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.

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.

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!