In an essay rich with lyricism and brutal honesty, Kiese Laymon tells the story of his early years teaching at an elite liberal arts college in New York. When a new friend is arrested on a parole violation, the author learns to see class differences and power dynamics in a new way.
Brown, the first person I met in Poughkeepsie, was a felon because he was black, scared, desperate, and guilty. I was black, scared, desperate, and guilty but I came from folks with a bit more money than Brown. Though I wasn’t the grandchild of grandparents who passed money or land down to my parents, I was a child of what folks called “the black middle class.” My mama was one paycheck away from asking Grandmama or me for money neither of us had the week before payday.
There was no wealth in my family of black middle class women. There were only paydays.
I knew that my student Cole, a dealer of everything from weed to cocaine, could be a college graduate, college professor, college trustee in spite of being scared, desperate, and guilty because he was a white child of wealthy parents. Cole could literally become president of all kinds of American things, or president of nothing. Either way, he’d be fine. He wouldn’t be free, but materially, Cole would never suffer.
Parents of all stripes struggle to keep their kids in school, off drugs, and on track for adult life and careers. In Texas Monthly, writer John Nova Lomax narrates the struggle he and his wife went through with their son, who liked trashing cars and quitting jobs more than attending university. After the young man finds direction and identity in the Army, the lingering question becomes: at what personal cost?
We’d all entered into a toxic scenario called hostile dependency. He needed us for everything, we hated ourselves whether we indulged him or didn’t, and he despised himself for having to ask. We fought for weeks: John Henry and me, John Henry and his mom, John Henry and Kelly—all of us angry and terrified and just plain sad. No, I couldn’t co-sign a year’s lease on an apartment for him. No, I wouldn’t sign up for four years of tuition and living expenses for classes he might periodically show interest in attending. No, I couldn’t buy him another car, and he wouldn’t ride the bus or settle for a bike.
Often our arguments would end with John Henry pointing out how much better I’d had it when I was his age. And it’s true, I had. Thanks to a small inheritance, the many, many errors of my misspent youth—dropping out of two colleges, burning through cars and jobs on a pace equal to his—were softened. I had a safety net and he did not, and I felt terribly guilty about it. But nevertheless, I could not give him what I did not have. At the end of all these arguments, he’d shuffle back to his little backyard house behind ours, his shoulders slumped, his head hung low, feeling that much more hopeless about his lot in life. As for me, I’d feel like a failure because I couldn’t provide what many of his friends with wealthier parents could: that newish SUV, the four (or five, or six) years of worry-free college and study-abroad programs, followed by an internship at a cool company with prospects. In short, a plan. I could not give my son a plan, other than the military, England, or else.
Byers, who became the executive director of the N.C.A.A. in 1951 — a position he held for the next 37 years — transformed a toothless association into a powerful force that mirrored his own personality: secretive, despotic, stubborn and ruthless. He helped turn the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament into the financial windfall we now know as March Madness. He created the N.C.A.A.’s enforcement division, along with a culture that enforced its myriad rules (many of them absurdly petty) with a Javert-like zealotry. He even invented the phrase “student-athlete,” a propaganda stroke that helped universities avoid paying workers’ compensation to injured athletes.
–In the New York Times, Joe Nocera looks back at the battle between college basketball coaching great Jerry Tarkanian and former NCAA executive director Walter Byers, who both died in 2015.
Indeed, the famous eclecticism of “The Waste Land,” which incorporates quotations from multiple languages and literatures, can be seen as a tribute to the educational philosophy that governed Harvard during Eliot’s time there…
Yet as Crawford shows in the impressively researched Young Eliot, the “melange of topics” that Eliot explored in college “mightily enriched his poetry.” Eliot’s studies with the philosopher George Santayana planted the seeds of the idea that later emerged in his criticism as the “objective correlative”—the notion that poetic images function as a formula to evoke an emotion. In the recently founded Comparative Literature department, Eliot studied with scholars who “encouraged people…to connect literary works through anthropology to supposedly primitive rituals.” This would become a major technique of “The Waste Land,” which uses the Grail legend, as interpreted by scholars like James Frazer and Jessie Weston, as a structuring myth.
Crawford even manages to track down the moments when Eliot first discovered images and individual words he would later employ in his verse. As a junior, for instance, he took a class on the Roman novel that included Petronius’s Satyricon; years later, the novel’s image of an undying Sibyl appeared in the epigraph of “The Waste Land.” In Eliot’s own annotated copy of the novel, which Crawford examines, the poet glossed the Latin word for mushrooms, tubere in the text—a word that returns in “The Waste Land,” where he writes of winter “Feeding/a little life on dried tubers.” There is something thrilling about the way Crawford locates such moments in time and space, showing how a poem as mysterious and complex as “The Waste Land” draws on something as familiar as a college syllabus.
Anniversary stories, as the saying goes, come up every year. Journalists of all experience levels look for fresh angles on these old stories. If the anniversary is of a newsworthy event, like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon Bombing, it’s even harder to find something that hasn’t already been said. Olivia Deng reported on the anniversary itself and the anxiety it brings. Her well-reported story looks not at the past, but at how we live with it.
A late-night encounter with a drunken classmate is at the beginning of many college sexual assault stories. But in the one Gracie Ryan tells, the woman—a third-degree taekwondo black belt—feels uncomfortable, gets up, and leaves. “Even if a girl is scared to death,” she tells Ryan, “if she walks into a room tall and confident, it’s like, don’t fuck with me.” Ryan’s article checks in on the progress of various sexual assault prevention programs offered at the University of Montana following federal investigations into mishandling of reports of sexual violence in 2012. Students formed self-defense classes. The university requires students living in dorms to undergo bystander-intervention training. Ryan checks in on each program and pairs text and photos to chronicle a university and its students trying lots of different ways, with varying success, to solve a problem that plagues too many campuses.
A recent act of vandalism at UC San Diego prompted student Teiko Yakobson to wonder about the rest of a significant collection of sculpture and monumental art that dots the campus. What does it mean to have a great art collection if students don’t understand it to be great art? Yakobson’s story considers many of the same issues confronting the art world today: class, diversity, and accessibility. Her article doesn’t presuppose that all art must be complex to be good, nor does it dismiss the virtue of challenging pieces. Instead, like the best art, it starts a conversation.
A lot of people make a university run, but many of those people are invisible to the students they serve. The janitors, maintenance workers, and food-service employees who keep dorms clean, buildings open, and dining halls operating can be so behind-the-scenes that students don’t think about them. (Of course, the self-absorption of youth contributes to that problem, too.) In her story about a labor dispute between food-service employees and Georgetown University, Manuela Tobias interviews representatives from both sides and conveys the workers’ frustration and management’s reasoning. Through thorough research and reporting, Tobias contextualizes workers’ dissatisfaction with the university and even their union while explaining the costs and contracts from the university’s point of view. It’s a labor story with a heart.
There are lots of stories these days (as there should be) about sex trafficking. The bulk of these stories focus on victims: mostly women, mostly poor, who are taken away from families and familiarities and sold for sex. In the third story in his series about human trafficking, Travis Loose turned to the law enforcement officers trying to stop this scourge. Working a sex trafficking case, he found, is not like To Catch a Predator. “I love puzzles, figuring things out, solving problems,” one detective told Loose. “And there’s nothing that makes a puzzle like human interaction.”
This week, Wesleyan University administrators banned social events at a fraternity through the end of 2015. This rule came some months after the school decreed that all recognized fraternities must become co-educational within the next three years. Wesleyan administrators say they are acting in an effort to reduce the number of campus sexual assaults: “any campus-based organization that has sponsored events that create conditions with a higher risk of violence, including sexual assault, also will be held accountable.”
In an essay he wrote about leaving his fraternity, Wesleyan University senior Scott Ellman considered his school’s sexualized culture and his own discomfort within it: “I’d only recently begun to consider my complicity as a fraternity brother in the greater context of sexual violence in the American higher education system and how its corresponding language is deployed on college campuses across the country.”