Three very different books take a good look at our students’ experiences that they bring to the classroom. The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes Us or Breaks Us by Paul Tough looks at the challenges of applying to college, staying in, and finishing. Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost by Caitlin Zaloom (a JSTOR digital book) looks at the family conflicts and stresses built into the high-stakes, high-cost college experience. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner looks at now only how we teach writing, but the bigger issues at stake in almost any class assignment. Read these books, and you will sit in our students' seats –tolle, lege, take and read.
Tough tells good stories, and his book is hard to put down. He shows in detail how well-off families game the system, and how the higher education system allows itself to be gamed. He explores how different affluent colleges are from those which are insufficiently funded, and how at-risk students often do not possess the skills, tenacity, and good fortune to jump through arbitrary hoops and negotiate complicated financial circumstances. You will understand how colleges work best for the affluent, the ambiguous role of the College Board, and how higher education winds up sustaining the many, present, socio-economic disparities that foster so many political and social divides. Faculty may be particularly interested in Chapter 5, "Letting In" on the admissions-industrial complex, and subsequent "Staying In" and "Hanging On" on how students do or cannot complete their degrees, and what helps and hinders them.
Zaloom's Indebted takes on the social and emotional realities families have to negotiate to sustain enrollment and expenses, and the "enmeshed autonomy" with its "nested silences" that enable both students and parents not to discuss the levels of stresses that each endure.
"Today being middle class means being indebted. It means feeling insecure and uncertain about the future, and wrestling with the looming cost of college, and the debt it will require. It means being dependent on finance—and, crucially, on family—in ways that analysts of class, culture, and economy have not fully registered." (page 1) "I show how the system for financing higher education sets traps for students and their parents . . . . At its core, [this book] is about the largely unexplored ways that the financial economy has shaped the inner dynamics of American middle-class family life by forcing parents to confront the problems of paying for college." (page 3)
Why They Can't Write (discussed in a current series of lunch-time conversations in the CEIT) reads quite differently from the perspectives of Tough and Zaloom: student writing has become an extension of the academic-industrial complex that students negotiate to get a degree. (Warner's discussions of student depression and anxiety are worth taking time to read.) Real learning can be overshadowed by test-taking, and the result is not only sub-standard writing but disengaged, distracted students (some with excellent reasons for their divided focus). One cannot recommend these books highly enough --for summertime reading if not now.
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