Social Class Difference at University of Michigan

Social Class Voices FlyerOn Monday, I attended a University of Michigan bicentennial event celebrating social class difference. At the event, we launched an edited collection of student writing titled Social Class Voices: Student Stories from the University of Michigan Bicentennial. Last Spring, Professor of Sociology Dwight Lang and I worked with student writers, helping them to read and revise their deeply personal, deeply political essays about their experiences of social class both during and before their time at University of Michigan. On Monday night, I read from my afterword to the book, encouraging listeners and readers to celebrate the great risk our student authors had taken in writing about such a controversial issue as social class difference as well as the grace and effort with which students told their stories. I invited readers of the anthology and listeners in the audience at the event to reflect on their own social class experiences and to take action against social class stratification–especially in educational contexts where our differences too often stand to divide us rather than facilitate conversation and learning as they rightfully should. Then, I sat in the audience and listened as 17 of our student authors read excerpts from their own reflections on social class.

This event was remarkable. Individual students shared their experiences, and collectively we participated in a respectful discourse about social class difference. That night, it occurred to me how rare such respectful discourse across difference—especially social class difference—is in today’s contentious political climate. I felt proud and humbled all at once to have the opportunity to learn from these students, their stories, and their examples of respectful dialogue.

Contributors Photo2 - Reading 11-6-2017

Editors and student authors at the event

The event—and the anthology—are also remarkable in their inclusion of multiple perspectives from a range of social classes. In my experience, narratives about social class too often rely on an up-by-your-bootstraps, rags-to-riches cliche—meaning we only really get to hear the stories of working poor and working class people, and those people often are obliged to remind us how great (and possible) upward mobility is. But in this instance, students from working poor and working class communities told a variety of stories. Their stories described the great risk working poor and working class students take in pursuing college. Some of their stories expressed certainty in upward mobility, others questioned the possibility, all asserted and demonstrated the valuable aspects of working poor and working class communities—refusing to give in to any high idealizing of the American Dream.

We also heard from students who identify as middle, upper middle, and upper class. That in itself is remarkable. Rarely do we hear stories of the ultra wealthy—instead, their lives are purposefully mystified, made to seem exclusive and unattainable. I come from a working class family and am easily put-off by displays of upper class pretension. I saw none of that pretension from our upper and upper-middle class UM student authors that night. Instead, I saw honesty about their own privilege and promises to remain aware of social class stratification and its effects in the lives and education of themselves and others from all social class backgrounds. I heard pledges to use their college educations—which they pursued out of tradition and out of certainty they would maintain their station in life through that education—to help lift others up, not to exclude.

Aubrey-Dwight Anthology Reading 11-6-17

Co-editors Aubrey Schiavone and Dwight Lang

Our middle and upper-middle class student authors studiously noted the difficulty of describing that which is always (but also never) described, that which is quickly disappearing: the middle class in America. They talked about the experience of usually having enough to get by but often not having nearly as much as others around them. Of pursuing college education with both certainty and trepidation about what that college education would afford and cost them.

Overall, I came away from the evening with overwhelming pride and hope that this generation of social class awareness would create change in our stratified social institutions, especially in higher education—often touted as the great equalizer.

Then on Thursday the popular political news site Politico published a lengthy expose on the state of social class stratification at the University of Michigan. The (accurate) introductory synopsis of the article states: “The University of Michigan, like many public flagship universities, faces a crisis of confidence in working-class communities.” I recommend reading this article to better understand the stronghold that social class

Michigan Union

University of Michigan Union

stratification has in higher education—especially at elite institutions like the University of Michigan. The whole thing is excellent, but one moment struck me especially; the article discusses elite universities’ loyalty to admissions practices that perpetuate social class division and the exclusion of working poor and working class students, stating:

“Some want the university, and other elite publics like it, to do more by moving away from economically biased admissions standards like standardized test scores, for instance.

‘They’re still creaming the cream of the cream,’ said Arizona State University President Michael Crow. ‘The University of Michigan is worried about losing their elite status. Their elite status is not on what they produce, it’s on who they don’t admit. What elite status is that? That’s not elite status.'”

Here’s the paradox: exclusionary admissions practices are actually detrimental to any institutions’ attempts at becoming or staying elite. Multiple studies in the field of higher education—across a range of times, institution types, and student populations—show that recruiting and retaining a diverse student population brings a diversity of ideas and approaches to the educational context and enriches learning for all students. The same is true of research: recruiting and retaining diverse faculty, graduate, and undergraduate populations brings a diversity of ideas and approaches to research settings and enriches the research experience as well as the outcomes of that research for everyone involved. The University of Michigan and other elite universities are shooting themselves in the foot by not reaching out to diverse faculty, graduate, and undergraduate student populations—especially by not reaching out to those populations


Me: a proud co-editor

that are typically underrepresented in higher education. These new kinds of learners, teachers, and researches would continually revitalize the university and reconfigure what it means to be elite.

As a first-generation college student who comes from a working class family, earned her Master’s and PhD, and currently works as a college professor, I have lived in and moved through a lot of different social class communities. In each of them, I have found people and practices to value. I wish that our institutions of higher education, especially those that fancy themselves elite, would learn to do the same. #GoBlue

Taking My Body Back

On May 22, 2017, my dissertation committee and the Rackham Graduate School signed off on my final dissertation and I finished my PhD. YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

On May 23, 2017, I started taking my body back.


At WWE Live, celebrating finishing my PhD.

In my five years living in Michigan and doing my PhD. work there, I gained 50 pounds. Let me assure you, my weight gain in no way diminishes the accomplishment of finishing my doctorate. I was fully aware that I was putting my mind and body through serious high-level stress and simultaneously neglecting my health and wellness. A one-track-mind approach was the only way I was going to finish the thing. It took me the same kind and amount of discipline and motivation to get up and write my dissertation everyday as it takes me to get up and workout everyday, and I had made the decision that the dissertation and finishing the PhD. had to be the priority at that time.

So, as soon as the PhD. was done, I set out shifting my priorities and taking care of my health and wellness again. The progress was slow at first. I started out at a crossfit/high intensity interval training gym, but only made it to about three classes before realizing this was a thing I was going to have to work my way back up to. I was sort of doing the workouts and keeping up, but I was so sore and the recovery was so slow that I knew I wouldn’t be able to stick with it.

So, I did a few days of at home yoga podcasts to help recover and then started Insanity. BUT: I was only doing the Insanity warm ups lol. Which is about nine minutes of light cardio and another six or so minutes of stretching. I knew this wouldn’t give me the results I wanted, but I also knew (from past failed attempts) that I wouldn’t stick with the 45-60 minutes, five days a week routine that Insanity sets out. So, I ordered T-25 (an Insanity-like workout with the amazing Shaun T, but only 25 minutes of workout + 3 minutes of stretching) and kept doing the daily Insanity warmups until it arrived.

On June 22 (so, one month into my taking my body back journey), I started T-25. T-25 has a five week alpha cycle and five week beta cycle; I started with alpha and today I finished the full five week cycle!! Woohoo!! So, due to summer travel, moving across the country to Denver, and how out of shape I was when I started, the five week cycle actually took me about 7 or 8 weeks to complete. But, I did it!! And, along with eating mostly paleo, I lost 20 pounds this summer. Yay!



So, while I was working out, I was also adjusting my diet. I had eaten paleo for about two years while I was doing my Master’s degree and had done week long or two week long stints of it sporadically throughout my five years in Michigan. I knew I liked eating paleo because I didn’t have to count or measure anything. I could just eat as much as I wanted of foods that are good for me. And it meant I got to bring back some of my old favorite recipes and experiment with new recipes for cooking and baking. Paleo baking is super fun and I try to make something about once a week that can stand in as a dessert or breakfast food. So, I’ll make berry or peach or apple cobbler or any number of paleo quick breads like lemon poppy seed, zucchini, pumpkin, or banana bread (made with flour substitutes like almond or coconut flours and sugar substitutes like honey, maple syrup, and vanilla extract).

When I first started out eating paleo again, I eased into it. I committed to ten days of no bread, no beer, no lattes. This helped me to detox and to start supplementing my regular, terrible diet with some paleo staples like bacon and eggs, salmon, berries, and nuts. Some things came easy, for example cutting my latte intake down to one or two a week instead of five or seven a week. Some things did not come easy, like still wanting to drink beers and order nachos at happy hour with friends.

In the last couple months, I would say that I’ve been eating about 75% paleo. I mostly eat paleo in the house with a few exceptions like tortilla chips, hummus, and Breyer’s vanilla ice cream that I still keep around the house and eat less than daily. Then, whenever we go out to eat (which is about two or three meals a week) I let myself splurge and order whatever I want. Sometimes when we go out I order a kale salad and an iced tea bc it looks good and sounds delicious to me at the time, and sometimes when we go out I’ll get enchiladas or empanadas or a couple beers.


Last meal before moving from Michigan to Colorado

My plan going forward is to complete the second five week cycle of T-25 and to keep eating mostly paleo. I’ve already lost 20 pounds, and I’d like to lose another twenty. Full disclosure on weight stuff: at my fittest, about five years ago, I maintained 135 pounds. While living in Michigan, my highest and most scary weight was 185, which is a lot for my 5’6′ frame; when I went to the doctor for a general checkup in March of 2017 (before my excellent grad student health insurance was set to run out on me), she was CONCERNED about my BMI, and her concern helped me to set a game plan and get motivated for losing the weight this summer.

Now I’ve lost about 20 pounds and am sitting around 165. I’d like to lose another 20 in the next few months so that I’m back under 150 and hovering around 145. I probably won’t get back to 135 unless I start intense hour long workouts several days a week and lifting weights again. I love lifting; it’s so empowering and one of the best ways to get in shape, and I’ll probably get back to it someday down the road. But for now, I’m sticking to what has been working for me: at home workout dvds with mostly cardio and body weight exercises.

Some take aways from my experiences that might be helpful to others:

  • Find a workout/diet plan that works for you and stick with it. I went through a couple failed workout plans (Crossfit, Insanity) beforeI landed on one (T-25) that would work for me now with my current level of fitness.
  • Stick with your routine but be flexible and generous with yourself. For a few weeks I would workout first thing in the morning. Then when that routine got to be boring or too much for me, I started letting myself workout at night, and I stuck with that for a few weeks. Sometimes, I’d miss a day or two due to fatigue or travel. This will happen. Life doesn’t care that you’re trying to lose weight. Just pick up again where you left off and don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • I documented my diet and exercise on Instagram and got lots of helpful words of encouragement and great tips and feedback from friends and strangers. I mostly just posted sweaty selfies and healthy food grams. But having a way to communicate with others about my progress was really helpful and motivating.
  • I brought my workout DVDs and my laptop with me and worked out while traveling on vacation with my family for a week in North Carolina, in California for ten days for a wedding, while visiting family and friends or seeing music around

    Working out in California

    the state and country. If you’re going to be gone from home for 2+ days, I’d recommend making a plan for how you will workout in that time.

  • I worked out in my favorite band t-shirts and crazy lipstick when I needed extra motivation. Build something fun like this that connects to your other interests or hobbies into your routine.
  • I spent some money on the stuff I needed: a gym membership to start out, a good pair of workout shoes, a new set of DVDs, a spiralizer for making zucchini noodles. None of these expenses were too absurd, and they all helped me. If you see a tank top you love that you think would help you to feel more confident or zany or strong while working out, then buy it for yourself. You deserve it.

Most of all, you can find ways to do it. And your life is so much more than just your weight, your diet, or your exercise routine.


Hiking with friends at Red Rocks

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.

Workday Success!

I’ve posted here a couple of times about my difficulties with work life balance and confusion over values surrounding work in graduate school. In the past year or so, I’ve found a few strategies and routines that have worked for me and helped me to work consistently, accomplish some major goals, and give myself some needed breaks and celebratory fun times. I’m going to try and describe those strategies and routines here, in hopes that I can come back to them in moments when I’m feeling sluggish or that someone else might be able to benefit from bits and pieces of my own experiences.

First off, I’ve found myself keeping a pretty regular eight-hour work day routine. For the last couple semesters since I achieved candidacy and started working on my dissertation, I’ve been on fellowship, which means I don’t have teaching or coursework demands on my time and energy. My work day gets to be totally committed to my dissertation process and other related tasks like pursuing funding, publishing, or conference opportunities. Without regular teaching or coursework time commitments, I’ve been able to keep a roughly eight hour workday routine. My eight hour workday runs from about 10-6. This is sort of ironic for me because, coming from a working class family, one of the reasons I chose to pursue graduate school was to avoid an overly rigid work schedule. But I’m finding that being able to choose the eight hours I’ll work for, the space I’ll work in, and the work that I’ll do has helped me to work regularly and to avoid the kind of mandated rigidity I was hoping to escape. Most of my days look like: get up, workout, eat breakfast, shower, walk my dog, go out into the world somewhere and work for eight hours, come home and have dinner, do something fun at home or go out with friends for a few hours. I’ve found that this routine has served me well and allowed for variety within structure. I get to choose where I want to work each day, what I want to make for dinner (I enjoy cooking and find that it de-stresses me!), what fun things I want to do at the end of the night, and who I can spend my work hours and fun hours with each day.

This kind of variety within routine is hugely important to me because in the past too rigid a routine has made me restless and resentful in a matter of days. Any time I have to do something the exact same three times in a row, I lose interest. So, this pattern has been a great, productive compromise for me. One of the most important things I’ve learned how to do is to let myself actually put the work down at the end of the night to do something fun for myself without feeling guilty about not working. The same goes for morning time. I let my mind stay clear of work for a couple hours each morning while I get ready for the day. Without this time away from work each day, I would feel run ragged and end up accomplishing a lot less. Within the actual eight hour workday, I’ve started to assign myself two major tasks a day. For example, I might work on transcribing interview data for four hours and then completing a grant for funding for four hours. I might revise a dissertation chapter draft for four hours and then spend four hours coding data. I might revise an article for publication for four hours and then spend four hours reading. I like to try to switch the tasks up about halfway through the day, again guaranteeing the variety within structure that seems to be most productive for me.

Another strategy I’ve found useful is using lots and lots of to-do lists. I keep the following to-do lists: master list of things I have to do in order to graduate/complete my PhD. program by a particular date, smaller master list of all the things I have to do in a given semester, a semester calendar to show when each of those things has to be done by, a daily to-do list for each day’s tasks (I write the next day to-do list at the end of each workday. I find writing a new to-do list while I’m still in work mode saves me a lot of time and energy the next day when I’m gearing up to work again), revision lists for each of the writing projects I’ve got going, post-it notes EVERYWHERE breaking components of all the lists down into manageable chunks. And when I check something off, I get to check it off ALL THE LISTS! Such a great feeling. To-do lists have helped me to be realistic about how much I can accomplish in any given amount of time. I write the hard copy lists in pencil, so as to be forgiving of myself when not everything gets done and the list has to be adjusted. With electronic to-do lists (in my phone’s notes app) I use a checkmark emoji next to a task to denote that it’s been completed. This is great because I don’t have to erase completed tasks and I can look back and see all that I’ve already done successfully! Woohoo! Go me!

Maybe the most important thing I’ve started doing (and that really I’ve been doing all along) is talking about the work with whoever’s willing to listen! This helps me to reflect on my own strategies and to learn new strategies that have worked for others. Listening to others’ experiences has also taught me to be patient and forgiving of myself when I’m feeling frustrated with the work. No single strategy works for everyone all the time, so talking with others and listening to their experiences helps me to recognize successes when I’m experiencing them and to cope with the challenges as they arise. With all of these strategies, I’ve found myself enjoying doing challenging work that matters to me and to the kinds of people and students that I care about most.


Doing work with my dissertation dog, Bella 🙂

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.

Books as Gifts

The other day in one of my grad seminars, we were talking about writing; and one of the other doctoral students in the course asked: “Why have I never been taught to write a lit review?” And then we all talked about writing pedagogy in graduate and undergraduate courses for like an hour. It was awesome.  Towards the end of the convo, one of my program colleagues mentioned Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts”/Bird by Bird as a great writing resource. I commented that the undergraduate library’s copy was currently unavailable bc I had checked it out earlier that week. And then another grad student in the course asked me jokingly, “Don’t you own it? Didn’t you get seven copies of it for undergraduate graduation from well meaning relatives?”  And I said back, jokingly, no, my relatives were like, graduation’s done, time for a real job! (Sound advice that I promptly ignored). And that got me thinking…have I ever received a book as a gift? I couldn’t readily recall a book I’d gotten as a gift and that was disconcerting. I have tons of books I’ve bought myself, mostly for coursework. But it seemed impossible that I’d never received a book as a gift. So, now I’m thinking about it:

In the third grade, Mrs. McEvoy, my friend’s mom who was also a teacher, gave me a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to take home and read. But it wasn’t a gift so much as I started reading it at her house and she let me take it with me when I went.

When I met the poet (the boyfriend) last summer, within a week of dating he gave me a book of poetry by Maggie Nelson called Bluets. It’s all about the color blue, and it’s perfect. Again I don’t know that this was formally a gift so much as a clever (successful) ploy at wooing me.

I’m constantly borrowing books from Merideth for class or for leisure reading (which never actually happens and then I keep the books indefinitely). And actually our friendship started in my first semester here when I asked to borrow a book (that I couldn’t afford to buy) for a course and Merideth offered to have me over for dinner at her house so I could pick the book up from her. Dinner, a book, and friendship. That’s a win!! And also, I suppose, several gifts in one.

This weekend on a whim drop-in at the bookstore Merlin and I bought a book to share and talk about.

During my Master’s program my roommate Ashley bought me a copy of Tina Fey’s Bossypants as a thank you for helping her to diagram sentences for a few hours one day.

And when I was a kid, I remember getting a bible as a gift one time for first communion or for confirmation.

Last Christmas my brother game me a book by Michael J. Fox. I also held onto a copy of Steve Martin’s Pure Drivel that I stumbled on at my brother-in-law’s house and he insisted I keep it. He also sent me the The Complete Poems of Robert Frost and James Joyce’s Ulysses. So, an eclectic array of gifts there.

I do also remember having tons of picture books, children’s books, and later young adult novels. Though I think the novels were hand-me-downs inherited from my dad (bc he seemed to have known them all well and always gave me a plot synopsis or a kind of advertising pitch about which I should read next), it occurs to me that the picture books must have come from somewhere. Where they inherited? Or were those originally gifts too, given when I was so young I can’t remember them as such?

This reminds me: I’ve had boxes of books in the trunk of my car for months that I need to drop off at the donation center.

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.


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!