Friday, January 12, 2007

Essay Topics N&D

Essay Options, English 102 Winter 06. Nickel and Dimed

Guidelines for every option:

3-5 pages.

Typed drafts.

Double spaced, 12 point font.

Use N&D as a source.

Use two sources from the web or elsewhere.

Explain your main point. Explain criticism of your main point.

Refine/Defend/Concede/Expand your main point.

We are looking for good solid ideas—original and well supported.

We are looking for real questions and real answers because these are issues that affect our lives everyday.

You are in school because of the issues raised in this book.

Keys to your future, whatever kind of future it may be, are in this book.

That’s what we’re looking for.

1. What is to be done?
This question will deal with the “Evaluation” chapter a great deal.
People that work 40 hours a week should be able to survive. Right now, they live on or over the edge. How do we fix this problem?

Here’s a quote from Salon Magazine:
But [the book] also half-raises questions without truly answering them….[She] shoos them off again without letting us get a really good look at them and generally shies away from admitting that however intolerable the conditions …may be, any viable alternative to tolerating them is far from obvious.

Salon’s right. Ehrenreich’s evaluation has some flaws. What she observed is pretty convincing, but when she attempts solutions or when she confronts criticism, she is vague. That may mean there’s a problem with her premise. It might simply mean that she fumbles the final push but that the issues are still real.

Here’s what I’ll be looking for in a good paper:

Highlight Ehrenreich’s attempts at solving the problems.
What are the problems and what are her solutions?

Second, highlight the “objections” she raises about her solutions.
How does she address these objections?
Now, you take over the argument.
What should be done?
Maybe she should have said, You’re right.

If you tend to be more conservative, this might be a good option for you to write about.
What would the conservative write for an “Evaluation” of the events in N&D’d?
Maybe she should have explained why the criticisms were wrong. Defend her points where she has left them open.
Maybe the criticisms, being part right, don’t change the fact that there’s a problem, they just point out adjustments needed to your argument, to the solution.
Once you think you’ve got it all figured out, ask:
What are the objections to your ideas?

2. YakTown This is for the investigative journalists in the class. People who have time to drive around and know how to use a digital camera and aren't afraid of bad neighborhoods or acting like a renter.

Figure 30% of Minimum wage in Washington State.
What does that rent in Yakima? Investigate and report.
Where are you going to get the information? The Big Picture? The best evidence? How about “first, last, and deposit” issue in Yakima? What is the norm? Where do the motels rent for by the week? Where are they?
Safety concerns? What does that say about housing in Yakima?
Use N&D to compare conditions. What do your findings mean to the premise in N&D that housing held back many people?

3. Working Poor, For Men
Nickel and Dimed focuses on minimum wage jobs for women.
How are men affected by the issues raised in N&D?
What jobs are available in Yakima?
What about housing? Physical toll? Mental toll? Dignity?
Do a want ad search in Yakima. Make some phone calls. Pick up some applications. Take some screen test.
What other ways can we get information?
What does your investigation turn up?

4. What Problem?—Or—Does This Mean You’re Going to Miss Your Shift?

The working poor blame their situation “on personal failings or lack of initiative.”
Are they right?

From Salon:
A recent survey of attitudes about poverty…suggests…resistance to classic left ideas about poverty is fairly common among the poor. For example, the low-income Americans surveyed were only slightly more likely than the affluent to blame the plight of the poor on circumstances beyond their control, rather than on personal failings or lack of initiative.

So the poor don’t blame the rich. They blame themselves.
The easy answer seems to be “case closed”—but as the book points out, there might be other “circumstances” at work. Explain what those are.

How does the working poor’s inability to “see the real problem” influence the solution to the problem?

Another way of asking this is:
From Salon:
Ehrenreich's image of the working poor as, in fact, simply victims of an unjust social order clashes with their need to believe that they have some say in their own fates -- and to hold the people in their lives morally accountable.

One of the issues that comes up in the discussion of this book is Ehrenreich’s position as a tourist in the land of the working poor.

Explain the cultural “clashes” created by her attempts to right the wrongs of the social order and her coworkers desires/beliefs. She sees them as victims and they see themselves as what?
In what sense are the working poor victims?

How do the working poor want to see themselves?
Who’s right?

Who is the audience for this book? Why do you think Ehrenreich wrote to that audience? What sections of this book do you think would offend the working poor? Why are they included? How do these clashes effect her credibility with her intended audience?

5. In the real world, there’s friction—This produced several fine essays last year.
What does Ehrenreich mean when she mentions “friction” of real life as opposed to the theoretical, “Economic Man”? How do we overcome that friction so that workers move towards their highest level of financial and professional abilities? Use N&D for examples.

6. To Be Good
After reading N&D explain:
What does it mean to be an ethical employee?
What does it mean to be an ethical employer?

Which question is easier to answer? Why is that?
Use N&D as examples of do’s and don’ts.

7. From the Headlines
The conversation of the moment, when it comes to the issues raised in Nickel and Dimed are two:
a. Living Wage Jobs or Minimum Wage Jobs—Federal House and Senate Bills
b. Wal-Mart having to kick in more for health insurance, Wal-Mart’s new ad campaign.
Both are controversial and well documented issues.
Pick a dog in the fight and back it up with well researched evidence.
Should we have a national “Living Wage”?
How responsible is WalMart for their employees’ health care?

8. Satire of investigative report on the “working rich”—Only if you know what satire is, and only if you can do it in an academic way as well.
Pick this one if you agree with Ehrenreich and think satire is a good way to persuade people. You will be making gentle fun of the “working rich.” Spend a day “undercover” to observe the conditions and behavior of the working rich. You could use your imagination, but why not experience it directly? How could this be done? What rules would you set up? What level would you not let yourself sink to?
The working poor have to deal with incredible stress, emergency situation all the time. From housing to broken down cars, to their health, there is much good evidence that the working poor have difficult conditions. But what about the rich? Doesn’t anybody think about the stress they have?
This would be an easy assignment to make mean. That is not the point. The point is to highlight how difficult the working poor really do have it, compared to the issues many of us consider difficult.

9. A Frame of Mind—This is an easy topic to get a very bad grade on. I’m offering it against my better judgment.

Explain how poverty is a “frame of mind”.
This has two sides to it. There is the idea that you aren’t poor unless you allow yourself to be poor of spirit and hope.
Then there’s the idea that after awhile, we believe we are worth what we are paid. That conditions cause “the relentless grinding down of dignity and, by extension, hope.”
Explain how both frames of mind are at work in the book. Give examples.
What do these two frames of mind suggest about possible solutions to the problem?

From Salon:
While it's not true that everyone has a “broke diary”, plenty of people do. I can remember times during my college years when for weeks I ate only a meagerly topped baked potato for dinner each night -- my best friend referred to one such period as "the Depression." The fact that he could joke about my [poverty]…serves as a reminder that poverty is more than a matter of low income; it's also a frame of mind. So perhaps worse than the grim mathematics of the life Ehrenreich sampled is the relentless grinding down of dignity and, by extension, hope.

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