Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Goals, Dreams, Chances

Ah, my poor little fruits. This end of the semester has been hard for them. I recently had one get pregnant and drop out, another get pregnant and not drop out (which I think is an even worse decision in this one's case), they ran into major financial problems, got ready to graduate (stressful, if not necessarily bad) got dumped/broken up with/cheated on, and a few weeks ago, judging by frantic emails, the nursing program made its decision for admits, which means that a lot of my students who identified themselves as "nursing majors" on their enroll sheets were actually pre-majors and are having to look into finding a new major with an even lower GPA threshhold or transfer to community college or some other school.

If I were only concerned with covering the material and them mastering it, I could shrug and let the grade distribution fall out where it will. But that's not really why I'm teaching the course; for this class, even more than the freshman comp class, I want to teach them something that will be helpful for their larger lives, something that will help them be a better person or be in a better position whether or not they continue in college or not.

My goals were for them to undergo revolutionary consciousness raising and form a communal, if not class, consciousness. (Hey, aim high!) In practice, that means I wanted them to apply the concepts of the class to their own lives and to use these concepts as part of their plans and strategies for the larger arc of their lives. Even this was much more difficult than I had expected. (Side note: my ability to get them any further beyond a grudging admission that they are in a collective identity group was abysmal! They are still little libertarians and you can expect them to not pay their taxes or support any social services that they are not currently benefiting from. But I digress.)

How do you push someone to think in terms of a "career" when no one in their family has been to college and everyone in it thinks of a "job" as something you show up to and get a paycheck that you promptly spend to the bone? How do you push someone to be more ambitious when nobody in the family cares whether that person goes to college, much less graduates, as long as they pay a share of the rent or move out of the house? How do you encourage someone to think of how a family and career and some sort of valuable contribution to the world can be scheduled and balanced over the next 50 or so years of their lifetime when you have students flat out say they will kill themselves before they get old or are no longer "hot"? How do you get students who have never thought of anything like "service" or "changing the world" to even understand the concept of "make some sort of valuable contribution to the world"?

Now, my UC students really got the concept of "career" and "ambition" and "big plans to change the world" (although for a lot of them that meant, "follow in dad's law firm" or "make a really huge pile of money," but we all understood each other) but surprisingly, both sets of students have the similarity in that they talk in terms of dreams rather than strategies or goals. (The UC students were much easier to train out of it, however.)

And at this moment I would like to kill all the motherfucking-Hallmark-movie-making, heartwarming-story-telling, Oprah-ficated, rags-to-riches American Dream story producers out there in the media industry. Because you're fucking up people's lives, yo.

Now a plan or a strategy for your life goal goes something maybe like this:

1. campaign for the local city council on an environmental platform
2. enlist as many people as possible to knock on doors, call, and talk up your candidacy
3. get enough of your great environmental plans for the city passed so that voters can see you are competent, smart, and for general name recognition
4. wait for a likely state assembly seat to open up and run an aggressive campaign based on your accomplishments
5. set fire to the Reichstag to usher in your reign as a demagogue. You get the drift.

A motherfuckin' dream, on the other hand, is more like this:
I will be, somehow, the most famous celebrity in America! And when I wear that dress, I will rock it hotter than Beyonce over there. Everyone will tune in to my reality show and give me tons of money, which somehow will lead to someone running an electoral campaign for me and I will become a senator or something! Suddenly I will wake up and find myself on this stage and people will say, "congratulations, you're now the Senator of Somewhere!" and everyone will cheer and clap and I will be so good at running that senator-type job thing that it won't even interfere with my various media appearances where everyone looks at me and is jealous of how famous and hot I am, and whaddaya mean I didn't turn in the homework? Bitch, please --- do you know who I am? I'm gonna be famous someday! Ooh, that's so going in the tell-all memoir.
Or perhaps the "realistic" version my comp students subscribe to:
Education is our future and without Education no one is going to make it very far in life or get a decent job. That is why I am here, not to do homework or do any reading or thinking or plan out my life, but because I am, by being an enrolled college student, being marinated somehow in Education. After I have been marinated enough someone will give me a magic ticket that will guarantee me a job of some sort although I don't know what kind or what it would have to do with my major, and that job will be easy and pay a decent amount and not require as much work as my college classes or the requirement that I be there at the same time on time every day, and I don't know what exactly I will do at that job on a day-to-day basis but I know I will never ever have to worry about losing that job or getting laid off or having to apply up or out for another job again, because I will be marinated in Education like a steak in barbecue rub and everywhere I go people will sniff and go, "mmmm, that smells like the sweet smell of Education!"

Or, this, the shorter version:

I'm harsh. I'm mean. I know. I might not be the best person for all those poor dreaming freshmen to encounter right off the bat at college. But do you see the difference I am trying to highlight? A plan, a strategy, it's concrete and detailed, and it is a clear-eyed assessment of the actions you must do and the amount of work on your part it will entail. A dream, on the other hand ---- well, it's fantasy. Narcissistic, juvenile fantasy. And I'm ok with college freshmen being juvenile, because they are young and they should be in college to grow into some sort of maturity, but I am sooo pissed off at the sheer numbers of happy smoke blowers hyping instant easy success on all channels of the media. You could argue the housing bubble burst came about because of the dream-mongers pushing an image of constant, increasing wealth that would "somehow" come out of your house being worth exponentially more every minute. (You could be even more pessimistic and turn a critical eye on higher ed for more of that dream bullshit.)

So I guess what I want help in is more suggestions for how to get students to recognize the difference between trying out various plans of action and fantasizing about some sort of vague, vaseline-smeared, soft-focus dream. Without crushing their dreams (remember my students told me that I was mean for crushing their dreams or even mentioning our college's dropout rate) or making my students feel personally attacked.

Because, on the one hand, the world is in a shitty place right now, and young adults are actually the hardest hit by the recession currently and have the highest unemployment rate. It is harder to break in to an entry level job these days then it has been in years. And I think only the most savvy, flexible, goal-oriented, strategic of new grads will be able to wrestle down and hog-tie a job these days. On the other hand, thinking clearly about how shitty the world and the employment market is right now involves becoming familiar with some very depressing facts and trends and no clear answers as to what will "guarantee" anything, whether through individual or collective action. (I've had to stop reading about Wisconsin, for example, because otherwise I would not be able to get out of bed in the morning. How can I expect my students to be more willing to face depressing news than I am?)

In sum, I want my students to be able to critique the dreams they are fed and learn instead how to cultivate some tools that will help them plan their lives, make and adjust their life goals, adapt to adverse circumstances that work against their goals. I'm not quite sure what to do to teach this (waking up and having it magically have happened didn't work, heh heh), but you'll probably agree that this is more important information than what's in chapter 5. Even though the content of chapter 5 is important.


Anonymous said...

Wow... so immediately I think about Dave Ramsey. The Total Money Makeover, specifically, as it is the easiest read. It specifically outlines a plan, focused on lower middle class folks without great math skills, and it preaches hope, hard work, and temporary sacrifice to get there.

I know that's kind of out of left-field, but it might be a a stepping stone to thinking deeper about this and other issues. It is not perfect in many ways, but it is tangible and it may speak to them.

Bardiac said...

Sounds like some of my students: they HATE the idea of estate taxes because they KNOW that they'll be inheriting millions, even though their parents are working a second job to make the mortgage and they're going into debt for college.

They have no clue what even middle class money is, much less real money.

They also mostly don't seem to realize what sorts of practice discipline it takes to play the guitar like Clapton (or whoever's good these days).

Earnest English said...

When I get to teach such things (which I really don't where I work now -- whimper, whimper), I always start with how the expectations of one's family and community shapes one's personal expectations and goals. This relationship is easy enough to see in some pretty popular readings in English Studies. Then I move the discussion to the students' lives. I tell them how my brother very nearly majored in English because he couldn't imagine doing anything else besides a) be a lawyer like our dad; b) be a professor like me. But he didn't want to study literature. So I spent some time on his college website looking at the thing I thought he should be interested in and telling him how to get into it. He did eventually major in it -- and became a go-getter in the college, president of a society focused on that thing, etc. But he couldn't imagine it really until he had some support about it and got to college and was surrounded by people who had a different range of choices. I ask students if they see a similar thing in their lives, people all clustered up in certain jobs and how that affects the range of what they can imagine for themselves. Reflective in-class writing. Ask them what they wish there were some family models for of things (sure it's dreaming, but one more likely to lead to goals). I really believe that this helps shape students' expectations of themselves. (I tend to present all this with a questioning attitude, as if I'm really just trying to figure out my brother.) Then you can get into the media stuff and just remind them bluntly that those stories are exceptional.

I've thought a lot, obviously, about how role models help shape one's sense of what's possible (ideology). You can also stretch this to one's understanding of certain marginalized groups. Because I want my students (totally different context) to imagine themselves as active citizens and whistleblowers, I try to present them with those kinds of examples coming from populations that are just like them.

My long two cents. Best thoughts about teaching in a while, I'm afraid.

My word is union. Norma Rae anyone?

Dr. Koshary said...

Oh man, if only I had any suggestions. If you hear anything promising, pass it on. In the meantime, I laugh bitterly at your post, because it is so damn true. "I will miraculously and inexplicably became famous for nothing, which will then magically generate tons of money for me."

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this will make you feel better, worse, or indifferent, but yeah, where I am, it's an entire institution of Snookies, JWows, and Situations. For realz. So disheartening. You know, they're not educated, why should I be?

Contingent Cassandra said...

I've never heard of it being used in a college class, but there's a book called "Wishcraft: How to Get What You Really Want," by Barbara Sher, that covers this ground. Despite the dreamy, new-agey title, it is, at its core, pretty hard-headedly analytical, urging readers to dissect their fantasies, trying to figure out what they *really* want (attention? money? recognition for being good at a particular thing?), what would constitute a realistic step in that direction, and whether building things into their lives that represent the fulfillment of some small part of the fantasy might be, at least for the present and perhaps for the long run, enough. While I can't quite see using the book in a composition class, I can imagine adapting some of the exercises -- of which there are many, most involving writing, and many involving analysis and other critical-thinking skills -- for use in such a class. Or you might be able to analyze the rhetoric of some sections, and get some of the ideas across in the process.

"Your money or your life" by Robin and Dominguez is another classic "what do your really want?" text. If I'm remembering correctly, that one has an even clearer argument, and could probably be analyzed on its own or contrasted with something advocating a more conventional, money-centered understanding of the American Dream, success, etc.