Wow, I am just so impressed with the candor and emotions shared. What an indicator of the type of environment I like to create in my courses. This assignment wasn’t easy. Examining the self, how we interpret situations, and breaking down our taken-for-granted assumptions is a process that requires a lot of strength and determination.
Students shared personal accounts with economic precariousness, and wrote about parents losing jobs and lifestyles changing. They opened up about privilege and cultural worlds only a few are familiar with—sharing stories about first class air travels, and the inner workings of contemporary art collecting. I read stories of hurt feelings from both sides of the class divide and experiences of dislocation from communities when parents chose more rigorous schools out of district. I even read about how Shabbat slows families down and silences the demands of concerted cultivation.
Some students looked at their life now and spoke about student housing as a mechanism for acquiring capital and others pushed the boundaries of the assignment by examining personal interactions as a queer activist. They also worked to further wonderfully critical theses regarding diversity and class.
Some themes could be found across many students’ papers. Those who felt they straddled multiple worlds based upon race, class, and ethnicity shared stories of connecting across class lines and how some perceptions of connection were sometimes misguided.
In addition, many spoke about dwellings. To understand class differences some chose to compare and contrast housing, different approaches to home-decorating, and different presentations of commodities within the home environment. For many in our class, homes and rooms were not personal spaces but family investments. Students spoke about the lack of autonomy that this suggests when children cannot decorate their room to their own tastes.
There were also many papers about charity work and community service to understand class differences where some critically examined charitable experiences and the privileged position when one “gives back.” They questioned methods of engagement and shared stories of dissonance when volunteer work was met with resentment, ingratitude or a response that didn’t fit expectations.
They shared moments where I could really see engagements with privilege. They spoke about how different frameworks clashed because of background. For example, while tutoring underprivileged kids, they learned how pencils could be considered a scare resource and how knives were not weapons but sharpening tools.
However, an assignment like this is not written in one draft, and I saw some overarching concerns in these assignments:
1. Organization: What are you trying to say in this paper? Everything placed on the page needs to further the argument; from the stories shared, to the words chosen to the paragraphs written—everything needs to work towards the larger thesis! A disorganized paper takes away from thoughtful analysis, compelling examples, and creative approaches. Students needed to work through arguments linearly to make sure paper structures subliminally reinforced their theses.
2. Big Leaps: Do the examples given build to a larger thesis? Can we really make these claims based on the information provided? Sociological writing and analysis are not overtly political; they build to make claims about the social world. Are you forcing things just to make a point, or does the data lead us naturally to the conclusion?
3. Interpretation: Some work needs to be done to reexamine these examples and experiences. Is the reading of the situation shaped by your social class position? How might someone else perceive this situation? Which brings us to the biggest overarching concern…
4. Examining the Other v. Examining the Self: Students seemed to see this assignment as way to understand others. For this assignment they were asked to examine their perceptions, not work to intuit the motives of others. Examining their own social class position is a harder task, as Michael Kimmel and Abby Ferber explain, “to be white, or straight, or male, or middle class is to be simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. You’re everywhere you look. You’re the standard against which everyone else is measured. You’re like water, like air” (3:2010). By trying to examine the other, I saw moments that can only be described as examples of “color-blind classism.” These examples and analysis showed how privilege works and how it is kept invisible. In their writings about class they did more to reinforce the usual ways we think about inequality, since many wrote from “the perspective of the one who is hurt by the inequality, not the one who is helped” (Kimmel 7:2010).
As my students meet with me individually to discuss their re-writes, I’m struck by their willingness to tackle this assignment, as well as the frustration some of them feel when pushed to critically examine their first drafts and ultimately themselves.
Initially, I thought the hardest part for students would be seeing how the critiques were directed at the analysis, not at their experiences. But what I’ve discovered, which I think is even more valuable, is that in this process they have realized that even their comprehension, interpretation, and documenting of classed moments demonstrate a privileged classed position.
This is not an easy assignment, and I know I’ve made many of them extremely uncomfortable; tears were shed when we went over drafts and tried to further our critical thinking. But I strongly believe that this is a productive and healthy discomfort. By allowing and creating a judgment free space where they can talk freely through these taboo and sometimes seemingly inappropriate topics, I can see real growth. As a teacher, I try to focus on “the arenas in which we are privileged as well as those in which we are not in order to understand our society more fully and engage in the long historical process of change” (Kimmel 10: 2010).
I’ve seen more “A-ha” moments come from this assignment than many of the others I’ve attempted. While this is incredibly labor intensive for me, my wonderful teaching assistant, and my students, the rewards are totally worth it. We’ve come a long way