College

Why I Didn’t Study STEM

I would have been the ideal STEM candidate.

As a young kid, I was fascinated with numbers and patterns. My favorite show, long after I should have outgrown it, was Mathnet. In elementary and middle school, I swept up ribbons at the regional Math Contests, and in high school, I was a Mathlete — for one year.

What happened after that year, of course, changed everything.

My rural school, which boasted 500 students from grades K-12 and fit them all into one building, was great at teaching arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and anything that you could do with pen and paper. Our science classes were fantastic at instructing us in the parts of a cell, the phylums and species, and anything that, again, could be solved with pen and paper.

Once the TI-89 calculator got involved, or the microscope, or any instrument more sophisticated than a mechanical pencil, everything fell apart. We just didn’t have the resources.

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College Is Expensive and the NY Times is ON IT

Yes, even the Gray Lady has seen fit to write about how soaring student loan debt makes it hard to get housing in New York City.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole exercise, especially because it refers to “real estate maturity” as a state of existence to which human beings should aspire, and because it reports both the breed and name of a frustrated apartment-seeker’s dog. However, for a piece of non-news reported by the New York Times, the article paints a refreshingly varied portrait of post-collegiate financial distress. After first introducing us to Tierney Cooke, the dog owner who finds living with roommates intolerable (“I couldn’t take it. They were all in college.”), the Times also presents the tales of a mother of a two-year-old and a marvelously disillusioned chemist.

There is truly nothing surprising in the fact that housing in one of the most expensive cities in the country is hard to get in the midst of long-term economic trends that send personal debt up and wages down. But the chemist, Joseph Trout, a former foster kid from Philly who made good, is a font of excellent financial advice for an era of scarcity.

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Crop Tops Cropped from College, Education = Reparations?, Academic Rejection vs Other Kinds

+ UT-Austin signs tell women how to dress so as not to be distracting and, according to Jezebel, crop tops are out.

Here are the things you cannot wear, if you want to learn to be a nurse at the University of Texas:

Midriff-baring shirts Short-shorts Low-rise pants Low-cut shirts that reveal cleavage

My K-12 religious school had a dress code that prohibited all of these things and I still feel funny if I wear them. My mind has been warped forever on the issue of modesty, which means I can’t be trusted to know whether this is egregious. Dress codes! Always unfair, if they’re only targeted at women? Justified in a context that has something to do with God, or taxes, or death? Can we trust students at a certain age to know how to dress appropriately and/or to not get life-threateningly distracted by a glimpse of skin?

+ Uh oh. STEM magic doesn’t work as well for black folks.

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Slut-Shaming Is About Class, Not Sex

Scientists love to give us data to tell us that what we already suspect is true: calories are not created equal; climate change is already cooking our planet and it’s our fault; and so on. Well, in case you’ve ever wondered whether slut-shaming, or bullying people, usually women, for their sexuality, is more about richer folks consolidating their in-group power at the expense of poorer, out-group folks, congratulations! The scientists say that you’re right. According to Al-Jazeera America, slut-shaming is more about class than sex:

Sociologists from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Merced occupied a dorm room in a large Midwestern university, regularly interacting with and interviewing 53 women about their attitudes on school, friends, partying and sexuality from the time they moved in as freshman and following up for the next five years.

The researchers discovered that definitions of “slutty” behavior and the act of slut-shaming was largely determined along class lines rather than based on actual sexual behavior. What’s more, they found the more affluent women were able to engage in more sexual experimentation without being slut-shamed, while the less-affluent women were ridiculed as sluts for being “trashy” or “not classy,” even though they engaged in less sexual behavior.

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Job of the Day: Crossword Puzzle Maven

Overachiever Anna Shechtman had her first crossword puzzle printed in the New York Times when she was 19 years old. That’s, like, par for the course if you’re T.S. Eliot and, at 19, writing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Compared to ordinary people, that’s stunning. At 23, she has graduated from Swarthmore (well hey there!) and is about to follow in the footsteps of James Franco by getting a PhD at Yale in English and Film. She has also been Official Puzzle Guru Will Shortz’s assistant and the intern for the Slate Culture Gabfest.

Opening Ceremonies has an interview with the wunderkind here:

KATIE BARNWELL: When did you construct your first crossword? ANNA SHECHTMAN: I constructed my first crossword right after I saw the movie Wordplay. I saw it when I was 14 and I had, I think it’s fair to say, my first moment of cinematic identification, which I probably should have been having with Drew Barrymore or Greta Garbo, but instead I had with Will Shortz and Merl Reagle. I was editing my high school newspaper at the time, so I started constructing puzzles for it. They were pretty bad! They were pretty topical, related to high-school gossip and the midterms that were coming up. I fell madly in love with this very niche pastime. …

That’s something he often asks me: “Is this a thing?” That one recently was actually HUMBLEBRAG. He asked me if it was “a thing”—it is indeed a thing, Will. …

I think he really values the fact that I have such a different frame of reference from him; he’s in his early sixties and from Indiana and I’m 23 and from Lower Manhattan. Despite our differences, he really does let me push back, and encourages me to, because I think he knows that the beauty of all crossword puzzles and, I think, the Times puzzle in particular, is that it is a democratic puzzle. Anyone can do it, everyone should do it, and so he wants it to appeal to as many diverse audiences as possible—and ideally, all diverse audiences. He has to appeal to me and my grandmother, and that’s a hard needle to thread, and I think that he does it really well.

Exercise caution reading while eating; the interview — as well as this one in the Times from 2010, when she first published a puzzle – may induce jealousy-related choking.

Photo via Horia Varlan

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The True Cost of College: -$500,000

We love to poke holes in the idea that going into debt to get a college degree is always “worth it” but according to this article in the Upshot, new income statistics show that the pay gap between bachelor’s degree-holding people and everyone else is bigger than ever. The numbers come from the Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of Labor Department statistics, and report that “Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree” (up from 89% in 2008, 85% in 2003 and 64% in the early 1980s).

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Everything I Need to Know I Learned Before Kindergarten

Here’s some ba-dum-ching! for you from the New Yorker shouts and murmurs blog, a Commencement Address for the Preschool Class of 2014:

As a fellow Excelsior alum, I see a preschool class that is uniquely equipped to solve the problems our world faces. I read some of your admissions essays to get a clearer sense of who you are, and wow. It’s inspiring to see how many of you aren’t afraid to defy convention. The number of you who drew abstract representations of yourselves instead of submitting a boring personal statement—that’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that makes you exceptional. …

If you want your parents to know how grateful you are, learn how to code. It’s time to harness the skills you’ve gained from swiping on your mom’s iPhone and sending all of those cryptic e-mails to her co-workers. I’m not going to sugarcoat reality: the competition out there is fierce. For every time you sat on Dad’s iPad and almost broke the screen, other preschoolers were out there building touch screens that don’t even crack. Figure out coding, and you’ll be able to pay your own way through college or, best-case scenario, you won’t even need to attend. Think big picture: you’ll run your house by the time you’re thirteen, and your parents won’t be able to say no when you’re invited to Calliope’s boy-girl sleepover.

In other words, study #STEM! Or get a PhD and someday you too can earn $63,000 as a writer-editor for the Smithsonian.

Though this is funny, the idea of children as young as five being separated out into “gifted and talented” programs is not a joke — New York City public schools start tracking in kindergarten. WTF, NYC? Is that really necessary, or just a way to keep rich parents in the system? Also, wah, I’m totally being mocked: my daughter’s middle name is Calliope.

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The People Who Can’t Pay Their Student Loans 10 Years After Graduating

If you were to guess what the most popular piece on The Billfold is, what would you say? The story that readers from all over are looking up and reading on a daily basis isn’t about how compounds interest works or the difference between traditional and Roth IRAs—it’s this piece by Anna Moreno, about when she defaulted on her student loans and what she did to get back on track.

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Donating To Your Problematic Alma Mater: Do or Don’t?

According to Jezebel, some fed up alumni are refusing to give to their alma maters until those institutions prove that they are doing a better job at handling reports of sexual assault:

Sixty colleges and universities are currently being investigated by the Department of Education over their abject inability to handle rape on campus that respects both the accused and the accuser. Even more have been in the news in recent years for failing to prioritize students’ safety over their reputation (and, by extension, their ability to convince alumni to cough up donations). Unfortunately for colleges and universities’ desire to sweep this sort of thing under the rug, it’s a lot harder for them to keep students quiet in the age of social media.

Alumni of at least three schools facing an avalanche of bad press from students who say they were treated poorly after being sexually assaulted are responding by telling administrators that words aren’t enough, and until concrete evidence exists that schools are serious about keeping students safe from sexual assault, they won’t be donating money.

Protesting with your pocketbook is a failsafe way to feel like you’re doing something to make your opinions known. Maybe donate to public radio instead? But, full disclosure, my college is one of the 60 and when I was asked to use my limited Klout to help the spring fundraising drive, I said sure. Although I understand if people feel differently, to me, the issues are separate; I want to support financial aid efforts and even, yes, the school in general. I guess it’s a combination of cynicism — I don’t believe my withholding an annual donation will have an impact if national attention AND federal investigation won’t — and sentimentality, because I really like my alma mater.

Like, on Labor Day, we had classes, but my firebrand American History prof, who had hair the color of toaster coils and was technically still a card-carrying communist with an actual card and everything, refused to teach. Instead she played us the Linda Tripp tapes so we could listen to a Woman Eating Potato Chips While Secretly Recording A Sad and Vulnerable Monica Lewinsky and Plotting to Bring the Nation to a Standstill So We Could All Talk About Blowjobs. That was an education. Also I met a guy at college who I later married, and lots of very important friends who shaped me, and yadda yadda yadda. But the rape crisis is real. Do you also feel conflicted about supporting your imperfect college, or do you view this issue as clear-cut?

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Perfect Commencement Speaker Gives Perfect Commencement Speech

Jill Abramson is unemployed. Over the years, she has worked hard, succeeded, been fired; now, in the process of trying to figure out What’s Next?, she is drawing on stores of resilience. Naturally, this makes her the perfect Commencement Speaker to address the Class of 2014:

Her speech was about “resilience,” she said, and was inspired by a call from her sister the day after she was, in no uncertain terms, “fired.” As proud as her father would have been to see her appointed the first female executive editor in Times history, “it meant more to our father to see us deal with a setback and see us try to bounce back than how we handled our successes,” Abramson said. “Show what you are made of, he’d say.”

“I’m talking to anyone who’s been dumped, not gotten the job you really wanted, or received those horrible rejection letters from grad school,” she continued. “You know the sting of losing or not getting something you really want. When that happens show what you are made of.” Abramson referenced other challenges she’s faced recently, including getting hit by a truck in Times Square seven years ago. “You may begin to call me Calamity Jill, but stay with me here,” she said. … “What’s next for me?” she added. “I don’t know, so I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you.”

Uncertainty! Rejection! Trying hard, being deserving, and still not getting what you want! This is what we all face — throughout our lives but with particular force when we graduate from college and join a workforce that doesn’t care about our self-esteem or offer Trigger Warnings. NOTE: Why is our culture so resistant to “trigger warnings” when we’re all about ratings on movies, TV, and video games? Is it because, as Shine argues in the above link, we see TWs as yet another attempt by the joyless PC lady mafia to take fun away and tell us what to do?

Anyway, resilience makes a great subject for a commencement speech because, to some extent, how you react to the inevitable setbacks of your 20s is the only element of your 20s you can control. Like Samuel Becket famously said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Here are some more inspirational quotes about failure. You’re welcome.

photo via Quotes Pictures.com

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Who Gets to Graduate

Hopeful, occasionally grim, altogether fascinating Paul Tough feature in the Times Magazine about the trouble high-achieving students from low-income families often have in graduating from college and what can be / is being done about it:

There are thousands of students like Vanessa at the University of Texas, and millions like her throughout the country — high-achieving students from low-income families who want desperately to earn a four-year degree but who run into trouble along the way. Many are derailed before they ever set foot on a campus, tripped up by complicated financial-aid forms or held back by the powerful tug of family obligations. Some don’t know how to choose the right college, so they drift into a mediocre school that produces more dropouts than graduates. Many are overwhelmed by expenses or take on too many loans. And some do what Vanessa was on the verge of doing: They get to a good college and encounter what should be a minor obstacle, and they freak out. They don’t want to ask for help, or they don’t know how. Things spiral, and before they know it, they’re back at home, resentful, demoralized and in debt.

Vanessa, one of the less-affluent struggling students profiled in the piece, does many things right, like choosing the flagship institution UT-Austin in the first place. Tough notes, “The more selective the college you choose, the higher your likelihood of graduating.” Not too surprisingly, though, society cannot merely guide good students to good colleges, wave bye to them at the gate, and assume that they’ll succeed on their own.

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Another Commencement Speaker Down, Hundreds To Go

Smith College is the latest in a string of universities to scramble for a replacement commencement speaker after IMF director Christine Lagarde succumbed to pressure to back down:

Christine Lagarde, first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund, has withdrawn from the Smith College 2014 graduation where she was slated to be the commencement speaker after students and faculty began protesting her inclusion in the ceremony. … Lagarde is one of many commencement speakers to get the boot in the past year. Recently, Condoleeza Rice canceled her Rutgers University commencement address after students protested her presence due to her involvement in the Iraq war and Brandeis University reneged on plans to award an honorary degree to women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsa Ali because of her controversial and negative stance on Islam.

This plague of, as Slate puts it, “elite college students protesting elite commencement speakers,” is not only toppling right-leaning ladies. Former chancellor of UC Berkeley Robert Birgeneau was slated to speak at Haverford before he withdrew.

Do you even remember your Commencement speaker? Did you feel entitled to have one you agreed with? Mine was the relatively low-profile but intelligent author of The Paradox of Choice and he gave a remarkably useful address about how we should make decisions over the rest of our lives. At my brothers’ various graduations, I’ve gotten to hear from Ted Kennedy (RIP) and James Carville. As much fun as those events were, neither man left me with anything I remembered the next day. I’m thrilled that when I wearing a cap and gown I got life advice from someone worth listening to.

photo via US Army

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