• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

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Friday Fragments

Aging Gen X’er Edition,

January 3, 2019
 
 

I’ve hit the age at which I discuss financial aid paperwork at parties.

We were at a New Year’s party thrown by some family friends whose kids are the same ages as ours. They also have a high school senior who’s in the process of applying to schools. She got into her first choice via Early Decision, so that’s where she’s going, but they’re still wrestling with the financial aid paperwork.  

For context, the parents there were all college grads, and many had graduate degrees.  These are folks whose cultural capital should be more than enough to handle some forms, and they struggled.

This is the difference between formal and informal exclusion.  The forms don’t literally require a college-educated parent to fill them out.  But they’re complicated enough that if you don’t have someone at hand who’s relatively fluent in legalese, and both willing and able to comply with the various records requests, well, good luck to you.

Judging by the income distribution of students at many exclusive colleges, informal exclusion is remarkably effective.

For a student under 24, non-compliance by parents (or parental figures) can be a deal-breaker.  That’s true even though the student may be a legal adult, and might not be a dependent for tax purposes.  (I’m not sure if that’s still a thing with the new tax laws, but I’ll find out soon enough.)

When I applied to college, it was a one-step process: try to get in.  Now it’s at least a two-step process: try to get in, and then compare financial offers.  If it seems harder now, and more tilted in favor of folks with access to capital, that’s because it is.

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As someone who used to teach writing, and who does a fair bit of writing in public, I have to applaud John Warner’s interview about the tyranny of the five-paragraph essay.  The line that brought it home for me was “[p]rofessors lamenting about student writing is as old as professors and students.” Yes. I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the alleged effects of smartphone use on writing skills and attention spans, but I’m also old enough to remember before anyone had smartphones.  You could replace the word “smartphone” with the word “television” and the complaints were the same. Prior to that, you could substitute “comic books.” Prior to that, maybe radio or the penny press...

Language evolves, and so does its written expression.  My kids laugh at me for using punctuation in texts. I’ve informed them that the Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.  We’re both right.

I’ll admit being a recovering prescriptivist when it comes to written language.  I’m on board with the idea of language being what people say it is, and yet, I adhere to pretty strict rules around semicolons.  I rationalize it as being similar to enjoying multiple genres of music, but still not liking it when somebody plays off-key.

Still, one of the consolations of getting older is seeing the same complaints get endlessly renewed, and realizing that if they’re hogwash now, they were probably hogwash then, too.  Yes, smartphones probably affect language; nearly everything does. The point is to use the language(s) we have in ways that help get, or make, the world right. Thank you, John Warner, for putting it so clearly.

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Finally, as a card-carrying Gen X’er, I found Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ dance tribute to The Breakfast Club utterly charming.  It holds up pretty well against Tucker Carlson’s or Rick Perry’s performances on Dancing with the Stars. Youthful exuberance is not a crime, and the idea that Molly Ringwald’s moves have crossed generational and racial lines is somehow comforting.  It’s even consistent with her politics; as Emma Goldman once put it, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.

At the same time, I’m grateful that YouTube didn’t exist when I was in college. Nobody needs to see that...

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