A Vision of College Students Today

Please note: I first wrote the following article in December 2019. I kept making tweaks to it and submitted it a number of places in December, in January, and in February with no takers. I thought about tweaking it to include the COIVD19 crisis, but as is, I think this serves as an important snapshot to how rough things already were for the vast majority of college students. And it includes thoughts even more relevant today. The following article has not been edited since late February 2020. 

The students, rather the people, who populate our college campuses are increasingly withstanding an inordinate amount of life. Have you ever stopped to thoroughly realize who they fully are? Have you taken the time to look across your classroom or student center and specifically acknowledge that most of your students have faced or are facing crisis circumstances?

The people who enroll in our universities and in our courses. The people whom we assign grades. The people whom some ponder “why didn’t they study harder?” These people are survivors.

Due to on-going debates about free college for all and about scams related to student loans, not to mention skyrocketing tuition prices, we’re generally more aware that students are struggling in unprecedented ways financially. They are in massive debt. They are often working full time, while being full-time students. Some are starving; most have recently gone without meals. A few are homeless. Basically, students cannot afford life today.

Do we remember that while attending our classes and completing work for our classes, students are sacrificing precious time that could be spent with biological or chosen families and with friends or even time that could be used to rest? Life is so short.

On the other hand, an alarming and saddening number of our students are estranged from their parents or from other relatives. Their parents often disapprove of their major or even of their being in college. I had a student years ago whose parents would pay for their education if they majored in business, but not if they majored in what they loved, literature. Some of my students haven’t seen their mom or dad since they were small children. Relatives often don’t like how their cousin, niece, or brother identifies in terms of their religion, gender, or sexuality and completely abandon them over such. Have you consciously realized that such lived experiences are right in front of you?

The number of people in our classes who came close to dying by suicide once or even at multiple times during their life is very real, too. I’ve recently encountered an alarming number of 20-something students who have feared impending death from a disease or from a random act of violence. College students, especially those not taking classes immediately after high school graduation, are often entering an age where more and more relatives die or have long-term health problems.

Students often report feeling helpless when thinking about the future of the world. Students report not wanting children because the nation shows little regarding for well-being. A student recently said, “Living in the United States is a nightmare.” We know from statistics that at least 20 to 33 percent of people have been victims of sexual violence. This percentage goes up for trans and queer individuals, especially those people of Color. These survivors are also in your classrooms.

We also have people in every class who are HIV positive, who have or who are battling cancer, who have chronic pain, who are bipolar, who are single parents, or who are addicted to potentially life-threatening substances. Additionally, there are people in every class who could face deportation at any moment. Or maybe, it’s their mother or sister who could be deported without notice. Other students have served jail sentences or are on probation, sometimes for nonviolent offenses. Those who are formerly incarcerated or students who are military veterans often struggle with adapting back to regular life.

When a student isn’t “paying attention,” maybe PTSD is causing a flashback. Minority stress is also at play. For example, even when everything else is going well for me, being disabled causes an additional level of life-long stress and being disabled re-shapes how I see everything. I’m reminded too of an excellent Twitter post from Saeed Jones (@theferocity) that says, “If straight people understood the rage most queer people are working to manage on a daily basis…whew. And queer people of color? Chile. Some days I just feel like a contained explosion.”

Some of you might be thinking by now: “these comments apply to all people, not just students.” Indeed. They do. And we’d all do well to make conscious, internalized efforts to remember that when going about everyday life. But, sometimes we forget that students are people. Sometimes we get distracted while making course, program, and degree outcomes and aim only to make sure these requirements are strictly met.

You might also be thinking: “what do I do?” This inevitable question does not have an easy answer. And I’m not exactly aiming to provide answers here. Awareness and reminders alone have value. I know teaching is always incredibly hard (and profoundly rewarding). And I do not lightly add to the mental task that is effective teaching.

Here’s what I do. I provide flexibility. This often means extension on assignments or occasionally, alternative assignments. I create some assignments that students can complete with their loved ones. I structure my classes such that no moment or no class session is absolutely vital for a student’s success. Every moment is meaningful, but no moment is vital. I am encouraging and approving when students say they need a mental health day or when they request to miss a class over material especially triggering for them. Students know I’m always ready to listen and to help. My students often say that just knowing that I hear them and care matters most.

Whether you’re working as an advisor, a professor, an administrator, or in some other role, pause to acknowledge and to remember that our adult college students are first and foremost people. Right now, right here. While we shouldn’t provide therapy to our students, we can listen when they open up and offer support. Such trauma-informed teaching practices will make you more effective in and out of the classroom. Other times, you just have to believe in your students and know they have already survived far too much. The details aren’t our business. Adult learning theory also reminds us that college students arrive with life experience that can and should be harnessed, but this should be done with great care.

I can also suggest taking care of yourself. Secondary trauma exists and can impact our personal wellness when regularly hearing about the struggles others face.

I want to close this vision of college students today, inspired by Dr. Michael Wesch’s 2007 vision, by saying that people who are also college students are incredible. We have profound opportunities to make positive impacts (and maybe provide some distractions from life outside of school). While articulating this vision of college students today, I must also say how inspiring my students are. In addition to the trauma that has been the focus here, they also come to class equipped with ideas acquired from independent research and with thoughtful life and career plans. They are ready to learn, and they are ready to meet and exceed the constant challenges we provide. If the people who are in our classes were in charge of the world, we’d all be happier and better off.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Notes on: Homeschooling

COVID19 has presented challenge after challenge. (And let’s not forget that our ever-more evil POTUS knew about its threat and had options to minimize its impact, but chose to ignore them.)

For a blog post here, I wanted to briefly discuss homeschooling. 

I see post after post from people with children–who normally attend public schools but who are currently (rightly) at home–discussing the homeschooling experience. And some of these posts make me pause: Only going through lessons that would normally be done in a regular classroom at home is not homeschooling.

Homeschooling involves a full commitment.

Homeschooling exists in countless forms, too. 

Typically, homeschooling proper involves elements of unschooling. Unschooling involves breaking away from all institutional practices. In an unschooling homeschool, the family might spend a month playing outside in the dirt and growing a garden. They might take a road trip across the nation. They might spend time cooking. They might study movies as literature. They might be involved with sports or with politics. They might run a small business.

Homeschooling often involves anything but assignments, exams, and rigorous schedules.

Homeschooling often involves anything but “grade-level” reading assignments. Homeschooling recognizes that x-age = y-grade/reading level is artificial. 

Homeschooling often involves an across-the-discipline approach–science and history and writing and reading are learned at the same time. 

As someone who homeschooled myself for high school, I feel very strongly about what it can mean to homeschool, especially in an unschooling approach.

I ask that people suddenly home with their children during the school day resist saying they are homeschooling, unless they use this opportunity to also really interact with their kids and teach the lessons that cannot be learned in the classroom. To do otherwise, suggest a kind of erasure of those who can and who do schooling outside of the public (or private) institution down the road. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda 

The “Big Idea” Gender Studies Syllabus

This is the third installment in my “Big Idea Syllabus” series inspired by Dr. Michael Wesch’s “Big Idea” Syllabus for Anthropology. My “Big Idea” Syllabus for History can be found here, for Writing here. The “Big Idea” Syllabus for Gender Studies follows. 

  • Gender is an important, valid field of inquiry, and because women and gender-nonconforming people have long been ignored, under recognized, and systematically Othered, gender studies is all the more important. 

  • People we call (and who currently identify as) women matter. Men, too. People who are in between or who are neither matter. People matter and are valid. Empowering all people is vital. 

  • Gender and sex are both social constructions–along with every thing else–exist on spectrums, and constantly change and vary by location. 

  • Such constructions and mores come from science, religion, fiction, traditions, laws, hopes, fears. Nothing has to be the way it currently is (and if you study the past, you’ll see how much it always varies). 

  • Cultural ideas about and representations of sex/gender shape every thing and manifest in how people think and live and manifest through what people are allowed to wear or allowed to think, where there allowed to labor, what dreams are permissible, what resources society provides, etc. 

  • We cannot begin to understand gender and its impact without fully considering other categories of identity created and deemed important by the powers at be and how all such identities are positioned, positions that can vary day-to-day, place-to-place. Intersecting identities include ability or disability, citizenship, economic standing, race, and religion. Understanding dynamics of privilege/oppression is vital. 

  • Life experience matters. Every one makes history. Every one has important perspectives.

  • To live is to protest. The fight for freedom must occur everyday. The personal is the political.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda


Beto’s War Tax is Wrong (A Once Lost OpEd)

Back in June, I wrote the following article, intended to be an OpEd in a major publication but something happened, and I forgot about it until now. I’m sharing it here, as is, so the writing doesn’t go to “waste”! 

Beto O’Rourke’s proposed “War Tax” is noteworthy because it longs to go beyond Republican’s lip service for military veterans, but it clearly misses the mark and presents difficulties for the very people he’s trying to court. It could easily mark the end of his efforts to become the 2020 Democratic challenger to President Donald Trump. 

O’Rouke said, “We must be willing to pay any price, and bear any burden, to provide the full care, support, and resources to every single veteran who served every single one of us.” According to his vision, the War Tax “would serve as a reminder of the incredible sacrifice made by those who serve and their families.” 

Unlike proposals related to Medicare for all which would result in people having more money, O’Rouke’s proposed tax would negatively impact already financially strained individuals even more. For example, if the $25 yearly tax for individuals making under $30,000 does not seem substantial, you are among the lucky. If you are starving, $25 is substantial. Over a third of college students go hungry, even those from the middle class or who attend elite universities. Full time work doesn’t pay enough for an apartment. Homelessness is pervasive. Insulin prices are sky-rocketing. $25 is substantial. People increasingly can’t afford to live in the United States: Don’t add to their stress. O’Rouke’s advocacy comes across as tone-deaf when Democratic voters are calling for greater financial equity. (And a sizable portion of tax dollars already go toward defense expenses and toward the care of military veterans.) 

O’Rouke’s comments also perpetuate narrow definitions of “serving the nation,” of “making sacrifices.” People in the military risk their lives and give up time with their loved ones, but daycare workers, farmers, firefighters, police officers, professors, surgeons, teachers, and others do the same thing, often for decades more. What about guaranteed respect and welfare for them, too? O’Rouke’s plan would punish such individuals, as well as people who are disabled or who are pacifists or who whose sexual orientation disqualified them from military service for not “serving” the United States in the “correct” way. 

Voters looking to support a Democratic candidate’s want to honor military veterans but also desire a United States that is not always at war and that doesn’t have the largest military budget in the world. While soldiers fight wars for vastly different reasons than why governments start them, O’Rouke’s comments don’t acknowledge that recent wars continue to be highly controversial and were, in cases, deliberately started under false pretenses by the 43rd Administration. More concerning, O’Rouke’s comments imply that war is absolutely necessary and vitally important. He might eagerly support calls for additional military conflicts under the false guise of them being necessary to secure freedom and we should fear this. 

This piece will certainly receive criticism from some liberals. Because of Trumpism, we’re in an era where seemingly any criticism directed toward Democrats by those advocating for a more just society is seen as counterproductive and dangerous. While we must be cautious, we should not withhold honest criticism. O’Rouke’s conservative actions, here and elsewhere, speak to ideological variation among the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party of 2019 is not fully the beacon of progressivism proclaimed by some and that is desperately needed. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Microblogs: What it means when we say sex is a social construction

Since J.K. Rowling’s (yes, that J.K. Rowling) transphobic tweet last week, conversations on Twitter around topics of sex, gender, and trans individuals have been going on nonstop. Far too many of these conversations are transphobic and show stubborn disregard for any kind of accuracy or learning. 

This blog post is simply a compilation of the microblogs I posted on Twitter explaining why we (experts in gender and/or biology) say sex is not ‘real.’  

Wheel of Fortune’s Ableism Affects Pat and Vanna, too.

Wheel of Fortune‘s ableist tendencies are endless. I’ve previously written about some of these here.

But its ableism extends in other directions, too. Back in August of this year, I made a social media post focusing on Vanna and wrote:

She is 62 and still “looks” (is “required” to look) much younger. If she gained some weight or started showing signs of aging (and refused plastic surgery/etc) or needed a cane or anything else, she’d likely be replaced or eliminated. Ableism and normativity negatively impact her, too.

These thoughts have resurfaced given that Pat is currently on sick leave and that Vanna is hosting. (Vanna is doing a wonderful job, by the way.) Pat got sick. The show must go on. So he has been temporarily replaced. While this–temporary disability–is certainly different, it still matters and matters in the context of disability being part of life.

I have thought more about Vanna, too. Say, she decided to “go gray,” as is said, or was unable to wear high heels and dresses or couldn’t do all of the traveling and longs days they do, I imagine they would be looking to replace her or change her role. Or the social media criticism directed toward her would increase. 

And, importantly, Vanna knows all of this.

Society makes sure of it.   

Ableism forces Vanna–and people across the planet–to resist aging, to resist change, to fear disability. Ableism trains people from birth to hide signs of losing–or not having–said ableism. Ableism effectively locks people in at a given time and place and position: Vanna is suspended somewhere between ableist expectations for a widely-recognized media/television personality and Vanna’s biological body. Vanna receives little say. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Minorities, Responsibilities, and Educating Others 

Conversations on social media about privilege and oppression often have comments along the lines of “it’s not the minority individual’s job to educate others as to how they are being oppressive or blind to their privilege.” And this always strikes me as problematic or as, generally, less than ideal. 

On the one hand, of course. 

Of course, it’s not my duty as a disabled person—the example I will use as a stand-in throughout this post—to tell every able-bodied person how or when they are being oppressive or to tell them how to be more aware of ableist institutionalization. Minority stress is real, and we shouldn’t add to that. 

Alternatively, however, if someone wants to learn, I have an ethical responsibility to assist in that process, as I am able. And different people see and experience differently. Someone who has yet to experience disability, cannot necessarily learn about disability without assistance from others, others who have personal experience or who are experts. Ableism is so thoroughly built into society that people sincerely cannot see it. Certainly, other able-bodied people can and should assist, and this burden should not fall completely on people with disabilities, but in some regard, no one will be able to educate like someone who has experienced disability or studied disability.

This is especially problematic when the person with a disability tells someone genuinely interested in learning, “You are are being ableist. You need to change. And it’s not my job to tell you how or educate you on ableism.” And I see disabled people telling others this all the time.

It’s also important to remember that disabled people can be mean, disabled people can also even be ableist, disabled people can be racist or sexist or xenophobic, too. Being disabled, or a minority in another way, is not a free pass. And disabled people do not have a free pass to unilaterally determine what or who is and is not ableist—that would invoke essentialism and introduce an entirely new set of problems.

Everyone needs assistance seeing what they can’t see, and everyone would do better to simply be kind and open. 

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda  

Notes on Flawed Characters vs. Flawed Scripts

I often aspire to help my students realize the difference between flawed characters and flawed scripts, but recently realized I had sometimes neglected to apply this notion to my own cultural criticism. My thoughts about How To Get Away With Murder help illustrate. 

Basically every character in How To Get Away With Murder is deeply flawed, deeply corrupt–the kind of individuals who would be dangerous to be around or even know in real life. Characters have murdered over two dozen people and in the aftermath, framed other people, destroyed evidence, and told lie after lie. Back in September, I actually posted a tweet saying that the show had “too many lies, deceptions, deaths, etc.” and explaining that I wasn’t going to watch anymore. 

My mom, however, said we had watched everything so far, so we might as well finish the final season. And then I remembered that while the characters are deeply horrific, the story is suspenseful. How To Get Away With Murder does include twist after twist and always defies expectations. Nothing–except additional death–has been predictable. 

However, I do standby the concerns articulated in past blogs, especially its violent representations of Black men and its normalization of corruption. And yet, it has made a few especially bold statements, such as calling out deep, institutional racism in the United States. 

On a related note, sometimes I hear criticism of a film simply because it has a racist or sexist or homophobic character. Depending on the overall structure of the film, such a representation can serve a positive and much needed purpose. Flawed or immoral characters do not necessarily equate to flawed or immoral scripts (or flawed directors, writers, performers).    

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda