Please Open (Your) Textbooks…

Seems that at the beginning of every semester, I see another blog post or news story about the skyrocketing prices of textbooks and how renting or subscription textbooks are the answer.

There have even been studies that show students are refusing to buy textbooks (whether because they can’t afford them or because they think the prices are outrageous), despite the inevitable hit to their grades.

just the ones i'm getting rid of

A pile of expensive paper, never to be read again (image by plutor CC BY)

In my class, I decided to confront this problem by matching my practice to my subject. I teach a section of a class called “Principles of New Media.” One of the topics we cover is Creative Commons licensing.

I decided to choose all of my required readings from those available under Creative Commons licenses.

The basic tenet of Creative Commons is that the default license should be permissive of sharing, rather than restrictive. Of course, there are different levels of permission. At the core, all CC licenses require attribution. This is the most permissive license, known as CC BY. As we tell our students: you must cite your sources.

But different CC licenses also permit or restrict various forms of reuse.

“No Derivatives”, or ND, restricts the creation of works based on a CC-licensed work. Therefore, the work can only be reused as-is.

“NonCommercial”, or NC, means that you cannot charge for reusing the work.

“Share Alike”, or SA, requires that any work derived from the licensed work must be released under the same licensing terms.

These four attributes can be combined in any form to arrive at the six possible Creative Commons licenses: CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, or CC BY-NC-ND.

For the texts in my class, I start with the CC BY-NC-SA text The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg and published by NYU Press.
I then add readings individual readings that are available under various CC licenses, like Lev Manovich’s new book Software Takes Command (ironically, at the time of writing this post, the book is currently unavailable at that official address due to a software problem) and whitepapers by Tim O’Reilly and others.

And if students want to buy a copy of any of the books, they are available in physical copies. Most of my students, however, read on their tablets, computers, or print out their own copies.

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (image by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

And if I continue teaching this class, my choice to use CC licensed texts will allow me to remix and add to the texts. I can find and incorporate newer articles by the books contributors, like Jay Rosen, danah boyd, Lawrence Lessig, or Clay Shirky, among others–as long as the newer writings are also CC licensed.

I cannot prove that students are more likely to do their readings than if they had to buy a textbook for my class. But at least now if they do decide not to do the reading, I know it is not because of the outrageous price of textbooks.

On gravitating and levitating (part one)

I’ll begin with a passage from James Joyce’s “The Dead” to illustrate reading as  an embodied experience in movement:

“Her voice strong and clear in tone attacked with great spirit that runs which embellish the air and, though she sang very rapidly, she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

I gravitate to the text’s directive “to follow the voice.” I repeat the passage aloud and experience the accumulative effects of soft, sinuous sounds that bring the words “attacked” and “rapidly” into sharp focus. At first it seems like an attack, a forced act, to merge my voice with the text. Oh, but those quickened syllables–rapidly–that delicately punctuate the legato of “embellish” and “grace notes”! The pitter patter of saying “rapidly” out loud makes me realize that my reading is a kind of running: my voice chases after my sprinting eyes. I jump in; the text springs. “Her voice” is faceless because it becomes “the voice,” our voice. Together, the text and I, we “feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

***

I frequently feel and share texts, as many of us do, on and through the internet. If an article, image, or video is moving–if it’s infuriating, amusing, or inspiring–you and I engage by commenting, upvoting, and reposting: we share. This all happens, rapidly, at speeds that make it easy to forget that reading and writing are embodied movements, activities of relating.

***

six-memos-millenium

Spring Break

In New York, April is the cruelest month because it arrives before Spring Break. Well, at least is does for CUNY students. While most colleges will be out in mid-March, CUNY students have to wait for Passover (April 14–22) and Easter (April 20) to cross. As an undergraduate, my Spring Break was during March, and I never realized just how well-timed it was. I recall being able to set classes aside for a quick halfway-breather; but, here, I can see that my students are exhausted well before Passover, and, what’s worse, is that there isn’t enough time to get them back before the semester is over. So, if I want to get anything done this semester, it needs to be done before April.

I’m thinking about these dates right now because I’m fiddling with syllabi for Spring 2014. Classes start not too far off, and I’m teaching two courses that I’ve taught many times before. So, I’m in that tedious process of revising the course, swapping one reading out for another, changing the assignments, and all of that. When I lay out the schedule, I see a nice progression of class dates, but I always forget just how my students and I feel around those dates. It makes sense that I should time the really important stuff for when they’re going to be more, well, there, right?

So, I took out some old gradebooks and compiled them. The records aren’t perfect, but, do forgive that. I had 20 of them easily accessible. So, I averaged out each class’ attendance per week, which was necessary in order to look at courses that met three days a week as opposed to once, and I didn’t differentiate between school (Lehman, Hunter, or Queens) or by semester or type of course. The data just tells me, on average, how much of my class will show up any given week.

And I spotted a trend. It’s probably one that we all know by now, but it’s nice to see it there. Basically, the bad starts at week seven and ends at twelve.

Look at how attendance drops.

Now, according to our this semester’s academic calendar, everyone else’s Spring Break starts at week seven while ours starts at week eleven. It’s just about always like that too, and so that extra dip at week eleven on the graphs is students taking off early, and then there is a slight tick up after twelve.

Here’s another graph that just shows the difference between attendance at week one and week X.

percent changes in attendance over the semester

The trend is a bit easier to spot. It looks like a hole that we all slip into and never quite get out.

While I wish we could move Spring Break earlier in the semester, I know I don’t have that power as an instructor. And I’m also not sure if it would help because I don’t have any data from schools on that calendar. But, at least I can just use this data to forecast when I should time the more important stuff.

Preferred Gender Pronouns

Two years ago I joined a musical project whose meetings begin with participants sharing their names and preferred gender pronouns (PGPs). PGPs are terms like “she/her,” “he/him,” “they/their,” and “ze/hir”—gender identifiers many people don’t spend much time thinking about. One of the ideas behind having people introduce their PGPs is to create as inclusive and welcoming a space as possible for all members of the group, and especially for transgender and genderqueer folks—those who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and which much of society expects and sometimes forces them to embrace.   Activist and Seattle University law Professor Dean Spade has argued that the frequent use of pronouns associated with trans people’s birth genders, birth names, and surgical statuses is a manifestation of transphobia. (On the other hand, cisgender people—those who present as and identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—usually have the privilege of being referred to by the gender pronouns with which they identify.) The members of the group I’m involved with try to avoid making assumptions about other people’s gender identities and ensure respect for all by allowing each person to name their preferred, rather than assumed or assigned, pronouns.

If making space for PGP introductions can be a tool for fighting transphobia, how can such practices—and the ideas upon which they are based—be brought to the attention of students and faculty in higher education? What would it look like for students in small classes to share their PGPs at the beginning of the semester? (Well, actually, it might look like this.) Just last week a number of newspapers picked up on an Associated Press report about PGP usage on American college campuses. The version published in The Sacramento Bee (“Redefining gender: ‘Preferred’ pronouns gain traction at US colleges”) opens with a profile of a PGP go-around at meetings for an LGBT group at Mills College. Despite the fact that only women are admitted as undergraduates at Mills, many of the group’s members prefer to be identified by gender-neutral pronouns like third-person singular “they” and “ze.” Besides for the role that PGP awareness can play in complicating gender binaries, as we see in the Mills case, the article makes clear that the issue of pronouns ties in to other fronts on which transphobia and cis-centrism can be fought at universities:

At the University of Vermont, students who elect to change their names and/or pronouns on class rosters now can choose from she, he and ze, as well as the option of being referred to by only their names. Hampshire College in Massachusetts advertises its inclusiveness by listing the gender pronouns of its tour guides on the school’s web site. And intake forms at the University of California, Berkeley’s student health center include spaces for male, female or other.

But here at CUNY, a friend who has taken several courses on gender and sexuality at the Graduate Center (GC) told me that instructors in those seminars have never asked students if they wished to state their PGPs. As far I know a Doctoral Student’s Council (DSC) proposal to provide gender-neutral bathrooms at the GC—an effort intended to reduce discrimination of gender non-conforming and transgender students, faculty, and staff—has been sidelined. (The DSC resolution for this proposal does state that other CUNY colleges have created gender-neutral bathrooms and mentions relevant policies at other universities.)

Of course, the issue of pronoun usage is also central to student writing. This is a can of worms worthy of a separate entry, so I’ll just say here that it seems like writing support programs and faculty should be thinking about it systematically. As described in the above-mentioned AP article and is evident from other online forums, many professors are grappling with how to deal with the growing presence of gender-neutral pronoun “neologisms” in student papers, but they seem to be dealing with them in mostly ad-hoc ways. Furthermore, comments responding to web postings about this issue (as well as articles about PGP usage in journalistic writing) betray a fair amount of cis privilege. Clearly, deeper discussions about “trans-anxieties”—the kind of discussions driven by queer and critical pedagogies that have been advocated for over a decade—are still needed throughout the academy.

Some Resources (most already linked to above)

Team-Based Learning… and Teaching Communication Skills: Incompatible?

Last spring, while serving in my last semester as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, I attended a workshop introducing faculty to Team-Based Learning (TBL), a pedagogical approach that has been gaining steam in the academy over the last couple of decades. I had just completed my first few years of university teaching, during which I had tried—drawing on piecemeal sources and largely following my own intuition—to find alternatives to the “sage on stage” teaching model with which I was most familiar. Although I thought that I had had some successes in restructuring many components of my courses to promote a more participatory environment, I still felt frustrated by the concentration of participation among a relatively small number of students, and by the haphazard-seeming quality of some of my group activities (not to mention the outright hostility with which some students reacted to group projects).

Kasia’s recent post discussed the concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students get their initial dosage of “content” outside of class and then spend in-class time doing the higher-order cognitive work of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and discussing the material. The same basic philosophy underpins TBL, although the touted benefits of highly structured teamwork are obviously a key aspect of the latter. According to the TBL literature, the worst teams typically outperform the top students in TBL classes.

There are four key design principles to TBL:

  1. Strategically formed, permanent teams: Instructors form teams of five to seven students and distribute the class’s strengths and weaknesses evenly among them. This can be achieved by administering a survey early in the course that asks about work experience, previous course work, number of credits being taken concurrently, intercultural experience, etc. Groups work together for the remainder of the course.
  2. Readiness Assurance Process: As with the “flipped” approach, students are expected to acquire the foundational knowledge for each class unit before it starts, usually through readings. Students’ preparation to engage closely with the content in subsequent activities is tested at the beginning of each unit. First, students do a short multiple-choice test individually; they then do the same test in teams with the Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique—a type of “scratch-and-win” card where students keep trying until they uncover the correct answer. Teams are then encouraged to appeal some of their wrong answers with evidence from the readings. The process concludes with a mini-lecture by the instructor to review particularly difficult concepts.
  3. Application Activities: Activities in which the course content is applied are supposed to take up the majority of class time in TBL courses. Application activities are guided by the “4 S’s” principle: they should heighten student interest by focussing on a significant problem; promote inter-team discussion by assigning all teams to the same problem; ensure comparability between team answers by requiring a specific choice; and require simultaneous reporting of answers by all teams—this can be done with voting cards, or now with numerous technological aids—as a way for both the instructor and students to gauge contrasts in student thinking and use them as starting points for discussion.
  4. Peer Evaluation: One of the most significant drawbacks to group work is that one or two better-qualified students often end up carrying the group while others get a “free ride.” While the collaborative structure of TBL application activities is supposed to eliminate the possibility for individuals to do all of the work, integrating peer evaluation into the grading scheme will also help motivate students to contribute to their team.

My main concern with TBL at this point is about how to include an emphasis on developing communication and writing skills in the course structure. The FAQ on the Team-Based Learning Collaborative site is unequivocal in its stance on group writing and presentation projects:

In many ways using “good” in relation to “writing assignments for groups” is an oxymoron.

It goes on to say that while group presentations might be somewhat beneficial to the groups doing the presenting, they don’t foster dynamic learning for the whole class the way “4-S” activities do, and are therefore, it is implied, out of step with the overall approach. I agree with TBL advocates that much of the group work we assign students is little more than individual assignments requiring minimal student coordination. But surely there is educational value in having students build “lengthy products,” something TBL philosophy proscribes. Of course, it’s not like entire departments are switching over to TBL en masse, so plenty of opportunities remain for implementing writing and communication strategies in other courses. But are substantial written assignments and oral presentations really incompatible with teamwork, as TBL guidelines would have us believe? Is the only way to include these important educational aspects in a TBL course to disrupt the conventional course design—and potentially compromise its pedagogical benefits—to make room for them? Learning about TBL made me look forward to getting back into the classroom to try it out, but working in a communication institute makes me wonder if TBL needs to be adjusted to meet broader academic goals.

On Time and Risk

If there’s not enough time, I could just cut to the chase: the scene is at risk without context.

***

As I write this segment of my blog entry, I’m on a train returning to New York City from a conference. Voices in the background unify into one murmur and whenever I look out the window with the silly hope of pausing on a frame, I see green foliage running, flashes of indecipherable station signs, a moment of cars going in the opposite direction. And now, I am reflecting on a roundtable discussion. My mind is a bit murky.

“Is there a war on the humanities?” This was the title of, and the question posed to, a roundtable discussion earlier this afternoon. While holding up a print version of The New York Times, the moderator began the session by referring to a recent scientific study on the social value of fiction. This prefaced the expressions of unease that later filled the room. The general sense of unease stemmed from the pressure for the humanities to define productivity in quantifiable, measurable, and instrumentalist terms. One of the speakers briefly discussed, I can’t recall his name at this moment, the pressing need to read for content, to browse for a reference. The value that was once placed on the practice of slow, immersive reading seems to be eroding.

***

Scenes are less meaningful without context. Because I taught classes scheduled in the evening and early morning, classes scheduled prior to and after the workday, I wonder often about the temporal contexts that affect scenes of learning and student performance. Like most CUNY students, my City College students frame their education around their work schedule and commute time. For each student, there’s a different set of stakes, a unique set of contexts, that shapes her/his performance. I can’t fully comprehend every set of stakes, but I appreciate when students attend class regularly with the desire to pause on an idea, in spite of temporal discomforts.

***

This student didn’t stick around after class to chat, nor was she a frequent office hours visitor. I remember the first time I read her writing. It was an essay where she brought together Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Italo Calvino’s essay, “Levels of Reality in Literature.” She’s a stunningly bold writer. She reappeared in my classroom a year after she wrote that paper. She registered late and arrived late to the second class of the semester. She maintained a taciturn presence. Writing assignments were turned in, hers were efficiently written; adequate. I couldn’t find the fearless voice.

Towards the end of the semester, she arrived to my office to complete an assigned recitation. She had to select lines from Paradise Lost, recite them from memory, and then discuss her understanding of those lines. Her boldness returned in a different form, through Satan’s soliloquy. She fumbled on one article but otherwise had delivered the lines perfectly, with verve. A discussion about those lines commenced, about Satan, about Milton’s experience with political defeat. I was impressed with her analysis of the lines and asked about her strategy for studying the lines. Tiredly she smiled at me, zipped up her jacket, and said that she had done it piecemeal. She made flashcards for her subway commutes and meditated on the lines during her shifts at work. “I’m working extra hours this semester,” she told me.

This made me wonder about the vocations that “[involve] both commitment and risk, boldness and vulnerability.

Rebranding Marketing

Hunt, Shelby (2010), Foundations of Marketing Theory, M.E. Sharpe.

When new acquaintances hear that I am a doctoral student, they usually ask what field my PhD is in. This is, of course, a very natural follow-up question. But when I reply that I’m pursuing my PhD in Marketing, I usually get one of two responses:

1) Confusion/Surprise (“Wow, you can actually get a PhD in that?”)
2) Repressed repulsion (A wince, followed by a polite smile and change of subject)

These responses suggest that Marketing as a discipline is (ironically enough) in need of some major rebranding. The common misconception is that marketers (and accordingly, scholars of marketing) are scheming masterminds, out to deceive, swindle and manipulate poor consumers into buying things they don’t need (infomercials for the Snuggie come to mind). This impression likely stems from the fact that the term “marketing” is often used to describe an organizational function; and most for-profit organizations are focused on maximizing profits, not promoting consumer welfare.

It is no wonder confusion exists- there is little consensus, even among marketing scholars, of how marketing should be defined. But most would agree that scholarly research in marketing seeks to expand the total knowledge base of marketing by explaining, predicting, and understand marketing phenomena (Hunt 2010). This definition is deliberately broad because marketing research is a very wide-ranging area of study. Marketing scholars fall under many different categories (consumer behaviorists, empirical modellers, strategists, etc.). Contrary to what outsiders might expect, many of these researchers (including several at Baruch) are focused on promoting consumer well-being. For example, a growing subfield of consumer behavior research known as “Transformative Consumer Research” seeks to promote research that benefits consumer welfare and improves consumers’ quality of life. Scholars in this area study topics like obesity, financial well-being, and addictive consumption. Findings from such research can help inform public policy, and ultimately promote healthier lifestyles.

As an educator, I can’t help but feel that the classroom is an opportune place to introduce students to pro-social marketing research, and to inform them about how marketing can be used to benefit consumer welfare. And perhaps this is the key to rebranding marketing in the long term- creating future business leaders who have society’s best interest at heart.

 

Reflections on a Yearlong Collaboration

These are some final reflections based on my notes from my last meeting with Prof. Gruber.  To read my earlier posts about integrating communication and technology into university science teaching, click here, here, and here.

This second semester of collaboration went really well. Prof. Gruber incorporated the Digital Lab Reports into the syllabus and they were worth 10% of the grade.  We also tried a new lab – Photosynthesis – and jettisoned one from last semester that felt like too much work for the “payoff” (the level of science learning and critical thinking fostered).  It made a big and positive difference to have students know that the Digital Lab Reports were part of their core curriculum.

The second time around Prof. Gruber also included both a “draft” and a “final” presentation day into the course schedule.  This was important for two reasons: 1) it incorporated revisions (of Digital Lab Reports and oral presentations) into the schedule as a course expectation, and 2) as Prof. Gruber pointed out, it gave students a hard deadline two weeks before the final submission – you can’t really turn in a group presentation late!  As with last semester, the draft presentations were highly productive.  Students gave each other feedback (I asked for at least 3 comments or questions from the class for each DLR).  Then I gave feedback on the communication, presentation, technology, creativity, etc. aspects of the DLR and presentation and Prof. Gruber gave feedback on the accuracy and depth of the science content (as well as the other components).  As I’ve written about earlier, this provided a unique opportunity to see how students were processing and understanding the information he was teaching them and to “re-align” their thinking.

As it feels like we have the basics of a working model here, I’ve been thinking about how we might address some existing challenges, including:

  • Modifying DLRs so that instructors who are not technology-savvy feel comfortable collaborating on such projects
  • Teaching skills and framing the DLRs so that the group work is more collaborative and students who do not have experience with audio and video programs have more opportunity to experiment and take leadership roles
  • Thinking of ways to make the final presentations more “eventful,” as they do not require the same level of feedback as the draft day and are no longer “new” to the class
  • Raising the quality of the final DLRs (which were already very good)
  • Better training students to give and receive constructive critiques

Some things to try next year

  • Make a rubric for students to grade/assess the Final DLRs.  This will get them actively involved the final day.  Also, it would require the class to reflect on Prof. Gruber’s feedback and think about whether the group presenting “got the science right.”  This would provide an additional means to assess the class’ understanding of scientific concepts.
  • Find a way (in a constrained schedule) to incorporate 2 DLR revisions into the syllabus (so there would be 2 drafts and 1 final).  Prof. Gruber and I agreed that 3 appears to be the magic number.  Students’ first revisions might still have mistakes/misconceptions.  Furthermore, a second chance to revise would give students additional practice with giving and receiving feedback.
  • Videotape the DLR draft presentations so students can see themselves presenting and get more feedback.
  • Prof. Gruber suggested that Fellows at the Institute could create a video lesson teaching some of the most important technical DLR skills.  A link to this video can be given to students, or instructors can show the video in class if there is a short lab one day.
  • Throughout the semester, there could be weekly “mini-lessons.” These might be free-writing exercises, videos or in person lessons on technical skills (like uploading a video onto YouTube), or time for groups to touch base and plan their DLRs.  This is a way to integrate the DLRs throughout the semester and get the class invested.   Also, this is a way that skills can be scaffolded.  For example, near the beginning of the semester there could be a mini-lesson on how to frame a video (thinking about what you want to capture) and upload it onto YouTube.  Then all students might be asked to take a one-minute video during that lab, upload their videos onto YouTube, and post the link on the class blog.  This way, by the second half of the semester when groups are creating DLRs, all students would have practiced basic skills.  It probably would not be possible for one Fellow to come to class this often, but video lessons or handouts for the instructor would help make this sustainable/reproducible.
  • On or before the first draft day, the Writing/Communication Fellow can speak a bit about giving and receiving feedback (with tips like taking notes and actively listening) and lay out specific expectations for the class (such as at least 3 comments per DLR or every student should contribute 1 comment).  At the end of the draft day(s), groups can have 10 minutes to meet and discuss where to go from there.  A brief handout can structure this discussion.  At the end of the final presentation day groups can have 10-15 minutes to meet and reflect on their experience (and perhaps give feedback to the Institute).  Again, a handout can structure this discussion.

These were the main things we spoke about in our last meeting.  I think that some of these scaffolding activities could be THE primary communication and technology intensive assignments in courses where instructors just want to get their feet wet or incorporate just a few things.  In other words, there could be various levels of collaboration between science instructors and the Institute depending on needs, time, experience, comfort, etc.

I look forward to seeing how this venture expands and evolves over the coming years.

Have a beautiful, safe, and inspiring summer!

Do Communication-Intensive Methods Improve Science Learning?

In January, I blogged about the collaboration between the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute and Professor David Gruber, who is teaching Environmental Science 1020.  Both last semester and this semester, students in Professor Gruber’s class were assigned to lab groups and each group produced a Digital Lab Report for one lab.  The assignments we created were specific to the different learning goals of the labs; however, all required students to use at least one (often more) form of media and incorporate writing and critical reflection into the process.  Each group goes through a series of collaborative and creative steps.  These include: free-writing soon after the lab is complete; brainstorming; research to pull in other relevant material; posting raw footage, audio, and pictures on the class blog; and creating a rough draft of a Digital Lab Report (which might be a video, a podcast of a radio show, a timeline, or a Prezi depending on the assignment).  Then, groups present their rough drafts to the class and receive feedback on the communication, critical thinking, and content components of their DLRs.  Students have the opportunity to revise their Digital Lab Reports over the next couple of weeks before presenting their final versions.  For a timeline of this process for last semester’s Mutualism lab, click here.

There are many obvious benefits to having students create Digital Lab Reports.   They compel students to collaborate and converse more about their lab work.  They encourage critical thinking, as students are expected to articulate reflections on their work through the various stages.  They are fun – students often use humor.  They improve students’ media and communication skills because students get feedback on these aspects of their creations as well.  But the one main question at the back of my mind when we embarked on this project was whether communication intensive pedagogy actually helps students to learn science.

After almost a year of observation, I feel confident answering yes. In class last Wednesday students presented their drafts.  Their introductions to their Digital Lab Reports and the DLRs themselves gave us a great deal of insight into how they were understanding (or not understanding) scientific concepts in ways traditional lab reports might never reveal.  This is partially because the DLRs require students to consider their audience and speak to their audience.  This means re-phrasing scientific language to make it accessible.  To do this, students must take in information, analyze it, and reformulate it in their own way.  Furthermore, the accuracy or inaccuracy of the external information and images they brought in as examples gave Professor Gruber insight into how they had remembered and interpreted the concepts he had explicated, as well as what they were considering “real world” connections.  The collaborative aspects of the DLRs means that students have to hash out these ideas and arrive at a shared understanding.  After each draft presentation, groups were asked questions and received feedback from their peers, Professor Gruber, and me.   Through the process of revising their labs, they will have to address the inaccuracies or gaps in their understanding of scientific concepts.  Their next round of presentation drafts will let us know if and how their scientific thinking has changed.

For me, this reveals that communication and technology-intensive methods are particularly beneficial for science courses and have great potential to enhance student learning.

Shopping at Whole Foods: Class, Business and Yuppiedom at Baruch College

IMG_1142

Whole Foods: enter at your own risk.

At the beginning of every semester, students in my speech class interview each other about their life ambitions to collect material for their first mini-speeches of the semester.  And every semester I hear more-or-less the same thing: they want to make a lot of money.  Of course there are anomalies, but money is the dominant goal, at least within what students are willing to share with a room full of strangers.

At the same time, though, I notice a trend of judgment toward certain consumer practices deemed to be evidence of bourgeois privilege.  While I was leading a workshop in a Business Policy course a few weeks ago, a discussion of the business strategies of Whole Foods triggered a set of interesting responses.

A group of students studying the company suggested that Whole Foods sold not only natural foods and nutritional products but also an image of health, purity and affluence. Students were quick to disassociate themselves from the consumer body of Whole Foods shoppers.  Claims of “I don’t shop there” rang out around the room.  A student shared an anecdote about a relative who shops at the dreaded natural food store only for her baby.  Exorbitantly expensive organic bananas received their due share of ridicule.  I kept my dirty little secret to myself: I have been known to walk well out of my way to have lunch at the Whole Foods salad bar.

IMG_1147

Organic bananas for the baby.

I wondered: what does “shopping at Whole Foods” connote in the context of Baruch College?  Is it a useful metaphor for understanding something about the interplay of class aspirations, education and business in this particular academic community?

As readers will know, the CUNY system at large has historically been held to the standard (and has sometimes been seen as falling short) of enabling class mobility for New York City’s working, middle class and immigrant populations.  Dusana’s post back in February asked us to consider why so many students’ Business Policy presentations seem to advocate business strategies “rooted in exploitation and inequalities” when Baruch’s student body represents so many class, ethnic and immigrant groups who have born the brunt of these same inequalities.  At the same time, though, I think my anecdote conveys a strain of Baruch undergraduate culture that pushes back against the idea that success in business fields must go hand in hand with the assumption of lifestyle and consumption habits associated with affluence.

Baruch is an environment in which outer trappings of professionalism are valued.  Students are often required, for example, to dress professionally for class presentations.  For many students this is not an exercise or performance; they are professionals, coming to class after a day at the office, or heading off to an internship for the afternoon.  Of course, these outward signifiers are not neutral in their cultural connotations any more so than is shopping at an expensive organic grocery chain.

If we choose to read “shopping at Whole Foods” as a metaphor for a set of eschewed behaviors within the milieu of Baruch undergraduates, what specifically does it signify?  Perhaps it is a sign of being duped by a marketing coup that self-respecting business students pride themselves in detecting?  In the student’s anecdote, it was, tellingly, the baby only who ate organic products.  Maybe “shopping at Whole Foods” can be read as a sign of being born into privilege, rather than wealth and comfort achieved through education, work, and entrepreneurship.

These anecdotes encouraged me to consider the difference between professionalism and economic success on the one hand, and performance of affluence in culturally specific ways on the other.  Or at least they attuned me to the inevitable particularity of whatever the approved ways of spending one’s wealth are in a given social context.

But I’ll end this here, because I can no longer ignore my craving for organic gluten cubes and $12 local cashew juice.

IMG_1149

Cashew juice: an investment to be taken seriously.