Sunday, November 22, 2015

Seasonal Retail and Final Exams

The next several weeks are some of the most stressful ones of the year for lower-income students.  

That’s because two demands on their time are increasing simultaneously: seasonally increased hours at many retail and customer service jobs, and the late-semester ramp-up to final projects, papers, and exams.  

Although I didn’t fully process it at the time, I had the remarkable privilege as a student to be able to restrict my paid hours during the semester to six to eight a week of work-study.  (Summers were another story.)  That level of work was enough to keep me honest, but not enough really to interfere with classes.  And on the rare occasions when it did, I could ask for dispensation from a shift and nearly always get it.  At worst, I might have to arrange a trade.  It really wasn’t an issue.

For many community college students, though, this is a cruel time of year.  They need the hours at work to support themselves, and they need study time.  A few jobs allow students to learn while they earn -- I remember the guy at a Christmas tree lot poring over his biology textbook between customers -- but most don’t.  Worse, many of them require variable hours, making it difficult for students to develop the economies of effort that come from routine.  When your transportation or childcare arrangements are precarious at best, routine is your friend; the constant disruptions to routine that low-wage jobs entail can do real damage.

In some ways, the choices that students face are between short-term and long-term goods.  Money right now satisfies a short-term need, but too much time on the job can jeopardize the degree, which is the long-term good.  Every so often I’ll hear people who should know better pontificate about “delayed gratification” and “self-discipline.”  It grinds my gears when I hear it, because for many students, the short-term needs are painfully real.  If you don’t get your car repaired, you can’t get to campus anyway.  If you can’t make rent, you have much bigger issues than a biology exam.  Some students skip meals to save money; I doubt that anyone is at her academic best when hungry.  Reducing the issues to personal failings of self-discipline -- which have always existed, and are not unique to people with low income -- doesn’t account for just how close to the edge some students are.  

Which is to say, I wish students weren’t captive to short-term retail, but sometimes they are.  This is when faculty and staff can make a real difference with nothing more than a stray thoughtful comment, or a show of real human concern.

In my teaching days, I would sometimes structure classes to allow students to work harder at some points so they could ease up a bit at others.  The old “give four assignments and count three” method gave them a freebie to spend as they saw fit.  I would explain it at the beginning of the semester, and note that it gave them options: if they blazed through the first three, they could skip the last one.  Alternately, if life happened at some earlier point in the semester, they had a chance to recover without having to explain or justify themselves to me.  They could maintain their dignity as they got back on track.  It worked pretty well.

At this point, classes are what they are.  But that crucial human connection still matters.  I was repeatedly struck by how many students were struggling economically, but how few of them know that it’s normal.  There’s a lot of shame and secrecy for many.  They’ve imbibed the sort of secular Calvinism that says that material poverty is a sign of moral failing, so they’ll engage in counterproductive struggles to keep up appearances until they just can’t.

Just hearing from a trusted person that they aren’t hopeless or tainted because they’re struggling can help.  

Personal respect isn’t a substitute for a fairer political economy, of course.  But in the meantime, we could do worse than to acknowledge the strain.  Some students are working hours that put them in danger.  Letting them know that someone cares doesn’t fix the problem, but sometimes a little respect at the right moment can make it bearable.  And learning that the issues aren’t just personal may help people connect the dots, and start to work on the politics of it.  That’s my annual holiday wish...