Category Archives: Higher Education

Please, Stop Calling My Friends Lazy

Disclaimer: These ideas are half-baked.  That’s how (in my mind) blogging works.  I look forward to a healthy discussion, and I am completely sure that I will rewrite on this topic in the future having learned from y’all and amended some of my points.  Flamers gotta flame, and I know that.  But try going into this assuming that if something I said sounds off that maybe I just didn’t state it well and give me the opportunity to try again before you decide I’m a horrible human being.  I also fully admit that I am writing this from an incredibly privileged I-actually-got-to-go-college white-cisgendered-straight-female East-Coast-American point of view.  My peer group, my friends, and the “we” I refer to throughout this article are not many people’s “we.”  Writing from experience got me yelled at in philosophy classes and probably will get me yelled at on the internet, too.  Just try not to stray into Godwin’s territory.

It has been ten years since I matriculated at Converse College, full of dreams of a career and a love for learning that often got me in too deep with extracurriculars and 18 hour semesters.  I went to a fancy private school, and I have the student loans to prove it.  I have a top-notch liberal arts degree and graduated an honors student.  I went on to get a MA from the University of Georgia and am now working on a PhD at Virginia Tech.   I wanted (and still do) to be a college professor.  I still don’t think it was a bad goal.

My parents helped when they could, but I have had a job in some capacity since I started college (and even before) in 2003:  federal work-study, cashier at Target, adjunct at far too many colleges to name.  I have always had a job not because I wanted to – being a full-time student is already a full-time job – but because I have had to.  TA stipends are all publicly accessible, so I know I’m not spilling any secrets, but my stipend at UGA for my MA was $10,000 a year, plus full tuition remission, for a 2/1 teaching load.  Pros:  in theory, one should not have to take out any student loans (and if you add out-of-state tuition to 10 grand, it’s not bad) and would end up with a valuable degree.  Cons:  the 10 grand was only a 9 month stipend (summers didn’t count) and you didn’t qualify for food stamps.  Roommates were a necessity.  Second jobs were discouraged by the department but were absolutely necessary.

In any case, I’ve been lucky.  I have generally been able to find work when I’ve needed it, and I have been able to teach (and not work retail) since I completed my MA.   My one not-academia job between my MA and my PhD was actually (sort of) in my field.

But I do refer to myself as lucky intentionally.  I have worked hard.  I haven’t done my very best every single day (who does?) but my overall trajectory has been upward.  Yet many of my peers have worked just as hard, if not harder, and find themselves so incredibly lost.  People with MAs still only able to find part-time work.  Incredibly brilliant women from Converse who still only make $10/hr (on at least their 6th job) after seven years on the job market.  Friends who have managed to make it, but only by leaving behind what they have studied and finding a job completely outside their field (You studied accounting? How about being a photographer.  Journalism?  Yeah, why not work at the Apple store.  ROTC?  Oh, well, you actually got a job in the Army.  Good for you).  Some are happy.  Many are not.

We graduated at the peak of the last bubble.  Some of us got lucky and managed to get jobs just prior to the burst.  Others are still drowning years later.  And yet, we are called entitled.  We took out student debt we couldn’t afford.  Because we banked on getting jobs we were told our entire lives we would get.  So we worked hard and believed what we were told (teachers and parents aren’t supposed to lie, right?).  And now, I don’t know of one friend right now that isn’t on loan deferment or income-based-repayment for their loans.  Not because they don’t want to pay their loans, but because they can’t.

I was talking with my best friend from undergrad tonight, and so I will admit some of these ideas are hers.  But overall they got me thinking.  We are told we are the entitled generation.  But most of us have caved, crumbled, given up on dreams.  We’ve not necessarily accepted our fate of being less secure than our parents’ generation, but we are trying our best to work within the “new normal.”

I now have multiple friends who have resigned themselves to not having children.  When I was a kid, we were told (by often… well-meaning(?) adults) that people who chose not to have kids were “yuppies” that “chose not to have children” so they could “travel” or “buy things” or “have a life.”  How heteronormatively classist.  I’ve come a long way in understanding, I hope.

Now, I have friends who would be brilliant parents electing to stay childless.  Not all of them, but many, are making this decision not because they don’t want children, but because they know they aren’t financially stable enough to responsibly bring them into the world.  My parents have always told me “you’re never truly ready to have kids.”  I’m sure on some level, that’s true.  I don’t know that I’ll ever be really ready to be responsible for a thing that can’t even support its own head for months (is it months? Or weeks?  I have no idea.  Maybe this is why they have parenting classes), but if that time comes, I’ll hunker down and figure it out as best I can, as every parent should.

The difference is that these friends who are now electing childlessness aren’t being paranoid.  They truly understand that they can’t afford to have children and raise them responsibly.  Hell, many of them cannot even afford retirement plans for themselves, let alone rent without roommates (as married/partnered thirtysomethings).  So where are college funds for 2.5 kids, when college is more expensive than ever and you really need a masters for any job of “value” (massive sarcasms/scare quotes here.  And let’s not bring up the fact that graduate students cannot get subsidized loans any longer), supposed to come from?  These very real issues don’t just “work themselves out on their own.”

I’m not an economist.  I have tons of friends (or, at least two) that can claim that title.  But I do know that I had friends slightly better off than we were (Enlisted Navy Brat here, y’all) whose parents had way nicer and newer stuff than we did. And bigger, nicer houses, that their parents owned.  And looking back, I’m sure most of it was on credit that places like Wells Fargo gave them with limits they could not truly afford.  But everything was good, right?  The economy was booming, and everyone could have new, shiny things.

My generation is now dealing with the aftermath.  The good news is that medicine is getting such that we can have kids later and later.  The bad news is even with that, many of my friends who want to still may not be able to.

So what is this rambling rant really all about?  I’m not trying to advocate having kids, or buying things you don’t need, or a return to “the way things were.”  I’m just sick of daily hearing at least one of my friends lamenting a situation that in many ways is not their fault, which they are made to feel guilty about by some of the very people that got us here.  And I’m also not trying to say that our parents and grandparents are terrible people.  Most of them had no idea of the big economic picture (and if they did, I would hope would have made different choices).

Here is (finally) my thesis:  My friends are not lazy (yeah, there are exceptions, but generally speaking, my generation is not plagued with a do-nothing disease).  And we are quickly losing our pie-in-the-sky ideals (high-paying jobs, houses, cars).  We are definitely far more pragmatic than we are often given credit.  I still drive the 1997 Subaru that I inherited from my parents.  I currently have three jobs to make sure I’m not going into (much) consumer debt to survive.  I help proof job letters and resumes for my friends whenever I can.  I watch my friends list jobs on Facebook from their companies to see if they can help others find a job.

If anything, it is our parents that are still living with certain assumptions.  That everyone ends up with a house, and a car (or three), and 2.5 kids.  That we make more than $18,000 a year in professional jobs (I’m talking teachers, y’all) ten years out of high school.  Why not? They did.  And that was in the 80s/90s, when $18,000 went quite a bit farther.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn, and I’m certainly not saying that we Millenials are perfect.  But please, stop calling my friends lazy.  Stop firing my friends or reducing their hours so you don’t have to give them health insurance.  Stop telling them they have to work harder if they really want to do better financially only to nag them about why they haven’t had kids yet.  Stop expecting us to own homes when our student loans are $600 a month for loans you co-signed on while telling us we would have no problems paying them off.  I know you’re trying to give us advice, but you’re only adding to the emotional burden.  Most of us really are doing our best.  Please, just stop.  You’re only making us feel worse.

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The Night of the Dissertation Proposal Defense

For most people, nightmares include intrinsically scary elements.  Your second grade teacher suddenly becomes a T-Rex and disembowels all of your classmates Red Wedding-style as you stare on in horror.  Out of nowhere, you’re in your dorm, and MONSTERS! Scary MONSTERS! show up and all you have to fight them with is your stupid Red Devil pitchfork from your “sorority.”  In most nightmares, something “scary” happens, and you have no control.

For me, nightmares are dreams I cannot wake myself from.  I’m a very lucid dreamer.  If a T-Rex shows up in one of my dreams, I can conjure a dinosaurs-obliterating asteroid to land on its head.  If scary MONSTERS show up, I can turn that plastic pitchfork into a flaming sword.  A nightmare happens when i 1) don’t realize I’m dreaming and thus 2) cannot wake myself up from it.

The worst is when it happens ALL NIGHT.  I swear, every time I did manage to wake up (I’m an end-of-REM-cycle-wake-up-long-enough-to-roll-over-and-flip-a-pillow-sleeper), I’d fall back asleep into the same hell:

My dissertation proposal defense.  Which is today.  For which I will probably look like this:

This was yesterday.  Note the bugged-out eyes and size of the mug.

This was yesterday. Note the bugged-out eyes and size of the mug.

I really don’t know if it was the heavy dinner (which was amazing) that my brother made me last night, or if my brain-phasers were set to AHHHHHHH!!!!!!, but I think I just had an 8 hour proposal defense the night before my 2 hour proposal defense this afternoon.

So, in an unprecedented foray into my psyche, I give you the list of things that *could* happen in my defense today, apparently:

  1. Non!Stoner!In!Real!Life!Classmate brings roaches for all of my advisers (including advisers I’ve never met), who then toke up during the defense and get the giggles.
  2. All of the Converse memers (thanks Caitlin) show up and live-meme my defense, complete with loud color commentary throughout.  I then kick them out for being bad Connies.
  3. A professor I don’t even know calls me out for referring to Star Trek: Enterprise in my bibliography (note: while I do teach with ST:  Enterprise, it appears nowhere in my MS) as Star Trek: Enterprise instead of just Enterprise (I made some sort of BS reply about how it went from ST: E to just E when Berman died, which isn’t even remotely true in Real Life).
  4. Another professor I don’t know, apparently a Known Defense Troll, shows up and starts asking long, detailed questions about her podcast as it relates to my research.  Newsflash: it doesn’t.  Even Stoned!Committee!Chair can recognize that, which he states before forcing me to still answer the question.
  5. My mom shows up, and whenever someone asks me a hard question, interrupts and asks why they’re trying to make me cry.
  6. The defense literally goes for 8 hours, during which time I manage to make it 2 sentences at a time into my prepared 5 minute speech only to be interrupted for issues of “clarity.”  We never actually finish.
  7. In reference to the speech in point 6, I have no idea what the hell I was reading in the dream.  It was like a few sentences from every single paper I have written in the last 10 years of college, put together, and I kept insisting the entire time that “No, trust me, it all comes together at the end and if you would stop gorram interrupting me, you’d know that!
  8. One committee member shows up 1.5 hours late, but it doesn’t matter, because I’ve only gotten through 2 paragraphs of said speech.

All of this became a nightmare, and not hilarious, simply because yeah, I didn’t realize I was dreaming.  In good news, I’ve already defended for 8 hours, so what’s the worst that can happen now?  Pretty sure that none of this is going to happen today.  Except maybe point 3…

ETA:  The high of the day today is 28 degrees F.  I’ve read enough of my Dante to know that the lowest levels of hell are frozen.

The Underwhelm of Academia

Adapted from a FB status last night (and added onto significantly):

All achievements in academia seem to be underwhelming. You write and write waiting for that moment of validation (“send it on to the committee”), only to feel completely underwhelmed when it actually comes through because you’re so emotionally exhausted from the entire process. Are all jobs like this, or are academics just weird?

This has happened to me before.  I remember finishing up my MA and defending my thesis and just feeling kind of… numb.  I think we bank for some sort of epiphany/life-changing feeling to wash over us when we hit those milestones, and when it doesn’t come, it’s just… well, it’s nothingness.  Maybe it’s because I graduated in the summer, a year after my original cohort, but I felt absolutely no motivation to even walk in that ceremony.

You work for years and years on a degree.  Other than an 18 month “break” from academic work (though I did still adjunct during that period), I have been in school since 1989.  I’m set to earn my Ph.D. in 2015.  26 years of school.  That’s longer than my father’s military career.  Will the end have that “payoff” feeling?  I joke with people all the time that the only reason I’m getting the Ph.D. is for the cool hat, but what happens on that special day when all I feel like I have is a cool hat?

Luckily, I have my head far enough out of my ass to be able to say this:  it’s not all underwhelm (yes, I’m coining this as a noun).  There are moments of such pure joy when a thesis finally comes together, when a colleague gets into that cool conference/journal/job that they’ve always wanted, when your students really *get* something.  They’re little joys that keep you going along the emotional rollercoaster.

But it is a little crummy when you anticipate an emotional payoff – that joy you will feel just to hear your adviser say good work, your proposal is ready – and when the moment comes it’s just… blech.  Because you can’t find it in you to just pause and enjoy that moment.

You’re already onto the next step, the next thing to stress over.  The next labor of love.

Ms. Jordan, weren’t we supposed to read Augustine…?

Yes, dear student, you were.  Everyone who can read the syllabus knows that.  You know who can’t read the syllabus?

Me.

In elementary school, you have the dream that the teacher doesn’t know your name.  In middle school, you enter a nightmare world where you show up to school with raging acne and everyone knows but you.  In high school, the nightmare matures as much as you have and involves having a final exam in a class you never attended.

As an instructor, it becomes far more sinister… showing up for a class without lecture notes, or having not prepped for the day at all, or being forced to teach organic chemistry when you normally teach Latin American poetry.

I think I experienced all three.  Well, at least the first two.

I lay out my syllabi as user-friendly as I possibly can, hoping that no one is lost because they can’t figure out what I’ve assigned.  Here’s a screencap of today’s assignment:

If you had the rest of my syllabus, you'd know that Tannanbaum is the author of our textbook.

If you had the rest of my syllabus, you’d know that Tannanbaum is the author of our textbook.

Pretty straight forward.  Chapter 5 is Augustine.  The week is entitled Augustine.

Not Machiavelli.

I remember as I prepped today’s lecture that I was surprised that I’d cut Augustine, Luther, and Calvin out of my syllabus.  I’m a religion instructor, too.  My areas of focus in my Ph.D. are political and cultural theory.  I know that this is a massive hole, and yet I shrugged it off and went with it.

Oops.

One brave student came up and asked me to clarify why I was having them do groupwork on Machiavelli.  Weren’t we supposed to read Augustine?

I’m pretty sure I looked like this for the next five minutes:

Photo on 9-24-13 at 2.05 PM

It was probably closer to seven seconds.

If this had happened seven years ago, when I first taught my own class at the too-young age of 21, I probably would have spazzed, found a quick video to throw in, or just cancelled class.  Or tried to BS something.  Or quite possibly thrown up.

Instead, I paused, realizing that I had taught Augustine et al in multiple classes.  I’ve read the Confessions in their entirety.  I’ve lectured on Paul Tillich’s lectures on this topic, and I had PowerPoints on all the material.

So instead of wigging (other than that glorious face above), I asked them to just talk amongst themselves and created a Franken-PowerPoint out of several others.  I reviewed the notes I had from previous semesters, and I jumped right in.  All-in-all, the hiccup took about fifteen minutes.

Was it my smoothest lecture?  Absolutely not.  But our class discussion was really solid, and for that I’m pleased.  It’s nice to know that 7+ years into teaching, I really do know the introductory material well.  Plus, now I don’t have to prep anything for next week (I’ve never been so excited to teach Machiavelli).  And, I tell everyone about it, so that’s pretty cool.

As for time management, let’s just choose to not talk about that hour of office hours I spent writing this entry…

Converse College Lowers Tuition 43%–And Makes This Alumna Proud

As a child of the (soon to be talked about, if current colleagues are correct) student loan bubble generation, the news from Converse College about their 43 percent cut in tuition is the right step in making my alma mater affordable once again.  This tuition cut actually brings the overall cost of attendance down to below what it was when I matriculated in 2003.

When I applied in 2002, going to a single-gender institution was not remotely my dream.  My father’s coworker was an alumna of Converse, and Converse allows for free applications if they are signed by a former student.  Saying no to a free college application was not an option, given the overall costs of the application process.  Other schools on my list were Providence, USC-Columbia, and Mary Baldwin, so between application fees and forwarding SAT scores, the cost was getting up there.

Converse was at the bottom of my list for a long time.  What changed my mind was meeting with alumnae and former president Nancy Oliver Gray, one of the most amazing women I have ever met.  The warmth I received from these women shocked me, and as I learned more about the small class sizes and the family feel of Converse, I knew that USC was not for me.

I started Converse off well, financially.  I had earned a $16,000 a year honor scholarship and another $5000 a year from South Carolina’s LIFE scholarship.  My student loans to make up the difference were minimal by comparison (at least, by comparison to what they would be by the end of my three years at Converse) to the sheer benefit I was receiving.  At that time, my parents were in a position to help with some of the costs, and the decision to go seemed justified.

From L to R:  Chelsey Boggs ('09), Leland Bridges ('07), Josie Fingerhut Shaheen ('05), Me ('06), Dr. Jeff Poelvoorde, Daniela Burrows Cuddington ('09), and Molly Smith Kellam ('07).  Together again at my wedding, May 15, 2011, nearly 5 years to the day after I graduated from Convrse.

From L to R: Chelsey Boggs (’09), Leland Bridges (’07), Josie Fingerhut Shaheen (’05), Me (’06), Dr. Jeff Poelvoorde, Daniela Burrows Cuddington (’09), and Molly Smith Kellam (’07). Together again at my wedding, May 15, 2011, nearly 5 years to the day after I graduated from Converse.

At Converse, I met the women in my life to whom I am still closest.  I joined Model Programs and traveled to Jordan on study-abroad.  I served as an Appeals Board representative and worked in Summer Programs.  I loved my three years there, and my only regret is that it was only three years.

As tuition prices skyrocketed around the country, Converse was no exception.  The pre-crash boom affected us all.  In a math class I took senior year, one of the assignments we had involved calculating rate of inflation.  I remember being appalled that tuition and fees, should the current rate of inflation of tuition remain constant, would be over $70,000 by the time my fictional daughters might start applying.  For my own part, between a several thousand dollar hike in overall costs coupled with losing my LIFE scholarship because my residency changed, the amount of loans I would have had to take out to stay at Converse my senior year became prohibitive.

My junior-actually-senior year, I made the decision to graduate early.  I have not regretted making the financial decision, but I do regret the year I lost.  The decision forced me to have to drop my double major back to a major and a minor.  While I had been accepted to UGA’s Masters program in Religion, I still had to take 22 hours my last semester to have the right amount of credits to graduate.  As you can imagine, my grades from that last semester of overwork are the reason I lost my cum laude status.

Students should not get halfway through college only to have their financial ability to finish taken away from them.  They should not have to make the choice between debt and pursuing their ideal major(s).  They should not have to immediately not consider a college that they could thrive at simply because of sticker price.

I am sure I am one of many recent alumnae staring at our bills, wishing that the decision had been made sooner.  But Converse was not alone in having/choosing to raise its tuition over the last decade.  Anyone that graduated in the aughts knows this to be true.  Converse is one of the first (see also Sewanee, Ashland, Concordia, and Seton Hall) to dramatically lower its tuition prices and, unlike some others, is doing so from a position of growth and strength.  Converse’s undergraduate enrollment is higher than it has been in years, and its capital campaign has led to the building of several new dormitories (and the renovation of others) as well as a brand new field house for our sports program.  With such marked growth in freshman class size over the last three years, it would have be an easy decision to continue charging the same amount of tuition.  But it would not be the right thing to do for Converse’s future students.  I am proud, so proud, of Converse for recognizing that the entire reason they exist is to provide top-notch educational opportunities to students without harming them or their families financially.  Well done, Converse.  Well done.