Is there a more enviable job than working for StoryCorps? Other than being Beyonce, I cannot think of many. Today’s story on a father who took his daughter to college with him is a tearjerker. It prompted me to quickly share some of my private thoughts on structure and marginalized groups.
One of the most difficult tasks as a sociology teacher is trying to move students away from personal considerations of agency and towards seeing the structure that shapes agency. Some of this is cultural. Every culture has a myth of who they are and how they are. The U.S. myth is all about agency. From manifest destiny to rugged individualism to the entrepreneurial worker ideal, our national identity is all about how individuals can create their own reality no matter the obstacles. To the extent that any American fails to do this, they have individually failed. Of course, we know that wishing don’t always make it so. Neither does hard work. What we often call luck and opportunity are tacit acknowledgements of the critical role that structures like schooling, geography, legal codes, and work — to name a few — play in shaping our individual destinies.
The consequences of failing under the ideological imperative of our agency myth makes exploring the role of structure in our own lives particularly risky. It can make you an outsider in a familiar land, your own native land. For many reasons, that is not a comfortable or entirely desirable way to live. So we resist.
But not all of us can resist.
I find that students at public colleges like Georgia State or black students at Spelman where I have often lectured have a different orientation towards structure. I suspect it is because they are more likely to have lived suspended between structural constraints and agency.
Like many social scientists I suppose that to a certain extent I study myself.
I grew up tagging along with my mother as she took a night class here and there. I know students can be more than one thing at a time because my mother was intermittently also a student. She didn’t stop parenting me when she was institutionalized in the student role.
I swirled before swirling was cool. I cobbled together credits from three institutions to finally get my bachelor’s degree.
I know school testing and attainment can reflect opportunity as much as it does ability or acuity. I was always a good standardized test taker and I generally tested very high, although admittedly better on verbal than math. But neither score would get me kicked out of bed. Yet, my mother had to take time off work to insist my third grade teacher not put me in the B (i.e. slower) reading group. I tested three grades ahead of my level in the fifth grade but it took another parental intervention to get me put ahead a year. I read early and often and always ahead of my cohort but a teacher once spanked me and sent me into a diversion program because I had then, as I do know, a penchant for moving my lips when I read. Something about who I was ran counter to all objective measures of what I could do. And, had it not been for a mother who had more formal education than most the former would have shaped my trajectory more than the latter.
When I discovered sociology I was predisposed to understanding structure and organizations because I had a sense that something out there was impacting my life. Similarly, the students at GSU and Spelman and the like can often appreciate a set of tools to name and interrogate the ways in which structure has similarly constrained what they are as opposed to who they have been constructed to be by powerful ideological and authoritative structures. It is reflected particularly in southern black culture where parents often talk to their children about working twice as hard as white peers to get half the rewards. We encourage agency but always with a nod to structure, here the limits of returns to attainment and persistence. It’s a complex narrative in a neat aphorism. It tries to motivate a child to work hard but also provide her the psychic framework to manage the dissonance of inevitable failures that will be beyond their control. Black parents be deep.
Today’s StoryCorps story gave brought all this to mind for a few reasons. One, my immediate reaction was to make note of the structural processes that correspond to Wil’s personal narrative, which we would generally think of as inherently about agency. Instead, I see how it was the military that made college possible for Wil as it has for many black men. I see how single parenthood was an imagined, and likely real, barrier to traditional college matriculation for Wil as it continues to be for many. I see how subverting formal rules by, for example, just not mentioning that your daughter is living with you is a viable tool of mobility for unprivileged groups in normative institutions. It also brought to mind my reflections because I suspect that a daughter who grew up going to college with her Dad will have a slightly different orientation towards a narrative that renders invisible how structure makes the American story of agency less true for some than for others. At least that’s how it worked for me.