I spent last January teaching somewhere unexpected: at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, established six years ago. And this class was different from any other in which I’ve been involved.
My creative writing class had 25 students of extraordinarily diverse backgrounds. Some were traditional-age seniors, soon to graduate. Others were older security personnel, several of whom had never been able to attend a college or university. Yet their differences didn’t matter. For three exciting weeks, I taught storytelling to matriculating students and staff members. More important, they taught each other.
They came from all over with tales to tell. A woman from the Philippines planned her story in her head while on duty as a campus security guard. Another student, an Emirati, composed his off campus, in his family home. One student from Uganda wrote about a young girl who could whistle magically. A student from Pakistan enlisted classmates to perform her manifesto -- scripted as a play -- satirizing arranged marriages. Another student, from the same part of the world, read out a dialogue from a son who wanted only more time with his busy, working dad.
This all started months earlier, when I received an email from Carol Brandt, NYUAD’s associate vice chancellor for global education and outreach. Would I be interested, she asked, to have my class participate in cocurricular activities? I had no idea what that meant. She told me that I could break up the January term’s notoriously intense three weeks of daily classes by, for example, taking students on a field trip or having them interview school staff members, or whatever creative idea I felt was suitable.
In the days before term started, the opportunity expanded. Another email came -- this time from Liria Gjidija, who goes by Lily and works in the social responsibility area of the university. Would I, she asked, be interested in also teaching creative writing to members of the campus staff?
I said yes to the unexpected offer. Of course. Education, after all, is key to developing every citizen’s possible self, while creative writing is vital to finding one’s voice.
Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, I immediately met with Lily, who explained NYUAD’s evolving social responsibility initiative. I was surprised, then thrilled, to hear about her work with campus contract employees -- maintenance personnel, hospitality staff and security guards -- as well as with those working in domestic roles with staff and faculty families. NYUAD now offers all of them access to library and health facilities, intramural sports, film screenings and an expanding range of classes on such subjects as survival Arabic, ESL, photography, business English, storytelling and even cooking.
Rather alarmingly to me, Lily described the creative writing course I’d give to contract staff: everyone had very high hopes, she told me, and you’ll be the captain of the ship.
Carte blanche can sometimes produce great anxiety, especially when teaching for the first time at a foreign school. I retreated to my apartment to brainstorm, knowing well that continuing education presents special challenges. I’d learned that painfully after completing my M.F.A. at Columbia University, when I gave creative writing courses in South Australia at the Workers’ Educational Association. There, I discovered that adult learning is particularly demanding because teachers have little baseline knowledge of what students have previously learned. Faced with the diversity of teaching 16 contract staff members at NYUAD, I became even more anxious.
The solution hit me as I read over the initial completed writing exercises of my nine matriculating NYUAD students. We’d spent our intense first week learning the basics of storytelling. They’d studied elegantly simple short stories, such as “Reunion” by John Cheever and Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Reading the students’ work, it was evident they’d learned their stuff.
I jumped up, excited: Why not have these young students share all they’d learned with the 16 security guards whom I’d be teaching in the second and third weeks of the term? And why not have both sets pair up to learn about narrative by sharing their life stories?
On the first of what would be two Thursday afternoons, both sets of students were equally enthusiastic. For the beginning half of the class, the NYUAD kids shared their new skills with the guards who keep their campus secure. During the latter half of the class, those youngsters interviewed their elders, learning about their lives. Throughout, there was a shared excitement in the air. Nary a moan nor protest was heard when I assigned the busy contract staff members the stories by Cheever and Hemingway as their homework.
The frisson persisted during our second Thursday together, as the young students paired up with different staff members to unpack “Reunion” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” As with the week before, the latter portion of class was spent on interviews, but this time with staff members interviewing students about their lives. At the end of the class, we all parted ways for the weekend -- stories communicated and real connections made.
Too rare, often, are the moments in teaching and writing when you’re reminded exactly why you do it -- when what is learned goes beyond pages or discussions, or standardized demands of exams or reviews. Over the following two weekends, I met alone with the contract staff members to go deeper into what the NYUAD students had taught them. Those older learners then constructed their own stories and shared them with each other. They wrote of distant children growing up without them. Or parents passing far away. They wrote of departures and missed opportunities. Or the unforgotten beauty of their homelands. In writing, my students transcended themselves -- taking a bold step toward finding their voices, so that one day they could raise them beautifully and loudly. Because that’s what creative writing is about.
But rarer, still, are those moments when you see a higher education institution transcend the business that is education. Colleges and universities have classrooms, books, facilities; many have endowments and well-paid professors, or noble ideals like with my own Jesuit and Christian brothers’ alma maters. Colleges and universities engage in socially relevant research or in outreach, give to charities and encourage students to look at our troubled world and ask: Why?
Yet nowhere in my lifetime of studying and teaching have I seen this effort to help further educate the hundreds of workers who exist quietly within hallowed halls, in shadowed corridors -- keeping campuses safe, serving food to young minds, selling or shelving books or tidying up classrooms those long hours they are emptied. We should ask ourselves: Why not?
NYU Abu Dhabi is now doing it, to my great surprise. Their social responsibility program is becoming a model that should be replicated in every able university across the world. If you saw what I saw, what my students saw in those 16 university employees -- from the Philippines, Nepal, Uganda, Pakistan and India -- you would agree wholeheartedly that this initiative is vitally important. Because isn’t what happened in those classes what education is all about?
Miguel Syjuco, a visiting assistant professor of practice at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a Filipino writer from Manila. His debut novel, Ilustrado, was the winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and a New York Times Notable Book of 2010.
A request to write letters evaluating other faculty for tenure and promotion means that other people think you are qualified to make this important assessment. It can also be terrifying, write Joya Misra and Jennifer Lundquist.
It takes only one problematic student in an otherwise amiable class to cause a teacher to temporarily question his career choice. It’s especially troubling that the proportion of such problematic students appears to be growing.
Some studies have reported a rising “narcissism epidemic” among students, the result of which suggests that the “United States is poised to experience social problems as younger narcissists age and move into positions of power,” as Josh Clark of Seeker.com noted in February 2013. Many educators are unfamiliar with scholarly research on this mental disorder, yet they know, through personal experience, its various symptoms. What are those symptoms, and what can educators do to manage them when they flare up, particularly in the classroom?
Let’s start with the first question. Narcissistic students are distinguished by several traits that imply a greater likelihood of conflict with their instructors. They are prone to “arrogant, haughty [rude and abusive] behaviors or attitudes,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They are also easily offended; one might expect that this trait is especially manifest in classes where controversial social issues are regularly discussed. Further, narcissism is associated with a sense of academic entitlement, as well as uncivil behavior when, as noted in an article in Personality and Individual Differences, “entitled behaviors fail to achieve the desired outcome.” Finally, narcissism is linked to immoral -- and shameless -- conduct, including academic dishonesty. (Cheating seems to be on the rise, although I’ve seen little evidence that students are getting better at it. Would it kill them to at least change the font color before copying and pasting someone else’s work?)
Simply put, narcissistic students are more disruptive, academically entitled, willing to cheat in order to succeed and likely to fuss when they don’t.
As a result, classroom conflicts with narcissistic students may occur with greater frequency in higher education today. Here I’m particularly interested in the more serious cases that reach the attention of college administrators, wherein professors face at least two challenges when presenting their side of the story. First, if narcissistic students do have fewer qualms about committing acts of academic dishonesty, it isn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to suspect that they’re also more likely to deliberately misrepresent classroom confrontations and level false accusations against faculty members. Such bogus allegations are a real -- and evidently growing -- problem in today’s educational institutions. In Great Britain, at least, more than one in five teachers reported having been falsely accused by school and college students in a survey conducted last year by the U.K.-based Association of Teachers and Lecturers. On the other side of the Atlantic, it was reported that one in seven male teachers has been wrongly accused of “inappropriate contact with students,” leading to a dearth of “male role models” in Canadian classrooms, according to the Canadian Education Association.
Second, colleges and universities are increasingly run like businesses, whereby students are viewed as customers. Accordingly, Nate Kreuter argues, “the old main street American, folksy business mantra that ‘the customer is always right’ can’t be too far behind.” Although recent experience has taught me that I’ve been blessed with a very fair-minded dean, I know that professors at other institutions aren’t nearly as fortunate. The rise of this business model of education may be part of the reason why some of them are quitting. Perhaps they’ve lost confidence in their institutions’ ability to adjudicate conflicts between students and faculty members impartially.
So, what’s my solution? Installing video cameras in classrooms is by no means a novel idea. It has been proposed for multiple reasons, from helping “teachers ground their self-reflection in empirical evidence” to protecting students from bullies and abusive professors.
But class cams aren’t usually predicated on the growing need to protect educators. While leaving it to each college and university to address questions of implementation (e.g., where, and for how long, will video footage be stored? Who may access it and under what conditions?), I argue that class cams will produce the incontrovertible evidence that faculty members need to overcome false allegations from students.
Of course, faculty members and school teachers are capable of misconduct, too (and I mean real, coming-to-class-drunk-and-walking-into-walls misconduct, not the distasteful-yet-harmless-dropping-the-f-bomb-in-class misconduct that, these days, can help get a professor fired). Therefore, class cams could also benefit students by proving or deterring inappropriate classroom behavior on their instructors’ part.
Class cams are an admittedly costly solution. But for colleges and universities that can afford them, they may be a necessary safeguard for faculty members until we successfully resolve the underlying causes of our narcissism epidemic.
Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College.
I spent a couple of weeks in January nursing a gloom-inducing inferiority complex. I was part of a team of academics reviewing applications for the most prestigious national fellowship in my field.
Only about 7 percent of applicants will get the award. Of the 35 or so candidates I reviewed, the few that I recommended for funding were simply stunning in their talent and achievement. The others, those unfortunate souls whom I voted to reject, suffered from being merely staggeringly good. They all seemed to have obtained 4.0 averages at elite institutions, written publishable senior theses and conducted summer research with world-famous scholars.
Who was I to sit in judgment of these people? I felt like a flabby Roman emperor giving a thumbs-down to the gladiator who was slightly less preternaturally strong and agile than the one who held the sword at his throat. I mean, I sure as hell couldn’t beat any of them. But besides the ache in my deflating ego was the discomfort of knowing that, while the applicants we were funding may have deserved it the most, they were also those who needed it the least. We weren’t making graduate school available to students who couldn’t afford it. We were simply pouring money into a handful of the world’s wealthiest universities.
I think of myself as a noncommissioned intellectual. Most of my job involves teaching economics at a small, academically respected liberal arts college with strong, highly motivated students. It’s a good job, and I like it.
Teaching is not all I do; Google Scholar tells me that my publications have been cited a few hundred times. But an economist my age at a research university will have thousands of citations, and the top economists will have tens of thousands.
So I am not one of the generals, so to speak, who lead the troops in our discipline, directing them to some new set of economic ideas. Nor am I a colonel supervising those early-career officers who might one day be generals. I am a sergeant.
I have been a sergeant for 33 years. I train the new recruits, the youngest enlisted personnel, only a few of whom will decide on an academic career. I think I’m a good sergeant, and good sergeants are valuable, as any general will tell you. But it feels odd for a sergeant to be identifying the next generals. I suppose I was recruited to this job because a flag officer’s time is too valuable to spend on this.
Interestingly, among the fellowship applicants -- the future generals, colonels and (at least) captains -- I spotted someone I thought would make a fine sergeant. It surprised me and made me think, “What are you doing here?” Like me, this person had been a good but not great student at an uncelebrated state institution and was not even an economics major. (My B.A. is in political science.) Unlike me, however, she had been compelled to support herself all the way through college. She had to overcome extraordinary personal challenges to arrive at graduate school, and remarkably, she did. The graduate program she enrolled in wasn’t at Stanford or Harvard, but it could produce great sergeants, and maybe once in a while a major or a colonel. And federally supporting this student might make it possible for the university to enroll another one or two.
Naturally, however, I did not propose funding for this potential sergeant. I wasn’t supposed to be looking for sergeants -- I was supposed to be looking for colonels and generals. To be sure, these fellowships take into account applicants’ special circumstances and try to be inclusive with respect to race and gender. But I couldn’t bring myself to recommend a merely good record over a batch of phenomenal ones.
In some ways, that is unfortunate. Without federal funding, the exceptional young scholars will almost certainly get financial assistance from one of the elite institutions. The federal fellowship doesn’t enable them to go to graduate school; it merely relieves Princeton or Yale of having to dip into their massive endowment returns or sizable research grants to support such top-notch students. In effect, this money makes the rich institutions richer.
I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to direct funding to the supertalented. After all, don’t we want to reward a truly superior performance over a merely excellent or good one? I don’t want to make an appeal for mediocrity.
But we should not delude ourselves that these funds are actually creating opportunities for graduate study. They are not. To actually accomplish that, a bit of the money that is going to fund the best of the best at the most elite institutions should be directed to the less wealthy ones, where Ph.D. recipients become good science teachers and competent researchers (which enhances teaching), but who are not always research stars. Even though few of the new recruits would eventually make general, if those funds supported a wider range of colleges and universities, they might increase the size of our army of scholars.
I am reminded of the title of the movie that made Andy Griffith famous: No Time for Sergeants. I hope that the elite members of the scientific and academic establishments will not take this attitude but will see the worth of supporting some noncoms, as well.
Mark Montgomery is Donald L. Wilson Professor of Enterprise and Leadership and professor of economics at Grinnell College.
The old joke about studying English went, “Would you like fries with that major?” I haven’t heard that joke in years. Barista has replaced fast food worker as the career of choice for warning against the perils of majoring in English.
What are we to make of this new old joke about the English major? Why did barista replace fast food worker? The fact is that English majors are not particularly likely to end up as baristas or as workers in the food service industry in general. Plenty of data is available to disprove this idea, so what does its persistence mean? The English major barista is a myth in the sense of being untrue. It is also a myth in the deeper sense of that word: a story that a culture tells itself to explain wishes or fears. In this case, fears.
First things first. Data show that English majors do not tend to end up as baristas. Over each year, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a detailed survey of about 1 percent of the national population. Called the American Community Survey, this census includes questions about age, educational attainment, field of degree and employment. Respondents to the survey cannot actually choose “barista” when reporting occupation, but they can choose the category “counter attendant, cafeteria, food concession and coffeehouse.” However, the number of people in this category is small when further segmented by field of degree.
A more reliable analysis groups this category along with several related ones, including bartenders, waiters, dishwashers and the like. That larger grouping does not literally count English majors who work as baristas, but it gets at the spirit of the claim, with greater statistical validity. If the destiny of the English major is service behind the coffee bar, then bartending, waiting tables or washing dishes cannot be far behind.
However, none of those food service jobs are the English major’s particular fate. According to the Census Bureau, graduates with an English degree have about a 4.9 percent chance of working in one of these food service occupations for some time between the ages of 22 and 26. By comparison, the average among all degree holders in this age group is about 3.5 percent. So English majors are only about 1.4 percentage points more likely to work in food service than the average for all degree holders.
When we look at mature workers, the data bear out a broader observation: majors in the humanities and social sciences take a little more time to find their career footing, but then they catch up with and sometimes exceed in salary earnings the graduates with more professional degrees. For degree holders ages 27 to 66, the percentage of graduates in English working in food service professions for some time during this 40-year period is 0.72 percent, or about one in 139 majors. Among all majors ages 27 to 66, the average is 0.48 percent. English remains higher than average, but not by much. The 0.24 point difference translates to an additional one in 417 chance of ending up at working in food service at some point between the ages of 27 and 66.
So where, in fact, do English majors end up working? The top occupations for English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 are elementary and middle school teachers, postsecondary teachers, and lawyers, judges, magistrates and other judicial workers. Indeed, English majors, who go on to a range of careers, are less likely to work in food service than in many highly skilled positions, including as chief executives and legislators (1.4 percent), physicians and surgeons (1.2 percent), or accountants and auditors (1.2 percent). Parents worried that their children will study English and end up as baristas should know that their sons and daughters are statistically more likely to end up as CEOs, doctors or accountants than behind the counter of a Starbucks.
Level of education and age, rather than choice of major, most predict work in food service. Between the ages of 22 and 26, people who do not report a baccalaureate degree have a somewhat higher percentage of food service work than English-degree holders: 5.68 percent vs. 4.88 percent. For mature workers, ages 27 to 66, the corollary numbers are 1.45 percent and 0.72 percent. For full-time mature workers, the difference a baccalaureate degree makes is particularly striking. English-degree holders ages 27 to 66 work full time in food service at a rate of 0.53 percent, those without a baccalaureate degree at 1.92 percent. Starbucks has made help with college degree completion a perk for its workers. If all those baristas had B.A.s in English, or in any degree, there would be no need for this program.
Of course, the English major as barista is also shorthand for a general belief that a degree in English leads to underemployment -- that is, to jobs that really do not require a college degree. A recent study shows that around 12 percent of recent college graduates ages 22 to 27 with a degree in English work in low-skilled service jobs. That is the same percent as for baccalaureate holders in this age group who majored in psychology and earth science, and 3.4 percentage points higher than the average for degree holders in general, which is 8.6 percent. Those percentages may be higher than we would like, but there’s nothing distinctive about English majors in them.
Fortunately, too, these percentages are for recent graduates; the same study shows that college graduates tend to mature out of these jobs. As we have seen, the English majors who do work in food service generally do so when they are young and as a first job -- a start, not an end. The coffeehouse is not their career.
To establish themselves in their careers, English majors need to show a bit more resourcefulness than do majors in narrowly preprofessional degrees. And year after year, that is exactly what real English majors do. They do not possess this resourcefulness in spite of their English degree or as a mere coincidence with it. Creative and independent thinkers are attracted to the English degree, and that course of study helps to develop their creativity and their initiative -- the same personal qualities that serve them so well in the working world after graduation.
So why the barista joke? It reflects negative attitudes about the English major itself rather than the realities of an English major’s likely employment. Since coffeehouses are places for reading, writing and talking, spending time in a coffeehouse is a lot like spending time in the study of English. Naturally enough, English majors like to hang out in them. STEM majors have their labs; English majors have their Starbucks. The joke about the English major barista implies, however, that unlike the science done in a lab, the study of English, whether pursued in coffeehouse or classroom, is without value. What better punishment for wasting this time than being sentenced to work at a coffeehouse rather than enjoying its pleasures, serving those who presumably chose some more valuable and lucrative major?
In this vengeful fantasy, moreover, the barista with an English B.A. contributes to the coffeehouse’s cultural sophistication, the human equivalent of its background jazz or pictures of Seattle circa 1971. The English major’s transformation into cultural wallpaper is part of the joke.
The English major makes an academic career out of studying literary culture or (still worse in the eyes of the major’s detractors) ordinary culture inflated into an academic subject. Having to work in a coffeehouse is punishment for that study, since students who are ambitious to become cultural elites instead find themselves in a lowly service industry, working in their local strip-mall Starbucks rather than sitting at a coffee bar in Florence. The particular name that Starbucks made famous for its workers -- “barista” -- along with all its pseudo-Italian terms, like “grande” for medium, is the foam on the Frappuccino. The joke implies that the job and its pretentious, pseudo-high culture name perfectly fit the empty pretensions of the major itself.
The Thin Bar
But this joke about frustrated aspiration is on us all. Consider the coffeehouse’s storied place in the history of European and Anglo-American modernity. Jürgen Habermas made famous the idea that the activities with which coffeehouses are still associated -- reading, writing, conversation -- made them nothing less than cradles of modern literature and democracy. The coffeehouse was a republic of letters, where literacy and the purchase of a cup of coffee were the only entry requirements to participation in literary and political worlds that had once been the exclusive province of courtly and hereditary elites. Coffeehouses were sometimes referred to in the 18th century as “penny universities.” (One still also had to be a man, although Habermas believes the ideals of the coffeehouse militated even against this restriction).
Your local coffee spot may seem a far cry from a cradle of western democracy or a “penny university.” Particularly with regard to Starbucks, the criticism of the coffeehouse today is that it’s a place of faux culture and shallow consumption, where the other side of high-priced coffee drinks is the exploitation of coffee farmers in the third world and of the company’s own workers behind the counter. From that point of view, Starbucks is just about making money. “Everything else,” as one Starbucks critic puts it, is “window dressing.” As part of that window dressing, the Starbucks barista both serves and reflects a world narrowed to maximized profit and empty consumption.
“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” the poet Wordsworth wrote. Still: Starbucks promises something more than getting and spending. However much our local Starbucks is a place to grab coffee as we rush to work, or an embarrassment of ersatz culture, the success of the Starbucks brand demonstrates a yearning for more fulfilling cultural and communal spaces of the sort described by Habermas. Starbucks doesn’t just sell coffee; it sells the coffeehouse ideal. It offers reading and music suggestions, has printed literary quotes on coffee cups, and has asked its baristas to start discussions about race in America. The criticism that greeted the last initiative is telling. Starbucks was seen as too corporate to serve as a place for genuine cultural or political exchange, however much it seems to promise it.
The fast-food joke consigned the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job. The barista joke consigns the English major to a low-paying and unfulfilling job that remains tantalizing close to a more fulfilling coffeehouse ideal. To the extent that we also want that ideal, we’re that close, too. We, too, are attracted to the coffeehouse image of a richer cultural and communal life, even if that image promises more than harried working lives and corporate marketing can deliver. A thin bar separates the cultural aspirations, and disappointments, of Starbucks workers and consumers.
A similarly thin bar separates worker and consumer in terms of a feared economic decline. There was a time when we might have celebrated the English major’s drive to explore self and world in college, or as part of a career trajectory that involved some time for similar self-development and exploration of opportunities, before rushing headlong into a career. There was a time when we laughed at hearing the just-graduated Dustin Hoffman advised in The Graduate to stake his future on plastics. And there was a time when we understood that English majors, like other majors in the liberal arts, end up with far more than a salary -- they develop the sense of ethics, history and culture, and the habits of open and reasoned deliberation, that the coffeehouse ideal represents and that are essential to functioning democracies, not to mention to lives well lived.
Today, however, many people laugh at someone who seems unwilling to turn a college education into job training for the industry du jour in order to secure the highest-paying job straight out of college. English majors achieve successful careers, as the data show. That we consign them, in the myth of the English major barista, to a permanent life in food service says less about them and more about us -- about how afraid we have become of defying the market imperative to maximize profit, the single force, apparently, by which we are now supposed to guide our lives.
This fear is reasonable -- stagnant wages, the erosion of unions, the growing use of contract and part-time labor to replace full-time jobs, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and insufficiently regulated financial markets all contribute to the insecurity of middle-class life. For college students in particular, the withdrawal of states from the public funding of higher education, combined with rising tuition, makes any decisions seem risky if they don’t, as the saying goes now, make college an effective return on investment. But the fear is more than that. It is as if any defiance of profit maximization must be met with punishment: the condemnation to a life serving coffee.
We will only really dispel the myth of the English major barista when we confront head-on the structural economic problems and the narrow market ideology that drive the fear behind it. Meanwhile, in their own refusal to succumb to this fear, English majors can be confident they'll do fine spending some time in coffeehouses -- whichever side of the bar they’re on.
Robert Matz is a professor of English and senior associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University.