Mo’bility Mo’ Problems

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the metaphor of upward mobility and the ways in which social mobility often involves actual mobility—moving around to move up. I never really realized the emphasis on mobility in social mobility until it happened to me. That is, until my pursuit of graduate education coupled with financial need took me away from my home, family, and friend networks in Maryland to a fully funded PhD. program in the Midwest. I’ve written here before about the weirdness of living in a new geographical location than the one you’ve grown up in. But this time around I’m also interested in what gets gained and lost when one moves around as part of moving up.

I’m worried that increasingly I encounter popular rhetoric that assumes everyone is upwardly mobile or aspiring to be—that mobility is inherently good. Or, as President Bartlett puts it: “That’s the problem with the American dream. It makes everyone concerned for the day they’re gonna be rich.” These kinds of assumptions (that upward mobility is absolutely good, and thus that everyone must be looking for it) erase the challenges that mobility brings. These assumptions also erase the experiences of people who are content in their social standing or who are working just to keep that social standing secure, let alone to move out of it.

Social mobility is hard, especially when it involves actually moving. When you move, you lose networks of friends and family—networks of emotional, intellectual, and oftentimes financial support. And that’s fine. Sometimes things should be difficult. But we should talk more about that difficulty. Instead of just telling people encouraging things like education is the key to success or you can be whatever you want to be, it might help to temper that encouragement with honesty about how difficult it is to join a class of people who are not like the class of people you know and love best. This is not to discourage moving up or moving around, but to open up dialogue about challenges. Honest dialogue about challenges would also help for kinship purposes; for people to be able to find peers and mentors who support them and who they could help support in return.

Mobility is hard. You don’t always get to make ends meet, and that often feels like your own individual failure rather than the failure of a system that tells people to do and be whatever they want but really only rewards those who stick to the status quo and don’t shake things up too much. You miss things. People get married, people get born, people get sick, people die. You don’t get to be there for the celebrations and the successes, and you don’t get to be there for the tragedies and challenges. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. You build new networks, make new friends and family. And your relationships to your old networks shift and change in fun and exciting ways, not just in scary ways. We need people who’ve moved up and moved around. If only so that when they get where they’re going they can say, this isn’t actually better than where I was before, it’s just different, different in good and bad ways from where I was before.

A little background music for your enjoyment whilst you peruse this post.

Michael Scott

 

Things I Learned from TV

For the last few months I’ve been interviewing first-generation college students about their experiences with reading and writing in college. I’m also a first-generation college student myself, and at the end of a long day of interviewing I can usually be found standing at my kitchen sink doing dishes and thinking about what I’ve heard and learned that day. As I think about students’ interviews I often wonder, how would I answer these questions if someone asked me?

Towards the end of our first meetings together, I ask students, “How did you know that you wanted to go to college or how did you decide that you would be a person who goes to college?” A lot of times, students talk with me about TV shows or movies they saw or books they read that showed them what college was like and made them believe that they wanted to go to college.

This matters to me. It matters to me that watching TV or seeing a movie or reading a book could be the thing that gives you a window into the world outside your immediate life, outside your immediate family or community. It matters to me that these pop culture artifacts might show you that you could go to college, or have a fulfilling career, or make contact with a new and different community.

In my own life, countless TV shows and movies have shown me a world outside myself and helped me learn about a different community, a different experience outside my own. Being a first-generation college student, and coming from a working class community, a lot of these shows and movies and books showed me examples of middle class people, of going to college, of having a white-collar professional job; examples that I otherwise might not get to see everyday. Even if I didn’t necessarily choose to pursue these things myself, I saw them and knew they were viable options.

Here are some things I learned from TV: (disclaimer, my TV tastes are super mainstream).

One of my favorite shows, Gilmore Girls, takes on class difference directly as the show’s driving conflict. Lorelai comes from a wealthy Connecticut family whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower—old money. But she chooses to leave that community and raise her daughter Rory in a goRoryod ole’ small town, middle class community. In the first episode of the show, Rory decides to leave the local public school and commute to a private college preparatory high school in order to better her chances of fulfilling her dream to attend an Ivy League university. I was obsessed with Gilmore Girls as a high schooler and watched reruns everyday after school with my bff while we made microwave quesadillas and pretended to do our calculus homework. When Rory went away to college, I got to see what living in a dorm might be like, what eating at a dining hall might look like, what attending a college lecture or seminar or discussion section might look like. Even if I didn’t have Rory’s exact family or financial situation, even if I didn’t want to attend an Ivy League school myself, I got to imagine what going to college would be like and that I could a person who did that.

We were also obsessed with Sex and the City and binge-watched my friend’s mom’s SATC DVDs. Though I didn’t learn much about college from SATC, SATC was the first time I heard a woman say: maybe I don’t want to get married or have kids. SATC was the first time I saw a woman have a real discussion about that possibility with people who took her seriously. Even if I didn’t want to live in New York, wasn’t obsessed with expensive shoes, or couldn’t relate to the thirty-something dating scene, I got to see examples of women who worked challenging, fulfilling careers and valued their friendships with other women.

I also love Friends. I feel like Friends taught me a lot, A LOT, about how to behave like a middle class person. The characters on Friends probably represent a range of social classes, but by and large I think their interactions showcase a solidly middle class (maybe upper middle class?) lifestyle. Chandler Bing taught me how to talk lChandlerike what I thought a middle class person should talk like. He’s clever, quippy, sarcastic. He works a hugely unfulfilling white collar job in a huge office building and jokes “I’ve got to get to work. If I don’t input those numbers… it doesn’t make much of a difference.” Ross Gellar is a college professor, a job which I knew nothing about until I watched him teach a lecture in rollerblades. My point is not that I can quote a specific episode of Friends that taught me that I could be a person who goes to college; instead the collective influence of all these shows was that I had plenty of examples of people who went to college, worked middle class jobs, delayed getting married or starting a family, left home and moved around for college and for their careers.

Finally, I love Roseanne. I remember my family gathering around the TV on Tuesday nights at 9pm to watch Roseanne. When I was too young to stay up and watch, I’d sit on my bedroom floor with my ear to the door trying to listen in on the show and on my family’s conversations about it. Roseanne is about working class people, and seeing those people depicted on TV also mattered to me. Roseanne taught me that working class people’s successes and their problems matter, they’re real, lots of people experience them. Seeing people on TV whose lives looked like ours and whose voices sounded like ours mattered. In short, Roseanne taught me that the lives of working class people are valuable and important, just as valuable and important as anybody else’s.

My Mom, The Advanced Typist

Re-blogging a couple posts that I wrote for a course blog last year.

My earliest childhood memory is waking up to the sound of my mother’s fingers racing across her keyboard. She was two rooms away and my door was closed, but I could still sense her fervor as she tried to meet the morning’s deadline (I didn’t realize at the time her deadline was something like “get this done before the kids wake up”). For much of my early childhood and elementary school years my mother worked from home as a typist transcribing legal documents for a law firm in our hometown. Every morning on our way to school we would stop by the law office to drop off the transcripts from the day before and pick up the next set of audio tapes to be transcribed. Even though by the time I was hearing her fervent fingers on the keyboard she had long switched over to an actual computer, when I read our assignment description I knew that I wanted to interview my mom about using a typewriter. Again: I hear “type” I think “mom”.

The most important things I learned from my interview with my mom are: 1) How shockingly little I know about what her life was like before I arrived on the scene 2) typing, according to my mother’s experiences, is a woman’s world and 3) the “technological revolution” is a lot more complex and recursive than I naively assumed it to be at the start of our interview.

My mother told me that she learned to type in eleventh and twelfth grade on a typewriter for a business course where students also learned shorthand but mostly just sat in rows each day and typed away preparing for timed tests every Friday. She continued: “So in our twelfth grade year we had a typing contest for the whole school and I was the fastest typer in the entire school […] I can type 120 words a minute with no mistakes”

My mother can type 120 WPM?! This didn’t mean much to me when she first said it, but I looked it up and as it turns out an average typing speed is 40 WPM. 100 WPM with no errors is considered a high speed. Working at speeds like 120 WPM with no mistakes earns you a spot in the “advanced typist” category. Go Mom!

In addition to gaining this more detailed picture of my mother as a teenager, I also realized throughout our interview that the typist’s world is a world of women. My mother told me “I just remember typing ‘the brown fox jumped over the whatever’ over and over again and I liked typing. And for whatever reason I wanted to type really well to make money, and my mother was a legal secretary so I pretty much set my sights on that. And back then they made a lot of money.” I had no idea that my grandmother had been a legal secretary or that she was my mother’s inspiration for pursuing that career herself. This kind of passing down of a very specialized literacy between generations of women echoes for me aspects of Patricia Crain’s argument in which the figure of the mother is very much caught up in the process of printing and imprinting. The alphabet acquires a medium, a body through the mother, and the child is meant to be seen and listening. In these cases taken from my mother’s life, my grandmother first was imprinting while my mother was listening until at some point my mother began imprinting and I became the listener.

Another role model my mother mentioned with reverence was her business teacher who encouraged her to partake in the school-wide and then the county-wide typing contest: “I guess there was a county wide test and I went with my business class teacher. Her name was Genevieve Farmer, and I’ll never forget her. She was awesome. And I went with her to the contest and they were giving the instructions to everyone, and you were supposed to flip that paper over and get it into the typewriter. And I immediately said it was over. A lot of the people next to me went to the other side and I just sat back and watched and I just marveled.” My mother’s inspiration and her mentor for pursuing typing were both women. Additionally, she found her job as a typist in order to stay home with me and my brother and sister when we were young. My mother’s acquisition of typewriter-literacy and then of computer-literacy were very much motivated by her identity as a daughter and then as a mother.

My mother’s recollections of her experiences with the typewriter brought us right up into present day, where I realized I had grossly oversimplified the development of writing and digital technologies as a linear, step by step process. When I asked my mother if she preferred or missed the typewriter in any way, she surprised me with “Enough so that I have one at my desk at work, and I use it occasionally.” I had assumed typewriters had become fossilized oddities that sat unused in abandon storage spaces or obscure museums. But, my mom has shown me that her continued use of the typewriter is not only nostalgic but functional as well. In her current profession as a legal secretary “sometimes there’s legal documents that you can’t do on a computer. The ABA, American Bar Association, still has certain forms that we have to put in the typewriter to fill out. They’re like 98 percent there. But there are one or two court documents that have to be on the typewriter.” Can you imagine? I had no idea! The American Bar Association still has documents they have not put into digital format.

At first I thought there must be a way to do these things on a computer, but my mother just hasn’t figured them out yet or is choosing to rely on the typewriter out of familiarity. She proved me wrong: “How do you explain this one, our company has a certain program to do envelopes on the computer. But I find it easier to do on a typewriter so a lot of times I’ll just use a typewriter for that. So what it is we have a predetermined format, it puts it on all four, and I might only need one label so I put it in the typewriter so that I don’t ruin four labels I don’t need.” My mom not only understands this computer technology, she understands it so well that she has learned to anticipate its flaws and chooses to use a typewriter as the more efficient means of writing technology when producing mailing labels. Picture it: she has a typewriter and a computer station sitting side by side at her desk and sometimes uses both for different purposes in a single day. Writing technologies of the past are in fact alive and well and being used in conjunction with more advanced, more recent writing technologies.

We ended our interview on a note of nostalgia. In response to the same question of preferring or missing a typewriter, my mother also said: “Yeah, it’s great because all the attorneys yell out. That’s one thing that’s weird, they miss the sound of the typewriter going fast. The clicks of it. When I’m standing there typing labels they always freak out like ‘oh I remember that.’ They like it when I use the typewriter.”

Why I Hated My Literacy Narrative

Re-blogging a couple posts that I wrote for a course blog last year.

I hated writing my literacy narrative. It was difficult for me on a personal level to look back on my history with reading and writing, and it made me extremely uncomfortable to share these things with our class. Several moments throughout our course readings and discussions have helped me to make sense of my resistance to writing a literacy narrative. Firstly, when we all shared in class about our process of writing these narratives, I was taken aback by how many people had interviewed their parents for the assignment. This thought had never even crossed my mind. Why not? It seemed a logical starting point to ask the people who had taught you to read and write how they had gone about it, and I was no different than others in the class; my parents had taught me to read and write. So, why did I not think to ask them about it? This question haunted me for a few weeks and colored my approach to the course readings (seriously, that’s not embellishment or hindsight. I was worried. What made me, my family, and our relationship to reading and writing different?)

Some personal and family history: I am a first generation college student, and although my parents both earned high school diplomas, they have spent their professional lives as a secretary and letter carrier while I have pursued graduate education in English at both the Master’s and Doctoral levels. I have acquired specialized forms of literacy that stand in stark contrast to my parents’ literacy experiences which have constantly frustrated and embarrassed them. I should say that my parents are both generally happy, fulfilled individuals, but that fulfillment does not come from their work or their experiences with literacy especially in institutionalized settings. For these reasons, I have been experiencing over the past decade of my life a Richard Rodriguez-esque surpassing of my parents’ educational and literacy experiences.

Up to this point, I have effectively ignored this uncomfortable family situation, but throughout this course on literacy I have found myself learning about and reflecting on my personal and family history much more than I had ever anticipated doing in an academic course. Particularly, I found in Randy Pinder’s dissertation chapter “Literacy Meta-Discourse” a piece of an insight into my unsettling experiences with writing a literacy narrative. In describing adult learners enrolled in literacy programs, Randy’s work started to blur the lines between literate and illiterate in ways that were meaningful to me: “Students know the stigma of not graduating high school, resist the judgment others have for them, and become frustrated when they are unable to persuade sponsors like college admissions and employers of their literacy. They are forced to feel impoverished, even when they feel that their literate abilities are valuable and should be accepted without traditional documentation […] regional learners can feel literate without a diploma, but they feel frustrated when sponsors do not recognize the value of what they do possess. County learners can feel illiterate with a diploma, seeing themselves as impoverished in literate resources and cultural capital.” These descriptions helped me to make sense of the divide between my experiences with reading and writing and my parents’.

These passages, and Randy’s chapter in general, have shown me what literacy experiences are like for my parents on a day to day basis. They read and write in a variety of contexts, and I believe that they find value in it; however, I do not think that others have always valued my parents’ literacy practices and I know that they have felt that devaluation. I have seen my parents reading and writing and enjoying it. I have also seen them struggling and frustrated by it. In rare cases, when things at work have really come to a head, I have heard them outwardly and directly express their bitterness and indignation at not being valued for their individual performance or achievement, and these rare cases of embarrassment have often been related to literacy. Before reading Randy’s chapter, I did not have the language to express this description of my parents’ literacy experiences, but I definitely knew them and felt them intuitively.

And so, I did not and still have not asked my parents to talk to me about teaching me to read and write. I think my interview with my mom about typewriters was a less threatening way in for me to talk about literacy with her because it did not include any focus on my experiences with literacy. This comparison and contrast between their experiences and mine is what scares me. I cannot go there. Instead, I have revised my literacy narrative to foreground the artifacts that have influenced my reading and writing experiences. In this way, I found writing my literacy narrative much more enjoyable and less threatening to my relationship with my parents to and my relationship with reading and writing. And believe me, my parents are still there in my literacy narrative. In most cases , they were the ones who passed on these pop-culture, literacy artifacts to me or they were the first people I reported back to about my experiences after having consumed these artifacts. That exchange of pieces of pop-culture continues to characterize my relationship to my parents and continues to structure those of our literacy practices that we can share.

Some First-Gen Thoughts about Work

I went to grad-school partly because I wanted to do something I loved. I wanted to have a career, a vocation even, not just a job. I wanted to be fulfilled by the work I do not just exhausted and abused by it. Growing up in a working class family, I had tons of examples of people working jobs that they didn’t love and exhausting themselves by working those jobs. My dad once had a serious conversation with me on a long car drive, while I was in undergrad, the crux of which he very carefully and clearly articulated to me: “do what you love.” So, motivated by negative examples and by people who I love’s advice, I set out to do work that I love, hoping that goal would deliver me from the fraught relationship with work that my parents and so many other adults I knew had.

But in the world of higher education and of intellectual labor I’ve encountered some other fraught relationships with work. I want to be fulfilled by the work I’ve chosen to do, but I’ve found that that fulfillment is not easily divorced from exhaustion or even from abuse. Whereas everyone at home was working for the weekend, everyone here is just working.

There might be an occasional nod toward work-life balance, but for the most part those nods are made in passing and they really just mean: do one thing everyday that isn’t work. Ugh…I’m sorry, what? At the bare minimum, I have: a dog, a body that needs real food and exercise, friends in town, friends in far off places, family in far off places, an apartment that needs keeping, and an interest in occasionally regaining my sanity with live music and cocktails. Even when these separate outside-of-work entities intersect in productive ways there’s still more than one thing a day I need/want to do other than work. So, I guess that means I have to let my work suffer? Maybe. For now, I feel like I’m constantly calculating what the thing will be that will fall through the cracks today or this week or this month or this semester and how I can minimize the loss or somehow eventually make up for it.

Writing Anxiety

I am taking a Writing Assessment course this semester, and a few weeks ago I got to write a book review of Chris Gallagher’s Our Better Judgment. Even though I really enjoyed the book (probably more than anything else we’ve read for that class), I realized while writing the review that I was writing slowly. And I timed it. I was in fact writing twice as slowly as I did two years ago in my M.A. program. By the end of my M.A. program I was writing a page every 30 minutes. This is of course with heavy prep like reading and outlining having occurred for weeks or days leading up to the actual sitting down and writing.  Nowadays, I’m at more like an hour per page. I’m doing similar extensive prep work before sitting down to write, but for lots of reason the writing is much slower and more deliberate these days.

There are, I think, some positive aspects to the writing slow-down I’ve been experiencing.  I’m wrestling with big, complex, important ideas that I’m heavily invested in and want to represent well. I’m becoming more and more familiar with and cognizant of sources, authors, and connections in the fields I’m working in and more and more concerned about representing those accurately and well. Essentially, my writing slow down might be positively attributed to the more deliberate thinking I’ve been doing.

BUT, I also know that a major contributing factor to my writing slow down is anxiety about my writing.  Writing is difficult. Scholarly writing is at times painful for me. In the last year and a half, I’ve found that my old processes and approaches to research and writing have not sufficed. This is the point of the PhD., I suppose. To make me (and my peers) into researchers and scholarly writers, and I knew that. I did not know that I was going to resist this transformation so staunchly.

Why resist? Well, in the last few months one of my most effective coping mechanisms has been to tell myself and others “I don’t want to be a researcher. I want to be a theorist.” I think this simple switch says a lot about me and my previous experiences and approaches to academia. I like to think in big ideas, I care about the big picture (theory). In the last few months I’ve been made to construct manageable research projects, to take a slice of the phenomenon I care about and say something about that slice.  Sure, sounds reasonable enough. But I’m only just now learning to make the chain of connections between the big idea/big picture and the manageable slice. This means, that for months I’ve been walking around not invested in the slice and even resenting the slice. This slice seems so far removed from the things I care about and the kinds of big picture changes I want to see and help make and the massive systemic problems that so concern me… disengagement and corrosive self-doubt continue on ad nauseam.

So what changed? How have I begun to see and value the chain of connections from the big picture concerns to the manageable slice? Well. By talking to people. By talking to them about my interests and theirs. Not necessarily to even make connections between those interests, but to see and hear how other people have remained invested in their work and to see and hear how other people articulate and value the chain of connections between their manageable slice research projects and their big idea/big picture interests and concerns.

One especially wise advisor here articulates this phenomenon as chipping away. Knowing that the small slice research projects are helping to chip away at the big picture, systemic concerns you are hoping to make change in.  And as always, the most helpful examples to me in this research-writing anxiety jumble have been fellow grad students who talk openly and honestly about their work and their processes and their concerns and their anxieties and their chipping away.

So, I guess my only “lesson” for today would be…talk to people? Find a way to make the connections. Connections to other people, connections to the small slice and the big picture. Oh and faith. Have some faith that you can make those connections and remain invested in them.

Image

Precious bear. The best possible treatment for writing anxiety. Or any anxiety. Or any ailment ever.

Grad School Difficulties

Summers in grad school are weird.  So far, I am not good at them. Mostly, this summer has consisted of me sitting around going “What the fuck just happened.”  Which I would be totally fine with and embrace (who doesn’t love a little reflection/major soul searching?) except that apparently, in grad school, people expect you to continue accomplishing shit in the summertime. Also, apparently, if I want to continue on in academia, I need to learn how to be self motivated and structure my own time more efficiently.  So, I’m going to try to work through some of my difficulties here in hopes of moving beyond them in the near future!

Difficulty 1: Academia=Bureaucracy=Me being disillusioned sad and unproductive. I’ve been struggling with some bureaucratic hoops I’ve had to jump through. I’ve been rejected multiple times when I’ve reached out to faculty to help me with my writing this summer (a reaching out and faculty interaction that my program requires).  Lots of people have reminded me that everyone is busy and faculty’s unavailability is not a reflection on me or the validity of my research interests. And logically I understand that argument. As a human being, repeated rejection takes its toll, especially when I have my own uncertainties and self doubt about my abilities and my research interests.

Difficulty 2: I am not (yet) cut out for the kind of constant performance that is required of academics at prestigious institutions. I think this kind of constant performance is something that can be conditioned and developed over time, but right now, I needed a break from trying to perform some sort of belonging in academia for the last year.  A lot of this difficulty has stemmed from my inability to self-promote and represent my own interests and abilities. ((You’d be surprised how many rhetoricians lack this ability; it’s a funny little “do as I say not as I do” quirk of our field)).  At the same time, I know that the relationships I will build and the resources that are available to me while I’m here will be hugely important for the kinds of work I hope to do now and in the future.  So, the performance is the means to much more important and fulfilling ends.

Difficulty 3: I am a first-generation college student. Not having my home networks of family and friends immediately available is devastating.  Even more so, not having contact with those people or even the kinds of people who have shaped me thus far in my life is devastating.  I’ve taken to frequenting places like “Five Guys” or the grocery store just to talk to people who work there and remind me of home and home-like people.  Facebook and other online social networking spaces have been hugely helpful to me in this way by keeping me in contact with people who do things other than academia.  I want to be apart of this academic world and succeed in it, but I do not want to lose the driving force of why I want to be here: to expand access and support for first-generation college students and students of working class backgrounds who believe in and can (hopefully) realize the transformative potentials of higher education.

A ray of hope: the most useful and hopeful things I’ve experienced in the last few months have been other graduate students or other first-gen college students sharing their stories of difficulty and of success. So, if you’re doing or have done this thing called grad school, keep talking about it and talking about it honestly. I appreciate you!