disadvantage

I’ve been working with an undergraduate, a senior. She is African American, from a poor family. None of her elders went to college, although a few cousins are doing it. She graduated at the top of her class in an inner-city high school, where she says she never had to do any work to make As. Her writing is markedly deficient compared to the predominantly-affluent predominantly-privileged students here, and she struggles academically. Although as a faculty we fight against the rigidity of the five paragraph essay most students had drilled into them in high school, this student was never taught it. She has worked on her writing all through college, and says she is much better now than when she got here. I mentioned to her something about helping my son write a graduate school essay and she almost cried at the thought of a parent being able to give that kind of help. I told her that I did not want to diminish the realities of privilege and struggle, but the one thing she could hold to herself that the privileged cannot is the knowledge that, whatever she does, she did it. She can claim all her achievements as her own, not as the product of privilege.

Would this student have been better off to go to a community college where the classes were geared for other ill-prepared students? I don’t think so. As much as she has struggled, she has kept going and will graduate, and has learned a lot more here among the privileged, where the curriculum is more demanding. That is, if she can keep up her morale and self-esteem in the face of the struggles. And I think about all those people who imagine that admitting disadvantaged students into selective schools is somehow “giving” something to people who do not deserve it. As a straight-A student in high school, she can hardly have been said to be admitted as some kind of gift. Whatever her weaknesses are, they have to be blamed on her school, not on her.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

12 thoughts on “disadvantage”

  1. Sure, but this is the easy case. The person in your example has three intertwined disadvantages: (1) race, (2) socioeconomic status, (3) quality of school. The wedge issues for admissions policies center more on cases that get at which of these disadvantages is the one that policies should target.

  2. Jeremy: But a lot of those “wedge cases,” IMHO, are pretty disingenuous. (The only time some people — I’m not talking about you, but some of the folks/politicians who take this line — seem to care about the plight of the working class is when they can use it as a stick to beat the idea of affirmative action based on race…) Seriously, why can’t there be policies in place for all three of the disadvantages you list?

    olderwoman: Thanks for posting this. I’m white, and a black student at my university recently told me about how she — a top student at the best public high school in her mostly-black hometown — has been behind since the day she got here. I’ve noticed the enormous difference in the writing skills people enter with, too.

    What do you think universities should do to help students in this situation?

  3. crimsonglow: Yes, excellent point about the way working class white students sometimes seem like they are only an object of concern because of their rhetorical value for opposing race-focused policies.

  4. What do you think universities should do to help students in this situation?

    at penn, where i went to undergrad, there was a program over the summer prior to freshmen year where students like the one mentioned in the post were able to come to campus and take a course that acclimated them to college. as a part of the program incoming freshmen are introduced to all the academic resources on campus and are assigned upper-class mentors who are supposed to really take care of them over the year. i was in the program – black, female, working-class, second in extended family to attend college, near top in public urban school – and was also a counselor/mentor. there is no way i think i could have done what i did without that program. as soon as i realized i was in trouble in a class, i knew where to go. there were people who constantly kept tabs on me to make sure i didn’t fall through the cracks.

    my situation was different, mainly in that i went to a great high school despite it being public and in a major city in the northeast. i also got a full scholarship, so *some* financial pressure was off my back. and while at the time i went to college neither of my parents had graduated from college, my mom was in college when i was born, and graduated a year before i did.

    re:privilege and disadvantage – as important as it is to know that when you’ve been disadvantaged and yet still come out ahead that you did it, not anyone/thing else, i also had to tell myself many times that i still couldn’t have done it without so many people having my back, and that is a privilege in an of itself. the young lady you speak of, olderwoman, is privileged to have you helping her. this sounds self-defeating to a certain extent, but i constantly remind myself that there are thousands of people like me who didn’t get any opportunities, any breaks, any attention from anyone. of course, i’m not saying that you, olderwoman, should be saying this to her. it’s just that what you said reminded me of that. i went into college feeling like i was just disadvantaged and that made me angry. i looked at all these rich kids around me and just hated their guts. but once i started to be more aware of the ways that i was also privileged, the anger started to subside, where now i sometimes hardly recognize disadvantage in my life. and i think i’m better off for it.

  5. I think we generally do a dis-service to students by assuming that they can write when they enter college. We assume that they can draw out evidence from other sources, identify the structure of an argument, distill that argument, and then use this to make an argument of their own. In other words, we assume that kids have lots of skill necessary to write papers.

    I think we would be better served if we took a different approach – that in lower level courses we didn’t expect students to have these skills. And instead in courses we developed them. So in some classes you learn to draw out evidence, in others you learn to distill an argument, in others you learn to map the structure of an argument, etc. And then it is only later that we ask students to write papers that draw upon all of these skills.

    I suspect the result would be twofold (1) students would write better papers by their completion of college (2) the playingfield would be somewhat leveled. Not completely leveled. But in breaking down writing skills into constitutive parts there wouldn’t be such a cumulative disadvantage.

    As for more practical advice: nothing other thank Strunk and White. Which really helped me. That, and perhaps examples of “bad” things you’ve written (drafts). Just to show that writing is hard for all of us.

    Which reminds me of something: Ang once said, “wouldn’t it be great if famous people kept a “book of failures” to show young people?” The idea was this: you encounter someone famous and you think their life has been easy. But people fail more than they succeed. So it would be nice to see that. Now I don’t thikn I’ll be famous. But I do think I might have grad students. And so Ive started saving stuff. Rejection letters, etc. And when a grad student is discouraged I plan on breaking it out. Just to say, “yeah, it’s more often hard. and we fail more than we succeed”. I suspect that by the time I’m “senior” in the field, the letters will take up multiple volumes.

  6. I’m not that good at teaching writing. I can edit pretty well, but the “how you get going” skills I don’t know how to teach. That’s hard. There can also be confusion and interference about how to write for the academy and whether your speaking voice and your writing voice are consonant. And some people remain bad writers long after they have earned PhDs and published a lot, so it isn’t just a matter of education, although education helps.

    The most important thing I think I know about teaching is that every student is different. I know that a student’s grade in any class is a function of at least four variables: what they knew before they started the class, something about their native ability or intelligence, how hard they worked, and good a job I did teaching. These interact. The same teaching that is inspirational or helpful for one student can be boring or pedestrian for another.

    So, yeah, I think I’m in favor of a combination of compassion and caring for people who are struggling, compensatory programs for skills deficits, and cultural/social awareness training for faculty about blind assumptions about people’s needs. But I’d be pretty open to research data on “what works.”

    crimsonglow & jeremy: Yes, I agree White working class kids often get lost in the shuffle, and a lot of kids from rural schools are in a similar boat to the student I wrote about. I think we agree that the issues around class & disadvantage are different from those around diversity and discrimination, although they are correlated.

  7. gradmommy: Yes I agree that people get help, including disadvantaged people, not to mention advantaged people. And recognizing the ways in which we have been helped by others is really important. But I think when you are struggling and feeling bad about how you are doing relative to other people, it helps to pat yourself on the back and remind yourself what you’ve overcome. It is all too easy to give up trying or just blame yourself for not working hard enough or not being smart enough.

  8. When I was still living in Michigan and we (as a state, against my will) passed the latest installment of Ward Connerly’s latest installment of his traveling road show to eliminate race-based affirmative action. There were three things that really bothered me about that campaign. First, opponents to the measure (i.e. those who wanted to keep gender- and race-based affirmative action programs) did not use the opportunity to really call the question of racial and gender privilege to the public. To some extent, gender was invoked (all of the anti-Prop 2 commercials were about women who had the chance to succeed because there were special programs, and most of these were people who benefited in the 1970s or earlier). Now, of course, there is always some trade off between trying to have a “winning” message, meaning being able to defeat the proposal, and one that actually speaks most directly to the issues. But, as it became obvious that the proposal was going to lose and coming less than a year on the heals of Hurricane Katrina, there could have and should have been a real debate about the importance of race. Instead, those on the left let the issue die a slow and painful death.

    Second, in all of the conversations about there not being enough slots in Michigan for “deserving” (deserving being judged strictly on the basis of high SAT scores) was there any conversation about the privileged VIP alumni legacies that were admitted that might very well be taking the spot of that “deserving” middle-class white youth from the Detroit suburbs. There was not a single bit of attention paid to the fact that people can buy their way to the university, but heaven forbid if someone is given a minor bump.

    Lastly, and most importantly — particularly with respect to olderwoman’s post — the most devastating loss as a result of the passage of Proposal 2 was the elimination of supplemental and summer training programs such as those described by grandmommy. Simply giving people access to higher education and a leg up in admissions to selective colleges and universities misses the point if we think that simply letting these students in eliminates the severe disadvantages accrued by where one lives, whether one’s parents attended college, and whether one has the ability to call on the weak ties of family and friends to even know what a college experience is like are all important. And, the worst part is, I believe that most people in Michigan actually believe that these programs are worthwhile and, if the vote had been a referenda on that issue — it would not have succeeded. I believe that, deep down, people get the fact that there is inequality and, as a country and culture, we need to do something to help those who do not have the advantages that everyone else does.

    Granted, that only extends so far: usually to the point that it has an impact on their own stake in the game (which is why portraying the affirmative action question solely as admissions and quotas has been so successful in California, Washington and Michigan). But, the kinds of programs that really matter can be saved, and, to me, demonstrates why, as a sociologist, it is important to engage in public discourses around issues like this — including having blogs that talk about these very issues.

  9. P.S. This is off-topic from my already long post, but I wanted to share it. Shakha, I agree completely that it would be great to know when people have been less than successful and seeing when successful people haven’t been as successful is certainly helpful. Another thing in a similar vein that I have found to be incredibly helpful in my graduate career is seeing papers written by professors before they are published. Although not all papers are of the greatest quality when they get published, they are, I would surmise, better than their initial drafts. As a grad student, I found it paralyzing to think that I had to write a paper that looked like what I read in journals. But, after I read a few professors papers in classes and in my research groups, etc. that hadn’t yet been published or, even better, were first drafts — that opened my eyes that I could possibly get there (though it was still scary)… Therefore, I think that it would also be great to share first drafts of papers that ultimately got published to help your students see that there is a progression and the first draft does not need to be a masterpiece.

  10. Re compensation, it is important to remember that it is very hard for any summer program to compensate for years of deep immersion in ways of talking and writing. Worth doing, of course, but it does not bring everyone to the same place. Analytically, academic discourse is a culture, and learning it is similar to absorbing any culture. Very hard for immigrants to blend in as native.

    Re models of failure, figuring out what you are doing, etc.: an occupational disease of the academic life is excessive perfectionism and the fear of criticism, which leads to intellectual paralysis and sitting on papers rather than sending them out. But sloppiness is bad, too, and it is hard to balance the different imperatives. Apprentice models and coauthoring are probably the best way to learn this stuff.

    And there is the talent problem: some have a greater flair for insight than others. Not all novelists, mathematicians, runners, singers, or baseball players are equal, even if they work equally hard and look to the same models. Caring about quality while settling for not being the best is the fate of most of us. Maybe I’ll write about coping with competition in another post, after I finish the overdue edits on a MS.

  11. yes, the summer program itself i not the answer, but even more important were the introduction to the myriad of resources on campus that were there to help me that many students do not take advantage of. like tutoring, or the writing center. it may not have kids getting straight A’s, but a tutor can help an f turn to a c and a writing coach can help shape vague ideas into intelligible prose. upperclass mentors [if they do their job well] help with the cultural assimilation process, too.

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