How Adult Literacy Programs Stimulate the Economy

image from the National Coalition for Literacy

A new school year is upon us, and as usual nearly all of the focus is on K through 12. As a former high school teacher, I value the attention on young learners that September brings. After all, investing in the future by investing in the education of children and young adults is a no-brainer. But in times of economic distress, investing in the present is also essential. One of the most overlooked opportunities for stimulating the economy is in adult education. As current (rather than future) members of the labor force, adult learners immediately use the skills they acquire in the classroom on the job and, thereby, directly and quickly improve business productivity. And, in the U.S., the skill that is the gateway to almost all other skills is, of course, literacy in English.

Many of the more than 2.5 million adult literacy students in the U.S. are immigrants, and the vast majority are highly motivated to learn English and use it every day. I know that because I now teach at two adult education centers in Massachusetts. In fact, shortly after the economic crisis beset us in late 2008, I quit my full-time job in publishing to return part-time to teaching. My decision to focus specifically on adult education was grounded in a firm conviction that this is where I would have the greatest and most immediate impact. And the reality I found in the classroom has exceeded my expectations. My students are champing at the bit to learn everything they can and to explore all the ways they can apply their classroom experiences to the real world. Together, they and I are effecting change.

When people think about adult education, even those who believe in the cause of funding literacy programs, they often see the issue in charitable terms — helping disadvantaged people who deserve a chance. Well-intended as that impulse is, this endeavor isn’t merely about stemming the flow from hearts that bleed for the needy. Funding and publicizing adult literacy programs is practical, plain and simple. It’s in the acute economic interest of local communities, states, and the nation as a whole. Making that point in clear, convincing terms will help to expand the pool of people who are interested in investing in adult literacy.

There’s no doubt that teaching students to speak, read, and write effectively in English takes time. But we don’t need to wait until adults finish a program, or earn a certificate or a diploma, before we see the benefits. These folks walk out of classrooms every day and put their newly acquired skills right to work. And many of them bring their education home to their children (my students frequently ask for extra handouts so that they can use them with their kids). That twofold, mutually reinforcing investment — in the parent now and in her child for the future — makes the concept of “trickle down” a concrete reality, not an economist’s fantasy. Let’s face that hard fact, and put our money where our mouth is. Then we all can reap the rewards together.

For more information about how you can help adult literacy programs fulfill their mission, visit the websites of the Cambridge Community Learning Center and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences.

Your Livelihood Is Subsidized — by Immigrants

Another midterm election season has begun, and with it another wave of scapegoating immigrants for the ills that burden us. It’s practically a staple of American politics every fourth spring and summer, a perfect setup for the fall. This year the focus is an Arizona immigration law that soon will allow police in that state to accost, and demand proof of citizenship from, people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. Because, surely, those confrontations will unburden Arizona of its problems and make it a much more pleasant place to be.

Last time around, in 2006, the big issue was an amnesty provision of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Had the bill become law, it would have permitted immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally for more than five years to apply for citizenship after paying fines and back taxes. Critics of the legislation won that debate in part by, once again, painting immigrants as a “burden on the system.” At the time, National Public Radio broadcast a 3-minute essay by journalist Richard Rodriguez in which he, unassumingly and poetically, undercut that specious argument by simply thanking immigrants for the long list of things they do for us as a nation every day, at an extremely low cost. Rodriguez’s naming of these deeds, one by one, was chilling — and worth a listen even these four years later.

My immigrant students work in jobs similar to those Rodriguez listed in his 2006 radio piece. They lift hospital patients out of their beds and clean their bodies; load and unload chicken legs, beef tenderloin, and Kashi GoLean from the backs of trucks; scrub down homes and offices and hotel rooms and the cages of lab rats; and click their heels and smile at the people they serve on hand and foot, day and night. And they do it, quickly and efficiently, for pay that most people reading this blog would never consider accepting for such self-effacing work, perhaps for any work at all. In short, their labor subsidizes our lifestyles. While we work for ourselves, they in effect work for us, all the while demanding little for what they do. The economy in general — and your livelihood in particular — rests on their backs, literally. Yet their labor goes largely unseen — and when it is noticed, unappreciated.

In the little free time that these immigrants have, many attend school to learn the English language; the archaic English system of measurement that we refuse to discard in favor of more-sensible meters and liters, which they already know; and the contradictions of our culture and politics, which insult them in more ways than you can imagine. It’s an enormous amount for anyone to absorb, and especially hard for students like one I’ll call Teresa, who works the overnight shift in a hospital, then comes to my math class at 9 AM, and finally returns home to care for her children and an aging father. When I asked Teresa when she sleeps, she said, “On the bus sometimes.”

The schools that serve students like Teresa tend to operate on shoestring budgets. Most are staffed by highly skilled but undercompensated teachers who have made this work a vocation as they try to earn a real living on the side — and who often don’t get any pay for up to half the hours they spend at school. All this unrecognized labor is a continuous stimulus for the national economy, as it makes the grossly underpaid immigrant workforce even more productive. The effect is to dramatically reduce, not increase, the country’s economic burdens.

Critics, of course, point to the small percentage of immigrants who commit crimes or who game the system. After all, naysayers can always find isolated counterexamples. But I can tell them, from the front lines, that on balance they are getting much more for their dollars — no, their pennies — than they ever would suspect. The number of immigrants, most of them here legally (but, yes, some illegally), who diligently do our dirty work, in the literal sense of that phrase, is staggering. And, no, many of them will not be counted by the U.S. Census; they exist — and they work — nonetheless.

Go ahead, Arizona, apprehend that “burden” you see on the public street. Maybe you’ll actually lock up and deport one of the dregs who drag us down. But it’s much more likely that you’ll burden yourself and the rest of us by handcuffing the single biggest subsidy of our precarious economy. For every physical arrest that you make, you effectively demoralize and disable thousands of hardworking immigrants who look on and imagine themselves in your shackles. Keep arresting productivity in its tracks like that and you will burden our entire nation so that it falls, quickly and efficiently, to its knees.

Does Quitting Your Job Seem Sexy?

Quitting a job without a new position in hand is an act that sticks with you for a while, even if you’re sensible enough to do it coolly. It doesn’t quietly recede into memory, precisely because it’s both risky and calculated — and because the danger period lasts, certainly longer than a bungee jump or even a week-long wilderness adventure. Thrill-seeking might be part of the allure, but it is not the reality. Most people who see quitting as a ticket to liberation are tilting at windmills, making something mythic out of the mundane. Quitting might very well be the right choice for you, as it was for me. But its aftermath is usually quotidian — Ps and Qs, not Xs and Zs.

It’s been almost 18 months now since I quit my full-time job. At the time I had a sense of where I wanted to go — back to teaching at least part-time, freelancing to pay the bills, doing my own writing where I could make time for that, studying foreign language again if possible. For those of you who have asked for an update, here’s the short version:

On the teaching front, things could not have been more positive. I quickly found two part-time posts that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve become involved with a group that works on standardized testing in adult education. If anything, I have to watch myself to ensure I don’t say yes to every request that comes down the pike, especially given the low pay. But it’s mission-driven work that sustains the soul, and that is priceless.

Freelancing has sustained other parts of my mind. I continue to have the chance to work with great thinkers, researchers, and practitioners in a variety of fields. That said, the nature of being an outsider as you contract with clients isn’t without its frustrations, as I’ve discussed in several posts on this blog. On balance, however, this segment of my life has provided intellectual stimulation of a sort that I continue to need, not to mention the bulk of my income. And, for now, I’m enjoying the freshness of an outsider’s perspective.

Writing has been a mixed bag. Yes, I’ve been issuing posts for this blog every week, and I like the regularity of that self-imposed deadline. But I’ve been so busy with teaching and freelancing that time for non-blog writing has been pretty limited. I am currently enrolled in a poetry workshop, but beyond that and the blog, the yield has been thin.

On the foreign language front, I’ve taken just one Spanish refresher class (last summer). And I practice that language briefly with a couple of my night students on our way out of the school building twice a week. Pretty paltry, I know.

All in all, my new professional life feels pretty workaday. For the most part, I do things on my own terms, and that’s a change. And my own results on my quiz titled “Does Your Work Matter to You?” have greatly improved. That’s progress, of course, but it’s not the awe-inspiring transformation that so many quitters want it to be. I didn’t really harbor those kinds of illusions from the get-go, so I haven’t been disappointed.

“Quit” is a funny English word. It’s pithy, and in the right mouth it sounds potent. But I just think of it as a quirky curiosity that, when you boil it down to its essentials, is unremarkable, even humdrum. As an English teacher, I can’t help but reflect on its identical principal parts: quit, quit, and quit (the base form, simple past, and past participle, respectively). It’s a rare verb in English that exhibits such sameness (“burst” is another). I guess your point of view depends on whether you want to be seduced by the sexy rarity or reflect soberly on the sameness. I obviously tend toward the latter. What about you?

If Writers Taught and Teachers Wrote . . .

My teaching and freelancing careers complement each other almost daily. I’ve gradually come to view that mutual reinforcement as a substantial part of what makes both lines of work satisfying.

Yes, I’ve had full-time jobs in both education and publishing, and I enjoyed the dedication to one mission. Maintaining a single focus has major benefits: the time to perfect a craft, the continuous exposure to talented colleagues who keep you on your game because of their constant proximity, the sense of having a second home. (Not to mention the concrete benefit of employer-subsidized health insurance.) Over time, though, the singularity can breed a narrowness of vision. That’s not to say that opportunities to grow within a single career don’t abound. But being truly invested in two separate professional domains enables you, in each one, to have the benefit of an outside perspective while you continue to work on the inside.

In teaching writing, for example, you can be a kickass full-time instructor. But there’s something about continuing to write professionally — not just as a sideshow, but as a core activity with frequent deadlines and other real-world constraints — that helps you offer students a practical, authentic perspective. Similarly, teaching a craft or skill day in and day out brings it to consciousness in ways that simply using it does not. Plus, by being in the classroom, you routinely witness real audiences responding to content in a dynamic forum that no focus group or survey can match.

These are not original insights, and I could have shared them long before I made the decision to simultaneously teach and be a freelancer. But my dual career has started to make me think even more broadly. Specifically, I wonder whether merging the missions of education and publishing might improve quality and relevance in both areas on a much larger scale.

Everyone knows that these two fields are facing major challenges, some of them downright demoralizing. Teachers, even good ones, are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate compliance with ever-changing standards as they teach students whose reading and writing habits shift dramatically with the advent of new technologies. And many in publishing, particularly journalism, are struggling to remain relevant to audiences, even as some continue to produce excellent content. Those audiences, both current and future, are sitting in classrooms every day. Yet most teachers don’t know what goes on in the publishing world, and most people in publishing are not also in schools. Is it time to break down that wall so that producers of content better understand how to engage audiences who, in turn, learn to improve their ability to engage with content?

That’s the practical side of it. But there’s also the prospect of injecting new professional energy into both areas through the complementary relationship between them. The personal rewards of working simultaneously in two distinct but related fields could generate new career opportunities and boost morale in both domains. That energy would have further practical consequences, creating a virtuous circle. And the possibility of invigorating education and publishing in a united effort has a certain “next big thing” allure, provided that conflicts of interest can be minimized.

Of course, this merging of two professional worlds is not something that could happen by fiat. It has to start small, with individuals who are already in both fields recruiting others and then, if that pans out, devising pilot projects and all the related peripherals that really get things rolling. It seems like a daunting endeavor for any one person to contemplate initiating, especially with the issue of health insurance looming for those brave enough to take the plunge. Support from above, both philosophical and financial, would be essential for kick-starting the movement.

But maybe this is all my foolish little pipe dream as I toil away as both teacher and freelancer, trying to find professional partners whose hands are in both domains. Are any of you out there inhabiting these spheres simultaneously? If not, does that prospect seem appealing, whether just personally or as part of a broader effort? Maybe this movement is already afoot and I’m just ignorant of it. Shed a little light on it for me if you can, or at least entertain the idea with me if you dare.

They Write for a Living, but Can They Write?

For more than 15 years, I’ve worked with authors from a wide array of backgrounds and disciplines, many at the top of their fields. I do ghost writing, developmental editing, copyediting, and other work that doesn’t fit neatly in those categories. Most authors just want me to “make it better,” but a fair number seek to improve themselves, which gives me the opportunity to use skills from my other career — teaching.

I find that, in general, the people most amenable to learning from an editor are those who don’t consider writing to be at the core of what they do: the renowned doctor, the finance whiz, the clever engineer, the concert pianist. Because writing is not their domain, if they are one of the subset who care enough to improve, they are highly receptive, even wide-eyed. They recognize the value of effective expository writing and want to unlock its mysteries, just as I am intrigued by the mysteries of their disciplines. The mutual interest is not mysterious at all.

The authors who, in contrast, make me scratch my head are those for whom writing is an essential component of success in their field yet who are breathtakingly poor at it. I’m not talking about creative writers, but rather the folks whose professions, by definition, require mastery of exposition and the persuasive argument (or so you’d think): the humanities professor, the policy advocate, the sociologist, the public relations specialist, the lawyer, the journalist, and so on. Verbal expression is their bread and butter, their way of ascending to prominence, their professional lifeblood. Of course, many people in these professions write exceedingly well, even brilliantly. But there seem to be much larger numbers who write with such lack of logic, clarity, and voice that at times it leaves you aghast — and almost always confused. Yet, in most cases, they’re not interested in improving.

Incidentally, by good writing I don’t mean good grammar. Important as that is, interest in its minutiae frankly qualifies me as a freak. (And, of course, we all make grammar mistakes that need to be corrected.) But grammar is by no means my primary interest, nor is it the central issue in the writing deficiency I’m describing. Think instead of basic paragraphing skills, fundamental logic, a sense of audience, consistency of point of view, the ability to detect ambiguity, an ear for language.

To be sure, this widespread deficiency in writing is in part attributable to the culture of turgid prose that academia breeds — a phenomenon discussed eloquently by psychology professor Gail A. Hornstein in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year. But academic culture doesn’t explain everything, given that plenty of people in writing-dependent careers outside academia also seem to be afflicted with mediocre skills (I mentioned some above). The bottom line is that we have a large class of professionals, in both academic and non-academic arenas, who have succeeded in fields that depend heavily on writing yet who do not write effectively. What business do you have claiming the title Professor of Communications, for example, if you’re not a good writer?

Let me pause here to say that every writer needs a good editor. We can’t expect the esteemed professor or the great reporter or even the writing teacher to produce golden prose right out of the box. The very best writers need a set of fresh eyes and ears, and the rest of us require much more than that. If your goal is to publish something that’s supposed to legitimize you professionally or that you expect people to use for important purposes, you simply must meet a high standard in the end. Otherwise, please don’t bother. There’s enough noise out there without yours.

Now, as I presumptuously clear my throat to explain what’s behind the glaring underperformance of an “overclass” of writers, I have to admit the obvious — that this is not my domain but that of a sociologist (one who can write, I hope). But as a middling, unaccountable blogger, I’ll take a stab at it. The sociologists, if they ever see this, can call me a fake.

Ahem . . . A temptingly easy explanation for widespread writing deficiency among high achievers in the world of words is grade inflation run amuck: A and B students who should be C students, moving from school to career and bringing unchallenged mediocrity along with them. That simple explanation, to my ear, sounds like the stuff of a reactionary’s bitch session — elitist, whiny, a dead end. Undoubtedly, the underlying causes are instead multiple. But there’s one cause that I view as at least part of the mix, and much more persuasive as an explanation than pandemic grade inflation.

You see, rigor — no matter what the domain, including writing — is hard. And social pressure is pretty much the only thing that will force most people to do the work. Without academic and other institutions — and their leaders — building a culture in which that pressure becomes part of the air that everyone breathes, most people will improve their writing enough to get by, but not much more. “Besides,” they’ll argue, “the content is what matters.” Well, Professor of Communications, the words are your content.

So how do the bulk of our esteemed professors and other respected wordsters get by with mediocrity? And what’s to prevent my neighbor who hauls dry ice for a living, and can’t write well either, from doing what’s required to become a professor? Is it just a matter of degree: bad writer vs. really bad writer? Of course not.

In most cases, the person who went on to become the professor couldn’t have imagined himself hauling dry ice for a living, so he learned how to operate in the world that allows you, eventually, to become a professor. That world demands certain types of rigor, but it usually doesn’t demand great writing. It does, however, require communicating in a way that signals to other academics that you’re a legitimate member of their tribe. That type of social system takes root much more easily than a merit-based culture of good writers, but it’s just as effective at indicating who’s in and who’s out.

As for my neighbor who hauls dry ice, he’s out — but he’s a party to his own exclusion. He may not really want to haul dry ice, but enough people in his social arena are willing to accept him in that role that he’ll take it. Who wants to be a stuffy old professor anyway?

Whatever the reasons for the writing mediocrity we’ve come to accept from people who write for a living, the obvious question is “What’s the solution?” Again, the answers are multiple. One element, as I already suggested, is academic and other leaders’ willingness to demand good writing in the professional spheres where it matters. But it also takes resources. Most academic journals, for example, push articles through the publication process with a couple of peer reviews for content and a meager copyedit, with little or no developmental editing for structure, logic, voice, and the other essentials. And many news outlets (print, online, and broadcast) now produce content so quickly that it’s often more impressionistic than edifying.

Again, each of these topics is worth much longer treatment. And many other people have wrung their hands about the diminishing appetite of consumers to pay for high-quality content. It’s frankly hard to imagine a reversal in that trend anytime soon. So, naive as it may be, I look to the power of social pressure for a substantial part of the solution — but, in this case, pressure that’s aimed at achieving rigor rather than avoiding it.

How do you apply that kind of pressure? Well, when you read something, allow yourself to be elevated or irritated enough by the quality of the writing to say something specific about it. People usually submit a letter or an online comment to an editor only when they’ve been either buoyed or offended by ideas or facts. That’s fine, of course, but have you ever written in to praise or complain about the writing — not in general terms, but in detail about why something did or did not work? Granted, those are not the types of letters and comments that get published, but most of the time if you submit them via the right avenue and express yourself coolly and intelligently, your remarks will make it to the responsible party.

It may not seem sexy to tell a writer, for example, that he presented the parts of his article in the wrong order — and to explain why — or to analyze the details of a particular passage that was unclear or left a misimpression. But if he’s worth anything, the writer will listen to that type of feedback. And if enough of that feedback comes in, the sheer volume (it doesn’t actually take that much) gives it influence. Editors at academic journals also tend to read intelligent comments about how their content was presented. It’s one of the few remaining levers that readers have. The publication’s staff often need a reminder that you really care about the writing and that you’re savvy enough to distinguish between what’s good and bad — and to be able to explain the difference.

People tend to perform when they know they’re being watched. I often get the sense that folks who build their careers on mediocre writing assume that no one is really watching, or at least not watching in the way that will prompt them to improve as communicators, not just as purveyors of content. Watch them like a hawk, I say.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, you’re undoubtedly watching me carefully, and you probably have something to say about this topic, whose surface I’ve barely scratched. I hope you’ll let your voice be heard in a comment right here.

Are We Making Things That Last?

I teach, I edit, I write. To some that’s noble work; to others it’s a lotta BS. Words mostly, written in dust on a chalkboard, sitting idly on pieces of paper, or flitting ephemerally across a screen. Nothing you can touch and hold and use, at least not in the way that “useful” things are meant to be. Did you make anything today, Steve, other than some noise? Tomorrow you’ll make more of it, and that too will disappear.

Thoughts like those sometimes give me the urge to pick up a hammer and a nail or a needle and thread, or to go out and find what many people would consider a real job. Not a phony, patchwork freelance existence in which I get paid to put marks on a page and tap on a keyboard — and teach others to do the same. One in which I spend some of my time dreaming up mind candy for this blog, which doesn’t pay a cent.

Obviously, I see value in what I do, especially the teaching. And I’ve written about it many times. But there is something that gnaws at me — at us — as more and more of our time is spent making noise rather than making useful things.

If I were an economist, I’d be tempted now to launch into a boring lecture about outsourcing and the depletion of the U.S. manufacturing base. But there is a nugget of truth to the idea that making fewer useful things slowly guts a nation of its ambition, even its purpose. I think about all those people at the gym, most employed in service and office jobs, doing their “core” exercises and then, on the way out the door, passing vending machines filled with junk food fit for consumption in front of a high-definition TV. There are many ways to fill a void.

As a political junkie (yes, I consume even the TV junk), I wonder why speeches about the importance of developing green technologies don’t focus on an increasingly untapped desire to build and create tangible things rather than on climate change (an abstract concept to most people). “It’s time America gets back to making things that last!” I can hear a politician chanting. “In the 21st century and beyond, it’s green technology built with your hands in green factories that will last, that will make your paycheck last, that will last long enough for your children and your grandchildren to enjoy the fruits of your labor!” Politicians are in the business of making noise, though, so they probably don’t need my help.

My own noise is more muted, much less influential. It’s in the classroom, in my interactions with authors and editors, in this disposable little blog. I don’t know how long any of those efforts will ultimately last, useful as they usually seem to me to be. The best I can hope for is that my students will carry what they learn out into the world and make a living, make a difference, and actually make a few real, useful things along the way.

That’s the noise I’m generating in my own ear, at least today. Tomorrow I’ll make a different sound, and that too will disappear.

Who Do You Really Work For?

I’ve been freelancing for over a year now, and I feel more professionally independent than I ever have. I make my own decisions about what assignments to accept, organize my workday as I see fit, and sometimes carve out time for non-work activities in ways that make my calendar look like a gerrymandered congressional district.

But I’m not a true-blue freelancer. I teach part-time at a couple of local adult-ed centers, where I follow (and enforce) rules that others lay down, albeit with the consent and participation of rank-and-file teachers like me. The schools are, of course, very much social institutions, and I am just one small element among many that make the organizations thrive.

Overall, my work life offers a good balance between the truly collaborative experiences that I get on-site at the schools and the independent, off-site workshop atmosphere that my home has become. But can I call that “working for myself”? At face value, the phrase has a meaning that amounts to little more than the way I file my taxes. When I talk with other freelancers, however, I usually find that the implications are deeper — that the phrase means much more to them than “on my own,” something akin to “for my own purposes.”

To be sure, folks who work for money that they need are, by definition, working for their own purposes. They’re supporting themselves and their families, and trying to build a life that provides both sustenance and pleasure. But I often wonder about the mission of the freelancer (and my mission as one) — in other words, about purpose with a higher aim.

Non-freelance workers typically support an institutional mission, whether corporate, nonprofit, small-business, or government. They don’t all do it happily or mindfully, but just by virtue of being part of the institution, they do it in one way or another. The higher aim of a freelancer’s labor can be harder to pinpoint. Some freelancers commit themselves to the integrity of the work they do, always aiming for top quality. Others, weary of sometimes-narrow corporate goals, selectively take on clients whose work they believe in. Still others have self-fulfillment (for example, actualizing their talents) as the engine that drives the machine every day. And many freelancers are motivated by some combination of these, plus the aforementioned need to earn a living.

I, for one, focus much more on the educational missions of the schools where I teach than on my mission as a freelancer, the need to earn money notwithstanding. Yes, I’m a stickler for quality in whatever I do, and that affects my freelance work, most of which I enjoy. But for the most part, I use freelancing to subsidize the pretty low pay I get from part-time teaching. In a sense, I’ve put one mission in service of another, rather than pursuing each for its own sake.

Who do I really work for then? Is it for myself, for my students, for something larger? That’s a tough question to answer in a byte (I’ve already bitten off more than I can chew in this post). But one thing I do know is that I now score much better on my own 9-month-old quiz, called “Does Your Work Matter to You?”, than I did when I was with a single employer full time. A commenter on this blog reminded me of that quiz last week, and with another gestation period under my belt, the question of mission is reborn all over again.

May I ask you, whether or not you’re a freelancer, to explore your own answer here with me this week? What is your mission? Who do you really work for? Are you “working for yourself” — or for someone (or something) else?