The value of an English degree during a pandemic, plus a rabbit

I was on a Zoom call recently with some college friends. One mentioned that his college degree, earned many years ago, did not provide much. Another agreed, saying “my degree did absolutely nothing for me!” Now, there may have been some hyperbole there, and this exchange may have involved some ribbing/noodling/general sh*t-slinging, but it did raise my eyebrows a bit.

Now, there is no disagreement that the college experience was worthwhile. I mean, here we were, oldsters who met in our salad days at college, connecting again a couple decades later. There is much to be said about the shared experience of residential college, especially for traditional students. Personal growth, coming of age, maturity, life lessons learned–call it what you will, it is a big deal. But what the heck does a degree in English or Government get you once you head out into the “real world?” Apparently, my fellow former students believe that “nothing” is the answer.

I find myself disagreeing, so here are five things that my undergraduate liberal arts degree in English has given me to help face this pandemic. Call it a metaphor for life in general, but let’s use this quarantine situation for what it gives us, shall we?

It gave me some solid writing skills. I work in an office, so I use email a lot anyway, but these days, working at home every day, I use it more than I ever have. When you can’t just pop by someone’s desk, you have to use other means to communicate. Sure I use the phone or make video calls, but I write emails too, lots of them. And I think about those emails. I write and delete and edit and craft and when I don’t do that I worry that my tone was off or that my message might be misinterpreted. I think about my audience and how formal I need to sound and I try to use the right words. And that is stuff I learned writing papers for English classes. And email is just one example. I will be working on writing a big grant soon, and it will be better because I know how to write–I will be able to focus more on details other than sentence structure, and it will be a better proposal.

It helps me to be a better parent. The past couple of days I spent time helping my daughter, who is home now rather than at school, to fine tune her thesis for her English class. It is fourteen pages, by the way, a solid accomplishment for a high school junior. I can help her with her thesis because I have lots of practice. High school students have to write papers, and if I can help mine to navigate that challenge, then we will have a better relationship. Also, reading literature for a class means you have to pay attention so that you can understand and analyze it. If you are or have been a parent you know the importance of paying attention to your kid. That kid is not you, and they are sometimes going to think in ways that don’t make sense to you. If you do not pay attention you will understand less now and have a harder time coming to understanding later.

It taught me patience. Have you ever read Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Or Moby Dick? Or Great Expectations? That crap ain’t easy. First, you have to get through it. It takes time just to read those kinds of books. Then you have to try to understand what the heck is going on. I read Shakespeare in college. You might not know this, but that dude did not talk like we do now. If Shakespeare showed up today he would be all “What gives with the Tik Tok and the acai bowls and spelling shop with only one p and without the e at the end?” Just like I was all “Beggarly account? Jackdaw? Take arms against a sea of troubles? What the…” I had to work through those works of literature to first understand them and then to collect my own thoughts into writing. Sure, one could rush through that and slap together a paper. I guess that wasn’t for me. Right now, whatever your situation, patience is critical. If you can manage to collect your thoughts and be deliberate, you will be better off then just trying to slap things together. We all will be.

It helps me to understand the power of story. Politicians get elected because they tell stories. Leaders are followed because they tell stories. You want to be a good presenter or to make a successful pitch or to teach anything well? You need to harness the power of story. Sure those authors I read in college were trying to make a living by telling stories. People enjoy a good story and will pay to hear it/read it/watch it, but stories are integrated into our lives. When we meet someone for the first time we ask each other questions, and we share stories. If you can tell a good story you will make friends, you will be more respected, you can be a better boss. Of course, the ability to tell a good story can mean abusing that power at the expense of others. People want to listen. Whether it is for good or ill, however, stories have power. I learned that by doing all that reading and writing, and I relearn it just about every day during this pandemic. I mean, how can you have a successful Zoom call without a good story or two? (Also, my wife handed me a book, literally as I write this, that she got forever ago, telling me I need to read something from it because it is relevant right now–power of story in action!)

I am better able to make connections between all kinds of things. When I read some of those old books it was important to understand the context of the story. Dickens makes a lot more sense when you understand the issues of the day in 19th Century London, and it makes even more sense when you understand what was happening all over the world at that time. Things Fall Apart or Night–those books are stories within the larger stories of their time and place. Reading those books, and then analyzing them in order to write a paper about them, meant trying to understand how things are related. I found that I better understood those stories because I was studying other things as well. I found myself making connections or having insights in French class or Geology class because of some of those stories. And the reverse was true as well. Coal plays a big role in 19th Century England, and it is featured in Dickens novels, and I learned about it in my lab. All of that learning fed into each other. Making connections is important to understanding our world, whether our own community or international politics. This coronavirus thing is not easy to understand. Where did it come from? Why did it spread so fast? Why can’t we treat it? Will things ever get back to normal? The ability to make connections between all of these things helps me to understand what it all means. I often don’t get definitive answers, but I at least can grasp why I don’t.

As for the rabbit, well, I haven’t been seeing all that many of them lately. Some years they are underfoot but this year they are scarce. I saw several of them this morning. I took a photo. What does that mean? I don’t think it means anything. Rabbits are just cool critters. Seeing them this morning does not have to have any more significance than that. Sometimes things don’t. Studying English in college taught me that, too.

School at Home

Way back a lifetime ago, meaning a few weeks ago, Vermont’s governor gave a Friday press conference saying schools would not be closed. There was not a need right then, but the situation could change and the administration would continue to assess what needed to be done to address the coronavirus’s spread. The following Monday he gave another press conference closing schools until April 6th. A week later, on March 26th, the governor ordered schools closed for the rest of the academic year.

School is not out, mind you. Students and staff are not going to school but they are trying to keep the business of school moving forward. At first the idea was just to “maintain learning,” to make sure students didn’t forget everything by the time school started back up again. Now, however, the idea is to keep teaching, and learning, and generally doing school.

This, of course, has not been a simple task. At my son’s high school every student gets a Chromebook, so they all have a device to connect with others. My son logs in and connects with his advisory at least once per week. They check in, using Google Hangouts, give each other advice and share stories and maybe even get some ideas about how to generally do school. They vent a little and they reassure each other. At other times he gets online for actual “classes.” This does not look like a typical in-person class but might include a lesson or review or help with an assignment that was posted to their online classroom page.

My daughter had been away at school, far from Vermont. She came home early for her March break. Once that break ended she stayed home. Her school is closed as well. They are trying to hold more formal classes online. Sometimes those classes are 90 minutes. That is a long time to focus when meeting on Zoom, especially for challenging high school subjects.

Yesterday my daughter was in her room, online for pre-calculus class. In the middle of it she texted “lots of algebra” and the above photo. Pre-calculus is not an easy class. It requires paying attention and, for most students, asking questions. That is all upside down in this online classroom, especially for a teacher who does not have a lot of experience teaching online and had little time to prepare for that shift. That photo exemplifies the challenge.

Students everywhere are making it work as best they can, but many are just not logging on, and many simply can’t. We are lucky. Our kids are responsible, for the most part, and we have reliable internet access in a safe home. Not only do we have plenty to eat, but I am cooking more than ever now that I am not commuting to and from work. This is a game changer for education on all levels. School will never be the same, and no one knows yet what that means.

My children are not going back to school this year. Will they be in school in the fall? If so, what will that look like? What will this mean for graduation requirements, or for college admissions? Or for the future of higher education? Students ask “When will things get back to normal?” but, sadly for them, they won’t.

We will get through this, of course, and we will all be changed, and good things will come from this very bad time. As the head of my daughter’s school said in an online town meeting, “This stinks.” Unlike the virtual whiteboard in pre-calculus class, everyone with any connection to education understands that.

Your Typical Middle School Concert

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A couple of nights ago I had the pleasure to hear my local elementary/middle school band play. Two back-to-back concerts were performed: the beginner band and the intermediate band. It was a fine show.

The beginner band performed first. They did a good job, typical of a beginner band, with clarinet squeaks and off-beat percussion and blaring brass overshadowing the flutes, followed by the older and more experienced musicians who, as expected, had honed their craft a bit more. It was not a concert to be attended by the critics, or by anyone who is looking to get their ears massaged. It was like so many similar performances that happen every year all across the United States. The place was packed with proud (and tired and spaced out and other varieties of) parents, and a passel of school kids did their best and had fun.

I was struck by the timelessness and the typicallness of it. We were assembled in the gymnasium, seated in folding chairs in rows. Students played on risers as well as on the stage at the side of the room. They played under the basketball hoops. There was a state flag and a national flag on the wall. Four students started us off with the national anthem. Gym mats were folded in the corner. How many people have witnessed this same scene?

This was exactly what I did in elementary and middle school. Lots of kids played instruments and we managed to honk out some tunes as a band. Some or these young musicians will stick with it, but most will leave their instruments behind and some day say that they once played the saxophone or the bass drum, just like in my generation. I imagine many of those parents and grandparents attending this time were in that boat. This pageant has been repeated many times in many places. It is a shared experience.

What if we could tap into that shared experience? If we all could know how many others have felt pride at hitting the right notes, or embarrassment at missing them, wouldn’t we be in a better place? I certainly felt pride in my own child for performing, and I am confident I was not alone. Math may not be taught the same way as when these students’ parents went to school, and Chromebooks were not available to the previous generation. Schools and public education have changed in many ways, but band is similar. The clarinets and french horns and cymbals sound the same and work the same way. I think there is something to be celebrated in that.

Music (and other art) programs get cut at many schools. They are not valued as much as things that are typically measured on standardized tests. I think that is a mistake. There is much to be learned by playing music. If you have had any experience playing music, even as an elementary school band member, you know what I mean. And the continuity of it is powerful as well. There are few things that really are the same about school from the last generations to this one. I think we should hang on to some of them.

Addressing Inequality with Trio Programs

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Today is Blog Action Day and the theme is inequality. It is appropriate, therefore, to share some thoughts on some programs that have been around a long time to help alleviate the challenge of inequality–federal Trio programs.

Most people have not heard of Trio, yet the first programs began in 1965 and have helped millions of people gain education beyond high school. They are called Trio programs because originally there were three programs–Upward Bound, Educational Talent Search and Student Support Services. The first two work with students in high school and the third with students in college. The idea of these programs is to assist disadvantaged students with higher education attainment and success. Disadvantaged in this case means students from low-income families, who are of the first generation to go to college, or who have disabilities.

Upward Bound was the first program, started in 1965, as one response to the War on Poverty. The program continues to work with high school students, guiding and coaching them on how to succeed in high school, how to apply to college, and how to be successful once they get to college. Talent Search was added in 1964, a similar but not as time-intensive program, and Student Support Services, working with college students to help them be successful once they got to college, began in 1968. Since then five more programs have been added to work with adult learners, veterans, college students who strive to attain graduate degrees, and others.

The Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), a nonprofit membership organization for Trio programs across the country, notes that over two million students in Trio programs have attained higher education degrees. These programs are a huge success for this country. They help those who might not otherwise go to college to do so. This obviously helps them, but I would argue it helps us all. Getting a degree means having more opportunities, and it means being a more informed citizen. Our democracy wins when more people go to college.

I have worked in these programs for several years, and I have seen stories of success. I have seen the Bosnian and Vietnamese and Sudanese refugee families send their children to college, despite working minimum wage jobs because that is all they can get in the United States. I have seen students who have gone to several public schools before graduation (in one case a student I worked with attended 12 schools in as many different towns) still get the support they need to get to college. I have seen students become college student government presidents and start their own businesses and become nurses. And students have told me that they would not have gotten as far without Trio programs.

Does it work for every student? No it doesn’t. When I see a student get pregnant her first year in college and then drop out, when I see a student give up in her first semester, when I see a student simply not start and work for minimum wage for years, I do get discouraged. But then I see a former student who is still plugging away part time in Community College classes, determined to get that degree, and I am hopeful again.

We all should know more about these programs, and we should support them. They are cost effective, they are well respected, and they work. For more information check out COE’s Trio programs summary page. And if you are up for it, tell your representatives in Washington to support Trio programs. They are the ones who vote to keep them going. If we want to fight inequality we sometimes have the tools we need in hand. We just need to know we’ve got them to use.

And Now a Few Words from Dr. Dean

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Look, it’s the former governor as seen through a smart phone camera from the back row

OK this is just not a great photo, but I wasn’t prepared to take photos. There I was visiting Milton High School today to help out some students and I hear on the morning announcements that juniors and seniors should come to the auditorium for the visiting politician, who blah blah blah really important whatever I can’t really hear I have things to do Vermont big wig such and such and his name is Howard Dean. Howard Dean? Right here today? I started listening but had already missed the details.

After I met with one student he asked if I was going to see Howard Dean. I had a hole in my schedule so I followed him into the auditorium. We were a little late. I sat in the back. He spoke for a while and answered some questions. He talked about how their generation has a different world to take care of and different tools to use to do that. Some key ideas, paraphrased:

When he was young, he and his peers could organize a protest but it took lots of coordination and months to organize. Today anyone can go to change.org and set up a petition to make big companies or Congress take notice, with hundreds of signatures in a couple of days. He told the story of the young woman who got five dollars tacked to her bank statement each month to allow her to use her debit card. She organized a petition and, very quickly, got 300,000 people to say they would switch banks unless the fee was dropped. The fee was dropped.

He asked the group how many of them had at least one international connection, including through social media. The majority of hands went up. He said that when he was in high school there was no social media so only about three hands might have gone up; ok maybe four since “we had some exchange students.”

He was asked a question about the cost of college and noted that college is expensive but there are ways to do it cheaper. He noted the expansion of students at community colleges and that one can transfer into a larger school to get a degree from a different institution. He said that anyone can get a good education at just about any not-for-profit institution if one works hard enough.

He was asked about the number of students who go to college outside Vermont and said “I think that is a great thing.” If you grow up in Vermont and go to college in Vermont and stay in Vermont to work, how are you going to get any experience with the world outside Vermont? Half of what you learn in college is from professors. The other half is from students who go to school with you. So go somewhere to college where you can be around people who are different from you. He likes the idea of students from other places coming to Vermont to go to college. It means that Vermonters who stay here get to be around different types of people and that will make their education better.

If you think you are going to work your way up through the system and become president and then change the world, that isn’t going to happen. To become president you have to work your way through the system you need to change. Change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. Today there are more tools to organize people to make change than ever before in history, and more people are doing it despite a dysfunctional political system.

The Iraq war was “the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States.” Patrick Leahy is “my favorite senator.”

He said some other things, as well, of course–things that got me thinking. I especially got thinking about the idea that 50% of what one learns in college is from peers. Somehow that phrasing set right with me. His thoughts on the college experience were directly relevant to the conversation I was having with the student I had been meeting with. I asked the student about that later. He said it was weird that the college topics came up and then said this:

“It made me think differently about how awesome Vermont is.” Yes, Dr. Dean, your words still are inspiring, ten years after you changed the face of political organizing and fundraising, both for me and for the students you met with today. Keep that up.

 

First Day of School

Today was the first day of school for our children.  After some anxiety about what that might bring, it worked out OK for them both.  Now we have some worries about what day two might bring.  One day at a time, I guess.

Bus on the Way

Bus on the Way

Off They Go

Off They Go

Really Gone (at Least for the Day)

Really Gone (at Least for the Day)

More Than a Woman

Yesterday, April 28, was Equal Pay Day, the day in the year when American women’s pay catches up to American men’s from the previous year.  It takes almost five months into the year before the wages paid to women equal those for men for the 12 months of the year before.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Vermont women earn just over 81% of full time working men.

In 2007, the last full year for which information is available, American men earned an average of $14.75 per hour.  American women?  $12.05 per hour.  That’s a big difference.  The median national weekly earnings for men was $766.  For women it was $614.  In Vermont those weekly earnings were $767 and $625.  Not quite as big a disparity but a disparity nonetheless.  (You can get this and lots more information from the Highlight of Women’s Earnings in 2007 report.

Not only did the notice of Equal Pay Day come my way today from a colleague, but I also happened to notice a poster, which I had seen before but never really looked at closely, that broke down average earnings, separately for men and women, by degree attained.  Vermont’s Commission on Women reports, in its January 2009 Status of Women and Girls in Vermont report, that women with a Bachelor’s Degree earned an average of $31,770 while men earned an average of $46,933.  That is a difference of over $15,000.

That isn’t fair.  Maybe there is, as some claim, more an explanation than one can see on the surface, but that still isn’t fair, and I don’t buy that it can account for the gap.  Vermont’s Commision on Women has also put together a brochure on equity in the workplace.  This isn’t something that I see every day.  It isn’t something that affects me regularly, at least openly.  But it bothers me.

I have seen many women who do a better job than men.  And I know that not all women get paid less than men.  But it is hard to keep from noticing and wondering and questioning what the heck is up with this gender earnings gap.  April 28 is awfully late in the year to be catching up.  Equal pay by New Year’s Eve.  That would be a little more my speed.