Financial Aid Needs and Rights

I got some bad financial news last week, and it’s made me think a bit harder about my commitment to need-based aid, and, more generally, government programs, and, even more meta-y, wealth redistribution and equality.  This will probably be all over the place, but as Marty McFly once said to Marvin Berry and the Starlighters, “watch me for the changes, and try to keep up, okay?”

The story: last month, I was told (pardon the passive voice) I would be landing a fellowship that would allow me to spend an entire year writing my dissertation.  No teaching or other work necessary: just write the damned dissertation.  I was pleased.  Last week I learned that I wasn’t getting the fellowship, because the federal government deemed that I did not have enough financial need, based our income as reported on my FAFSA.  I was not pleased.  In fact, I was mad and indignant as hell.  “But, but, but…I need that money!”  I tried to figure out a way to tweak the FAFSA to make myself eligible, but we weren’t even close.   The fellowship, my fellowship, was gone.  It had been taken from me.

I had a temper tantrum.  I was robbed.  It wasn’t fair. But then I learned who would be getting the fellowship instead of me: a divorcee (and dear friend of mine!) who is raising a child on her own, with only teaching assistant gigs to pay the bills.  In short: someone who actually, truly, needs the money.

Now, I have always supported need-based financial aid.  And so do a lot of other people, I think; it’s one of the few methods of wealth-redistribution that most Americans support, based on our long-standing (and misguided) belief that education is the sole appropriate and allegedly-fully-adequate means by which anyone can rise to the top, pulling their boot- and backpack-straps all the way.  I have benefited from need-based aid.  It got me into college and sustained me while I was hunting down merit-based cash.  And to some extent, I feel like I still need aid.  After all, I don’t come from a wealthy family.  I don’t have stocks or bonds or whatever it is that rich people use to magically turn money into more money without actually working.

But I do have a $pou$e with a proper job.  And we “own” a home, a car, and a dog.  We go on vacations–sometimes even to Europe.  We eat out pretty much whenever we want.  We don’t have kids.   And so on.  In short: compared to a lot–most?–people, we’re pretty damned comfortable.  And that’s just dealing with class.  When you add language, gender, and race to the mix, I’m an outright privileged brat.

So why did I get so worked up when I lost that fellowship?  If, by most objective measures, I don’t actually need that fellowship, why did it feel so unfair? I’m still  figuring this out, but here are some of my observations/thoughts at this point:

1) When it’s all said and done, I still think that, given the current configuration of our higher education and economic systems, and wealth mal-distribution, need-based financial aid is just.  My single-mother friend needs this fellowship more than I do, so this all worked out the way it should.

2) More liberals (like me?) should have to go through this experience, where we actually have to feel the effects of the policies we support.  And I’m not talking about having to pay more taxes; I’m talking about some experience where one acutely feels a loss due to government policies that redistribute wealth.  Having done so and come to a conclusion that it was still the right thing to do, liberals might make better defenders of these programs.  “Look, I know that it doesn’t feel fair, but when you sit down and think about it, it is the right thing to do.”

3) This might be a symptom/example of a bigger problem:  liberal redistributive polices (at least as they are practiced in the United States) are based on needs (which are relative) instead of rights (which could be universal).  What if everyone in my cohort of students had a right to that year of funding?  It would have avoided the whole mess of me trying to compare my situation to that of other people and deciding that, in fact, my needs are less than others.  Go bigger with it: if everyone had a right to good, inexpensive public transportation, fewer people would get pissed that poor people use buses.  Or if everyone had a right to free child-care, families in Head Start wouldn’t have the stigma of taking handouts or whatever.  Hmmm.

I obviously haven’t fully digested this experience.  There’s history that I should be looking into here, too: the evolution of the American social safety net; the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s; and, of course, socialism.  But I’ll leave it here.  After all, I have a dissertation to write.  No money to write it with, but whatever.

P.S. As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from the graduate school saying that my now-revised financial aid package (including only unsubsidized loans) is available to view.  What a co-ink-i-dink.

Researiting or Wresearch

Another day, another helpful column from Inside Higher Ed.  This one’s from Kerry Ann Rockquemore*, who reminds us that writing is thinking (I love it when the thesis is in the title).  Rockquemore suggests that it’s not necessary to wait for the reading, research, and outlining to get done before you start writing, and that, “You can write before, during, and after the research process.”  Absolutely right; I find that writing while I research helps direct my research a bit more.  I’d vice-versa that advice: research while you write.  I’ve found that if do some research directly relevant to whatever I’m writing at the time, I get inspired: new ideas, new approaches, new energy and interest in the topic (“Oh, yeah!  That’s what I thought was so interesting and full of potential!”).

On another level, the article is an argument about the magic that happens when you write–that your brain has to do some extra tricks and flips to make letters make words make sentences make paragraphs.  (See the J-5 video below for more).  And there really is something to this: when I write, I move muscles that help with arguments, muscles that don’t seem to be fully engaged in that same way when I outline or brainstorm.  There–it just happened.  It’s occurred to me that brainstorming, outlining, and writing are different ways of approaching an argument, with each offering their own strengths and potentials.  I’m sure all of this was obvious to you before now.  But then again, we’ve always known you were the smarter one, haven’t we?

*Which, by the way, is surely one of the best names ever: Rock You More.  Awesome.

History Through Pop: 3OH!3’s “My First Kiss”

Since Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” is still at the top of the charts (sigh), I thought I’d try the top iTunes single in the “Alternative” genre.  Away back when in the early 1990s, “alternative” implied that there was a bit more to the song than what you’d hear on pop radio–you know, Nirvana’s anti-consumerism angst and so forth.  I thought I mind find something a bit deeper to play with, historically speaking, in this category.  I was, of course, wrong:  3OH!3’s “My First Kiss” ranks number one, and it is indeed a rank affair of mindless beats (does every song have to be club-ready?).  But here’s a line we might try:

Well my first kiss went a little like this
I said no more sailors
And no more soldiers

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life PIctures—Getty Images

Ugh.  In an effort to move away from this crap as quickly as possible, I refer you to the passing of Edith Shain, who claimed to be the nurse in that famous picture from New York Times square at the end of WWII.  Others could say and probably have said (suggestions in the comments?) something meaningful about the gender dynamics obvious and implied in the photo.  I will instead note briefly some thoughts to get started with (and then I must be off to work):

1) What, exactly, did the people in the photo think the future held for them?  Even with the end of the war, it was clear that another conflict was brewing, with the US and USSR carving up the spoils of war (namely, Germany).  So maybe they hoped for peace, but, when asked, would have admitted that not all was well abroad.  And at home?  The assumption was that men would return to work…meaning that women would be out of a job.  The NYT obit says that Edith Shain “moved to Los Angeles a few years after the war ended.”  One wonders what she did there.  Did she continue her work as a nurse?  Get another job?  Stay at home and raise kids?  What different ideas about the future were held by the different people in the photo?

2) And what’s this I see in the upper left corner?  A person of color?  Perhaps s/he had been a subscriber to the Pittsburgh Courier and believed that Double-Victory meant more than winning in Japan and Europe.  Perhaps s/he had experienced the inequality of some federal programs during WWII, when affirmative action white.  In any case, s/he might have some different ideas about what WWII meant and what the future held.

3) What were the people in the photo relieved about?  The end of sacrifice and suffering, obviously.  But the sacrifice of what?  Human lives might be the first answer.  Consider also the other sacrifices: the Victory Gardens, the rationing, etc.  We should consider how WWII was a total war, of course, with sacrifices at home and abroad.  But let’s not get carried away; WWII helped set the stage for American prosperity, through the utter destruction in unleashed on Europe and Asia, and by building up American manufacturing infrastructure.  American exceptionalism!

I’ll stop here, and return to writing my dissertation.  I have to get done with this chapter so I can go clubbing.

Naomi Klein Shows What’s Right and Wrong about Environmental History

I self-identify as an environmental historian, so you might expect that I’d have something to say about Naomi Klein‘s article, “A Hole in the World” in The Nation (sidenote digression: You are a subscriber to The Nation, right?  Because if those folks aren’t out there doing the work, nobody will.  It’s the right thing to do and it’s cheap.  /sidenote digression).  As a matter of fact, I do have some things to say.  Namely, that the piece shows us what’s great about environmental history as well as what needs work in the field.

Klein’s thesis is in the article’s subtitle: “The BP disaster reveals the risk in imagining that we have complete command over nature.”  There are two arguments here, both of which feature prominently in environmental history.  First,  humans fool themselves if they think they completely understand the non-human natural world (note this phrase, which is a bit more precise than “nature”).  Oil spewing into the Gulf now is having and will have consequences that our feeble minds can not begin to grasp.  Second, the non-human natural world is powerful, defying human efforts to have “complete command” over it.  Beyond the obvious power of things like tornadoes and earthquakes, the non-human natural world limits/shapes/structures (we’ll return to this in a moment) in ways that we can not completely control: from the ways in which climate shapes human settlement to the bacteria that live inside us and make our lives possible.

What Klein does well is make the first theme relevant to contemporary events and regular people.  What’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico shows how little we actually know (about how much oil is in them thar oceanbeds, for instance).  Klein goes beyond observing that to explaining the political and economic forces that have revealed our ignorance.  BP’s hubris; the “political class eager to believe that nature had indeed been mastered” (Republicans, especially, but also Obama and other liberals); and (implicitly in the piece) an economic system predicated on continual growth fed by consumption of natural resources.  In short, Klein names names.  She assigns blame.  And environmental historians, in their attempts at “objectivity” (so as to be taken seriously be the academy) often don’t assign blame.

Klein runs into trouble with the second argument about the power of the non-human natural world.  She writes that one of the lessons we should take from this is “our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash.”  There’s a bit of a conceptual knot here.  On the one hand, the non-human natural world has power over humans: the geysers of oil, the collapsing ecosystems, etc. that will shape–“diminish,” as Klein puts it–human culture in the Gulf.  True.  But humans also have power over the non-human natural world: human beings started the mess in the Gulf, and “unleashed” those natural forces. In the final analysis, then, nature only has the power to bleed (Klein’s preferred metaphor) in reaction to human agency.  Humans have power; the non-human natural world has something less.

This conceptual knot stems from an unreflective use of the concept of power.  Humans act; nature reacts; humans act again in response to that reaction; nature reacts to the reaction’s reaction, and so on.  Humans and the environment are two opposing players, separated and against each other.  This concept of power comes from a particular concept of human agency: the notion that people can and do act independently of the forces outside of them.  But if there’s one thing we see in the Gulf, it’s that humans do not act independently of the non-human natural forces outside of them; human imagination and activity are rooted in and shaped by our relationship to the environment around us.  Humans and the non-human natural world necessarily act together, even when they seem to be pulling in two very different directions.  There is no way to think about human action without thinking about the environments in which humans act.

This is complicated stuff, and I’m obviously still struggling with it.  But a couple of environmental historians have tackled this theoretical subject with some success.  My favorite is Linda Nash‘s short article, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?” from the January 2005 issue of Environmental History.  Nash argues that environmental historians are uniquely positioned to “think about agency in altogether different terms” and,

put the human mind back in the world. Perhaps our narratives should emphasize that human intentions do not emerge in a vacuum, that ideas often cannot be clearly distinguished from actions, that so-called human agency cannot be separated from the environments in which that agency emerges.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.  Humans acting with and within the environment and vice-versa.  One might also consult William Cronon‘s “The Trouble with Wilderness” (you should read this.).  Cronon takes apart the idea that there is such a thing as a separate, untouched, pure nature (wilderness); in fact, it is impossible for us to live outside of nature.  Therefore, “if living in history means that we cannot help leaving marks on a fallen world, then the dilemma we face is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave.”

Thinking about human action in these ways might help us better understand what’s going on the Gulf.  Today, as BP engineers struggle to plug the “hole in the world,” we can think of what they are doing as an action shaped by and shaping the environment, and the imaginations that dreamed it up as similarly shaped/shaping.  We can see the oil flowing into marshes as a result of humans actions coming out of and taking place within the environment.  And instead of an “embrace of the cautionary principle”–Klein’s solution, which is essentially human agency checked–we can embrace an understanding of human agency as rooted in, shaped by, and shaping, the environment.  That’s the sort of concept of human and non-human power that might lead to a long-lasting and livable relationship.

History Through Pop: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie”

I’ve been meaning to resurrect this series (previously featuring the Barenaked Ladies, Elbow, and Spoon) for a while now.  And I’ve had some tunes in mind (Ben Folds’s “Jesusland” seems ripe for a conversation with Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland), but I thought I’d try something different: instead of selecting a song from my own collection, I’ll look into What the Kids are Listening To.  Mostly crap, if the iTunes top ten is to be believed: Katy Perry, Usher, Eminem, and someone/thing called “B.o.B.” which I’m frankly too frightened too investigate further.  But if the point of this series is to use pop music to talk about the past (which it is), then I suppose I should try a song that my students might actually know and, ugh, like.  So, here goes with today’s top song on iTunes: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie.”

I’ll pass on the general themes of the lyrics, which seem to be a mixture of old-Eminem’s misogyny mixed with the allegedly-new-and-mature Eminem‘s regret and guilt.  Instead, I’ll focus on one line:

Cause when it’s going good
It’s going great
I’m Superman
With the wind in his bag
She’s Lois Lane

Ahh, but who is Louis Lane, exactly?  I never got into comics — too busy fighting with my little brothers — but I am familiar with the character through Teri Hatcher’s portrayal in my pubescent years and my general consciousness of pop culture.  But Wikipedia teaches all.  And, apparently, “In the earliest Golden Age comics, Lois was featured as an aggressive, career-minded reporter.” [sidenote digression: note the pairing of “aggressive” and “career-minded.”  One wonders if the anonymous author believes that any woman who is career-minded is therefore also aggressive; what “aggressive” means, exactly; and whether career-minded men are also, inherently, aggressive.  That there is interpretation, folks, despite Wikipedia’s claims to objectivity.  In short: don’t let the kids use Wikipedia or any encyclopedia as a source; they are too willing to trust it as neutral. /sidenote digression].  If Wikipedia is to be believed (and sure, let’s go for it), Lane’s character was assertive from the get-go in 1938. Students might be shocked to hear this: “But, but…that’s before Rosie the Riveter!”  Teaching Moment! on at least two counts:

1. Big picture: let’s not fall into the trap of a progressive narrative of women’s rights (or anyone’s rights, for that matter).  There are ups and downs and all-arounds.  The constant feature is the presence of people fighting for and taking those rights at every opportunity and in many different ways, not only at the ballot box or on the assembly line.

2. Historical context: There are many books, I’m sure, that could give us more detail about the status of women’s liberation in 1938 (your suggestions welcome in the comments), but the book that comes to my mind is Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.  It’s mostly about the post-WWII, Cold War period (hence the subtitle), when white, middle-class Americans turned inward to suburban “domestic containment” for security, satisfaction, and happiness.  But May sets the stage for that part of her argument by looking into the post-Depression, pre-WWII era (when Lois Lane was introduced).  May argues that the crisis of the Depression forced Americans to try different approaches to economic security–the big one, of course, was women going to work and becoming independent.  Hollywood approved of and encouraged this idea, as seen in a number of stars like Joan Crawford; it seems like DC comics might have been doing the same with Lois Lane.  But pop culture also reinforced the idea that women could not indeed have it all, that they had to make a choice: career or family.  And family was the preferred choice for many women, and the only legitimate option for society (institutional barriers, such as New Deal rules re: multiple federal employees in the same family, also discouraged married women’s participation in the job force).  Women working during the Depression out of necessity was viewed as unfortunate but necessary, something that Americans looked forward to leaving behind when prosperity returned.  So the pre-WWII, Lois Lane period provided both the model and anti-model for the Cold War 1950s domestic-containment family.

At least that’s what I remember from my comprehensive exams.  Also, May used a neat survey about sex lives in the 1950s, which I think students might be into.  And it just might make up for having made them learn something from, of all things, an Eminem tune.

Word Count: 7,352

Not as awesome a day as yesterday, with just over 800 words produced today.  Things got off to a rough start; I had to frame in a wall for some remodeling that we’re doing, then run some teaching errands around town.  I didn’t get to writing until close to 2pm.  So that’s 800 words in three hours compared to 2,000 words in six hours.  I suppose it proves the need to get writing early while the brain is fresh and ready to go.

Also: I’ll be moving this segment to a column on the right, saving you, dear reader, from these monotonous reports.  Perhaps you’d also be interested in my bowel movements?  Oh, wait: I’ve already been doing that with these posts!  (cue cymbal crash…”Thanks, folks, I’ll be here for another year…”)

Word Count: 6,530

Not a bad day.  One painful word shy of 2,000 words written today.  That’s about 500 short of what I dreamed I could do, but I think it might be my max.  Good pace, though.  Beers in order.