This was going to be a post about How College Works, a recent book by Dan Chambliss and Chris Takacs. Every couple of years I teach a senior seminar on higher education, and this time around we started with Chambliss & Takacs.
I’d still like to write that post. I liked the book quite a lot, and it was a big hit with the students. But right now I want to emphasize something teaching this class often reminds me of, and which was even more apparent as we made our way through How College Works. The gap between why students attend college and what they think they get out of it, and how academics and policy wonks think about the purpose of college and how to improve the institution, is huge.
The higher ed policy world has been buzzing lately. First there was a big new paper that used tax data to provide some of the best evidence to date on who is defaulting on student loans. (Short answer: students who attend for-profits, and, secondarily, community college students, who traditionally did not borrow but have started to in the last decade.)
Right after that came the new federal College Scorecard, which similarly uses tax data to provide, for the first time, some information about student incomes after college relative to net price and money borrowed at specific schools.
All this generated lots of chatter among the media, policy types, and academics obsessed with such things. I would have contributed myself, had the start of the semester not whacked me upside the head (and, briefly, off the internet).
But as all this was coming out, I was just coming off an intense conversation with my class of seniors about what they had gotten out of their four years of college. For context, these are sociology majors, almost all from NY state, a large majority residential and of traditional college age, about 40% first generation, half Black and Latino, at a school of middling selectivity. So perhaps not the most career-obsessed (they *are* sociology majors), but also not collectively so privileged as to be able to ignore the financial realities of life after graduation.
What they talked about was personal development. They learned who they are. To manage themselves. To prioritize and juggle competing obligations. To evaluate the character of others. To be confident in themselves and their ability to handle new situations. To get along with others who are different from them. They made what they expect to be lifelong friends. Academics barely came up. Neither did future income. They are very aware that “life out there” is drawing near as they head toward graduation, and they do wish college had done a better job of helping them think about how to transition to the world of work. But the reason they go to college, and what they think they got out of it, is primarily personal and social.
This conversation, which took place before we read How College Works, anticipated many of the themes in the book. Chambliss and Takacs’s book is, first and foremost, student-centered, and it emphasizes how college works for students. That means that even though academics are a significant piece of the puzzle, much of the benefit as students see it comes elsewhere—in their typology, not just in skills they gain, but in confidence developed and in relationships made. I think this is part of why the book resonated so much with students, who wished they had read it in high school, or at least as freshmen.
How distant this seems from the policy conversation about higher ed, which is increasingly focused on post-college income—the thing that can be measured, and thus the only thing that matters. Surely no one wants to argue that it is fine for students to graduate with a mound of debt and a job that pays less than a living wage. And the “college experience” that most of my students have had to some degree—at least partly residential, surrounded by others of one’s age cohort—and which is central to what they feel they’ve gained, is not in fact the typical college experience. And, of course, they’re young. They’ll probably pay more attention to the economic value of their degree as they finish school and start looking for full-time jobs, and maybe they’ll think differently about the cost of college when they’re paying more taxes.
But I can’t help but think that a national conversation that focuses so heavily on college as a gateway to a high-paying job, and ignores what traditional college students think they get out of college, is really wrong-headed. Maybe it’s ridiculously expensive to give everyone a four-year residential college experience. Maybe it’s dumb that students are willing to go into debt so they can have that experience. Perhaps it’s a consumption good that they should be paying for themselves, and we shouldn’t be collectively subsidizing it. But for my students, and the Hamilton College students of How College Works—different in so many ways from my own—none of this matters. They are getting something valuable out of college. It’s just not what policy makers think.
My responses to the comments on my post about ethnography and journalism were getting way too long (apologies), so I thought I’d throw them into a separate post, and also encourage more people to chime in. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, folks, which brought up new issues from provocatively different vantage points. (If you haven’t read their comments, I’d encourage you to do so!)
I agree with @krippendorf’s comment that the use of anonymity can make it possible to exploit our respondents and twist their words, and that’s probably the biggest problem that my inner journalist has with this prevalent practice that ethnographers (myself included) engage in. (A caveat: there is clearly variation in how ethnographers do their work, as @olderwoman pointed out, which would even include the degree of anonymity we use. I’ll get into this more in a second.) At the same time, it’s interesting how journalism opens itself up to pernicious forms of exploitation of a different kind—what I think Janet Malcolm was getting at—in terms of using people and not considering more carefully the consequences of quoting them in a story. So it seems both fields have their own Achilles heels, and perhaps we just need to accept they go about things in different ways that are ethical on their own terms (though I do think that both fields can learn from the other and maybe find a happier middle ground).
Thomas Basbøll makes a good point that an ethnographer needs to be very cautious in making claims because of the inability in many cases to prove that what you wrote is, without a doubt, true. (Of course, in part that’s not even up to you, because of the ethical/IRB need or norm of protecting respondent identities that we’ve been talking about.) However, I do think one of the strengths of ethnography is its ability to stumble across unexpected situations or outcomes, which in turn can help refine or challenge our theories (with all the caveats that the sample is almost always small and unrepresentative, etc.). But those findings will naturally lead to skepticism because they don’t fit with people’s preconceptions—and, if they’re unflattering to certain people or groups, they may also lead to vicious pushback, however unwarranted it is.
As a former newspaper reporter, I would add that print journalism, as it is practiced from day to day, operates routinely with a pretty low standard of verifiability. Yes, sources often get recorded on tape or video, providing documentary evidence, but most of the time reporters are just writing things down in their spiral notebooks. They simply don’t have the time to do much else, given deadline constraints. Also, recording an interview changes the dynamic—encouraging the source to use her bland “on the record” voice—and journalists don’t want that. As a result, they typically reserve taping for remarks by politicians or other elites. But the result is that, in many stories, they quote people who then go on to say they were misquoted, and it becomes a he-said-she-said situation. (That happened to me once: a low-level government official made an off-the-cuff comment that he later regretted, and afterward started telling people I made up the quote. I called him and chewed him out for doing that, but there was no way for me to “prove” to other people he had lied because I hadn’t recorded him.) Nevertheless, this is something that happens more often than you’d think, and that’s because journalists (like ethnographers) are dealing with messy real-world constraints.
Now, to bring us back to that earlier point about variations in the practice of ethnography: it’s interesting how many different approaches you can find among the most ethical of ethnographers—all of whom, let’s stipulate, are trying to do right by both their respondents and their research. As @olderwoman pointed out, some people just use pseudonyms, some people change details (but only a little), and some people go all out and create composite characters. I can see the ethical rationale for all these approaches. (And in any case, I can’t imagine a room full of ethnographers could be forced to pick any one strategy as the professional best practice, even under pain of death.)
On the other hand, as one of the commenters in the Alex Golub piece that Thomas recommended wrote, perhaps we’re kidding ourselves that any of these strategies truly do protect our respondents’ confidentiality. Even if you create composites and change certain details, I think you’re still divulging a pattern of data that someone close to the respondent would recognize, and that person would therefore be able to figure out that their friend, etc., provided at least some of those details to the ethnographer.
Also, as another commenter discussed in the Golub piece, respondents are often disappointed to learn their real names won’t be published. When I was working as a journalist, I found that people would divulge sensitive details to me or other reporters—for example, about some trauma they’d experienced—and afterward they would tell us they were happy to see their name in print. It gave them a sense of validation to see their story out there and have other people know they actually experienced this. Sometimes, they were contacted afterward by people who related to their story or wanted to help them, and they said they were grateful for that opportunity.
Now, it’s also very true that many people need a promise of confidentiality in order to feel comfortable telling their story completely and truthfully. And it goes without saying that sources—even nonelites—will exploit the fact that their real names are being used in order to profit from the attention in some way. For example, a few times I had the hunch that someone was telling me a sob story in order to garner sympathy and get donations from the newspaper’s readers.
I suppose my overall, personal stance on the conundrums we’ve been talking about is that it’s important to recognize the various ethical and practical tradeoffs of all these approaches—and not just the distinct practices of journalism and ethnography, but also the different ones used within each tradition. I know that’s wishy-washy of me, but life, as they say, is multivariate.
From the Washington Post:
Wealthy and middle-class baby boomers can expect to live substantially longer than their parents’ generation. Meanwhile, life expectancy for the poor hasn’t increased and may even be declining, according to a report published Thursday by several leading economists.
Call it a growing inequality of death — and it means that the poor ultimately may collect less in money from some of the government’s safety net programs than the rich.
As of 2010, the average, upper-income 50-year-old man was expected to live to 89. But the same man, if he’s lower income, would live to just 76, according to the report.
The inequality itself isn’t surprising. What is more surprising is the stagnation in the lowest portions of the income distribution. I would like to see how cause of death varies across the income spectrum, to see exactly what might be at work here.
You will read a lot of insightful and nuanced discussion of Scott Walker’s campaign for president. Here, I want to offer an additional analysis – the “entertainment” theory of the GOP and its primary process. Normally, what you’ve seen in American politics is that various factions, or coalitions, put up candidates and that each coalition gets a fair share of the vote (e.g., liberals have Bernie Sanders now) and primaries are fought between a small number of candidates.
What happened so that the GOP has now fielded 16 contenders? The answer is that one of the major coalitions inside the GOP (the populists) has abandoned normal political practice, which usually entails vetting a small number of candidates from the ranks of the party elites. Instead, they are directing attention at candidates for their entertainment value. In other words, a significant chunk of the GOP now judges candidates not on what they’ve done or their political connections, but how amusing they are on television.
Why does this matter? It matters because the dynamics of entertainment are very different than the dynamics of traditional politics. In traditional politics, people spend a career building a reputation and social capital. You help people and they help you back. That means a certain level of stability. In contrast, if you judge people on entertainment value, then you create an unstable environment. Candidates get stale, and you move from one to the other.
The entertainment theory of the GOP does imply that eventually establishment candidates have the upper hand because entertainment does not get people out to the polls and caucuses. Organization and personal attachment to the party and candidate gets people to the polls. Scott Walker was victim of this dynamic. Tough talk got him attention, boredom set in, and now we have Fiorina, Trump, and Carson.
In August and September, the Open Borders group sponsored a contest for a No Deportation logo. Here is the winner, submitted by Stefan from Austria. You have permission to re-post it. If you are against deportations, forced refugee camps, and migration restriction, please feel free to use it in your Facebook account, Twitter feed or other media.