare. My powers of imagination have apparently been corrupted beyond hope by visual media.

  3. I agreed with your analysis to a point. As you were saying how important it is for students to realize that their viewpoint is not the only one, I nodded. After all, nobody can claim that his or her experience is universal.

    However, you then wrote about the student who at first rejected the essay but then came to realize that it was true in his/her experience as well. If you meant that as "Yay! A triumph for critical thinking in this one specific case," I'm still with you. But it sounded like you were implying that the original author's experience really was "more true" or "more universal" than that of any of your students who might object. Once the student *really* thought about it, he or she realized that the author was right after all. If other students continue to disagree with the essay, would you suspect that they are just not thinking deeply or critically enough?

    I ask, because although I'm sure the essay is true to the author's experience, it certainly isn't true to mine. My parents didn't go to college and my brothers and sisters and I grew up in somewhat straitened circumstances.

    And yet I can say that my parents have always supported my academic endeavors absolutely. Did it bother them that when I was growing up all I ever did was read? No, they took me to the library. Can I talk about academic stuff with them? Yes. Do they take digs at my work? No. Do they compare me unfavorably to my sister who married at twenty-one and stayed home to raise kids? No, and they don't criticize her choices, either.

    In no way am I claiming my experience is typical. (How would I know?) But it does exist.

  4. I'd love to see the essay. One, I have a friend who went through that really hard. She ended up reverting to the way she grew up and marrying working class, and being wistful for the literary and intellectual side of life.

    And I think I face a lot of these issues, also having jumped a class by way of profession. It's a very different world. Not with my parents, but joining in to my new "peers." Have you read Ruby Payne?

  5. I find such problems to be particularly true among those in poverty. They may or may not be actually working. My students who are currently in poverty and grew up in poverty say that they avoid even telling their parents that they are in school. They make up other excuses for not answering their phones during class, etc. Many of their parents state that there is no way they could graduate from a techincal college. Their friends offer little support as well. They tease and bully them for doing homework or for "using big words."

  6. Fie, sent it :)

    Dr. Koshary, thanks :)

    Dr. Rural, You make a good point, thank you. I guess I think this student, being 8 weeks into college, can't say with confidence that there won't be conflicts. And certainly, one can have conflicts with incredibly supportive parents. And there is space to respond to this article in opposition, including through another article we wrote. But again, your point is important, and I shouldn't sound so... arrogant?

    Sara, I'd be happy to send the article's bibliographic information if you email me.

    B, I think you may be especially right for many students.