Sunday, September 30, 2012

Undocumented or Illegal?

I have become a big fan of Jose Antonio Vargas over the last couple years. I first encountered him when I was looking for an article on Facebook to teach in my ENG 100 class. Vargas wrote a compelling New Yorker article that profiled Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, which came out around the same time the movie The Social Network. After that, I heard him the following summer on NPR, talking about his decision to publicly "come out" as an undocumented immigrant in an article for the New York Times Magazine. This essay really blew me away, and I taught it in several classes from Summer 2011 to Spring 2012 as a model of a personal essay that eloquently blends compelling narrative and subtle argument. This semester I am teaching his latest piece, which was a cover story for Time this summer, called "Not Legal Not Leaving." Here is a video from Time in which he discusses the article:

I admire Vargas both for his courage and his extraordinary talent as a writer. His articles effectively break down stereotypes about undocumented immigrants and show the fundamental unreasonableness of current U.S. immigration policy. At the same time, I recognize that immigration is a touchy, controversial issue, and I'm sure many of my students will not be as receptive to Vargas's rhetoric as I am. I hope we can have spirited and civil discussions about this issue this week.

My own ideas on immigration are admittedly a little extreme. My brother-in-law looked at me in horror last Christmas when I suggested that perhaps some undocumented immigrants should be allowed to vote. I definitely think they should be allowed to get drivers licenses, apply for financial aid, and qualify for in-state tuition at state universities. Sometimes I question the basic right of a national government to arbitrarily decide how many and which people may cross its border. I believe an individual should be welcomed in any community where she is willing to contribute and abide by existing laws. Maybe that's idealistic, but I think a world with open borders would be a better world.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Generation Debt

While my ENG 112 students begin reading Jean Kwok's novel Girl in Translation this week, my Monday/Wednesday sections of ENG 100 will be discussing an excerpt from Anya Kamenetz's book Generation Debt. (My Tuesday night section discussed this last week.) Here is a video of Kamenetz discussing student debt on PBS:

My students are typically divided on the issue of whether or not taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans is a good bet. Some are "lucky" in the sense that the government pays their tuition because of their military service. ("Lucky" is not the right word -- they have certainly earned this benefit.) Others have family members helping them along. Others are paying their own way, and would rather take a decade to get their degree--taking only the classes they can afford to pay for up front--than borrow money from the federal government or private banks. Still others do take loans, and are anticipating taking more loans when they move on to more expensive schools.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. I was very lucky when I originally applied for college: I received a scholarship from Bard (a very expensive, private liberal arts school) that allowed me to attend for the same tuition charged at state schools. This comparatively small bill was covered by federal loans and some help from my parents. When I first enrolled in graduate school, I could no longer lean on my parents for help, so I took out more loans until I was able to get a teaching assistantship. My combined graduate and undergraduate loans are pretty staggering--despite the scholarships and funding I received along the way. I will be paying these loans back for decades.

Do I regret taking on this amount of debt? No--I don't. I can't imagine being who I am without my years at Bard, and I can't imagine landing the job I have without my graduate degree. Student loans made that possible. Yet, at the same time, I can't say for sure that I would make the same decisions if I had it to do all over again. I certainly would NOT advise someone in a similar position to do what I did. I acted with a kind of financial recklessness, and just happened to get lucky. Many people who come out of the same PhD program I came out of (and others similar to it) struggle for years to find full-time employment.

It's scary to think how so many young people make financial decisions that may impact their whole lives at a time when they have little to no financial experience and may be receiving misinformed or misguided advice from parents or institutions. My hope is that public colleges and universities will be able to win more support from government and renew their commitment to making higher education accessible, by keeping tuition fees reasonable and offering more grants and scholarships to more students. This should be a much higher priority than competing with private colleges for prestige.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

It Gets Better

Things my students and I are reading this week:

  • an excerpt from Dan Savage's It Gets Better collection (MW sections of ENG 100)
  • President Obama's DNC speech (TU section of ENG 100)
  • Act II of Next to Normal (ENG 112 sections)
This is the third consecutive semester that I've included a reading assignment that deals with the issue of gay rights in ENG 100. Last fall we discussed the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell; this past spring we discussed an article in Rolling Stone which investigated a series of teen suicides in Minnesota linked to a controversial "neutrality" policy in schools (teachers and staff were told, ambiguously, neither to defend nor condemn homosexuality). This semester we are reading the introduction to Dan Savage's anthology of "It Gets Better" stories: narratives directed at LGBT youth, meant to give them hope that-- no matter how much crap they may have to deal with in high school--they can persevere and live very happy lives as LGBT adults. I also plan on showing some videos from the "It Gets Better Project" -- the videos that inspired the book. Before the narratives were compiled and published, they were recorded as videos and posted on YouTube.

I believe that the range of gay rights issues (combatting hate crimes and anti-gay bullying, same-sex marriage, adoption rights, etc.) are important civil rights issues of our day, and I hope my students feel comfortable engaging each other in conversation about these topics. Sexuality--like race and religion--can be a difficult topic to open up about, especially in a room full of relative strangers. A well-placed Chik-Fil-A joke may be needed to ease the tension at times.

While I do not personally know what it is like to be threatened and alienated because of my sexuality, I do know what it is like to be threatened and alienated because of how my sexuality was perceived. During my first two years of high school, a rumor spread around school that a good (male) friend of mine and I were a couple. Some severe teasing and intimidation followed, and we both felt pretty miserable, perhaps even depressed. Although the experience was socially and psychologically unpleasant (to put it mildly), the two of us stood together as friends. We didn't avoid each other to try to quell the rumors. Nor did we turn into homophobes ourselves. I think, ultimately, it made us more sensitive to what actual gay and lesbian teens go through in such hostile environments. I wouldn't want to live through those days again, but I'm glad to have the broadened perspective that came out of it.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Keeping Up With Lost Time

The first reading that I assigned for my Monday / Wednesday sections of ENG 100 is an excerpt from a book titled, Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. My hope is that it will offer some practical advice about how to avoid avoiding things. I know that just getting started can be the hardest part of writing. This is especially true for writers who are not particularly confident in their skills, but it happens to all of us.

When I need to get some writing done, I have a few little tricks, though I wouldn't recommend all of them. My worst trick is to reward myself with a snack after each paragraph I finish. That leads to a lot of unwanted calories. I'm trying to get away from that. This summer, I bought a 90-year old baby grand piano. My new plan is to reward myself with brief intervals of piano time after completing a paragraph or 2. The new plan could be dangerous, though--it's easy to lose track of time when playing an instrument. I'd play for 12 hours a day if I had nothing else to do (or if I wasn't afraid of annoying my fiancé with my amateurism.)

(antique piano, new bench, geriatric dog)

My other trick is to change locations. I'll write a little bit at home, then maybe go to a cafe and do a little more writing. Then maybe a library before heading back home. Changing the scenery somehow helps me renew my mental energy. Getting out of the house also helps keep me away from certain distractions (food, piano, TV).

The most challenging thing to deal with is the Internet, because we all almost always write on computers, and it's so easy to click away from Word and over to Facebook or YouTube or Zappos or whatever. (I spent nearly $200 on new running shoes and Doc Martens yesterday. Yikes.) I used to write in notebooks, and I know some folks disable their WiFi to stay on task. Do what you got to do, I guess.

This summer I did a good deal of procrastinating (never updated my blog, for example), but I also was fairly productive. I managed to put together a decent draft of a manuscript for first-semester college writers, which I hope my students will find useful. They seemed happy to be getting a free "textbook," but I hope its freeness is not its only good quality.

At some point in my life, I developed a really strong aversion to the phrase "killing time." It sounds so morbid and sad to me. We only have a finite amount of time as living beings--why would we want to kill any of our time? Thinking of procrastination as a kind of partial suicide -- as a wasting of our limited chances to do meaningful things with our life -- can be a strong deterrent. Getting it done today opens up possibilities for life tomorrow.