Charged €1,000 ($1,140) for damage to two rooms and the destruction of another family’s possessions, Mohammed giggled and explained, “No problem, I buy them.” Over the past 4 weeks, the boys who shared room 305, Mohammed, a 16-year-old Tehrani, and his kindred spirit, Vlad, a 17-year-old Muscovite, had built a tender friendship. (I have changed all names to protect the anonymity of the school, students and faculty.) They sought my acknowledgment in every way they could, both benignly by gifting me Haribo gummy bears, and also by provoking my anger by prank calling in the middle of the night. Eventually they settled on a new plea for attention: running water taps. What began with a running faucet culminated in the flooding of their hotel room and the one below it.
Camped in a four-star resort in a one-street Alpine village, the institute where Mohammed and Vlad were studying English caters unabashedly to the global 1 percent. Accommodations feature five-course meals, king-size beds and a choice of four saunas. With parents at the helms of Russian petroleum companies, Swiss banks and Brazilian multinationals, these students are both extraordinarily wealthy and remarkably maladjusted. Some -- like Vlad -- have the acute (and not inaccurate) sense they’ve been quarantined while their parents gallivant around the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Others, such as Mohammed, have been raised by fawning tutors who have inculcated them with a profound overestimation of their talents in language -- and everything else.
Financial necessity led me to the institute. My graduate stipend pays only enough to support me during the academic year, and I needed summer funding. My preparation to teach freshman writing at my university entailed a semester of intensive pedagogical training, replete with sample assignments, reading materials and instruction strategies. At the institute, I received a dated Oxford textbook (in which beepers were cited as new technology) and a stiff drink purchased for me by the director the night before I was to begin. With little sense of what to expect from this new pedagogical environment, I immediately began to develop a diagnostic to sort a cohort of students, some of whom would stay for a week, others two, and others the entire month, with new students enrolling each week. My class size ranged from 3 students (in the final week doldrums) to 15 at the height of the program.
With four hours of daily instruction to fill and no practical ELL (English language learners) experience, I relied on two fellow English instructors, who generously provided me with lessons and exercises. My lessons often failed. Once, I asked students to describe their home bedrooms. Each one took a turn speaking while the others drew illustrations based upon this description. This exercise, which I intended to hone locational vocabulary, failed because students didn’t know how to describe or depict “bedrooms” that occupied multiple rooms and, sometimes, entire floors. On another occasion, I asked students to create a brochure for a dream school. I intended for my students to apply educational vocabulary. Instead, they submitted descriptions of shopping malls, glutted with Gucci, Prada and Boss boutiques.
The same thing happened during extramural activities as well. The institute featured daily instructional excursions, about which students were encouraged to write copiously in weekly postcards to family. (The excursions were of such import that I was asked to allocate a weekly lesson to postcard writing.) We visited some of Western Europe’s most impressive cultural destinations, including Munich, Salzburg and St. Gallen. On an excursion to Brixen, Italy, students performed what was for me an all too familiar ritual: they retreated to a Starbucks to watch YouTube videos. Offered the choice to visit a castle or an outlet mall nearby, all but one voted to shop. Some students called the outlet their favorite destination of the month.
I loathed their lack of curiosity, but mostly I lurched between detachment and exasperation. I was far busier than I had anticipated, and after a 12-hour day I found it easy to dislike my students. I skipped group lunches for the relief of solitary walks and siphoned precious sleep time to study for my coming qualifying exams. My colleagues, many of whom were full-time students or high-school teachers, commiserated but could not relate. To them, the institute provided a lucrative means to a holiday that they not otherwise afford. They didn’t overthink it.
My detachment and exasperation gave way to defiance. If tutors or teachers wouldn’t correct student misbehaviors, I, as the graduate student with little to lose, would compel these students to acknowledge the humanity of those around them. As the institute’s tenderfoot, I was primarily responsible for the largest and most disruptive cohort, the Russian boys, who threatened me with retribution by their familial connections. (The Russian mob notwithstanding, I had a hard time taking that seriously.) I intervened at a dinner when Vlad mocked a gay student. I intervened when Mohammed poured his soda on the ground (because it was diet). I intervened when the Russians spoke Russian in English class and when the Brazilians wandered off on their own during excursions. Gradually, some students reluctantly changed behaviors.
Mohammed and Vlad, both of whom I had in class, changed most dramatically. After receiving failing grades on their first exams (perhaps the first F’s ever assigned at the institute), they began to worry -- and take notes. I used their camaraderie to cultivate a productive rivalry, awarding daily lesson “championships,” more choice of assignments and even the chance to teach units.
I also learned more about them. Vlad shared a photo of himself, his father, and a brand-new Mercedes-Benz -- the only photo of him with his dad. Mohammed’s father, on the other hand, applied so much pressure to his firstborn son that the young man suffers chronic health problems, including an eating disorder. Both of the boys of room 305 were boisterous, privileged and unaware. They were also children who were, despite their luxurious lives, unhappy.
I gradually realized I had misread my students. If Brixen was a hop away in a private jet, there could be nothing inherently special about it. Like the social media-addicted students I taught at home, these teens craved a sense of belonging, which they achieved by wearing the same labels, watching the same mass media and locating themselves via Starbucks and smartphones. When they didn’t feel they belonged, they behaved like puppies that hadn’t been housebroken: they broke rules, sneaked out and destroyed rooms. I sometimes felt I was succeeding in domesticating my cohort.
By the end of the program, Vlad and Mohammed visited my room to acknowledge me as their instructor (to prove they were doing homework) and mentor (to learn how to tie a tie). However, those very same students cheated on their final exam and flooded their hotel room. I couldn’t ascertain whether I was dealing with accident-prone pets or young sociopaths. Nor was I confident that I was a suitable trainer. The very transience and poverty that equipped me to confront their misbehaviors also formed a boundary against any kind of meaningful or lasting connection with these future plutocrats. It also made me doubt that I, their teacher, could change them.
For one of our final excursions, I took my students back to the outlet mall. It was the equivalent of letting the foxes into the Gucci henhouse, but given my exhaustion, I let them gorge. And they did. I brought a book and read on a lawn chair at Lafuma while the students maxed out their parental credit cards on what everyone agreed to call souvenirs. When it came time to leave, the van couldn’t accommodate the bags, so Mohammed and Vlad stacked Armani, Dior and Boss boxes high on their laps. For the next two hours, boxes tumbled across the backseats as we wove up serpentine roads to our town. By the time we arrived at the resort several hours later, it was dark and the boys were ecstatic to escape the van. They left behind their souvenirs.
At dinner, I asked Mohammed if he had found what he wanted. He shrugged and asked me what I bought. I told him I didn’t need anything. He looked at me as though he didn’t understand. He told me he would buy me a new suit on our next trip.
Will Fenton is director of the Writing Center at Fordham University Lincoln Center, a teaching fellow and a doctoral candidate of English at Fordham University, where he specializes in 19th-century American literature and the digital humanities.
When George Orwell identified his family background as “lower-upper-middle class,” he wasn’t being facetious. It was a comment not just on British social hierarchy but on how that structure perpetuated itself -- through an anxious process of monitoring and policing the nuances of distinction, the markers of inclusion and exclusion at each level.
It’s a cliché that Americans tend to be clueless about such things, or at least as pointedly indifferent to them as circumstances permit. No other society has ever managed to convince itself so thoroughly, for so long, that social mobility is normative -- tending, as if by nature, mostly upward. Some of the people Jessi Streib interviewed for The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages (Oxford University Press) were “visibly angry or tearful” when asked about class, “as they thought that the question implied not only differences but also statements about who was morally superior.”
What a contrast to the rather morbid preoccupation with calibrating status that Orwell describes! But the difference is not so complete as it first appears. Intense indignation and distress at being asked to think about one’s class background suggest it is a topic charged with feelings of embarrassment, frustration, anger, disgust and fear, to keep the list as short as possible. Orwell’s reflections on class find the same emotional elements, albeit combined in a different formula.
What happens to class differences within the crucible of romantic love is an old question for novelists, but Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, takes a more analytical approach. She interviewed 32 married heterosexual couples in the United States in which one spouse came from a blue-collar family and the other from a white-collar family, plus another 10 couples for whom all the in-laws were from a white-collar background. Everyone interviewed was white and most were college graduates.
The homogeneity on these points was in part a function of who answered the initial call for interviews, but it had the advantage of limiting the number of variables in a relatively small pool of subjects.
The precise definition of class is a matter for dispute even among social theorists sharing the same general framework of analysis (the Marxist debates alone are voluminous), but Streib’s categories are pretty much vernacular. “White-collar-origin respondents are those that had fathers with bachelor’s or advanced degrees and who worked in professional or managerial jobs.” The blue-collar-origin participants “had fathers with at most a high-school diploma and who tended to work with their hands (though, of course, their jobs also often required mental work).” The mothers’ educational levels were almost always identical to those of their husbands.
The interview subjects themselves, whatever their parents’ educational and occupation level, fell into the white-collar category. Streib questioned each member of the couple separately and then together, covering not just their family backgrounds and biography but their attitudes and practices concerning money, career, child raising, housework and use of free time. The mixed-background couples tended to have met in college or at their workplaces -- in other words, in contexts where each person would understandably assume that the other occupied a white-collar status or was at least headed that way.
My impression from Streib’s biographical sketches is that during early phases of their relationships, mixed-class couples tended to think of differences in their background mainly in terms of family income. When describing his own class origins, Orwell wrote: “You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood.” So it is, but other aspects of class come into view only after spending some time with the other person’s family -- experiencing something of the world they grew up in, the attitudes and norms that shaped them.
Streib identifies two general patterns of value and behavior associated with the partners’ origins. Those who come from professional white-collar families exhibit what she calls a “managerial sensibility.” They tend “to plan, deliberate, mull over and organize their resources, their children and their daily lives,” while their spouses are prone to a “laissez-faire sensibility” and prefer “to feel free from self-constraint... to go with the flow and live in the moment.” (Carpe diem is a better characterization of it than laissez-faire, but que sera sera....)
Such broad generalizations are not easily distinguished from stereotypes -- and as someone who would fall into Streib’s blue-collar-origin cohort, I’ll point out that her “managerial sensibility” also exists in the lower orders, where it is known as the work ethic. In any event, The Power of the Past focuses largely on how managerial and laissez-faire sensibilities play out in the various domains of family life, and how couples come to understand the contrasts and strains.
The most interesting finding is that mixed-background spouses tend to be attracted to each another by personality traits missing from their own sensibility: the highly organized daughter of lawyers falls for the easygoing trucker’s son. Complications and conflicts inevitably ensue. Resolving or containing them is certainly possible, though it is much more complex and drawn-out a process than the romantic comedies would have you believe. (My white-collar-origin spouse would surely agree.)
The author’s insights are necessarily limited by the size and narrow demographics of her pool of subjects, but also by abundance of happy endings, or at least of lasting unions. Class conflicts can be resolved in good marriages -- but it doesn’t always work out that well. I don’t think Marx ever had divorce in mind when he referred to “the mutual ruin of the contending classes,” but the statistics imply that is the usual outcome.
A legislative committee in Oklahoma has voted to ban the use of state funds for teaching Advanced Placement U.S. history, The Tulsa World reported. Lawmakers complained that the curriculum focuses too much on what "is bad about America." Further, some lawmakers are questioning the entire AP program, saying that it is effectively a national curriculum. These lawmakers note that the state is committed to fighting efforts at creating a national curriculum, and so some are questioning the legality of AP in its entirety.
Tenure-line faculty members at the University of Illinois at Springfield have formed a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. The new union has 137 members, who organized under the following platform: negotiate for “fair” wages and benefits, share governance with the administration and advocate for the rights of students without fear of professional retaliation.
Faculty members at Springfield’s sister institution, the University of Illinois at Chicago, also are organized with AFT (along with the American Association of University Professors) and signed their first union contract last year. A Springfield spokesman said the university respects faculty members’ right to decide whether or not they want to be represented by a union, and that the union “will have the power to act and speak for faculty in required group-level negotiations on wages, hours and conditions of work.” Some 71 eligible members signed cards in favor of the union, according to information from the university.
A Florida appeals court has upheld, 2-to-1, regulations imposed by the State Department of Education on faculty contracts at the state college system in Florida, CBS Miami reported. The rules have been opposed by faculty leaders in the state, who have argued that the board exceeded its authority in imposing them. Among the most controversial requirements are an extension from three to five years of the period of time before instructors are eligible for a continuing contract equivalent in some ways to tenure, and a requirement that contracts be awarded in part based on "student success." Faculty members say the latter provision will effectively punish those who teach at-risk students.
"[M]any adults want to gain a degree and gain re-employment with as little time in the classroom as possible.... College Credit FastTrack will enable these students to complete a life-changing degree program more quickly and at a reduced cost."
--Nicholas Neupauer, president, Butler County Community College
Board Chair, Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, in Feb. 2 news release
Good morning! And welcome to Paradise University’s monthly Skype session!
As president of this institution, I am pleased to announce that the accreditation process is moving along smoothly -- and it is with great pride that I can assure you that Paradise U is well on its way to being recognized as the home of the fastest, easiest, most innovative track yet in higher education!
Speaking of home, I am talking to you this morning from our new physical campus, a gift from local company Less Is More, which repurposes old garden sheds as tiny homes. I’ve been following the Twitter campaign #paradiseugonetohell, and I realize that some alums are distressed by this move from our old campus, but let me tell you about the big things that are happening here in our 400 square feet -- and that does not even include the loft, where our operators are crouched, waiting for your texts.
So, fond greetings to all current, past and prospective students. I hope that you’ll agree with me that Paradise is in fact the perfect source for purchasing your life-changing degree.
The new directory is now available. You will note that we no longer have academic advisers at Paradise U; several polls suggested that the use of the word “academic” was confusing and off-putting. Instead, we have a staff of brokers who work with students and who report directly to the vice presidents of innovation, international outreach, consortium dealing, and our newest program, Credit for Just About Anything.
Former full-time faculty members -- and I know the vice presidents join me in this sentiment of wishing them all the best; really, they were a wonderful if cantankerous group -- would certainly find it ironic if not surprising to learn that as of the new year all committees have been officially disbanded.
Like maintaining (some former students would say “enduring”!) classrooms and requiring community service, sustaining the illusion of democratic governance by committee was too costly and just slowed things down. In our new administrative system, the V.P.s and their staffs of assistants, subdirectors, site overseers, lawyers and compliance officers hire brokers; create, approve and assign syllabuses to our fine staff of contingent instructors (a lively body of workers that’s always changing); and form alliances with V.P.s of other institutions that share our mission -- a mission that is constantly evolving.
See our new mission statement, “First in Fast,” which replaces last month’s “Fast, Faster, Fastest.” In the spirit of our newest mission, I am happy to announce that our international program is growing by leaps and bounds. You may recall that Paradise was the leader in arguing that the TOEFL requirement should be obsolete!
Our brokers are available 24/7 to help you find the perfect courses for your needs. As for any classes you took elsewhere before discovering Paradise, rest assured that we will automatically count them all. We have long prided ourselves on having the most generous transfer system in the world! Your personal broker will determine which of your life experiences will count as well. Again, please don’t worry! You wouldn’t believe all the stories we’ve accepted for credit! See our app Enter Paradise for a checklist of personal experiences.
We offer over 300 graduate programs, along with 200 undergrad programs, including our 1-year B.A., and countless certificate programs -- all cobbled together from offerings from various schools in our grand consortium. And with our new Paradise Plus EvenFasterTrack, you can now earn two (or even three!) degrees at once. Your broker will be happy to give you the details. Be sure to check out testimonials from recent graduates (@paradise #ParadiseFound).
If you’re still not sure that Paradise is for you, you can sample one of our new pilot programs. During the month of February, get three credits for watching one TED Talk! (Do the math, if you can: TED Talks are 18 minutes long, so that’s 1 credit for every 6 minutes of watching YouTube.)
Before I let you return to your busy lives, I have a message for everyone still enrolled in our liberal arts division: the deadline for all completed midterm exams is March 1, 2015, 4:00 p.m. GMT. Remember to use @paradise #mydeepesthought.
Thank you for your interest and support. Paradise is here for you: we can help you make your life-changing move quickly, painlessly and effortlessly. We’d also like to point out that the word “education” appears only once in this talk, just after “higher” in the opening lines, and we hope that you will be inspired to join us.
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor emerita of English at Cedar Crest College.