Economics has risen above its reputation as the "dismal science,” but it still may not seem like a lively topic for a composition classroom. However, in the spirit of inviting our students to grapple with meaningful material, let’s remember that our composition students are already thinking about economics in the form of student debt … and it feels deeply personal. While a composition class is certainly not Econ 101, a writing course devoted to understanding the ways experts make meaning is a (perfect) opportunity to empower students with tools for analyzing the financial context of U.S. education.
Ask your students what they think about student debt, and they’ll have plenty to say. (I hope you will, and that you'll share their responses, below.) At my public university, where many students are first-generation, the conversation tends toward two directions: 1) Student debt terrifies them and they try not to think about it, and 2) They don’t understand why education costs so much, whether it's worth it, and how anyone could pay it all off. Why bring this negative energy and confusion into your writing classroom? Because understanding is power, and you have the tools your students need to make sense of an issue they know will affect the course of their lives.
I recommend assigning portions of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream (2016), by Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” with a backgrounding sociology and education policy. Stuart Greene and I include her engaging writing in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, precisely because she models, with verve, the “habits of mind of academic writers” we cultivate in our classrooms. I will focus on two of those here:
- Seeking and valuing complexity
In our headnote and the “Reading as a Writer” topics that guide students in analyzing Goldrick-Rab’s writing, we dig into her questions about the history of student loans, shifting attitudes about the necessity of a college degree, and problem-solving examples of states investing in “first degree for free" programs in order to “reinvest” in communities (746). Goldrick-Rab invites us to explore the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, where the concepts she presents are being tested in innovative, scholarly ways. In Goldrick-Rab, students see an academic mind at work, using your course’s tools to understand a problem that matters to them. Goldrick-Rab sides with them:
The first step in addressing the college affordability crisis is taking the problem seriously. Money matters. Lack of financial resources is keeping students from succeeding. Suggesting that low-income students merely need to learn how to live more frugally is usually a misplaced recommendation — and an offensive one, to boot. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.” (747)
When even the musical our students are humming, Hamilton, suggests punching the Bursar, your composition class has the opportunity to inspire students to apply the skills you’re teaching to an issue relevant to them – to flex their academic “habits of mind,” rather than their fists. Plenty of instructors, also burdened by student loans, will find Goldrick-Rab’s insights timely, too.