“I Could Probably Go On”

The first year writing seminar is just past mid-semester. And somehow, despite the professor they were assigned, my first year writers have GOT IT. In place of the typical first year writer’s repeated use of the word “things” and other vague words and phrases, their third papers were peppered with specific details. That switch is almost universally positive. The exception? When they’re detailing their inner lives, like this student of mine, who gave me permission to share this with you.

“I can give a list of the things that are currently making me anxious in this moment: the anatomy test that I should be studying for (I got a 60% on it), if I’m going to pass my classes this semester, what classes I’m going to take next semester, if my friends really like me or just put up with me, the weight that I’m going to gain from the binge that I just had, if this essay is going to be any good, if I even want to go into nursing, what am I going to do with my life once I get out of college. I could probably go on but that was a long sentence as it is.”

My students seem fine on the surface, but as they get honest with themselves and me, I’m learning many are suffering in silence. Their willingness to share their stories with me is humbling.

All that I know to do is to assure them their feelings matter, a lot of their peers feel similarly, and I’m glad they’re in my seminar. Also, I encourage them to take advantage of the counseling available to them.

I don’t know if that’s enough.

What Can We Do To Improve Young Adult Mental Health?

My first year writing students are 18-19 years-old. Here’s the prompt for their first paper:

     Irvine argues that people often lack a “grand goal of living” and a coherent philosophy of life because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about specific reasons for living; instead it provides them with an endless stream of distractions. He contends you’ll most likely squander your life without a guiding philosophy. He adds that even if you have a “grand goal in living” and can explain its importance, it’s unlikely you will attain those things in life you take to be of greatest value if you lack an effective strategy that specifies what you must do as you go about your daily activities. Explain why you agree or disagree with Irvine’s assertions. Also, explain a few things you want out of life and why.

Irvine proposes an updated version of Stoicism as a guiding philosophy. Most of my writers find meaning in some stoic concepts, like the trichotomy of control, but generally aren’t down with Irvine’s thesis that they need a “grand goal of living”. Most argue they’re too young to have formulated very specific life goals, let alone one “grand” one. Often, they thoughtfully point out that a highly detailed roadmap doesn’t make sense given life’s unpredictability.

When it comes to what they want out of life, an increasing number want improved mental health. It’s difficult to overstate the extent of young adults’ anxiety today. When I listen to them describe their anxiety and depression in class and read about it in their papers I have two reactions. Overwhelming empathy and curiosity as to what the hell is going on.

The third episode of the Happiness Lab podcast with Laurie Santos, “The Silver Lining”, might provide a clue. It’s about our tendency to compare ourselves to others who we perceive to be the most well liked, the most social, the most wealthy, the most together, the seemingly most happy. The episode’s title comes from research into Olympic athletes that suggests bronze medal winners are much happier with their medals than silver medal winners because silver medal winners are focused on not having won gold while bronze medal winners are focused on everyone that didn’t medal at all. This concept, “point of reference”, partially explains why happiness can be so illusive.

A Cornell psychologist in the episode contends social media compounds this problem because everyone carefully curates their online image to appear artificially happy. Among other remedies, Stoics advocate for internal goals to counter our self-sabotaging “point of reference” tendencies.

The gravity of the situation has me convinced that there’s no one explanation to “what’s going on”. Another factor could be the pressure my (admittedly selective) students feel to have their adult lives figured out just as they’re beginning them—whether to go to college, how selective a one, how to pay for it, what to study, what internships and other resume building activities to pursue, whether to go to graduate school, which career path, which grand goal for shits sake.

Parents, intensely worried about the vagaries of the economy, and desperate for a return on their considerable college investment, think that if their young adult children just pick the right thing to study—nursing, engineering, and other pre-professional fields—and develop a detailed plan, their college graduate sons and daughters won’t end up living in their basements.

This was what I was thinking about when struck by a related idea during a recent run. This time of the year, in North Olympia, Washington, it’s pitch black when running before work. Most of the streets are not lit, sometimes there’s fog. My uber-headlamp provides about 20-25 yards of visibility.

North Oly roads roll with a constantly changing mix of gentle ups and downs. Picture ocean swells, the Palouse in Eastern Washington, or the Norwegian countryside. Normally, I realized during the run, seeing roads ahead tilt upwards plays with my mind. At least a little. “Here it comes,” I think, “this is gonna take a little more effort.” And then, “Okay, almost topping out, hang in.”

But on this pitch black, foggy, autumn run, there was no such internal dialogue because I COULDN’T SEE AHEAD. The only way I knew I was starting a climb was my breathing became more labored. “Oh, okay, climbing now.” Because I couldn’t see the road tilting upwards ahead of time, my mind was free of that small, subtle nagging dread of having to work harder. As someone whose prone to look too far down the road of life, I was digging running in the moment. Don’t tell me what’s ahead, let me just be present.

Freed of anticipatory dread, my mind turned to my students. They lament how their teachers, beginning in middle school, ask about their life plans. And how it continues through high school. And how their parents too often pressure them to have a plan.

Some of them end up crafting faux-plans just to stop the insanity. As a placeholder of sorts. Some, like a previous writing student, declare nursing upon entering college only to realize in the middle of our first semester seminar that they didn’t really like science.

Maybe we should give our high school graduates headlamps and encourage them to focus at most on the year ahead especially since life is fragile and no one is guaranteed a long life.

What if our message was this.

In the next year, while working, traveling, or going to college; focus on improving your health; nourishing your spirit; investing in new friendships; finding one way to make others’ lives better. Don’t worry unnecessarily about the mountains and valleys that lie ahead in the distant future. You’ll be okay. And if not, let me know how I can help.

Young adults’ mental health might improve.

 

 

 

 

Preserving Privilege

According to the WaPo, several private schools in the D.C. area, including Sidwell Friends, are scrapping Advanced Placement (AP) classes.

The schools issued a statement explaining:

“Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented toward collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary learning will not only better prepare our students for college and their professional futures, but also result in more engaging programs for both students and faculty,” the schools said. “We expect this approach will appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation and fuel their love of learning.”

There’s little educational value in the Advanced Placement program. It’s primary purpose is to give privileged kids a leg up on their peers.

The scrapping of AP classes is a smart move, but lets not kids ourselves, Sidwell Friends and company made this move not just to appeal to students’ innate curiosity, increase their motivation, and fuel their love of learning. No doubt they expect the new and improved curricula to do an even better job of preserving their students’ privilege. That’s the lifeblood of those schools.

Sentences to Ponder

From Three Reasons for Those Hefty College Tuition Bills:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 the median worker with a bachelor’s degree (and no advanced degree) earned $69,260, compared with $34,540 for the median worker with only a high school diploma.

From Federal Health-Insurance Exchanges See Nearly Six Million Apply for 2016 Coverage:

Analysts said lackluster enrollment that trends toward sicker and older consumers could prompt some carriers to leave the exchanges: The biggest U.S. health insurer, UnitedHealth Group Inc., said last month that it is re-evaluating whether to sell plans on the marketplaces because of losses on policies sold on them.

From The home-grown threat:

Since 9/11, over 400,000 people have been killed by gunfire in America and 45 by jihadist violence, of whom half died in two shootings: one carried out by a Muslim army doctor in Texas in 2009, the other in San Bernardino.

[Highly recommended. The single best ISIS-related thing I’ve read in recent weeks.]

 

How College Changed Me For the Better

I guess it makes sense given tuition inflation, but today, nearly every “is college worth it” discussion revolves around one consideration—roi—or “return on investment”. More and more people worry whether a college education will lead to more secure, higher paying jobs.

In the last week I’ve been changed for the better by a movie and two books that I probably wouldn’t have seen or read if my curiosity hadn’t been jumpstarted during college.

The movie, Wadja, was an engrossing window into what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Wadja has grossed $1,346,851 as of January 17th. That means few people are curious about what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Had I not attended college, where I learned to like learning about other people, places, and time periods, I doubt I would have sought out Wadja. I’m a more informed global citizen as a result of having watched Wadja.

The books were Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Together, Cheryl Strayed and George Packer challenge my assumption that privileged people like me will never truly grasp what it’s like to teeter on the edge of economic destitution. Thanks to their story telling genius I have a much better feel for why some people struggle to feed, shelter, and clothe themselves. And more empathy, an attribute in shorty supply these days, for poor individuals and families.

I may not have been curious enough about the people’s lives in those books if three decades ago I hadn’t studied history in college and became keenly interested in other people, places, and time periods. Thanks to excellent professors, challenging readings, constant writing, and discussions with classmates and roommates, I became more curious, insightful, and empathetic.

How does one place a dollar value on that?

What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students? That’s Colleen Flaherty’s question in Inside Higher Education. The larger question is what expectations should any of us have for privacy?

Flaherty tells the story of Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who was. . . 

stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous. . . email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email. . . blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout. Then it appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s ‘highly partisan’ comments.

Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

Stunned, really? Michael Phelps can’t smoke a joint inside a dark fraternity house without smartphone pictures of it appearing in major newspapers. Why was it “hard to believe” your email was tweeted? It could’ve just as easily been forwarded, uploaded to Facebook, and blown up and pasted on the side of La Crosse’s busses.

Another tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University had his teaching duties reassigned after he embarked on “. . . what’s been described as an anti-Republican ‘rant on the first day of class in August.”

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

Timeout while I replay in my peabrain what I said in class yesterday afternoon. Yikes! When discussing education reform I took shots at Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, and 44. When those deets are made public my university’s administration will probably throw me under the bus of public outrage too. If this blog goes dark sometime soon, don’t be surprised. Know that I cherished you dear reader.

Slocum said she saw close monitoring of professor’s words by watchdog groups as potentially chilling to free speech, and as a means of waging the nation’s current political battles on a new front, to the detriment of higher education overall.

Fear is the lifeblood of watchdog groups. And spineless administrators. That’s why tenure is so important. Slocum shouldn’t retract what she wrote, instead she should explain it to any upset students. Granted, they probably won’t agree with her reasoning, but their only concern should be whether Slocum’s politics prevent her from fairly assessing their work.

Gow, Slocum’s chancellor, said that. . . he would have responded “exactly the same way” if Slocum’s email had blamed Democrats or any other group for the shutdown. Both he—a longtime communications scholar—and La Crosse value free speech and academic freedom, he said, but now more than ever the actions of faculty and staff can influence public support for higher education.

Ultimately, Gow said, the Internet has “greatly blurred” the line between what’s public and what’s private, “and we do need to remember that what we’re saying to students may be shared more broadly.”

Come on Gow, “greatly blurred,” really? Try erased. “Blurred” might make more sense if Gow had actually come to Slocum’s defense. Read Gow’s words again. He’s saying maintaining public support trumps free speech and academic freedom.

Gow said that ideally, a student who was offended by a professor’s speech would try to settle the matter internally, first through a conversation with that professor, then through more formal complaint mechanisms as needed. La Crosse also takes student evaluations seriously in personnel decisions, he said.

Could Gow be any more out-of-touch with college students? This generation doesn’t do direct interpersonal conflict. For shitssake, they break up with one another via text messaging. Then there’s Gow’s mind numbing student evaluation hammer. All these years I thought student evaluations focused on whether students learned anything of value in their courses, but I guess they’re at least partly designed to determine whether students are ever made uncomfortable by a professor’s politics. Note to Assistant Professors at Wisconsin La Crosse—wait until you get tenure to express anything that could be deemed the least bit political.

Slocum expressed similar views, saying that taking complaints to the Internet before the institution “seems a breach of trust” and removes them from their context.

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s naive to expect it. Wisconsin La Crosse can update their student honor code, and implore students not to take their complaints to the Internet, but some still will. This generation lives on-line. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At La Crosse and other institutions . . . Gow suggested that professors make up their own rules and include them on course syllabuses—as some faculty at various institutions. . . already do. But, the chancellor said, enforcing those policies could be another complicated matter. “That’s kind of uncharted territory there, isn’t it?”

Now I’m starting to feel sorry for Gow. And this excerpt heightens my sympathy for Slocum:

This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience, Slocum said in an email. And I didn’t expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn’t you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.

Here’s some unsolicited advice to my syllabi writing brethren whether Packer fans or otherwise: Do not expect the Internet Generation to come to your office to discuss their concern with your politics. And don’t be surprised if they take surreptitious screen shots of you* and your communication. Or tweet something you’ve said or done. Or post about something you’ve said or done to Facebook. Express partisan political views at your own risk.

* I was a recent victim of surreptitious screen shoting while Skyping with the college senior. Told her about a fun Saturday night out where her mother and I watched Flamenco dancing at a downtown Olympia pizza joint. To give her a little flavor flav of the evening, I demonstrated my pretty astounding flamenco skills. Unbeknownst to me, she took a screen shot midway through the demo. Within a few minutes some of her friends on Facebook were eating it up. The worst part of that whole infringement of my privacy? You need video to fully appreciate my mad flamenco skillz.

The Art of Living

The hippy title of my first year writing seminar at Pacific Lutheran University.

I just read my 32 students’ initial essays in which they summarize what they think they know about the theme and then describe their writing process, strengths, and weaknesses.

Most of them hope the class and I will help them figure out what to study and do upon graduating. That’s not terribly realistic, but I suspect they will spend more time thinking and writing about how they want to live their lives during our seminar than throughout kindergarten through twelfth grade combined.

First Born, starting her last year in college, is also thinking with more urgency about what to do for work after graduating. She’s a religion major without any interest in seminary or much in teaching. Everyone tells me she’ll land on her feet and I think they’re right.

The GalPal and I took her out for pizza recently in her Minnesota college town where she spent the summer working full-time in the college’s library. I was happy she got the library gig because given her passion for books, I’ve thought she might end up a librarian. Over pizza she explained that she liked her job, but doesn’t want to be a librarian, because “It’s not creative enough.”

I was impressed with her self understanding. She doesn’t know what jobs to apply for yet, but she has a pretty good feel for what type of work she’d most enjoy—creative work that is sometimes team-based, sometimes solo.

Recently it was reported that 70% of US workers “are not particularly excited” about their jobs or “are actively disengaged” and “roam the halls spreading discontent”. If we use world history as our frame of reference, I’m guessing that number would be well north of 90%. Most of the world’s people most of the time do monotonous work to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves.

So when my students write that they want to enjoy their work and First Born says she wants creative work, they’re planting a distinct, 21st century, privileged stake in the ground. Normally, the concept of “privilege” has negative connections since it’s associated with preferential treatment and a sense of entitlement; however, in the case of my students and First Born, their preference for meaningful work is undeniably positive.

They want to earn enough money “not to have to worry about it all the time,” but beyond that, they want to be like me and 30% of US citizens for whom work is creative, engaging, and meaningful. Every young person should embrace that form of privilege.