Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hockey and the Myth of Meritocracy

I have just finished reading one of the latest additions to our WCSU library, Outliers: The Story of Success. I highly recommend it, especially to anyone who is interested in thinking critically about the process of social order and deeply imbedded cultural legacies and how they are related to social class.

Author and reporter Malcolm Gladwell details the intricacies of several well-known success stories – Bill Gates, The Beatles, John D. Rockefeller, and ultimately, his own – to illustrate how a fortunate series of unlikely opportunities are key to each example’s success.

He is not dismissive of hard work, genius, or talent; he simply makes the case that there is more to success than those elements. To start, he points out that 40 percent of Canadian hockey players were born in January, February and March.

There is nothing about being born in those months that innately makes one a superior hockey player. But when pre-adolescent players begin to be divided up by their ability, the arbitrary, bureaucratically imposed cut-off date of January 1 for age-class hockey gives the oldest players a built-in advantage over those born in October, November or December.

Six or eight months is not much time in the course of an adult’s life. But when we’re considering developing youths, that six-to-eight months is crucial. Gladwell argues that if the cut-off date were May 1, 40 percent of Canadian hockey players would be born in May, June and July and opportunities would be opened to a completely different – yet equally qualified – group of hockey players.

This arbitrary date assignment that has no reflection on ability squanders the talent of countless athletes, Gladwell writes, and gives the older players opportunities that will later have financial rewards – such as college scholarships or the money and celebrity that comes with being a pro hockey player in Canada – partly on account of their birth date.

Later, he argues that simply being born in the right time and place were key parts of the successes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and oil baron John Rockefeller.

This book is an important addition to the WCSU library because of its insight into social organization and Gladwell’s assertions that there are unseen obstacles and advantages deeply embedded in our systems that affect individuals’ success.

One of our most treasured national narratives as Americans is that of individuals “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” This frame allows us to ignore the nuanced experiences of the individual and not acknowledge the benefit and pure luck of being in the right place at the right time. Gladwell uses well-known cases of success stories to convincingly deconstruct the myth of meritocracy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Check My Math

Following the announcement that the regents are once again recommending a 5.5 percent tuition hike, the local media contacted our outgoing president Chynna regarding WCSU’s position on the increase.

I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the complexities of Chynna’s experiences reduced to a narrative of “$22,000 in debt despite working three jobs.”

The same general frame was used in a Daily Cardinal article at the end of last semester. Commenting anonymously, one reader said “the math doesn’t seem right.”

It’s difficult for some students and other members of the university community to imagine what a working class experience is like if they have not lived it. Unfortunately our experiences here are often generalized by our relationship to the financial aid office.

I disagree with the comment about “the math” of a student’s effort to self-finance their education – numbers tell the story quite easily. The financial struggles that working class students face in trying to pay for their education can be illustrated by using Chynna’s situation as a model.

According to information from the Office of Admissions, tuition alone in 2006-2007, Chynna's freshman year, was $3365.12 per semester. Even without accounting for tuition hikes, that number times eight semesters equals $26,920.96. On top of that, students must pay for housing, textbooks, and food.

That doesn't include any extra expenditures, for example, car insurance, gas, football games, spring break or block parties.

According to University Housing, the cost of housing and food is $7400 for the upcoming school year. Lets round low and say that a student attending from 2006-2010 had a cost of $6,900 a year. That's $27,600.

So roughly, tuition + food = $54,520 for four years, meaning Chynna paid $34,520 out of pocket for school costs after the loans. Divided by four years, she paid $8,630 per year with out any help from her parents.

Remember that number does not include items not related to tuition, food or housing.

I don’t know Chynna's hourly wage while she worked. But minimum wage in Wisconsin is currently $7.25 an hour and many student jobs at the UW hover around $9 an hour.

The university recognizes that work interferes with a student’s ability to be successful and there are institutional barriers to a student working more than 20 hours a week at a campus job.

Working 20 hours a week at $9 an hour, a student makes about $180 a week. A student enrolled for two semesters would earn about $5760 at this wage. This leaves $2870 to be earned during the summer months.

Again, these numbers are just to break even for tuition, fees, housing and food. It does not include any other necessities or entertainment.

Hopefully that helps anyone who has trouble with the math.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What’s with the hammer?

“What are you building at work?” my boyfriend asked me one day.

I had no idea what he was talking about. I don’t build things. I write.


“Well, your logo has a hammer. So, what are you building?” he asked, smiling snarkily. He was teasing me, but I suppose it’s a reasonable inquiry.

As WCSU moves forward and spreads our message across campus, many will have the same question: What’s with the hammer?

Obviously not everyone with a working class background does construction work. But many working class jobs involve physical labor that the hammer represents.

It is also emblematic of the do-it-yourself ingenuity of the working class. Hey, if the car-TV-toilet-washing machine-bookshelf is not working, you fix it yourself.

Maybe you can’t afford to call out for help, maybe you’d rather just spend that money on something else, or maybe you’ve got the skills or the determination to figure it out and take care of the problem regardless of your ability to pay for it.

It’s unlikely (never say never) that I’ll ever have to swing a hammer to earn a living, but I embrace our logo because it is emblematic of the work so many people I know do or have done regardless of their race, gender and educational achievements.

Contemporary working class jobs are moving toward the service sector but the hammer honors working class history and reminds the campus community that not everyone has or even wants the sort of career that a university trains you for.

In creating a logo for WCSU, we found it a nearly impossible task to create a logo that encompasses the diversity of working class identities. The hammer, and the delicate flower within it, represent the strength and perseverance of the working class.

If the task of representing all working class identities were up to you, what sort of imagery would you use?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Philosophy 101: What is Work?

Today I am considering a world where assembly line workers stop producing and contemplate their work for – oh, I don’t know – anywhere from 30 seconds to 20 minutes.

The thought of a worker stopping production to reflect on and contemplate the perfection of their widget is ridiculous. Yet reflection and contemplation is a very time consuming and inherent element of what I do.

I have a strong working class idea of what “work” means. That deeply embedded archetype is simultaneously in conflict with the kind of work I do, so much so that I have a hard time thinking of what I do all day as work.

Work means production. Sweat.

I write.

Unlike the processes of many working class jobs – the kind of work my boyfriend, my dad, my brother, my aunts, my uncles and many of my friends do – writing is not a process you can watch, or even one that has a definite end.

The challenges I face in writing are impossible to explain to someone whose job has results you can see.

There is no timecard. I write until the piece is finished. A writer can “work” for an hour and still have little to nothing. Try telling someone who punches a clock and needs to meet a quota that an hour spent with no tangible results is work.

They won’t buy it. Like I said, I don’t buy it.

This is just one example of the many cultural conflicts that working class students face when they come to UW-Madison. Deeply held convictions the culture has about work – production and sweat, for example - do not identify certain skill sets as being conducive to earning a living.