Friday, November 07, 2008


Class in Class

One thing that I am realizing as I am teaching at a university very different from the ones where I went for undergrad and grad school is how much social class affects the class room.

I went to university primarily with kids of the proletarian edge of the middle class: I was at the far upper end of the class scale at both UC Irvine and Rutgers, but I was still from the same class (roughly) as my classmates.  

Of course, at the time, I was more aware of class differences than the similarities -- while in school my relatively less well off parents paid me more mind and gave me less spoilage than was paid to and given to my classmates from more advantaged families, in college, compared with my classmates, my family was relatively privileged, translating to me having been given more (monetarily) and having less overprotective parents than my classmates whose parents had less money but more motivation to make up for that lack with overprotection of what they did have -- fine children.

But now I compare my classmates and I to my students and I see the similarities.  In broad outline, even if I was the relatively privileged son of an optometrist rather than the relatively less advantaged daughter of a drill press operator, we were all roughly middle class.  That is to say, all of us came from families where you had to work for a living but all of us came from families where, so long as you didn't Cheney-up big time, you'd at least always be able to put food on the table ... and even be able to borrow enough money to send your kids to a good (state, not private, maybe) college and not worry about how you'd pay the money back.

But many of my students are in a different place, which takes some getting used to.  They have to graduate as they can't afford to stay in school nor can they afford to have spent all this money on college and not get a degree from it.  But on the other hand, I don't want to let my guilt cause me to pass students who really haven't learned the material at a passing level -- it does a disservice to them if they go out into the workforce claiming to be college graduates who have passed course [X] if they don't really know the material from said course nor do they have the problem solving skills one expects from a bachelor of sciences/arts.

And their response to this? "Don't be so unfair Prof. DAS."  Now I was used to this from the richer of my classmates in school who mistook their privilege for deserved accolades.  But from my friends (and classmates in college ... and I am obviously going to model my teaching of college courses from how I was taught in college and what I thought worked and didn't work for me then -- but now I need to figure out what works for my, very different, students ... and before their evaluations sink my chances of retention!) -- we would never say such a thing.  We were privileged enough -- in family resources, in brains, etc. -- to be the beneficiaries of life's unfairnesses ... but not so privileged that we couldn't even see our own privilege. 

If ever we would use the "u-word" our moms would bark.  And we would say "why the hell are you barking?  I just said 'you are being unfair' and you respond by barking?" "yep ... I'm barking 'cause I'm just being a bitch and you are one lucky son of a bitch!  Life's unfair, and you should thank your lucky stars that life's unfair, because it has rewarded you so much ... if ya wanna make life more fair, get involved, e.g. politically, in making it fair ... but quitcher beefin' mister!" and our fathers would chime in: "you want sympathy?  look it up in the dictionary -- you'll find it between shit and syphilis".

But my students feel just fine using the "u-word" -- why?  because life is unfair to them: they do have to worry about keeping food on the table. They have gone to college to get a better life, but it's a gamble and if they loose, they cannot pay back the loans and they are royally done to as Cheney said unto Leahy that Leahy should do unto himself.

So how do I be sensitive to their concerns, not show my privilege too much that it makes them uncomfortable, while still making sure they are not being mollycoddled (as has happened thus far to some of them) as, once they do have that degree, people will expect them to function without being spoon-fed what to do (that's why they are to be paid more money once they have the degree, ain't it?)?

I'm just catching up with back reading, so hope that you don't mind a belated comment.

I'm curious about what your students see as unfair.

Teaching first generation students has made me question a lot of what I consider "basic" but I think that my classes are still pretty rigorous.

I think that finding that balance between accommodating students whose lives are packed with work and family and too many credits -- and prepping them for what I understand to be the workplace conditions has made be a better teacher, I think. I don't just teach as I was taught. I'm more flexible, more creative, and more invested in the students.

So I really am interested in your post... what are they seeing as unfair, and how do we as teachers know that we are being "fair"?
what are they seeing as unfair, and how do we as teachers know that we are being "fair"

Sorry to be delayed myself with this response. The key thing seen as unfair are when I deviate from the textbook in my lectures and/or when I put a problem on the test that is not exactly like the homework but requires putting things together.

Certainly, when I was a student, some of my classmates found similar things to be "unfair" (I was generally happy with them -- I was too lazy to do homework anyway, but I could be counted on to think quickly on a test and do well putting things together) ... but they would never dare say it ... because they knew that life was unfair and it had been unfairly good to them.

OTOH, many of my students really have had a bad shake in life, so they are perhaps more comfortable with the u-word? It's just a shock to me, though.
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