‘Moving Up Without Losing Your Way’

Author discusses her new book about the costs of social mobility in higher education.

September 18, 2019
 

Jennifer M. Morton relies in part on personal experience for her book Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility (Princeton University Press). She writes of growing up in Peru and how unlikely it was for her to land at Princeton University. She was a striver, though -- and pushed on.

As associate professor of philosophy at City College and the Graduate Center of City University of New York, Morton considers the issues involved with nurturing low-income, disadvantaged students through higher education.

She responded via email to questions about her book.

Q: What was it like being a first-generation student at Princeton?

A: When I came to Princeton, I didn’t have the language of "first-generation student" available to me. In fact, it wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand this as a category and to see much of what I had experienced at college as a textbook case of this phenomenon. For example, I did very well in my International Baccalaureate math exam, so I was placed in a very advanced math class my first semester, Real Analysis. On the first day, the professor, a very famous mathematician, spent the whole class scrawling frantically on the chalkboard without ever asking us our names or making eye contact. At the end of the class, he gave us an assignment that, as far as I could tell, had no connection to anything that he had written on the board. I panicked and dropped the class immediately. I never went to an adviser, never talked to my family about it, never reached out to one of the teaching assistants for the class. I just knew that Princeton was a huge opportunity and I didn’t want to mess it up. It was only later, when chatting to someone who had stayed in the class, that I discovered that nobody in class knew what was going on and that the key to surviving it was talking to the teaching assistants.

As an undergraduate, I craved mentorship. I was fortunate to take a small seminar with the great historian of avant-garde cinema P. Adams Sitney. When I expressed some interest in pursuing a career in film, he told me that unless I was rich and well connected in Hollywood, it would be a very risky path. I appreciated his frankness, so when it came to decide on a major, I asked him what he thought about the philosophy department. He told me it was the best in the country and that it would provide me with an excellent undergraduate education. That sounded like a good argument to me, so I followed his advice. I did well enough in my classes and ended up deciding to go to graduate school because I had no idea what else I would do. My mother thought I was wasting my intelligence and that I was going to end up on the streets. My grandmother trusted me, because I had always been a responsible kid who had done well in school, and she had no reason to think this would be different. But neither of them could offer advice that I felt I could really trust since they had no familiarity with the decision I was facing. I felt very alone making this decision and many similar ones, which is a common experience for first-generation college students.

Q: Many think that first-generation students need only basic courtesies. Why do they need more?

A: I think what we underestimate in thinking about the experiences of first-generation students is the importance of relationships. First-generation students are often putting their relationships with friends, family and their communities on the line. They are moving far from home and becoming more and more dissimilar from those with whom they grew up. This can lead to costs in areas of their lives that are central to who they are. Yet, when they are in college, many find it difficult to make friends, find mentors or develop relationships with their professors. If we are to allow first-generation students to enrich their lives in those areas in which they have had to sacrifice to make it in college, then we need to focus on the social and emotional aspects of their college experience, not simply on GPA or graduation rates. It is critical that colleges and universities find ways to make campuses places where first-generation college students can find friends, enter new communities and develop relationships with mentors.

Princeton, for example, has been making great strides in supporting their first-generation, low-income students, but what they do is very expensive. Most first-generation and low-income students do not attend schools with huge endowments. The really pressing question is, what can the institutions that serve the greatest proportion of this student population, schools like CUNY, for instance, realistically offer given our ever-shrinking budgets?

Q: What is code-switching?

A: The term comes from linguistics and it means changing your language as a response to the context. I use the term in a broader cultural sense to talk about the changes in behavior that one might employ in order to integrate into a particular social or cultural context. For example, when I walk into a philosophy seminar room, I talk and act very differently than when I’m visiting my working-class grandmother. I argue that cultural code-switching is perilous because, in trying to fit in, one risks giving up on aspects of oneself that matter deeply. But failing to code-switch can imperil one’s chances of success, in school and beyond.

Educational institutions are deeply social institutions where your success is dependent on the relationships you build with others. For example, to get a good internship, to get into graduate school and so on, you need letters of recommendation. These letters are much more likely to be good ones if you can establish a good rapport with your professors. For students from underrepresented groups, establishing these relationships often involves some degree of code-switching. One person I interviewed for the book told me how she saw other students in her graduate program joke around with professors and reap the rewards of doing so. Doing what her peers did felt deeply uncomfortable and inauthentic to her, yet doing so would probably help her in her eventual career. It is this tricky space -- between staying true to one’s identity and values and adapting to succeed in places in which one is liable to be marginalized -- that many first-generation students have to navigate.

Q: You talk of a professor banging his fist on the table while telling you to "make your point already." Do you view the professor positively (getting you ready for grad school) or negatively?

A: The honest answer is both. That professor taught me how to deal with the most aggressive kind of behavior within academic settings, an attitude that used to pervade much of philosophy, though, fortunately, it is now on the wane. The experience was painful, but I also learned a great deal about philosophy from him. Graduate school was much easier because of everything he taught me. In that sense, the boot camp approach worked. But I don’t think students should be treated that way. I think it should be possible to pursue a career in academic philosophy without needing to put up with that sort of unnecessarily aggressive behavior.

This incident points to the challenge educators face in teaching students the contexts of injustice. I want to give my students the skills to succeed in the world as they will find it. But what they will find is often unjust. And succeeding in the face of it might require them to put up with unjust institutions and with people who will be racist, sexist and bullying. I think the best approach is having explicit conversations with your students about your pedagogical motivations in such cases. If that professor had said to me, “You will encounter many challenges in this profession as a Latina, and you need to be able to deal with this kind of behavior, though it is unjust and unnecessary,” I think I might’ve been better able to understand what I was experiencing then and what I would go on to experience professionally.

Q: How can the students you discuss in your book "construct an ethical narrative"?

A: Much of the conversation about the challenges faced by strivers has focused on the financial and academic challenges such students confront, for good reason. Debt and college completion are critical concerns. But I think it is time that we also talk about the ethical dimension of that experience. How are other aspects of a striver’s life or identity impacted by the decision to pursue higher education? What are strivers giving up, besides money and effort, to get a college degree? How should strivers think about the conflicts of values they face? And how should they think about their role if they succeed?

In other words, we need to include talk of values and ethics in the conversations that we have with students about their education. In an educational system which defines success as getting into and graduating from college, students are not given a chance to reflect on why they’re on this path to begin with and how it fits with other areas of their life that are valuable and meaningful to them. We default to telling students that a college degree is obviously worth it (which is not reassuring to those who have their doubts) or we ignore the question of the values at stake altogether. When I’ve taught philosophy of education, I’ve been amazed by how very few college students have had a chance to reflect on what higher education has to offer beyond a degree. But this sort of reflection should be central to the education that all students, but in particular strivers, receive.

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