The College Option: Portrayal of Upward Mobility in Tumblr and NY Times

The College Option: Protrayal of Upward Mobility in Tumblr and New York Times

Group 21: Bryan Austin, Jamie Christianson, Cassandra Hathaway, & Roberto Whyte

Introduction

The specific focus that we have chosen to tackle is “education” and the ways in which it has been a topic of inequality throughout the Occupy movement. While the Occupy movement has revealed many topics of inequality, we as college students are especially conscious of the ways in which it has impacted our own lives, and the lives of other college students. Our mission for this project is to further research these topics of inequality—such as the rising cost of higher education, both in financial and personal terms, and to truly understand how the experiences of college students have been portrayed throughout the Occupy movement. Students experience inequality in education through the rising costs of attaining a college education, both personally and financially; these costs are then worsened by the state of the economy which makes a college degree less valued. Our group decided to use Tumblr and New York Times to look at the topic of upward mobility in regards to inequality. We chose these forms of discourse due to their popularity and the historical significance each share as a space to gain accurate and up-to-date conversations concerning current social events. Through the study of these two discourse genres, we have found that debt is a major topic that is often intensified when discussing education, lack of job opportunities create an expression of fear and disappointment regarding the education of graduates, and an over-arching ideology that is being challenged, which will change the meaning of higher education.

Methods

Discourse analysis is the way that we study language usage, spoken, written, and visually, in an effort to make sense of the choices made by the author. Every author presents a story in a different way, using many options they have. Discourse analysis gives us tools that help us to understand lexical and grammatical choices. Some of the tools we have used to analyze this corpus are: key word counts, collocation, and concordance. Key word counts simply allow us to see how prevalent a word is within a corpus, which can be turned into a ratio to compare to other corpora. According to Svenja Adolph, our project mainly focused on “positive keywords” (words that occur significantly more than others), with my own interest falling on ‘debt’, being one of the most frequently used words (Adolph, 45). Concordance lines allow us to choose a key word and view the 5 words before and after, in order to see the context that the word falls in. Collocation tables show us the frequency in which a word occurs within 5 words of a keyword, allowing us to see patterns in representation (Sinclair, 15). The collocation was also a significant tool in our analysis of Tumblr. I also used the theory of ideology (a way of viewing social phenomena), as this was a key tool in understanding the reasoning behind the stories depicted in Tumblr. (Van Dijk, 384).

Prior to the ’99% Occupy Movement’ and student movements that are occurring throughout theUnited States, New York Times had already been dealing with the Occupy Wall Street movement. In fact, many would agree that students did not become noticeably involved until October and November of 2011. As OWSM grew in popularity, students joined in. The social network site Tumblr began receiving personal stories from people all over the country. These stories were of the utmost importance to us, as we wanted to look comparatively at howNew York Times discusses educational inequality, versus those that actually experience it first hand. For us, the personal experiences of education (fear, failure and disappointment regarding higher education) seemed more significant than commentary by a journalist.

When we were choosing which texts to include in our corpus, we decided to only use articles from October and November of 2011, in order to capture the beginning of the movement. Since our group had two corpora, Jamie and I focused on the documents from Tumblr. We each collected 30 images with descriptions from one of the months, so that we would have a total of 60 articles. From the Tumblr corpus, the total number of words was 6141, with 1289 types of words. This corpus had a type/token ratio of 0.21. We have decided to use these parameters because we wanted to see the initial reasoning for following the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and how education was being talked about with those initial reasons.

Analysis

Student loan debt has been a major issue when discussing education on Tumblr. Most of the individuals who posted about themselves discussing education made a comment about their debt involved with this education. While a few stated that they were lucky enough to leave school debt-free, this was not the case for the majority of posters. Because debt was one of the ideas that interested me, I used concordance lines of the lemma ‘debt’ and found that an overwhelming number of individuals had used a number to express the depth of the problems they are experiencing. Of those who did have student loan debt, 23 out of the 38 excerpts involving student loans had used a concrete number to express how much debt the individual had. One individual wrote:

I have $90K in student loan debt. My payments are 20% of my income. By the time I pay off my debt, I will have paid the government double what I borrowed.

This individual had a very large amount of debt, and was very detailed by telling the audience that the payments on her loans are a major portion of her income. Stories of large amounts of student debt were not at all uncommon on Tumblr, as another individual writes:

I am a 26 year old graduate with $120,000 in student loans.

This process of using concrete numbers is intensification. These numbers allow the reader to have a better idea of how significant the amount of student loan debt. If these individuals would have simply stated that they have student loan debt, the reader would not have understood the issue to be as grave as it is.

Students who posted their stories on Tumblr have related higher education to success and power. When sharing their personal stories, though all very different, a commonality seems to be the over-all disappointment that each individual feels in their degree and/or education, themselves, the economy, and their government. People are seeing education costs rising, both personally and financially, and cannot overcome the debt they take on to achieve their goals. As we pulled excerpt after excerpt, I began seeing references to the “American Dream.” We soon became fascinated with this illusive “American Dream” and counted how many times the word “dream” appeared in our corpus. Despite having a fairly small corpus in comparison to other groups, the word “dream” still came up a total of 9 different times, with other words such as “debt” appearing 38 times. From the excerpts we pulled, combined with our knowledge of the greater ideologies at play—we began to see the connection between the “American Dream,” success, and education. These ideas were interconnected, and we couldn’t help but acknowledge how many people seemed to be basing their worth off of social ideologies regarding education as means to achieve success and the illusive “American Dream” (Van Dijk, 384). Growing up in this country, we are constantly reminded about the American Dream. The American Dream is an ideology that we can use as a lens to look at the world. We are taught that if you work hard and are educated, success will be yours. Our educational system is built upon this idea. However, the Wearethe99% Tumblr questions this ideology, with its evidence that the American Dream is a falsehood for many. Because of the debt individuals expressed, as well as the high rates of unemployment of college graduates, these individuals believe that they were told a lie. Qualitative coding allowed us to read through excerpts and identify them as having this theme regarding the American Dream, from this alongside concordance lines of ‘dream’, I was able to see that many educated people are not achieving the dream:

Now what? I feel completely misled – I was always told that if I worked hard I could have that “American Dream”. Now I’m just loaded in debt, so those degrees are worthless.

It is almost a type of moral evaluation, because the success expected through the American Dream is deeply tied to being the ideal citizen, and it calls the morals of the storytellers of the American Dream into question as well:

I was raised to believe that if I went to college and worked hard, I could get a job and a living wage. Maybe it was true once, but now the American Dream is a lie.

Another pattern we want to discuss illustrates the use of re-occurring lexical units such as “fear,” “terrified,” and “scared” when discussing the future. As gathered from Adolph, these re-occurring words are considered “positive keywords” and hold much significance (Adolph, 45). We found this pattern to be worth mentioning because of how common it was, but also because it was contradicting it was to America’s over-arching ideologies, which suggest that education will bring success and power. Though each individual presented a very different set of circumstances and context, there were common themes of a fear for the future, and a sense of helplessness for their fate, as we saw these terms appearing about 8 times combined. While we cannot assume that our analysis of these particular texts will be representative of all texts for this social event, we have begun to attribute these common feelings of fear for the future as something closely related to the theory of ideology (Van Dijk, 384). As mentioned earlier, we believe we (U.S.citizens and non-citizens a-like) are all living under larger ideologies that shape our perspectives so that we believe higher education has the ability to bring us success and power. When these connotative assumptions are wrong, or do not pay off—we become fearful for the future, and seem to experience a sense of helplessness in our own lives. As Van Dijk argues, “ideologies, thus informally defined, are general systems of basic ideas shared by the members of a social group, ideas that will influence their interpretation of social events and situations and control their discourse and other social practices as group members” (Van Dijk, 380). Perhaps then, the ideologies at play, though they may be false notions, are reinforced by society to make us think that education is our key to success. So now, when this is no longer working, our helplessness and fear for the future are accentuated when our only key to success and power (education) does not work.

In the excerpts studied, college students are very much contemplating on the value of their investment in education. Often the meaning of a clause or phrase is derived from the sum of its lexical units. John Sinclair explains in his book Contrastive Lexical Semantics “Whenever the meaning arises predominantly from textual environment rather than the item choice, it is considered to be an instance of semantic reversal” (Sinclair, 1998). When applying this process to one excerpt it becomes clear that Gan Golan is finding less value in his education investment. In another, again we see terms that show us students are very concerned about the investment and commitment required for completing a college degree and the possible risk of getting nothing back in return. In nearly the entire collection of excerpts collected from a student’s perspective, the students carry the same message education in today’s society holds less value than just a decade ago. Then you have many economists predicting that new job growth will continue to be hampered by emerging economies such as China and India and that U.S. companies will be creating more jobs in these markets rather than at home. This information continues to discourage many young adults coming out of high school to seek higher education. If we continue to apply the process of semantic reversal it becomes clear that we can now see the shift in attitudes towards higher education. What this is doing to younger Americans is placing them in the middle of social conflict. Signing up for the armed services was once a wise choice for offsetting some of the expense of getting a degree however with America involved in many conflicts around the world this option is also less appealing. Youngsters really are running out of options. It is understandable why they may begin to feel apathetic.

Conclusion

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been a topic of interest for several months, and many have entered into this discussion. Through our analysis of Tumblr, we found many personal stories, and found a lack of personal stories in the New York Times. However, both corpora showed similarities. Students experience inequality in education through the rising costs of attaining a college education, both personally and financially; these costs are then worsened by the state of the economy which makes a college degree less valued. Through the study, we have found that debt is often intensified when discussing education, lack of job opportunities creates an expression of fear and disappointment regarding the education of graduates, and the over-arching ideology of education is challenged, which will alter the meaning of higher education. Through our careful analysis, we have seen that higher education is coming to mean less and less in the job market, which will eventually cause a shift in ideology, if things continue in this manner. Students and graduates struggle with the idea that their success did not come as it was assured to us.

References

Adolphs, Svenja. “Exploring Frequencies in Texts: Basic Techniques.” Chapter 3 in Introducing Electronic Text Analysis. London;New York; Routledge, 2006. 37-50.

Bauer, M. W., & Gaskell, G. (2000). Qualitative researching with text, image and sound: A practical handbook.Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Bauer. , Martin, , & Bas Aarts, (2000). Corpus construction: A principle for qualitative data collection. (Vol. 2, pp. 19-37).London: Sage.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analyzing discourse; textual analysis for social research. (pp. 87-104).London: Routledge.

Laura, V. (n.d). Grads: Pursue a realistic dream. USA Today.

Sinclair, J. (1998). Contrastive lexical semantics . (171 ed., pp. 1-24).Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Sinclair, John. “The Lexical Item.” In Contrastive Lexical Semantics. Ed. Edda Weigand.Amsterdam;Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1998. 1-24.

Van Dijk, T. (2011). Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction. (2nd Ed.) London,UK: Sage.

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