Can’t Start Over

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One of the books I’ve been recommending almost non-stop since I first read it is Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, her ethnographic study of how socioeconomic class affects parenting styles, which in turn affect how children develop. Not only was Unequal Childhoods very useful for me in my research for my next book, but I was able to apply its concepts to my teaching approaches immediately, as I work to find ways to help my students adjust to the demands of college life. More recently, I had the opportunity to read another ethnographic book, Ann Mullen’s Degrees of Inequality, which looks at students at two different universities about two miles apart from one another. One of the universities is Southern Connecticut State University, a public university of about 12,000 students. The other is a private university called Yale. You might have heard of it before.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that Degrees of Inequality can be read as a spiritual sequel to Unequal Childhoods, but the two books cover a lot of similar ground, and both will be very beneficial to me both for my research (which you can read more about by subscribing to my Patreon) and my teaching. As I was looking through my notes on Degrees of Inequality last week, though, I was struck by one passage in particular, where Mullen says that whereas the students at SCSU struggled to fit college into their existing lives, college became the new life for students at Yale.

For me, I can definitely identify with the idea of seeking out a new life through college. Both times I went to college, I was desperate to escape my recent past and the problems that had resulted from it. More than that, I had an idea of the person I wanted to become as a result of my own higher education, and given the huge time and monetary commitments being made to that process, I felt obligated to give it my all whenever I could. I didn’t always succeed at this (especially when it came to social adjustments), but I tried, and I know that for all the problems I’d had prior to going to college, I also had a lot of advantages that the other students around me didn’t have. As much as I’ve seen students struggle to fit the various tasks required of college students in with work and family commitments and all that, I’d never really thought of that process in terms of some of us “making” college our new lives, and other students not being able to do that because they lack the resources that some of have (and possibly take for granted).

I knew that this past semester was going to be rough for first-year students who were just starting off in college during the COVID-19 pandemic, since they were going to be denied so many of those mythic ideas about what college life is like, between classes and socializing and the whole image that’s been built up in popular media about what college is (or should be) like. I never really thought about what it must have felt like for students like me, though, students who were eager to start their lives anew — as much as they can in this age of omnipresent social media — who were likely forced to stay at home and take classes remotely, dealing with the difficulties of college-level work without experiencing that much of the fun stuff that goes along with being a college student. If I’d been forced into a similar position when I went to college (and again when I went back), I don’t know if I’d have had the mental fortitude to get through that limited experience at the start, with a promise of “normal” college life later on down the line.

Many colleges are continuing to keep classes mostly online through the rest of this academic year, and it’s not exactly news that the fall-to-spring attrition rate is a lot higher this year than it usually is; many students’ experiences taking classes this past fall was so frustrating that they’ve decided to wait until the pandemic is over before they try to handle college again, if they haven’t decided to give up on higher education altogether. I can’t really blame them for doing so; as much as I’ve tried to make the most of the constraints of pandemic teaching, I’ve had my fair share of moments where everything about this whole process has just pissed me off. I did everything I could to fight through those challenges and teach the best classes I can — it is my job, after all — but there’s a big part of me that really isn’t looking forward to toughing out another semester of Zoom classes and feeling the absence of normal campus life here.

Maybe this coming autumn will be a chance for us all to start over. If the COVID-19 vaccine can get distributed widely enough here, there’s a good chance that the start of the next academic year will be a lot more like what I’ve gotten used to in my teaching career. For the sake of college and university students everywhere — who deserve the best experience our campuses can give them, both in and out of our classrooms — I hope we can do that soon, and that the students who couldn’t handle the restrictions of this past year of pandemic education are willing to come back and experience what higher education can be. Everyone deserves a chance, if not to start over, then at least to start anew.

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