A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide To Success In Academia

Grace Cale photoGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. In the second part of this two-part essay (see Part I), Grace offers specific tips to working- and poverty-class for self-care and success in academia.

A Poverty-Class Academic’s Guide to Getting It Done … Whatever “It” Is

In my previous article, I shared a little bit about the experience of poverty, and how that background can produce unique challenges in one’s graduate school experience. In this second part, I would like to take some time to translate these experiences as I follow my own call to action: to begin a process of resource sharing among poverty- and working-class academics.

One thing that has surprised me is that, while I often feel fairly capable, I have occasionally had the difficulty of not realizing when I needed help, or even realized when or where I could seek help. I was so used to having to do everything myself that I never knew help existed for some problems. Because these experiences are not limited to my own story, I hope that some of the lessons that I’ve learned will be useful to other early grad students, from variously marginalized background, but especially those from working- or poverty-class backgrounds.

As many of us know, the graduate educational process involves a intense socialization into the academic culture. For scholars from underprivileged backgrounds (especially those of us whose parents never attended or graduated from college), this is a powerful, sometimes overwhelming change. It truly epitomizes the concept of academia being its own world!

One lesson that I was amazed to discover was that my working-class peers and I sometimes experienced some of the same types of microaggressions, barriers, and frustrations as people marginalized on other dimensions – a discovery which, while fantastic for building inter-group solidarity, is always difficult. Some class-based marginalizations were institutionally-oriented, and thus sometimes more financially problematic. For example, the nearly mandatory need for a summer scholarship, which might require substantial research output, but pays less than 25% of one’s basic living expenses. I must say that I love my department, which, I imagine, is more understanding and accepting than many. Deciding to stay at my present university was actually a great decision in many ways. But, studying marginalization and oppression does not necessarily mean that people regularly and effectively check their own privileges or hidden biases.

If these stories are familiar to you, you are so not alone. I nearly failed out of my first year in graduate school, not because the classes or readings were too difficult, but because I did not have the skills to juggle other social, departmental, and research demands of graduate life and culture. Instead, I attempted to over-prepare for graduate school by reading the plethora of preparatory articles, and was painfully aware of concepts like “publish or perish,” “network, network, network,” or the implied mandate that, to be hired, one must be seen, must attend major conferences, and must present, present, present. So, I had on my plate a huge, unsustainable list of things that “must” be done, and no idea how people did it all. I assumed that you “buck up” and knuckle down, no matter how many times you break down.

Tips For Surviving And Thriving In Academia

This is the context from which we come, and the situation that I suspect is familiar to some readers. So, here are my recommendations to the ambitious, the driven, and those lacking the many types of capital demanded of the predominantly middle-class world of academia. I cannot promise that any or all of these these tips will work for you, but they got me through my Master’s degree and my pre-qualifying exam semester.

  • You will be told that you MUST do it all, or you will fail. Don’t. You won’t, you can’t, and trying could literally kill you.
  • Instead, explore related articles and resources on Conditionally Accepted and similar blogs, and find a mentor. Ideally, find a few mentors. Realistically, it is unlikely that one person will fulfill all of your mentoring needs as a graduate student. And that is okay. But latch onto those who fill some of your checkboxes, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of their expertise. It’s literally their job. This is a service the more privileged colleagues have learned to take advantage of and thus benefit from without giving it a second thought. You are just as worthy to do so, and it can be invaluable to your career and well-being.
  • At times, I did not realize that I needed help when I did, or that I had taken on too full of a load of projects. It may be good to periodically inform your advisor or mentor when or before you take on a new project, especially if you’re still taking classes or working as a teaching, graduate, or research assistant. If you are new to this world, you may not realize the load a seemingly simple project or co-authored paper will add to your term. Use your mentor’s experience to help assess the work involved with those opportunities before you pursue them.
  • Explore the various academic advice blogs about topics such as productivity and time management as needed, but avoid becoming oversaturated with allegedly vital tips for success. I often explored sites such as Conditionally Accepted, Presumed Incompetent’s Facebook page, The Professor Is In, and other blogs for marginalized scholars, but social class is not consistently considered in these resources. Find a couple of things that work for you and stick to them. You don’t need to fit into someone else’s mold for how to become a fully functional academic. Indeed, much advice may come from a different privileged status, or else be meant for an audience facing a different axis of oppression. But you do need to find your own method, and that sometimes may mean adapting or reinterpreting advice to help your unique situation. Experiment, keep doing what is successful, and be kind to yourself when you fail. Know that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Try to twist your habits (good or bad) into something that serves your needs. Try to find other scholars from similar backgrounds, or perhaps try to find or form a community where scholars can share their struggles, trials, and tribulations.
  • Find a few methods of self-care that work, and stick to them. Eat nutritious food (if you can secure the funding to afford it), try to get at least 6 hours of sleep nightly (7-9 hours ideally), engage in some form of physical activity, and find a way to give yourself even ten minutes without thinking of work. I have always hated yoga and mindfulness meditation, but those things worked for me, and helped me recover from some effects of burnout.
  • It may be counter to the way you were taught to behave, but be aggressive in finding ways to take care of your financial and personal needs. One can be tactful, but nobody can advocate for you unless you advocate for yourself to even a small extent. People often do their best, but they cannot know your needs unless you tell them. This is especially true in the heavily middle- and upper-middle class world of academia, where even those who try to be helpful may have no idea what your needs are. They may not realize that they have a resource that you need. Further, it will quickly become very easy to ignore your personal needs or shove them aside in favor of your seemingly more vital academic goals. Don’t. This brings me to the final point….
  • No academic goal is more important than your ability to be a functioning human being. Graduate school culture is a place that is perfectly situated to encourage overworking, and we normalize the huge mental, physical, and emotional health sacrifices made to achieve our academic goals. But attending conferences or publishing are pointless, and may be impossible, if you’re so overworked and stressed that you can barely function. Take care of yourself first, and the quality of your work will benefit. Even if self-care feels like a waste of time that could be spent working, you must do it to survive in the long-run.

Never forget: The struggle is real, and so are your experiences. Try to find allies; love them, and love yourself. You and I will get through this.

Confessions Of a Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

Grace Cale photoGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. In the first part of this two-part essay, Grace reflects on the invisibility of scholars from working-class and  poor families, and the struggles these scholars face in academia; to rectify this, she calls for community-building among working-class scholars in academia.

Confessions Of A Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

When I set out to write this essay, I had little concrete idea of what I sought to achieve. I knew that there was something unique about becoming an academic from a situation of clear poverty, and that I needed to make a case for this experience as existing along a real line of marginalization. Or at least call for recognition of the unique difficulties with which poverty-class academics struggle. While we certainly exist as a group, poverty-class academics seem curiously quiet about our origins, compared to academics of color and the LGBT academics, who fought (and still fight) long and hard for their visibility. The question I am left with is, what can we do to better advocate for similar recognition, and why is this important?

There is certainly a need for communal resource-sharing. It seems likely that we are all haunted by the threat of “Ph.D Poverty”, or the possibility of becoming bright, well-trained victims of the adjunctification crisis. And many of us know that we can look forward to heavy bills to pay from ballooning student debt, whether or not we are able to get a job matching our qualifications in an increasingly break-neck, competitive market. I hope that by coming clean about a history some of us actively hide, others might do so as well, and we might share our experiences and expertise regarding how to live in this academic environment which for so long had been quite happy to retain its white-middle-class, homogeneity.

Having frequently struggled with gaps in social, cultural, or human capital, and in struggling to access vital resources, I came to desperately seek social class-based advice for making it through graduate school. Given the few working-class folk in my own department, and knowing my poverty-born friends in other departments were having the same struggles, I called upon the surely endless fount of Internet wisdom available. Spoiler alert: the pickings were scarce. How could this be? Surely there are others besides me and a few peers who wrestle with class-based marginalization in academe. Surely there are others who have felt keenly a lack of resources and solidarity. Yet, despite a few out-of-date websites that attempted to address this gap, there was nothing with the scale, specificity, and upkeep as with those for communal resources aligned to other social equity movements (race, gender, sexuality, etc.).

Growing Up In Poverty

To clarify, let me return to the personal context: growing up, my family of four had an annual income between $8,000 and $12,000. We lived in a rural county in Appalachia, in which, as of the 2010 US Census, there was a 25% poverty rate. Without even needing to ask, all students in all levels of district schools were enrolled for the income-based program for government-subsidized breakfasts and lunches. It was common for our high school classes to have more students than textbooks. Very few of my classmates attended or graduated from college. As a child and teenager, I struggled to understand why every minute expenditure, even for our $1 lunch meat or an occasional $1.25 soda was such a difficult, stress-fraught decision. It was difficult to deal with seldom being able to visit friends from school or try high school sports, not because of time commitments, but because we couldn’t afford to use that much gas for the car. A computer left on overnight was a grave offense in our household, as there was legitimate doubt we could pay for the extra electricity.

Multiple studies support the claim that experiences of childhood poverty follow us well into adulthood, yielding not only socially observable effects, but even effects upon our physiology and genetics.1 In keeping with the findings of other researchers, I have certainly felt that as a young adult, such moments had deeply affected my development as an adult. My sister and I still battle powerful guilt for any purchase that is not materially necessary for our survival or basic health – even when we have had the disposable income. The process of paying bills, a generally unpleasant task for any person, is a viscerally fearful task which each month leaves me trembling and taking deep breaths to force a return to calm – even when I can cover each cost. There is always a nagging fear that no matter how careful and organized I’ve been, a bill has been forgotten, or an overdraft has occurred. We avoid most routine medical care, and only seek medical attention when our bodies cannot function, because we are so used to not being able to afford office visits or medication. Experience tells us that it is nearly impossible to get an invoice for medical services in advance of receiving care; it is usually easier to go without and hope for the best. I had my first-ever eye exam at 23 years old, upon discovering my graduate health insurance covered one annual exam. Turns out I need glasses. Might even get them someday.

Class-Based Struggles In Academia

I do not recite this tale to earn pity-points; despite these issues, I actually had a very happy childhood. But as my sister and I entered adulthood, and as I entered graduate school, these uncertainties and anxieties took on new, more powerful forms. Little differences began to creep into my graduate experience in small, subtly alienating ways, and I suspect that many of these examples will be familiar to readers. Some of these are issues that are generally just a nuisance for many academics, but could be damaging to the career prospects of someone with no savings account or trust fund, no credit, or no experience in which questions to ask their mentors.

  • I learned that people have different definitions of being “broke.” For some, it means “not much spending money”; for me, it meant the money does not exist. I literally have no money. Bank balance: $3. No cash. No credit. I no longer use the term in conversation; it has become too frustrating to continue doing so.
  • Some might have the feeling that other students somehow knew something that they didn’t. We have no summer funding in our program, but somehow I felt like the only one in a genuine panic about how to pay my rent for three months, let alone conduct the expected research and study. The possibility of having to beg to stay with my sister in her one-bedroom apartment was a dangerously imminent reality after one summer job, without notice, put all employees on two-plus-week leave due to lack of work to give us. This, after the hard realization that this job did not offer the full-time hours I was promised in the first place. How do so many other students appear to flawlessly “make it work” for these months?
  • Some may struggle to articulate why many departments’ reimbursement-style travel funding would not allow them to attend conferences for the so-vital-to-success networking experiences. In my case, it was because I did not have any money or credit with which to pay up-front. It wasn’t that it was committed elsewhere – it did not exist. To lay down over $500 worth of registration fees, airfare, and hostel reservations after struggling to buy food, with a possibly six-month wait for reimbursement was tragically laughable. Unfortunately, this funding style is not at all unique to our fairly average university; I see stories of such funding style splattered across various websites, blogs, and forums created as common spaces for academics.
  • It is also difficult to explain to others in a meaningful way why I did not simply take out loans to bolster my available funds. For people from backgrounds of poverty, debt is a tricky beast. Some have embraced it all too easily, only to suffer afterwards, and others struggle to get access to even small loans. My family lives with a vague, ever-present fear of debt – a fear I inherited as a child. To us, debt is something that can ruin lives. Whether these views are technically correct, they constitute an aspect of socialization with which poverty-class academics must struggle every time we see a need we have which cannot be fulfilled on our stipends or summer jobs. The decision to use credit is seldom a light one.

A Call For Community Among Poverty-Class Academics

These are just a handful of the starker experiences one may struggle with, and yet other subtle day-to-day moments may also reinforce socialized and lifestyle differences. The interesting thing about these experiences and the insidiousness of class-based gaps in cultural, social, and human capital is that I believed these struggles were due solely to my own shortcomings and lack of sufficient efforts and dedication. I felt underserving of the right to complain, feeling that, endlessly, I could have exerted more effort in depriving myself of small joys in order to save money. Really, nobody needs to visit a café. Ever.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized many of these issues were not unique or limited to personal shortcomings. There are many of us, quietly working our way through the graduate socialization process, atomizing ourselves in an attempt to narrow the capital gap; we believe these to be private missions. We have all labored to produce our own solutions, possibly failing to realize that we can benefit from finding each other and pooling our resources and experiences, with the hope that we and others can avoid having to learn every lesson the hard way. In some ways, it makes the most sense for us to band together and take advantage of the resources that we can offer ourselves; our more equipped peers certainly are.

That, I suppose, is my call, and the purpose of this piece. I find it rather surprising that a group of people as resourceful as we are have failed to truly gather those resources. I think we need to better advocate for ourselves. We need to be unafraid to admit our own existence, come out of the poverty “closet,” and share our stories. What lessons did we learn the hard way? What recommendations would we make to new graduate students and new faculty from the same backgrounds, to help lift each other up? Which tips and tricks have we developed to get through our theses, dissertations, and grant deadlines; tips that don’t assume we have the money to attend a retreat, get noise-canceling headphones, or even barricade ourselves in a café? I know that together, we are a veritable fount of knowledge. As researchers, teachers, and scholars more generally, we’ve dedicated ourselves to sharing it with the world. How about we share some of it with each other, too?

See the second part of my essay, “Getting It Done – Whatever ‘It’ Is,” in which I offer my own tips and tricks for surviving and thriving in academia as a poverty-class scholar.



1 Sandoval, D. A., Rank, M. R., & Hirschl, T. A. (2009). The Increasing Risk of Poverty Across the American Life Course. Demography, 46(4), 717–737.


When Internationalization Fails To Diversify Higher Education

In this guest post, Dr. Ali Khorsandi Taskoh (see his full biography at the end) criticizes the efforts of Canadian colleges and universities to recruit international students overwhelmingly from wealthy nations and families.  He argues that such practices do little to contribute to diversity in higher education.


The Dirty Little Secret of Internationalization of Higher Education

Ali's PhotoInternationalization has become a significant feature of the higher educational landscape in North America. Canadian universities aim to become the 21st century leader in international education. These institutions are planning to double the population of international students in the coming five years. The government has changed immigration policies in order to attract more international students. Yet, Canadian institutions are struggling to attract top talent foreign students. Their administrators are just chasing and hunting applicants from around the world to generate more financial resources to run institutions efficiently.

“Diversity” and “inclusion” inherently are significant components of international education. The university is a place where diversity and acceptance of diversity must have a chance to flourish. Internationalization is a great way to foster and increase the diversity on campuses and the institutions. Internationalization and diversity initiatives commonly have shared aims of enhancing cultural awareness and understanding in higher education. Diversity is the central reason why universities have put a priority on internationalization and its different initiatives and strategies worldwide. The main educational undertaking of today’s universities is supposed to be to produce graduates who are sensitive to social diversity and attuned to the contemporary realities of globalization. Real diversity is supposed to make campus life rich and educational experience richer for students, faculty, and staff.

Diversity is presumed to be the major part and component of internationalization in Canadian institutions because of the multicultural environment of the country.  But the existing policies and programs, from recruiting international students to exchange programs and partnership, are more aligned with homogenization rather persuasive inclusions. The strategic plans of internationalization in Canadian universities are commonly committed to selectively target students from particular countries and areas of strategic importance to the policy makers. To me, the term “selectively” in practice implies admission of international students from a few economic-booming countries and selective wealthy families.

The Consequences Of “Selective” Internationalization

These practices are problematic in so many ways. First, selective commitment to diversity cannot properly support excellence, equal shot, equal opportunity, equal access, and quality in community and campus which I am firmly committed to. The selective commitment of the internationalization plans may lead to a homogenized culture and discourse of inclusiveness on campuses and classes. The present trend of selective admissions policies may lead internationalization initiatives to privilege certain groups of students over others.

The other effect of this selective attitude of internationalization is that post-secondary education in some parts of the world has been glorified at the expense of other parts. Those privileged areas either could be “sellers,” predominantly rich Northern countries of the West, or “buyers,” predominantly developing but rich nations commonly in East Asia. The recently emerged market of higher education in a few countries and high flow of international students from these countries has led to a homogenized diversity on the Canadian campuses, departments, and classes. Accordingly, a kind of diversity that directs departments and universities, for example, in Ontario to recruit 60% of its international students from the same country with the same culture, the same language, and the same sub-culture. This is not realistic and is wrong in many ways, and is simply not convincing to most of the academicians and faculty community.

The issue is not just focusing on a few specific nations to recruit more foreign students, but that student exchange programs are only limited to some developed and privileged countries. Among the two hundred countries of the globe, the students’ exchange programs are mostly limited and dominated to a few developed and privileged countries (e.g., USA, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, England, China, Brazil, etc.). Beside these fortunate countries, the institutions also need to target students and faculty exchange programs to institutions in developing and less developed countries.

Another example of the homogenized discourse of diversity is that, according to an official report [PDF] of Association of Universities and Canadian Colleges (AUCC) in 2014, almost every institution in Canada has many collaborations and associations with institutions in a one specific country in East Asia just because that country is doing very well economically. And the Canadian universities will keep engaging in dialogue with peers at institutions with a particular focus on some selective countries in East Asia.  Perhaps the market logic and financial pressure drive the university’s administration to focus on a few particular countries, but the argument is that it may prevent many qualified local and international students from middle- and low-income families and non-privileged countries from attending the university. The issue is, therefore, not merely the presence of many students from a certain part of the world on campuses or their dominant sub-cultures in students’ communities; the criticism is about the economic-political tendency of existing internationalization to homogenize the Canadian universities. In other words, the issue is not simply the homogenized culture of international students on campuses and classes; rather, it is also the dominant logic of homogenized discourse in off-campus internationalization activities.

Closing Thoughts

In closing, the universities’ current policies and procedures of internationalization have little to do with heterogenized diversity and persuasive inclusiveness. The hegemony and supremacy of current homogenized inclusiveness may exclude talented people from the less privileged parts of the world to get to good universities in North America. Canadian universities need to be more open to inclusion and diversity through their different initiatives of internationalization, particularly recruiting international students and exchanging faculty. It is expected that internationalization in Canadian universities, as an element of global public good, should reflect and support the diversity of greater society on campuses. Accordingly, the administrations and policy makers of Canadian universities need to go on the side of heterogeneity over homogeneity.



Ali Khorsandi Taskoh (in Persian: علی خورسندی طاسکوه) holds a PhD in Educational Policy Studies, graduated in the spring of 2014 from The University of Western Ontario, Canada. His education, including both undergraduate and graduate, has been based on education in administration (B.A.), planning (M.A.), and policy (PhD). He has had the opportunity to be an educational researcher and department chair at the Institute for Social and Cultural Studies, based in Tehran, from 2003 to 2009. Dr. Khorsandi has conducted five research projects (with grant funds), published five books and several papers and book chapters. He has been the founder of an academic journal entitled, Interdisciplinary Studies in The Humanities (based in Tehran), and was the first deputy in chief and editor of this now top-tier national journal. He has also been a teaching assistant in the areas of policy and leadership, international education, professional education, and international mathematics at Western University from 2009 to 2014.

Dr. Brent Harger On Academia As A Middle Class “Star Career”

brentBrent Harger is an assistant professor of sociology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.  Dr. Harger (which rhymes with charger) teaches in the areas of methods, family, youth, and education.  His research examines the ways in which students and teachers create and maintain culture in elementary schools.

Below, Dr. Harger reflects on the depressing reality that few prospective graduate students will conclude their graduate training with a tenure-track faculty job.  Academic careers may be becoming a privilege afforded primarily to middle-class and wealthy people.

Academia as a Middle Class “Star Career”

The academic job market is horrible. So is academia as a whole. It is nearly impossible to obtain a tenure-track job and even tenure itself is no guarantee that one will be able to keep one’s job. Surveying the landscape of higher education, Fabio Rojas at Orgtheory says not to go to graduate school. So does Rebecca Schuman at Slate. As academics, we know that going to graduate school is not a good idea, especially if you must go into debt to do so. Nevertheless, when students ask us to write letters of recommendation for graduate programs, we tell them to think carefully about their decision to dedicate years of their lives to something that is unlikely to result in full-time paid employment and then we write the letters. After all, who are we (especially those of us with tenure-track jobs ourselves) to tell people not to follow their dreams? Thus, academia becomes a middle class “star career.”

In Living the Drama, David Harding examines the influence of cultural heterogeneity on the lives of African American boys growing up in Boston, MA. Harding argues that the presence of both mainstream and alternative cultural models in poor neighborhoods leads adolescents to switch among competing models because numerous models are available and supported (“I can go to college or become a rapper or become an NBA player”). Cultural heterogeneity also dilutes the information that adolescents need to construct effective pathways toward goals like getting into college and leads to the unsuccessful mixing of various cultural models (“Playing basketball will make up for my low GPA when applying for college; I can make it to the NBA by playing for a community college”).

In a poor neighborhood, then, the idea of a “star career” like becoming a famous athlete or rapper coexists with the idea of getting good grades, graduating from high school, and enrolling in college. Adolescents in wealthier areas were aware of star careers but saw music or sports as hobbies rather than legitimate career options. Many of the parents of poor adolescents could see that a focus on potential star careers might distract their sons from academic pursuits but were also hesitant to tell their sons that their dreams were unrealistic. A focus on a career as a professional basketball player, however unlikely, could also serve to keep students in school and away from danger.

Aside from the income differences between the boys who wanted to become famous in Harding’s study and middle-class undergraduates who want to become professors, there are a number of parallels. Consider the NBA. Over half a million adolescent boys play high school basketball. Of these, an estimated 17,500 (3.2%) will play basketball in college and 48 (48!) (1.2% of college players, .03% of high school players) are drafted annually by the NBA.

If we consider high school basketball to be analogous to obtaining an undergraduate degree, a small number of successful undergraduates will be offered the opportunity to “play” in graduate school. Some of these students will be offered scholarships, others will pay for the costs themselves, but for both college basketball players and graduate students, the likelihood that their training will pay off at the next level is low. Both also have the potential to be incredibly lucrative for their universities, with high-profile college basketball programs bringing in millions of dollars in TV revenues and graduate students providing universities with cheap labor. In the end, some college basketball players and graduate students will have degrees to show for their time as low-paid (or paying!) employees while others will drop out along the way. A few will go on to successful careers as NBA players or college professors, inspiring others to attempt to follow in their footsteps.

As professors who encourage students to follow their dreams of academic lives because we warned them and there is always a chance, we also contribute to the reproduction of inequality in academia. As a graduate degree becomes an increasingly expensive career goal for students to pursue, it becomes more likely that students who will do so will be privileged in other ways. Whether this is white skin and academic parents or a spouse who can support them while they scrape together an income as an adjunct, the risks associated with an advanced degree make it more likely that those who undertake the endeavor will have external support. Because of this, it may be middle or upper class students who are most likely to experience cultural heterogeneity when considering what to do after graduating from college. Those from less privileged backgrounds may be more likely to see academic interests as a hobby that they experience by reading blogs and academic works after their jobs in the “real world.”

Like attempting to make it from high school to college to the NBA, the problems with academia are structural. Budget concerns lead schools to accept more graduate students than will be able to find tenure-track jobs because they provide cheap labor. Students who receive advanced degrees but do not find tenure-track jobs provide further cheap labor as adjuncts. In an individualistic society like the U.S., it is difficult to dissuade students with structural arguments because there is always a chance that they, like Victor Oladipo, will be the exception.

If a student plays college basketball for four years and does not have the opportunity to play professionally, that student at least has a college degree that provides some job prospects. Graduate programs, though, are like allowing students to major in basketball, leaving them with few options if they do not get “drafted” into academia. In an ideal world, graduate programs would accept fewer students and provide those students with better resources, removing the need for outside support and reducing the number of job candidates after graduation. Fewer excess Ph.D.s would also reduce the number of available adjuncts, causing colleges and universities to rely less on contingent faculty.

All of this places those of us who have been drafted into academia after graduate school in a difficult position. Even from this privileged position, the dangers for others who want to do the same are clear. When a student asks me for a grad school letter of recommendation, then, I will say “no,” detailing the structural dangers and encouraging the student to think carefully about accepting academia as a hobby rather than a career goal. When the student insists that he or she has thought carefully and is willing to accept the risks, I will have no choice but to write the letter. I will add, however, that if accepted, there is no shame in quitting.

Who Works With The Smart Kids? Dr. Michaela A. Nowell Does!

Michaela NowellDr. Michaela A. Nowell received her Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University, and began as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac in Fall 2012.  Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and body, as well as race and class, taking a critical lens regarding the sociology of fatness.  Below, Dr. Nowell dispels the myths about students at two-year colleges, and the faculty at these institutions.  She concludes with practical tips for teaching two-year college students.

Who Works With The Smart Kids?  I Do.

If I said I worked at a 2-year institution, would you assume my students are A) slackers B) unintelligent C) unmotivated or D) brilliant?

Bad, Elitist Advice In The Academy

In graduate school, a professor told us that (if we deigned to prioritize teaching over research) we wanted to teach at a prestigious, elite institution – one where we could teach the smart students. Teaching the “smart” students would be the most rewarding, and smart students were at good, prestigious universities.

As someone who went to community college, I couldn’t believe my ears. I was both too angry and too powerless to speak up. But I didn’t believe such an elitist, classist notion for one second. My own experience told me that was a lie. Smart kids are everywhere. Smart kids go to community college. I was a smart kid who went to community college. And although I may have been “exceptional” in some ways—many of which stem from my structurally supported privileges—I am not the exception to the rule.

Now I teach at a two-year, freshman-sophomore institution*…and my students are awesome. My students are plenty smart and seldom presumptuous, and it’s incredibly rewarding.

I know smart kids come from freshman-sophomore institutions.  In fact, I believe community college made me. I was a smart kid, but I had no idea what I could achieve. The opportunities, mentoring, and encouragement I received at community college changed the trajectory of my life. My experience at a Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio is why I became a professor—because I saw there the profound difference that professors can make, not only in students’ lives, but in the world at large. Also, because my first sociology professor, Katherine Rowell, believed in me more than I believed in myself, and I REALLY needed that. I know my students need that, too.

The Real Difference Isn’t Smarts (Or, no kidding, Structural Difference much?)

The main differences between my freshman-sophomore students and the students I taught at a prestigious 4-year university are that my current students are spread thinner in terms of time and resources, they are much less academically empowered, and (largely) they aren’t academically socialized.

My students have less resources and time, which means that the time they have to think about the ins-and-outs of being a successful student, let alone the time they have to enact those behaviors, is much less than most students at 4-year institutions. While they lack time and resources (one of my students has 2 jobs, a ridiculous commute, and is also a full-time student), they are fantastic at drawing on these real life experiences. If I’m teaching about role conflict and role strain, it’s not hard for them to imagine how that applies to real life. Instead of seeing their complicated lives as a drawback, I see it as an asset to accomplishing my teaching goals.

One of the biggest deficits I have observed is a lack of empowerment. Many, if not most, of my students don’t think they know the answers, and they are afraid to speak up and take the risk that someone will think they are stupid. They are not stupid, but most of the students I teach were in the middle of the pack and never received a lot of attention (or engagement) in their primary schooling. Further, they come from a system where they have been taught to be passive learners, to be bodies that are fed “knowledge” with the expectation that they memorize whatever the teacher or textbook says. They don’t see teachers as people who actually care about their learning and they don’t see teachers as accessible. Often, they think this is a failure on their part. I had a student struggling last semester who said to me, “I don’t know why I thought I could even go to college.” And this was a perfectly smart student! As a sociologist, I see this as a structural, systematic problem and not a problem of my students being unintelligent or lazy. When we say our students are underprepared we might instead say our institutions are underpreparing them…or, in fact, setting them up for failure.

Fifty-one percent of the students at my college are first generation college students, most of whom do not have the benefit of even cursory academic socialization.  Again, this doesn’t mean they aren’t smart. One of my colleagues put it this way, “The university students I taught were just better at eloquently restating the definitions, not better at understanding the material.” And yes, some freshman-sophomore students don’t have “the skills.” So what? I have found it more than rewarding to teach them. To help socialize them. To empower them. And to see how damn smart they are makes me proud in every moment.

For instance, I recently had an hour-long nerdfest with a student in which I taught her that she had access to journal articles and databases and encyclopedias and interlibrary loan, and we talked about literature reviews and the research process. I didn’t know this stuff when I started college either. You know what my freshman-sophomore student said? “Why isn’t this stuff available to the public? Why do we only have access to this through college? It doesn’t make sense. Would you want everyone to know this?” A questioning student is more important to me than an academically socialized one any day of the week.

And every day my students ask great questions, make brilliant points, nurture connections across course material, and think interdisciplinarily. They do this better than the students I encountered at the prestigious university where I taught before. The trick is getting them comfortable enough to be willing to engage with you, to ask those questions in the first place. They haven’t learned to breech the professor-student barrier, let alone understand the benefits of engaging with your professor.  Once you prove to them you’re accessible, you open up a floodgate…and they will amaze you.

If you, as a professor, can’t seem to engage freshman-sophomore students, you may want to use your sociological imagination.  Sociologist Dalton Conley refers to the sociological imagination as “making the familiar strange.” In sociology we learn to question our assumptions and think about how social systems shape individuals. Are you expecting them to already be academically socialized? Are you expecting them to be empowered and excited about learning when they come from a system that teaches them to be passively unsatisfied with their learning environment? Are you expecting them to speak a language similar to the one you worked long and hard to speak correctly? If so, you have some unreasonable expectations that you might want to readjust. It may be easier to teach students who are already academically socialized, who take charge of their education on their own, and who have time to be dedicated to their status as a student, but that does not mean that those students are smarter and it does not equal a more rewarding job.

Practical Advice for Teaching Freshman-Sophomore Students

Here are some suggestions I think are especially important for teaching freshman-sophomore students, but they are also suggestions one might say are exemplary of a good teacher…and thus, they may be helpful for anyone teaching at any level.

  1. Address the realities and help prepare students to do better. Let them know that you know that X problem is going to occur and tell them the answer. I know some of my students will fade away. On the first day we talk about why this happens—something happens in their lives, they miss one or two classes, and then they are anxious or embarrassed or overwhelmed and they don’t come back—and why they should come back anyway. And letting them know that you know lays the groundwork for a common understanding.
  2. Reveal (some of) your secrets and get them on board with your methods. I tell them that I know they’ve been taught to memorize, but that memorizing doesn’t equal understanding and memorizing won’t do them a damn bit of good in my class. I systematically show them they can understand and remember concepts without memorizing them and I demonstrate methods they can use to foster connections in their brains. I socialize them to take charge of their learning…but I have to teach them how to learn from me. When I first started doing exercises where students have to teach each other part of the material, students were reluctant and some of them thought I was just being lazy. So I address these concerns when I do something like that for the first time. When students can see that 1) they did this and didn’t die and that 2) they learned and retained a lot of information and 3) that it was actually fun, they are no longer so skeptical.
  3. If you want them to talk, reveal that you know their secrets. They are insecure. They don’t want to look dumb. They get nervous. They know the answer but speaking up will draw attention to them and someone might judge them. They are confused and they aren’t “supposed” to be. Tell them you get it. Then tell them and show them you care more about their understanding than a right answer.
  4. Make it very clear that you care about their actual learning and comprehension and what they have to say. Do not just give lip service to this. I don’t know about your students, but my students want to learn from someone that gives a damn about them. I tell them we’re going to talk in this class. I also tell them I’m going to value what they have to say. And I honor that. Remember that in order to actually show them you value what they are saying, you have to sometimes cede the point you were “trying” to make and build upon the one they are trying to make. Professors too often fail to answer a question or address a comment because they have a preconceived notion of where the conversation should be going.
  5. Teach them that they are smart and that they can figure things out. More than anything, they are reluctant. I tell them I know they know the damn answers or have ideas and just won’t say anything. I get at their fears of not being smart in my speech about plagiarism where I tell them that, in my experience, people plagiarize when they are scared they aren’t smart enough to write whatever it is they are supposed to be writing. And I tell them that I want to hear what they have to say, not some academic gobbledygook.
  6. Treat them like human beings and let them know you are human, too. If the class isn’t prohibitively large, learn their names…and use them. You can learn their names if you set your mind to it. When they know that you know their name, they are no longer invisible in class (or outside of class). For most of their lives they have learned to love and hate their invisibility in the classroom. It protects them from speaking up and looking stupid, but it also allows them to be terribly disengaged and depersonalized. Knowing their names means you identify them as people and helps to break down the barriers that stifle student engagement.

Freshman-sophomore students deserve great professors—as do all students, really. They deserve the positive impact that will have on their lives. They deserve to hear how smart they are. They deserve professors who believe in them. And they deserve to hear how rewarding it is to work with them.

The smart kids are everywhere. As a grad school friend of mine says, “Teach ‘em good.”



* Freshman-sophomore is a designation that is broader and less stigmatizing, acknowledging students at these levels are similar across different kinds of institutions. After all, we don’t typically mark students at universities as “4-year” students…they are “students.”

Work To Do

Here is a great post by Dr. Colby King that reflects on his experiences in academia as a scholar from a working-class background. Check it out at http://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/

Working-Class Perspectives

I was the first in my family to earn a Bachelor’s degree, the first to earn a graduate degree, and now I’m the first to have an office. In that office, I’m hanging a sculpture my brother made.

The sculpture is dirty. The brush is rusty, and the glove is stained. It smells dusty. It doesn’t quite fit in with the framed certificates and glossy new books. But it is in my office to celebrate the work my family has done and the accomplishments my brother and I have made.

The piece is made of several objects that belonged to family members. The brush was used by our grandfather in his work as a plasterer. The glove is one our father used at the mill. My brother found the rest of the materials at our grandfather’s house after he passed away. Our uncle helped my brother cut and assemble the…

View original post 1,246 more words