Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tales of Survival

My ENG 100 students and I are reading Jose Antonio Vargas's article, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," from 2011. I've taught this essay several times before, and I've also blogged about Vargas before. (If you're an ENG 100 student and curious, my previous posts on Vargas can be found here.) I just can't seem to get away from him, and this essay in particular. I find it both moving and convincing, not to mention masterfully crafted. Last semester I tried teaching his more recent essay from Time, "Not Legal Not Leaving," but this first "coming out" essay from 2011 is way better--it's a provocative and poignant re-configuring of the American Dream, deeply personal and political at the same time. Who knows--maybe this year Vargas and Dreamers will see immigration reform finally passed and signed into law. President Obama will be pushing it, and rumor has it that Republicans in the House of Representatives want to show Latino voters that they are not exclusively the party of white people. Maybe something will finally get done.

In my 3 sections of ENG 112, discussions will begin this week on Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation. I'm currently reading the book for the third time within 9 months. (I have to re-read each book every time I teach it, otherwise I feel like it's just not fresh enough in my mind for me to effectively mediate discussion.) Kwok and I recently became Facebook friends through a mutual acquaintance, andI'm looking forward to meeting her when she visits our main campus in Media, PA in April. Although I'm still not sure what to make of the ending of her novel, I really admire her talent and achievement. Like Vargas, she tells a tale based on her own experiences of immigration--doing what needs to be done to survive and make a life here in America (though hers is a fictionalized version).

Finally, in ENG 231, we are wrapping up our examination of Jack London's Call of the Wild--yet another tale of survival. I first read this book when I was in 6th grade, I think, but it speaks to me even more now that I'm a dog owner. (Baylor had a busy weekend, including a trip to the vet--he's fine--and the groomer.) Despite London's chauvinism and casual racism--very, very common among white American men of his time (see Teddy Roosevelt)--his work still, I believe, has a valuable point-of-view to offer, asking his readers to rethink their relationship with the non-human world. Looking forward to hearing what my tiny class of American literature scholars (8 students!) have to say about Buck and his path away from humanity and toward his "more authentic" self.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Is College for Everyone?

As a professor at a community college, I certainly believe that anyone who wants a college education deserves a shot at it. That being said, many students who show up in my classes are not ready for college, for a number of reasons. Some lack the academic preparation; some lack the maturity and self-discipline. Some are not self-motivated, but are only here to appease their parents. Others find they can't learn very well by sitting still in a classroom or in front of a computer. Many students simply can't find the time to get their work done because they are also working full-time, taking care of their kids, and meeting other commitments.

Now, many of these students who show up unprepared make crucial adjustments in their lives during their first few semesters that enable them to succeed. Some, however, do not, and I do not see them again. What happens to them? Are they social failures because they could not navigate their way through college?

This week my students are reading an excerpt from Tamara Draut's book Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead. Her basic argument is that the path to adulthood in American society is much more fraught with economic peril than it was a couple generations ago, and as a result, many of us take much longer to achieve the traditional markers of adulthood (career and financial stability, marriage, home-ownership, parenthood), if we ever achieve them at all.

While a college education is generally thought of as a key tool in meeting the challenges of our new economy, Draut shows how, in some ways, college can actually be part of the problem more than a solution. Because many professions require B.A. or graduate degrees "to get out of the entry-level track," more and more young people are realizing that college is usually necessary to make a decent living. But when they try to finance a college education, they are introduced to the "debt-for-diploma" system, as they take on staggering amounts of student loans. Draut claims that the average college graduate hitting the job market is carrying about $20,000 in student-loan debt, plus a couple thousand more in credit-card debt. (I believe the figure for average student-loan debt is closer to $26,000 now.)

The lucky ones will land a good job with their new degree in hand and be able, barely, to make their loan payments and also pay their other bills. But what about the ones who didn't make it to graduation? What about the ones who graduated, but can't find a job when so few employers are hiring? What kinds of jobs are actually being created in our economy? Draut cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics as she makes the following claim:
"The largest job growth, accounting for 58 percent of new jobs, will be those requiring only work-related training. These jobs are primarily in the low-wage retail and food sector, including such jobs as sales associates, food preparation, cashiers, and waitstaff."
This prompts me to ask the following questions: Is it right for us to push so many young people into college when most of the jobs being created don't require a degree? A degree may give you a chance to compete for a better job, but it doesn't guarantee you'll get that better job. Wouldn't it better for us to advocate for higher wages and benefits for people who work the low-wage jobs described above? Shouldn't a waitress, a cashier, or someone who works in the mall be able to earn a decent living--to have access to quality healthcare, childcare, and housing?

People who really want to go to college should absolutely have that chance--and it shouldn't require taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to accomplish it. But college shouldn't be a requirement for anyone who wants to make a living wage. This is why I think raising the minimum wage is just as important for us, as a society, as lowering the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities.