Tag Archives: poverty

Summer Reading for Freshmen: Unchallenging, Mediocre

“Beach Books 2014-2016,” released yesterday by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), is a study of mostly summer reading assigned by colleges and universities to their incoming freshman.

NAS reports:

Our study of common readings during the academic years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 covers 377 assignments at 366 colleges and universities for the first year and 361 assignments at 350 colleges and universities for the second year. Our data includes common readings for every college and university we could find—including readings for honor colleges, but not for sub-units of the university such as departments of education. We included books assigned as summer readings, whether to freshmen or to all students.

Although in the past we did not include books tied to readings assigned in a core curriculum, this year we have included Columbia University’s assignment of an English translation of the first six books of Homer’s The Iliad to its incoming undergraduate class, since it is specifically designated as a summer reading.68 Columbia’s decision does make The Iliad the common reading for its incoming class, and this wonderful effect should not be removed from our charts simply because it is not formally labeled as a Common Reading. We hope that Columbia’s choice will prove a model to its peers.

Download the report (pdf): Beach Books 2014-2016: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class?

The findings, in brief, follow.

College common reading programs are:

Meant to Build Community. Colleges see their common readings more as exercises in community-building than as means to prepare students for academic life.

Civically Engaged: Common readings are overwhelmingly chosen to foster civic engagement; they scarcely mention the complementary and equally valuable virtues of the disengaged life of the mind. They give no sense of why or how college differs from the world outside, and why those differences are valuable.

Recent: More than half of common reading assignments (58% in 2014, 60% in 2015) were published between 2010 and the present. Only 12 assignments out of 738 (1.6%) were published before 1900, and another 5 (0.7%) between 1900 and 1945.

Nonfiction: 71% of assignments in 2014 and 75% of assignments in 2015 were memoirs, biographies, essays, and other non-fiction.

Dominated by mediocre new books: Most common readings are recent, trendy, and intellectually unchallenging.

A Narrow, Predictable Genre: The common reading genre is parochial, contemporary, commercial, optimistic, juvenile, and obsessed with suffering.

Almost No Classics: Only a scattering of colleges assigned works that could be considered classics. With few exceptions, the hundreds of common reading programs across the country ignored books of lasting merit.

No Modern Classics: Even in confining themselves to living authors, common reading programs neglect some of the best ones, such as Martin Amis, Wendell Berry, J. M. Coetzee, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Wole Soyinka, and Tom Wolfe.

Author Speaking: In 2014, 53% of colleges with common reading programs hosted personal appearances by the authors, and in 2015, 54% of colleges with common reading programs had author appearances.

Nothing Foreign: Classics in translation were nearly absent—and so was anything modern in translation. Even common readings about foreigners generally were written in English, not translated from a foreign language.

Predominantly Progressive. The assigned books frequently emphasize progressive political themes—illegal immigrants contribute positively to America, the natural environment must be saved immediately—and almost never possess subject matter disfavored by progressives.

The desire to appeal to incoming students who have rarely if ever read an adult book on their own also leads selection committees to choose low-grade “accessible” works. Common reading programs aim to familiarize new students with how college students think, read, discuss, and write. They are meant to establish academic standards—and to establish a sense of community among students, both with other students and with the faculty. How well they do either of these things is open to question. Common reading programs are also meant to inculcate institutional identity and institutional goals—under which cover progressive tenets such as diversity and sustainability often creep in.

Books are selected to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, both to satisfy the varieties of student taste and disciplinary interest and so as to get as broad an institutional “buy-in” as possible from the administration and the faculty. The basic rationale, however, is that if students can be brought to care enough about a book to read it, and even think it’s interesting enough to talk about with their friends, they might also care enough about college to make a real go at their education.

Common reading programs state their goals with words that make a leftward skew in the book selections just about a sure thing. Keywords telegraph the content of those goals: all save academic expectations are the euphemistic jargon of the left.

For instance, Salem State University (Massachusetts) desires “thoughtful discussion of ideas”; in 2015, it chose Joshua Davis’ soft sell for amnestying illegal immigrants, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream (2014).  These basic programmatic goals have been elaborated by a constellation of other words and phrases that largely partakes of progressive jargon as well: active citizenship, awareness, biodiversity, civic engagement, community service, critical thinking, diversity, engaged, equity, ethics, inclusion, injustice, intercultural understanding, local talent, meaningful, multiple disciplinary application, perspectives, powerful, readability, relevant, responsibility, sensitivity, shared experience, social justice, social responsibility, timely, and tolerance.

(Critical thinking, ethics, and tolerance are not monopolies of any political party, and they should be part of a college education. What we note and critique here is the use of this hijacked vocabulary to forward progressive political projects.)

These programmatic keywords reinforce other skews. The calls for civic engagement, community service, relevance, and responsibility filter out books concerned with the disinterested life of the mind. The demand for a reading that is about something in the world leads to endless memoirs and works of popular nonfiction concerned with life beyond the college walls. Even a memoir such as Liz Murray’s Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard, whose point is the value of going to college, is entirely about the struggle to get to Harvard, and not the character of her life once she has arrived.

Common reading choices continue to reflect the issues of the day. The sharp rise of selections on African American themes in 2015-16 coincides with the Ferguson protests and the ensuing Black Lives Matter campaign; and it is doubtful that, absent Ferguson, Augustana College (Illinois), Hampshire College (Massachusetts), and Norfolk State University (Virginia) all would have decided in 2015 to assign James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

The campaign to amnesty illegal immigrants likewise has produced a sharp uptick of books on themes of immigration, particularly illegal immigration. The popularity of Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother (6 selections in 201415 and 5 in 2015-16) evidently derives from this campaign. The rise of the transgender movement, with its insistence on contingent sexuality, probably inspired a faint echo in Bluffton University’s (Ohio) choice of Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It, a 1991 novel on a woman who falls in love with a cyborg.

The common readings are homogeneous and bland. The desire to appeal to incoming students who have rarely if ever read an adult book on their own also leads selection committees to choose low-grade “accessible” works that are presumed to appeal to “book virgins.” Since common reading programs are generally either voluntary or mandatory without an enforcement mechanism, such “book virgins” have to be wooed with simple, unchallenging works.

A significant number of books are chosen by the academy’s diversity offices. The sustainability programs are not yet institutional sponsors of common readings, but their influence can be seen in the uptick of sustainability themes for common reading programs. The University

of Tennessee’s student-led fossil fuel divestment campaign began in January 2013,9 but surged in popularity after incoming students read the 201314 common reading, Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, and heard McKibben speak on campus.10

Wes Moore’s The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010) is by far the most frequently assigned book of the last two years, with 17 assignments in 2014-15 and 16 in 2015-16. This is a memoir of the contrasting fates of two Wes Moores— both born African American and poor in Baltimore, one grew up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence.

The most common college selections were in these categories: civil rights/racism/slavery, crime and punishment, drugs and poverty, family dysfunction and immigration.

Choices Matter in Avoiding Poverty

As many critics have noticed, the gap between Page One news coverage of social issues in the New York Times and the editorial response inside is often not a spacious one. Yesterday the Times ran a huge news article (more than two full pages), “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,” on the economic and social plight of single mothers in a society marked by rising income inequality.

Coverage of the facts, by the knowledgeable reporter Jason DeParle, is solid. The problem is that single mothers are presented as victims of a tsunami of inequality that has little or nothing to do with their own behavior. The language is passive. Two-income families are presented as a sort of unfair advantage that descends on some married women more often than on single ones. One featured woman had “a troubled relationship that left her with three children…” and “marriage and its rewards (are) evermore confined to the fortunate classes.” Who does this confining? We never learn.

The article does have one strong line about choices: “I am in this position because of decisions I made.”

But no study is mentioned to support this common sense view. However, here is FactCheck.org citing a Brookings study:

“Ron Haskins, co-author of the Brookings study, which looked at Census Bureau data on a sample of Americans, wrote that the analysis found that young adults who finished high school, worked full time and got married after age 21 and before having kids “had a 2 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 74 percent chance of winding up in the middle class (defined as earning roughly $50,000 or more). By contrast, young adults who violated all three norms had a 76 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 7 percent chance of winding up in the middle class.”

Finding full-time work is, of course, now very difficult, but the other factors are powerful ones that affect outcomes. They continue to count.

Inequality Courses on Campus
Mostly One-sided and Dishonest

            By Charlotte Allen and George Leef

inequality.jpgThis article was prepared by Minding the Campus and the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

A new movement is rising on American campuses, timed perfectly to feed the frenzy over the income gap that is Occupy Wall Street’s main complaint. But this movement isn’t street populism; it’s another way for leftist professors to mold student beliefs.

Charlotte Allen’s essay, “The Inequality Movement – A Campus Product”
examined the phenomenon of college courses and programs on
inequality–that is, on income and other social differences among people.
It prompted both of us to wonder if students taking those courses would
hear any ideas inconsistent with the “liberal” orthodoxy that income
inequality is unjust, has been principally caused by racism, sexism, and
free enterprise, and must be combated with a variety of government
laws, regulations, and aid programs.

To find out, we investigated the syllabi and readings for a dozen
courses at well-known colleges and universities, public and private,
around the United States. The courses are:

Continue reading Inequality Courses on Campus
Mostly One-sided and Dishonest

The ‘Inequality’ Movement–A Campus Product

Robin Hood Index.jpgThe sharp political focus on inequality, driven into the public mind by the Occupy movement and endorsed by President Obama in his State of the Union message, was born, not on the street, but on the campus. It thrives there, mostly under the aegis of elite universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia and Johns Hopkins. Those universities have free-standing inequality centers bearing such titles such as Multidisciplinary Program on Inequality and Social Policy (Harvard), Global Network on Inequality (Princeton), and the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality (Stanford).

Cornell now offers a minor in inequality studies for students who are ” interested in government service, policy work, or related jobs in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or want to go on to graduate work in anthropology, economics, government, history, law, literature, philosophy, psychology, public policy, or sociology.”

Continue reading The ‘Inequality’ Movement–A Campus Product

A Terrible Time for New Ph.D.s

presidential_drgowns.jpg“If I don’t succeed in academe, I’ll die!”

So read the anguished headline of a Jan. 23 cri de coeur to Salon magazine’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis. The writer was a woman who had apparently spent eight years acquiring a Ph.D. in anthropology, plus another seven years trying unsuccessfully to get an entry-level tenure-track professor’s job—a position whose average starting salary is less than $54,000 a year, which is decent but perhaps not worth putting in nearly a decade in graduate school. At age 37 (if you add fifteen years to her presumed age at college graduation), the woman chafed with frustration, fury, the grinding humiliation of being able to secure only low-paying part-time teaching work, and resentment of her professor-husband who had landed a tenure-track slot at a prestigious university—but she could not let go of the dream that had driven her to endure nearly a decade of grad-school poverty for no reward. She wrote in her letter:

“I scrape by teaching the occasional class for peanuts, and one other prof has taken enough pity on me to let me work in her lab so I can pretend to continue my research. On an intellectual level I understand that I’m not going to get that professor job that I’ve been envisioning for, oh, 15 years now. It ain’t going to happen—no matter what I do, there is going to be someone younger, better trained, and with more publications….The problem is that emotionally, I can’t drop it. It’s like having a painful sore in my mouth that I keep poking with my tongue—all day, every day. I’m angry, bitter and heartbroken. I resent my husband so much for having what I can’t get that I can barely stand to be in the same room with him, I’m so consumed with jealousy….Sometimes, stuck in this town I don’t much care for, with my once-promising career in shambles, I wonder if it’s even worth getting out of bed.”

This ground-down woman is scarcely unrepresentative, in a job market where fewer than one out of every two holders of doctoral degrees in the humanities these days receive job offers that put them onto the tenure track that is key to a successful (if seldom wealth-generating) and reasonably secure life of teaching and scholarship—and that’s in good year. Right now we’re in a bad year, when, according to the American Association of University Professors, the ratio of tenure-track openings to new doctorates is more like 1 to 4.

Both the Modern Language Association (the leading professional society for English professors), meeting right after Christmas, and the American Historical Society, meeting in early January, reported fallen-off attendance and a marked decrease in job interviews and hence job openings for the anxious grad students and new Ph.D.’s who typically flock to the two associations’ annual conventions (which double as job fairs), double or triple up in motel rooms, and peddle their fresh-from-the-printer curricula vitae. The MLA convention used to be low-hanging fruit for journalists, who could gin up easy laughs for their readers just by quoting the postmodernist mumbo-jumbo in the titles of the scholarly papers presented: “Back in Black: Theorizing the Sequel in Marlowe’s Tamburlaines” (that’s an actual paper title from the 2009 MLA meeting). This year’s MLA convention, after a 50 percent drop in the number of tenure-track job openings between the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 academic years, was just plain grim, from all reports.

For months now, the spotlight of negative attention in the academic trade press has been trained on the for-profit “career colleges,” with their high dropout rates, sometimes questionable recruiting tactics, and poor reputation for “gainful employment” on the part of their graduates, who can find themselves with no jobs and mountains of debt from the student loans that account for nearly 90 percent of their alma maters’ revenues. Ph.D. programs, especially in the humanities, can be viewed as career colleges for the highly educated. As with career colleges, their stated purpose is vocational training: for that full-time faculty position in academia. And exactly the same unappealing features of many career colleges, with their low-income, poorly prepared student populations turn out also to be features of Ph.D. programs, even though the latters’ student populations tend to be upper-middle-class and if anything, over-prepared.

Continue reading A Terrible Time for New Ph.D.s

“Poverty Studies” – Because There Are Never Enough “Studies”

Here’s one of the latest of those interdisciplinary and usually heavily politicized “studies” programs on college campuses: “poverty studies,” taking its place alongside black studies, Chicano studies, women’s studies, gay studies, and the rest of the ideology-driven academic disciplines in which undergraduates and graduate students can specialize as alternatives to more traditional fields such as history and engineering. At best, poverty studies is glorified service learning, in which college students can receive academic credit for working in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other worthy volunteer endeavors. At worst, poverty studies means immersion in victimology, with young people being encouraged to view “society” (shorthand for American capitalism and racism) as the main reason why some people are poor.
A typical poverty studies program is that at Washington and Lee University, created in 1997 by Harlan Beckley, a Washington and Lee religion professor. Beckley teaches the program’s introductory course, Poverty 101 (he also teaches most of the other poverty studies classes at Washington and Lee, a top-rated and expensive liberal arts institution in Lexington, Va.). The good news about Beckley’s syllabus for Poverty 101 is that the reading list does not include Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in which the well-heeled socialist author chronicles the month-long stints she spent working at Walmart and similar demeaning outfits before walking off the job in a huff. More good news is the syllabus’s numerous and rigorous paper assignments, to the point that several commenters on Rate My Professor complain that Beckley is not the pushover easy grader that they apparently expected him to be.
The bad news is that Beckley has very distinct ideas about what contributes to poverty in the United States, and they do not include welfare dependency, out-of-wedlock births, dysfunctional inner-city culture, or teachers’ union-dominated public school systems that ensure that large numbers of young people graduate from high school without basic reading and math skills. Instead, in Beckley’s view, the chief cause of American poverty is…America. His syllabus states that Poverty 101 “focuses on the United States, perhaps the most impoverished of any developed nation.”

Continue reading “Poverty Studies” – Because There Are Never Enough “Studies”

Your Next Job?

Bob Weissberg brought our attention to this job opening, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Italics mine:

The Department of Community Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, invites applications for a full-time tenured scholar focused on the theory and practice of social movements, civil society institutions and/or the third sector within neoliberalism.

We are especially interested in candidates who conduct research in one or more of the following areas: the relationship between social movements and their institutionalization in non-profit organizations; non-institutionalized social movements and new non-statist formations; the role and effects of the third sector as they are linked to the creation of new political subjectivities; the role of NGOs in poverty alleviation and development work, domestically and transnationally; the construction of third sector presences and social mobilizations through new digital platforms; discourses of community as deployed in social justice work; notions of civic engagement as they articulate with communities of color in the U.S. and/or racial formations in a transnational or post-colonial context. In this last regard, our recruitment participates in current attempts to move this scholarly field beyond associations with established notions of citizenship and civic engagement and their attendant homogeneous constituencies.
Community Studies is entering its 40th year as an interdisciplinary department in the social sciences with innovative undergraduate and graduate curricula focused on social justice. The undergraduate program combines analytical course work and full time field study with social justice movement and advocacy organizations. The graduate program offers a master’s degree in social documentation in a curriculum combining social science analysis with documentary practice in a variety of representational genres.

“Full time field study” that’s”focused on social justice.” Anyone want to be an activist?