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Working with Working-Class Students
I've been spending a lot of time lately conducting research in an urban community college, and I'm struck by how readily memories and feelings from my own freshman year come to mind. Like many of the students I'm observing, I was the first in my family to attend college. And as is the case for the students I meet, my first year was a mixture of hope and anxiety, moments of success and moments of being at a loss.
Grand Valley State University
All new college students experience a range of emotions in this unfamiliar place, but chances are that children of working-class families are less familiar than their middle- and upper-class peers with a college's instructional practices and modes of interaction. They are often more prone to wondering if they belong.
I certainly don't want to claim that all students from working-class families experience higher education in the same way. As much variability exists within social class as in any other social category. And though socioeconomic status and educational inequality are closely related, some working-class undergraduate students attended well-resourced K-12 schools. Through school, possibly through enrichment programs, and perhaps through the social capital of extended family and friends, they were well prepared, cognitively and socially, for college. In this article, I focus on those who are having a harder time with the transition.
Sources of Conflict
If a working-class student does feel out of place, the sense of discomfort might well involve more than social and interactional factors. Because of gaps in previous education, there might be fairly basic material that students don't know and skills they don't have. That was certainly the case for me. My knowledge of mathematics or formal analytics was so spare that I had to drop introductory economics after a few weeks of fearful incomprehension.
Less dramatic but equally difficult to surmount are the mismatches between strategies students used to good effect in high school and the demands facing them in college. When I was running the Equal Opportunity Program's Tutorial Center at UCLA, I would regularly encounter students from courses like general chemistry who would labor night after night, highlighter in hand, memorizing facts and formulas--and would then fail a test. The test required students to think through a problem and apply what they had learned to solving it. Demonstrating what they had memorized was suddenly not working.
Related to this mismatch issue is the issue of "doing school"--that is, appropriating the routines and practices of schoolwork but not using them to their most effective end. I saw an example of this the other day at the community college I was visiting. A student in the fashion program pointed to her notebook with pride and surprise and told me that she recently realized that her notes were a resource, that she could return to them and consult them as she struggled with an assignment. Before this insight, notes were something she took in school and used to study for a test, and that was that. They were not a tool or a resource to aid thinking and problem solving.
Some working-class students can be reluctant to ask questions, fearful of calling attention to themselves and appearing stupid. Again, these worries are not held exclusively by less-affluent students, but they can be more acute for those who already feel out of place. We teachers are fond of saying things like "there is no such thing as a stupid question." But let's face it: there are ways to phrase a question that sound smart and mask how little one knows. This is a powerful defensive skill that calls for rhetorical savvy and a sense of academic assurance, the kinds of things that come with a privileged education.
A related issue is a reluctance to seek help. This reluctance can be rooted in pride and notions of self-reliance. It can stem from shyness or embarrassment. But something else can be at play: an unfamiliarity or lack of comfort with help-seeking behavior within institutions. Many middle-class kids are socialized from day one in seeking out resources and engaging members of institutions to help them attain their goals. This seems so much like second nature to most academics that we forget that it is a culturally influenced, learned behavior.
All of the above--the out-of-place feelings, the cognitive-behavioral disjointedness--are complicated by a larger conflict, one central to American cultural history: the tension between book learning and schooling versus practical experience and working in the world. "It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up," a cousin of mine is fond of saying, "and a guy with a high school degree to fix it." Some working-class students struggle with this tension or feel it at home. It's a complex issue. Many working-class families see education as a pathway to economic opportunity, and they bust their backs to send their kids to college. Yet they might also wonder exactly what their kids are learning and worry that advanced education will make their children grow distant, and, at worst, regard their parents' lives with disdain. All these dynamics affect a young person's experience in school, and might well emerge in class or during office hours.
Interactions of Consequence
The good news is that these tensions and reluctances are open to intervention. The teacher in the fashion program I mentioned above intersperses her lectures and demonstrations with specific tips on everything from how to keep track of appointments to how to use the textbook. Instructors can schedule students into office hours, make referrals to tutoring centers, and call or e-mail the centers ahead of time to smooth out the process. On several occasions, I've walked a student in distress to the counseling center. Some problems require substantial interventions (it would have taken a lot of tutoring to get me through that economics course). But some are more easily remedied, like the fashion teacher making tricks of the scholastic trade explicit.
What I and many others find so fulfilling about teaching working-class students is that by making the hidden visible, by putting in a few extra minutes to strengthen a referral, by just talking straight, you can make a difference in someone's life. There were about a half-dozen people who made my journey out of high school and through college possible. I'm not exaggerating when I say I couldn't have done it without them.
And there's something else, something that doesn't get articulated nearly enough. Teaching people whose backgrounds don't fit the mold can be a deeply rewarding intellectual experience. I was tutoring a student who was reading excerpts from Plato's Republic for a political science class. The student was mystified by the passage on the cave. I talked through the passage paragraph by paragraph, situating Plato historically and offering my prepackaged definition of idealism. It didn't work. Frustrated, the young man blurted out two or three questions: How can anyone believe we're like shadows? Why did Plato use fire and a cave to try to convince us of this?
These basic questions made Plato strange to me in a way I hadn't experienced since I was an undergraduate. Frankly, I felt uncomfortable. And then, probably because I didn't know what else to do, I repeated the student's questions, asking them of both of us. That questioning set us off on a more thoughtful consideration of this central Western text.
Moments like these get us to return to basics, first principles, and long-held perspectives. The intellectual unsettling that happens, the fresh take on things, is what brought us to this work in the first place.