Monday, July 12, 2004


Being Forced to Teach Ehrenreich: A Plea for Help

First, my apologies for not having blogged since the end of May. Finishing the dissertation is providing me with just about all of the writing practice I need, and since my dissertation is so far afield of the things I write about as "Winston" (since I am engaging in traditional literary criticism), most of what I am reading does not feed into blog entries that the general public would necessarily find interesting.

But, as the summer fades away, I am being forced more and more to think about the job I have taken for the 2004-2005 academic year, the poorly paid adjunct position I mentioned a couple of months back.

While I object strongly to the fact that I will be making about twenty cents on the dollar to an assistant professor, I object even more strongly to the fact that I am being required to teach this university's version of the infamous freshman indoctrination course, and that I have absolutely no freedom to choose what texts I will be teaching in my own class--it is all decided by committee.

As you may imagine, the reading list is chock full of left-wing favorites. Much of it is multicultural (a good 1/3 of the works are by African-Americans, about the concerns of African-Americans), some of it good, much of it further evidence of affirmative action in the canon.

One book really bothers me, though, and that is Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed. First, I am bothered because of Ehrenreich's blantant socialism and the fact that having students read this book--particularly since there is nothing else on the reading list to balance it out--may constitute an endorsement of Ehrenreich's position. Second I am bothered because she is really no kinder to the working class than their employers are, and has indeed profited from them to an even greater extent than their employers; she is, in all respects, a limousine liberal, and as someone who comes from a working class family, I find the attitude of the limousine liberal extremely abhorrent. Finally, I am bothered by the fact that her book contains glaring inaccuracies as well as simply solutions that do not take into account the complexity of the problem she wishes to solve; the institution at which I am employed and other institutions which use this book as part of their initial indoctrination efforts generally fail to address these concerns in their lesson plans.

So what has been keeping me up nights as of late (and God bless Ambien) is a deep concern with how I'm going to go about "teaching" this book.

Beyond the social, political, and economic concerns I have with the book is the simple fact that this university has assigned one arm-chair economist to teach a book by another arm-chair economist. This fact alone gives me ethical hives. Ehrenreich is an investigative reporter, and her book reveals her knowledge of economics to be both impoverish and ideologically conditioned. I took micro- and macro-economics as an undergrad, but that was at least fifteen years ago; since then, my exposure to economics has been a daily reading of The Wall Street Journal and that's about it. And even in the Journal, it's not like I'm reading it cover-to-cover.

Ethically, I'm required to give myself a crash-course in economics--which I'm going to try to do--but that's really no substitute for actual training in the field, and I do have a lot of other things on my plate right now.

So I want to ask you all for help, and I'd appreciate if other bloggers would mention my plea on their own blogs, to try and attract as much advice as possible. If you've taught this book before (and you've taught it critically--lockstep leftists needn't reply), I'd like to hear about it. If you have suggestions as to how I might make myself more knowledgeable before teaching this book--including reading recommendations--please let me know. And if you just want to tell me how you think you'd handle this situation, I'd love to hear that as well.

One last thing--it had occured to me that I might use my own situation as a teaching tool. While I'm not getting paid hourly, my yearly "salary" is at the minimum wage level, and I'm obviously helping the university and the department to balance their budgets. And I have no benefits. Yet here I am teaching a book about how evil the business world is, and how underpaid its employees are, as if the ivory tower is somehow better and in a position to pass judgment. I find that a little ironic.

If you could open up the whole subject of labor exploitation by the university. Not only the low-paid adjutant professors, but also research how the secretaries, janitors, etc are being treated. "Class structure" in the university could be a fascinating topic.
The last comment was me:

)I hate blogger comments. Why did Google buy this company if they aren't going to do something to spiffy it up?)
And it's not just a monetary issue, either. One thing that never ceases to simultaneously amuse and anger me is the fact that most of our resident Marxists, postcolonialists, etc. routinely ignore the largely Hispanic janitorial staff responsible for cleaning our offices.

It's not just that they don't talk to them; they avoid making eye contact.
In a recent business autobiography, a guy said that at a hospital (of which he was on the board), two doctors were talking in the middle of the hall, and refused to move or in any way acknowledge the janitors who were trying to clean the hall.

There are feudal remnants in our society, including many in the medical and academic fields. It's time to expose them to the light of day.
The behavior of the doctors is, of course, inexcusable. But at least the doctors are not writing essay after essay about the oppressed peoples of the earth, the value of Marxism/socialism, etc. Call me Holden Caulfield, but I simply cannot abide this sort of hypocrisy.

One of our postcolonialists actually has Latina housekeepers whom she treats with exactly the same classist contempt you'd expect from the likes of Leona Helmsley. But you should hear her rail against evil white, European males in front of the classroom.
Congrats on getting your dissertation done.

As for your questions, yikes, doesnt this show that Bloom was right to write of "The Closing of the American Mind" Can you simply speak your mind in the classroom on this matter? Why cant you add in some countervailing work? Say Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty" as a counterpoint. (Not to mention his anti-feminist work.)
Give the class a chance to do critical analysis on her work and the other works?
"Explain the main errors in Ehrenreich's thesis" etc. as a possible topic.

And blog your way into another "Nickle and Dimed" story, of how the academy underpays adjunct profs who do the real work and overstuffs with intellectually lazy ideologues in tenured positions, and stifles real learning and real debate along the way.

btw my own blog is here:
Freedoms Truth
Just teach the book critically. Point out how inaccurate it is. You have to put it on the syllabus, but you don't have to spin it the way they say you do. Don't feel obligated to hew the party line.

Kevin Walzer
Certainly I'll be teaching this text critically. That's not the problem. The problem is, I am not allowed to assign any additional materials to the students--only the list of approved texts may be taught.

This means I have to try and create an entire lesson plan on economics that will provide everything the students may need to understand the problems with Ehrenreich's book, at least those problems which stem from her own bad understanding of the way the economy works.

There are also other ways in which this university makes certain that no one strays too far from the party line, ways which I can't go into in this blog because I think that level of specificity would allow someone working at that school to figure out I was talking about their program and then move quite quickly to figuring out who I am.

Because I am an adjunct without a leg to stand on, I need to find a way to negotiate a position that I find ethically acceptable without running the risk of getting fired. I have to keep this job for at least the first year, while I try and search for something more permanent and more ethically acceptable.

That said, I will take a look at this Wealth and Poverty book. I've also ordered a copy of Thomas Sowell's introduction to economics and am re-reading Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism so that I can address the question of socialism itself, should it arise.

Yet I am still deeply troubled by the fact that I am expected to do this. I am most certainly not qualified to teach this text, nor are most of the people teaching in this program.

People should be required to teach in their own disciplines; besides the fact that I have teaching experience, there's little difference in putting me in front of this class and putting somebody off the street in front of this class. I know I sure as hell wouldn't pay to learn economics from me.
Winston, there are a number of market-oriented critiques of Ehrenreich available in the blogosphere and I'm sure they'll point you in a good direction. One that is not on the web but is quite useful was in Liberty in July by Robert Watts Lamon. I think you have something with the limo-lib critique, but be careful it's not ad hominem. Simply ask, what are the choices made by the people working at WalMart or the nursing home? What are the consequences of these choices? Watts does this, and does it well.

You needn't look just at critiques from free marketers, either. For example, Brad DeLong hated it.

Frederic Bastiat once said that the difference between the good economist and the poor one is that the good one looks at what is not seen as well as what is seen. Encourage this in your students, and they will end up understanding more than Ehrenreich.

I'm an economist, and I can provide you some other materials as well. Feel free to write me. My advice, though, is to not worry too much about reading any textbooks or labor economic critiques. A freshman seminar should expose people to thinking through cause and effect in a systematic way. Sowell's Basic Economics or Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson would suffice.
"Simply ask, what are the choices made by the people [who work as adjunts]? What are the consequences of these choices?"
I'd go look through Sowell's old columns (posted on Townhall)-- I know you can find something short and on topic there (without having to digest the entire economics book -- you can always refer to it if the students manage to stump you).

But remember, these are freshmen (or is that freshpeople) with poor arguing skills.

In my freshman seminar, I read "Eichman in Jerusalem: On the banality of evil" (misspelled Eichman I think). I liked that book. I don't remember much else we read, except some of the Greek Philosophers.

Someone with a PhD should definitely be able to argue circles around most freshman. Of course, at the good colleges, the freshman may THINK they are arguing clearly and logically.

My favorite reply when I get stumped..."That's an interesting point, but there's a problem with it. Can anyone tell me where there is a hole in this argument?" If no one does, leave them hanging till the next class (giving you time to investigate the hole in the argument!!!)

Good luck! (Remember, the students want to "think deep" (in a good college), so you should be able to get them to find problems with any of the readings -- and that will make them feel smarter than the professors who just try to make them regurgitate the reading!)
for what it's worth: advice from a recent berkeley graduate:
I'm getting some great feedback here, and am slowly putting together a plan of attack based on all of your suggestions, as well as a shopping cart at Amazon to provide me with some of the detailed knowledge I'll need to bring to bear on this text.

I'd still love to hear more suggestions, and to remind those of you who are Blogger users that if you don't enable your Blogger profile for public viewing, I can see what your name is, but I can't figure out who you are or which blog is yours.

Now, back to dissertating. Sigh. One more chapter . . . one more chapter . . .
Glad to see you're reading Sowell. His book was to be my suggestion. Sowell provides excellent and clear explanations of supply and demand as well as how prices signal the market.

It may be all you need.
Hi again, I've posted a few more thoughts:
Winston, I admire your comprehensive and thorough preparation, but I'd be surprised if the majority of your freshmen were hostile to a critical reading of Ehrenreich. You obviously know your own institution best, but I'm predicting you'll only get a couple of Ehrenreich-loving ideologues--if you get any. I think the more likely outcome is that the majority of your students will appreciate an instructor who gets them to think critically, even if they only realize the value of that approach after a year or four of mediocre college instruction.

Good luck! But I don't think you need as much of it as you think you do.
Well, J.V.C., I guess I just feel a strong professional and ethical obligation to be able to not only provide these students with a critical reading of Ehrenreich, but also to be able to pull out the necessary expert information (and the experts, if necessary) to lend a degree of researched validity to my critique.

If I proceed in part on the argument that Ehrenreich doesn't understand economics well enough to understand the ramifications of her own critique of American, it really doesn't do for me to lack the necessary knowledge to back that assertion up, beyond the "well everybody knows" approach taken by Ehrenreich.

I know you're probably right. But if you're wrong, then I need to make certain I have the necessary tools to present my case and prevent the class from being an ideological nightmare.

You have no idea how far afield I am in trying to teach contemporary economics. It's really quite unethical of the administration to put me in this class, because my knowledge of many of the things I am expected to teach is probably no greater than my students, save for the few (okay, several) extra years of life experience I have under my belt.

And, I've received more news as to exactly how lockstepped this course is. I have very little control over the class, and there is apparently enough administrative and peer oversight to make sure I tow the line.

This is going to be difficult, and I feel like in taking on this job I've lost the right to complain about the nature of the academy.
I read Ehrenreich's book a few years ago. It seemed to me that she didn't stick around long enough to truly live the life of the working poor. The reason that the people working the jobs she mentions are not collapsing the streets in their millions, at the end of their strength, is that they have incredibly complex systems of mutual help.

Extended families trade babysitting, children's clothes, job tips, housing, food resources, access to automobiles, and so on. Neighbors who trust each other do the same. Local churches, social agencies, before- and after-school programs, city day camps, and other resources also help out.

Ehrenreich hung out with the working poor only long enough to confirm her belief in how awful their lives were and what victims they were. She didn't stick around long enough to learn how they survive. Why not? Because really seeking people's trust, and being incorporated into the structure of their lives, would be hard; it would require humility; it would challenge her assumptions and possibly confuse her certainties. It would mean that she would make real friends, be subject to examination herself, do more than simple note-taking. It would take a major investment of time, not just a one-year quickie project with Big Book to follow.

You can't treat people like subjects in your study AND expect to become part of how they really live. For example, I doubt anyone ever trusted her enough to trade babysitting for, say, help negotiating the public health clinic, or something like that. Yet, THAT is how people with marginal incomes keep going and don't simply collapse in the street. That resourcefulness is what enables them to better themselves over time, which is the great power source of our society, and which casts a different light on the notion that the working poor are victims only.

I'm not arguing there are no victims. But I am pointing out that upward class mobility is a reality; that it is short-sighted to look only at a one-year period in people's lives and conclude that, because their lives are hard now, they will always be.

I'm betting that, if you ask around at your local meals program, Social Work department, Catholic Charities or other church programs, you'll find someone who's been immersed in just this part of the economy for years and who can provide a critical response to Ehrenreich that you could somehow use. Even have the person as a speaker?

If you can do this, you would be helping your students read critically. (Surely that's a goal of the program? So how can the powers that be disapprove?) In sum, I thought she did a superficial, inadequate treatment of her subject, although she may not even admit this to herself.

Good luck.
I would be very interested in knowing how the semester is going now that you are teaching.

Do they really call this class Freshman Indoctrination?

Adjunct at a community college in Texas
Sorry to come to this late. Steven Malanga's point-by-point takedown of Ehrenreich in CITY JOURNAL is really good:

Also -- the best Pulp song ever, "Common People," smacks down all slumming boho girls. (There's a William Shatner cover, believe it or not:

Don't give up!
I just finished reading Ehrenreich's book today. It was part of the required reading for a "Survey of Exceptionalities" class that deals with public school students with disabilities. Apparently, we were to read this book and write a review on it discussing what we learned from it and how it can be applied in the classroom. By and large, this book has very little relevance to the subject of students with disabilities. The only thing I could glean from it that may be relevant is the situation that "at risk" students may face living in homeless or impoverished environments. For example, a student may not finish a report because their family had to move to find more affordable housing, or their toilet blew up and they had to move to a different hotel room.

I can only assume that the instructor for our course is friends with Ehrenreich, or adored this book because it made Oprah's "must read" list. The text for the review assignment states, "This book addresses a variety of diversity issues including diversity of ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and the culture of poverty."

I'm not sure I was reading the same book. The mention of ethnicity in the book typically is only in the form of labels, such as "the black maid," or the "East Indian man." The only time Ehrenreich deigns to interact with someone of a different skin color for any extended period of time is the conversation with the friend's aunt in Minnesota. You start to get the feeling that Ehrenreich is almost xenophobic. The only mentions of religion are amused little comments on someone being a Buddhist, Scientologist, giggling at bikinis from their "Christian" perspective, or the tent revival delivered with an air of smug superiority that some atheists adopt when comparing themselves to people of faith. And sexual orientation? Other than a passing mention of a lesbian couple at the beginning of the book, there's no addressing of diversity based on sexual orientation.

I found your site in my quest to find out if I was the only person that didn't like this book. Thankfully, I find I'm not alone. Looking at reviews on and Epinions, there seems to be a distinct schism between reviewers. Those that come from Ehrenreich's WASP background (or WASA in her case.. White Anglo-Saxon Atheist) consider the book a "must read." Those that have spent any time "in the trenches" in low-wage jobs find it to be an absolute joke. Of course, the first page overflows with positive reviews about the book. I think this is a case where reviewers, faced with a hot-button topic like poverty, have little choice but to give glowing reviews or else face public outcry. It's like reviewing "The Passion of Christ" or "Flight 53." Regardless of their true opinion, the reviewers find a glowing review far less life-threatening than a negative one.

I cannot fathom why anyone considers this book required reading for anything, let alone a class about students with disabilities. In discussing the book with my wife, who is also in the Exceptionalities class, I decided paraphrasing a quote from Billy Madison summed up the reading experience nicely:

"Ms. Ehrenreich, what you've just written is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever read. At no point in your rambling, incoherent book were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having read it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."
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