ess #2: the first year out

I went to an author-meets-critic session for Tim Clydesdale, who just published The First Year Out, a book I really enjoyed. He interviewed high school seniors in New Jersey once near graduation and again a year later. His focus is often on their political and moral development. As academics, we often imagine the first year of college to be one of intellectual discovery, of being exposed to new ideas and people, of personal transformation. But instead what Clydesdale finds is young people who defer (temporarily or indefinitely) those sorts of experiences and instead focus on learning how to manage daily life. They learn how to manage their time and their money, how to get laundry done, how to negotiate new freedom and relationships. But what they mostly don’t do is critically examine their identities or their beliefs, or engage with politics or world events. Clydesdale thinks we (the academics) have unrealistic expectations because we constitute a biased sample – that is, we are the ones most likely to have had that transformative experience our first year of college, and it’s no accident that we are the intellectuals now. So we might get the rare Mini-Me in a class, but our modal students are not them and not us.

Anyway, I like the book not only because it’s related to my work, but also because I think it helps me maintain a more realistic sense of who those faces in my 101 class are. It helps me gauge where they’re at and teach better because I’m teaching them, and not who I imagine they are.

The critics were interesting. Michael Schwartz (at SUNY-Stony Brook) went first. He thought that the students Clydesdale profiled, especially Cookie, often showed a more substantial intellectual transformation than Clydesdale gave them credit for. In particular with Cookie, it seems like she’s succeeding fabulously at her vocational school. And should we expect more (broadening minds) from such a school? Second, Schwartz argues that the main problem for kids is that they develop individualistic answers to social problems, and that they have no model for collective action that is effective and meaningful. Schwartz criticizes Clydesdale for the same error: the solutions he proposes are also individualistic.

Maria Kefalas (St Joseph’s) was the second critic (and organizer). She argued, similarly to Schwartz, that the fact that kids are managing is itself a success story. Secondly, that the 60s were anomalous, and proposes it was the draft that made some collective action possible. Now most middle class kids are numbed to feeling any sacrifice of war.

Kimberly Goyette (Temple) asked whether this is a historical shift in what college means, perhaps due to shifting populations attending college. Or, is college just another stage in the life course, the “next logical step”, the norm, rather than something special or extra? Secondly, Goyette responds to the surprising finding that 9/11 really did not figure large in these students’ stories, even though it happened the fall of their senior year. She commented that adults really didn’t have “eye-opening” responses to 9/11 either. Third, Goyette addresses an educational policy implication: are liberal arts courses less relevant for this population?

Clydesdale had a number of responses. First, that the myth of 1st year enlightenment is common among administrators and others (the more the further they get from teaching). Some enlightenment can happen in later years, he argued, but less than we think (because friendship groups congeal in the first year, and identities once in their “lockbox” are hard to get out again).

Second, that faculty need to think of themselves as public intellectuals in their classrooms, and try to engage students where they are. This doesn’t mean dumbing down, but for Clydesdale means focusing on skill development, especially given that sociology as a discipline is more about a way of thinking than a body of knowledge.*

Third, that though 9/11 was not big for these students, Columbine (which happened much earlier and half a continent away) was. Indeed, the lesson they took from Columbine was that the world is dangerous and random, and that the best course of action is to lay low and try not to get anyone angry. Later school shootings, and 9/11, were just new instances that reinforced the same message. I do like this explanation of the social grogginess and impotence academics often lament among our students.

*He mentioned his belief that the students who were prepared for memorization of large amounts of data would select into courses like biology. I don’t know whether this is true, but the idea worries me – both that it might be happening and that we might be sanctioning it. It seems to me this could increase reproduction of inequality, no? If the most prepared students select in to more rigorous classes** which in turn have more potential for “real” jobs or professional (high-paying) careers like science and medicine – where will this leave us in terms of stratification and mobility, and us the remaining sociologists with the least-prepared students in our classes?

**Not that I’m saying biology is necessarily more rigorous than sociology, but … ok, I pretty much am saying that.

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