How not to write about college students: a lesson from Slate

A popular article on Slate this week offers a nearly perfect demonstration of how not to write about college students.  The lesson is on how to pretend a small fraction of students stand in for the entire undergraduate population.

Here’s how it* works.

"cope" photo by mindbubbleThe title (“Kids of Helicopter Parents Are Sputtering Out”) and thesis (“perfectly healthy but overparented kids get to college and [suffer from an] inability to cope”) proclaim a focus on students suffering from helicopter parents – a legitimate topic, one widely discussed in education circles.  The text as published by Slate hits a nice nexus between education and parenting, solidly popular topics today.

It’s also largely about rich families.

Check out the source with which Lythcott-Haims leads, William Deresiewicz ‘s Excellent Sheep.   This book is entirely about the socio-economic and academic elite, traditional-age students at the Yale/Harvard level.  That’s a small fraction of America’s undergraduate population.  I think the book recognizes this.  Lythcott-Haims does not, instead allowing that elite to stand for the whole.

Then the article adds another elite example, students at Stanford.  (That means we’ve hit the 1st, 2nd, and 4th richest American universities so far)  Once again there’s no recognition that this sample is a small and very non-representative one.  But the author does reveal more evidence for my point, when she offers this look into her experience:

In my years as dean, I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed they had to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano,and do community service for Africa, and, and, and.

How many community college students does that describe?  How many from public universities?

Next we move on to another privileged school, and add anxiety about not attending an Ivy:

Charlie Gofen, the retired chairman of the board at the Latin School of Chicago, a private school serving about 1,100 students, emailed the statistics off to a colleague at another school and asked, “Do you think parents at your school would rather their kid be depressed at Yale or happy at University of Arizona?” The colleague quickly replied, “My guess is 75 percent of the parents would rather see their kids depressed at Yale.”

We’ve a quarter of the way through the Slate article and have thoroughly established a very narrow, 1% (and 1% of the 1%) perspective without explicitly delimiting discussion accordingly.  Instead the author offers some generalities, like “In 2013 the news was filled with worrisome statistics about the mental health crisis on college campuses, particularly the number of students medicated for depression.”  That’s “college” in general, not her specific use.  It’s a bait and switch.

Thankfully Lythcott-Haims turns to non-Ivied examples at last, working with studies that include, but are not limited to the richest (pdf) (although I can’t tell the samples for this one).  We hear from a staff member** at “a large public university in the Midwest”.  Whew.

Levine, _The Price of Privilege_But then the article veers right back into privilege, and actually digs deeper.  Listen to this:

Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, says that there are three ways we might be overparenting and unwittingly causing psychological harm…

Yes, that’s right.  Lythcott-Haims cites a book explicitly about rich families , and uses the first-person plural in discussing it.  The book’s publisher clearly describes Levine’s work as about “teenage patients [who are] were bright, socially skilled, and loved by their affluent parents”. We affluent parents: the Slate article’s subtext now stands in the open.

“We” are not the parents of traditional-age students attending public universities or community colleges – a majority of higher education students.  “We” are not adult learners, also representing a major chunk of the real college demographic.  “We” are not veterans.  “We” is actually a small but well-addressed niche.

“Kids of Helicopter Parents Are Sputtering Out” is a good example of how to write for the socio-economic elite while attaching a veneer of popular appeal.  Put another way, it’s a case study in writing for the general education world, but really having the elite at heart (cf Andrew Delbanco’s College for another example).  A general readership site like Slate can situate this 1% lifestyle piece under the wider headers of parenting or women’s issues (it appeared in their Double X department, “WHAT WOMEN REALLY THINK ABOUT NEWS, POLITICS, AND CULTURE”) without context, probably because it assumes a readership at that SES level or, more likely, aspiring to reach it.

As higher education suffers from growing economic disparities, and as American society increasingly divides into classes, such writing carries a strong political charge, and we need to pay careful attention.  Call this post-Piketty literacy.

Caveat 1: I haven’t read Lythcott-Haims’ book yet, but hope to.

Caveat 2: the article’s advice for parenting sounds decent, depending on the circumstances.  That’s not what I’m focusing on in this blog post.

*Article?  Well, a book excerpt.  But it’s very nicely selected and formatted to work as a formally acceptable article.

**She’s a staff psychologist.  That’s yet another part of higher education “administration”.

(graffiti photo by mindbubble)

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4 Responses to How not to write about college students: a lesson from Slate

  1. davidjhinson says:

    Reblogged this on Logorrhea.

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