Friday, January 11, 2008

Class dodgeball

Bringing up class a few posts ago reminded me of another subject. At Profecero's a few weeks back and now at Whatever , as Dance pointed out, there was a discussion about an exercise in class privilege wherein students have to stand up and move forward or backward depending on whether they had SAT prep courses, television sets in their rooms, trips to Europe, etc.

A lot of people responded by saying, "Well, I had X but I worked for it myself" or "I didn't have a television set but I had books" or "This test is measuring the wrong things." There are lots of good points on all sides, so read the comments, too, at both places, which like the posts are excellent.

I think that what the exercise is trying to do--reveal the existence of class privilege to students in a real way--is important, but one thing was troubling: if you were a student, and especially if you had been bullied in the past for being different in some way, how would you feel about being forced to do this exercise in class? The teachers who chimed in on the comments all said versions of "oh, we don't make it mandatory; they can sit it out if they want to." Some said that they just had students write the answers on a piece of paper and turn it in.

Right. Would you sit it out, if you were 17 years old and your grade was on the line? Would you sit it out if you could see that your instructor thought this was a crucial part of the class and was clearly enthusiastic about the exercise? Would you write nothing or refuse to turn in the paper, again, if you believed that you'd be losing the good will of your instructor--and a grade--for doing so?

Since the admitted object of the exercise is to make students aware of and uncomfortable (in a good way, the authors imply) about their class privilege, most students would probably learn from it and shrug it off. Some are probably going to have their every statement greeted with eye-rolling about class privilege from then on, as I've witnessed when students in my classes volunteer information about trips to Europe or other markers of privilege.

But for a few, those who have been singled out and bullied for having the wrong haircut or being too smart or wearing the wrong clothes or being the nondominant race, it's going to make them feel like dodgeball targets all over again. Remember dodgeball, where some were out there flinging balls at the opposite team and aiming for those cowering in the corner, the ones you knew couldn't catch the ball on a bet, the dodgeball targets?

What's your take on this?

[Edited to add: I can see this as a class discussion, since students often love to share their experiences--as, indeed, do commenters; look at all those testimonies in the comments at the sites linked above. It's the forced marching around that is a problem for me. On the other hand, those who use this would probably say that a simple discussion wouldn't make the point strongly enough.]

[Edited to add: I couldn't find this post at chaser's when I first posted this, but check out her additions to the list:]


Cero said...

"those who use this would probably say that a simple discussion wouldn't make the point strongly enough"

But if it didn't, would the exercise, really?

Also, I'm not sure what the context for the exercise was, what the class was or the discipline. Was it consciousness raising, or an illustration of something else, or what ... ?

undine said...

I think it was an exercise in a social science class originally, but some of the commenters had used it in their composition classes.

Cero said...

Well - I'd be worried about embarrassing people who didn't have any of the class markers, or who had very few.

I do see the point of getting middle class Americans and other privileged entities to see how privileged they really are and what poverty really is. But it isn't clear to my why creating discomfort around this would be good - I suspect it would cloud reason.

The other thing is that people often use "money" and "class" as synecdoches for other things - sensitive things sometimes, and things not yet well understood by the speaker, e.g. "we had no money" as a stand-in for "I felt discarded." I can just see the whole exercise getting very fraught if the purpose weren't really really clear and the leaders not really really skilled.

Chaser said...

Whenever I use these types exercises in class, it's painful. For example, for years I have used "unpacking the knapsack of white privilege" and unpacking the knapsack of male privilege" and there are *always* students who are offended.

To address privilege in some way is to threaten people's notions of what they "earned themselves." They have to face the fact the have not earned much of what they take for granted. It hurts and it is threatening.

Ultimately,so what if you earned the money for your car yourself--that's great. But it's not necessarily a sign you don't have class privilege. I worked in the fields with my parents for *nothing*. No allowance; no chance to get wage-earning work for car. People who tell me they "earned" their sports scholarships--sure, you worked very hard: but the leisure time you had in which to engage in those sports was bought for you by your class privilege. Oh, it's hard to hear that when these are things people are (understandably) proud of!

My favorite reaction to this discussion on the blogosphere was a grad student who is ALWAYS theorizing about race/gender/blah. When I added some point to the exercise--points that noted just how much more impoverished people can be than middle class people assume fellow Americans can be--somebody suggested this grad student should go look at my list. She said dismissively "I've read that list"--and then went right back to abstracting. It was the typical academic reaction to class privilege: it's too hard to face in practice, so we will chatter about it. It drives me crazy sometimes; I feel helpless enough as it is without having people I usually respect respond to these like this. I don't know how my colleagues of color stand it sometimes.

undine said...

I think there's a school of thought that insists that no experience for students can be "authentic" unless they're being made uncomfortable. That's clearly not a school of thought that I subscribe to. Challenge them, yes, but make them physically run around and do stuff? I think what people learn in situations like this, or in any situation of forced simulation, is to be angry and resentful of the person who's making them engage in the behavior. And I do think that the physical dimension adds some element of unnecessary humiliation. So yes, cero--I do think it would "cloud reason." It would certainly cloud mine.

I saw that list and your post amending it, chaser, and thought that you were spot on in what you said. Your additions were much more to the point than those on the original list. What's with the retreat into abstractions about this stuff?

Where I grew up, it was very cold and snowy for long, long months of the year, and the people across the street used to pile straw and manure against the foundation of their house, up to the bottom windows, because it kept the warmth in. All the houses had cellars because they were all old, and you needed a root cellar and shelves below ground so that the preserves wouldn't freeze in the winter. I was privileged. My family didn't do the manure/straw thing because we could afford to heat the house, but I recognized even then, at age 8 or so, that that was a kind of privilege.

undine said...

P. S. Now that I'm thinking about this, it must have been dirt instead of manure, though the people who lived on the farms a couple of blocks away may have used something else.

Breena Ronan said...

It could have been manure. People used to use manure to keep plants warm in winter, no reason it wouldn't work for houses. The bacteria in the composting manure would give off heat. I have never heard of that, but it might work and it would be easier to find manure to pile than to dig out dirt from the cold ground.

Cero said...

Here we use huge sheets of vinyl. Heat too, but it escapes through the cracks! You can also put aluminum foil on the windows but this is a more desperate measure which only the desperate undertake.
People can't face looking at poverty because it is too scary/sad since they think they can be destitute at any minute and also because it would force them to give up their self-image as destitute *now.*
My big example of all of this is my mother and I put some of my thoughts on this matter here,, although that piece is not very well thought out.
If you are committed to feeling that you are yourself the poorest person in the room, you will not be able to look at anyone poorer. If at the same time you hate the poor, you have more trouble yet.
I do not think the root problem is that people do not realize they are privileged. I think they do and that they think about it all the time. It is what they mean when they say they are glad to have "American freedom" and so on.

The root problem is that they do not want to look at what that means in terms of living conditions for the rest of the world and they do not want to give anything up or take any responsibility.

The *main* problem is that they believe anyone can gain their class status by "working hard and getting an education." *This* is the piece of ideology that needs to be worked on ... *this* is what they do not understand ... *not* just that *they* are privileged.

undine said...

breena, that's what I was thinking--that the manure would be warmer--but I don't remember any smell coming from the house in the springtime, and I was certainly close enough to notice.

cero, I think fewer people these days believe that an education is a guarantee of anything. It can help, but all the job tips sites say that networking (connections) still help most people get the jobs they have. Having connections is a part of privilege.

Anonymous said...

A point to note here is that real poor people do not have computers, nor the time to read either blogs, or academic journals. Having been poor and not favored once, but having escaped that, this kind of discussion seems kind of trite.

Politicians occasionally slum it in homeless shelters. Does that give them the real experience? No. They have their nice lives to go back to. Having lived from day to day once, I know.

The kind of pontification going on here, in the comments, is enough to excite vomit. Don't talk, help! If you want your students to learn about the 'under-classes', have them buy a homeless person a meal, listen to their story and, at the very least, write about it.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous touches an important point about the experience of poverty. As a student and now a professional I see undergrads sleeping in cardboard boxes each year to draw attention to homelessness on campus. Noble intent, but it reminds me of Marie Antoinette masquerading as a milk maid in her quaint peasant village on the grounds of Versailles. She might have worn the mantle of peasant briefly but in the end, like anyone who puts on such a masque, she returned to privilege. Getting students into the real world to see the daily struggles of the poor reaps a far larger benefit than any classroom exercise. Once a student understands that some folks must choose which basic necessity they must do without (i.e. electricity or some other "comfort" taken for granted) in order to eat, then learning will occur.

cero said...

Marie Antoinette was not doing guerrilla theatre.

cero said...

"If you want your students to learn about the 'under-classes', have them buy a homeless person a meal, listen to their story and, at the very least, write about it."

The problem with that is that you get very self-satisfied essays ... similar those written by the ones who have been on mission trips to developing countries and believe they have really "helped the poor" - !

undine said...

As anon11:47 and anon6:42 are saying, it'd be better to get students more directly involved, and in some classes that's possible, especially if its a semester-long or even years-long commitment. If we're talking about this in a class context, what about the classes with content that doesn't permit this?

Rent Party said...

I think these are different questions:

1. getting students involved in service learning (and there is a lot to discuss there: does one believe in charity, "helping the poor," missionary work, actual social change, what; is this work being undertaken for the benefit of the students - the development of their consciousness, the allaying of their guilt, their general educations - or of those being "helped," or both, etc.) and

2. raising questions like what socioeconomic class is and what it means to have class privilege.

I think the point of the exercise was #2.

Those kinds of exercises, if the questions are revealing, can have a lot of explanatory value. The original question here was about their precise use in class, and a lot has been said elsewhere about the slantedness-or-not of the question set in the original exercise.

Cero said...

Speaking as someone who has been known to bring breakfast for classes so that, hunger allayed, they will be able to pay attention, I feel a little funny trying to "get them involved helping the poor."

undine said...

rent party, I think you're right about the two kinds of learning being discussed. I think I'd be more in favor of the service learning model, if that's appropriate to the class. The Raise Awareness About Class Privilege March might do lot to inspire guilt and bad feelings, and it might be powerful, but (again, thinking as a student might) it doesn't give you anywhere to go with the guilt and bad feelings. Service learning would.