• 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

Reader response, illiquid assets and Gertrude Stein gazing upon cows.

September 30, 2022

In what seems like another lifetime, I took a graduate course in literary theory. The part that jumped out at me was “reader response” theory, which suggested that what really matters in a text is how the reader reads it.

That came back to me when I read the Inside Higher Ed story about the NBER working paper suggesting that the existing federal aid system is racially biased. The argument is that home equity and retirement accounts are not counted in calculating a family’s obligation but more liquid assets are. Lower-income families and families of color are less likely to own their homes or to have retirement accounts; accordingly, a greater share of their wealth is tapped for tuition. Therefore, by dint of excluding certain assets, certain groups of people (white, upper middle class) are disproportionately protected.

The critique strikes me as factually correct. It’s certainly true that rates of homeownership, and sizes of retirement accounts, tend to track along lines of race and income in ways that any competent sociologist would have predicted.

But that’s where reader response theory matters. Policy makers will not read the argument and come to the conclusion that low-income families need more support. They’ll read it and come to the conclusion that homes and retirement accounts should be fair game, too.

They should not, for obvious reasons. Homes are not liquid assets; I can’t just take out, say, 10 percent of my home’s value and apply it to a tuition bill. I’d have to either get a HELOC (at rapidly rising interest rates) or sell the house entirely and find a cheaper place to live, incurring the cost in time and money of moving. As for retirement accounts, the whole point of those is compounding interest over time. Tapping them early and often defeats the purpose. And there’s no financial aid for retirement.

If we want to argue for greater financial support for higher education to relieve the burden on students and their families—as I’ve been arguing for years and continue to do—we have to do it straightforwardly.

None of that is intended as a critique of what the authors wrote. It’s intended as a critique of how it will almost certainly be read. I would much prefer the outcome the authors intend, but the readers matter more than the writers.

Speaking of reader responses, this week’s post about maintaining a creative life while working brought some characteristically thoughtful ones.

One reader decided to address flagging morale in her workplace by instituting “Muffin Monday.” It caught on. During the COVID lockdown, they’d post pictures of muffins in their Monday meetings. A little recognition of everyone’s humanity can go a long way.

Another pointed me to this 1934 piece by James Thurber detailing Gertrude Stein’s creative process. It’s worth the read, but the part about cows gives the general idea. “The two ladies drive around in their Ford until they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow.” Given that Thurber wrote it, I can’t attest to its veracity, but I’d very much like to believe that it’s true. The visual is just too good not to. She (the reader, not Stein) had trained in music and has discovered the usefulness of what she calls “musical doodles.” They’re short, low-stakes compositions designed just to keep the creative juices flowing.

A third reader developed an interest in the history of sportswriting, particularly about baseball. The beauty of it is that baseball has nothing to do with her day job. Just being able to do deep dives into something entirely unrelated keeps alive the joy of learning. I couldn’t agree more.

Finally, one poet–turned–institutional researcher (!) wrote to mention, among other things, just how much “poetry administration” is involved in trying to get published on a regular basis. Apparently, she has to take days off from her day job just to coordinate submissions. It had never occurred to me that poetry administration is a thing, but apparently it is.

Thank you to my wise and worldly readers. If only our policy makers were as wise as you …

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