Teaching low-wage work with playspent.org

Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 8.24.40 AMOne of the activities that went particularly well in my “Women and Work” class last winter used the website playspent.org. This website is an online “game” that challenges users to make it through the month with one of three low-wage jobs without going broke. The premise is that you are one of the many Americans who have just lost your job and your home and are down to your last $1,000 in savings. Users first select a job, then choose how far away from that job to live. At each decision-point, the consequences are made clear through short pop-up text boxes and interactive features. For example, if they choose to live farther away from their job in order to reduce rent costs, their gas expenses for commuting to the job go up. After several set-up choices are made, the month begins. Users are faced with a series of real-life scenarios to respond to as the month progresses. For example,

“Your child wants to join an after-school sports team, which requires a physical and a uniform. What do you do? Say yes ($50). Say no.”

or

“Two bills are due today. What do you want to do? Pay gas bill ($100). Pay electric bill ($125). Pay them both ($225). Borrow money from a friend.”

At other moments users have to select what items to purchase at the grocery store, get paid, get strikes on their record for taking time off from work to contest a speeding ticket in court or stay home sick. At each decision point, short pop-up text puts the decision into a national context, and the amount of money they have left to get through the rest of the month changes accordingly.

I had my students “play” the game in class on one of the days dedicated to wages. I had a regular classroom, not a computer lab, so this required students to bring their own laptops. The day before I asked for a show of hands of how many people had laptops that they could conveniently bring to our next class, and enough hands went up to proceed. On the appointed day there were enough laptops in the room for students to break into groups of two to four to play the game together. Each group played the game on their own. Many went through it several times to see how they fared while making different decisions. The discussion questions below were displayed on the overhead projector while they played. I floated around the room to see how people were progressing while they played. Students got very involved with the activity, as indicated by the difficulty I had getting them to stop and the amount of noise they made!

After I called a halt to the game and got everyone to close their laptops, we discussed the experience with the questions below. (I adapted these questions from similar ones provided by Brooke Kelley on the Sociologists for Women in Society list-serve. Thanks Brooke!)

  • How many of you made it through the month without running out of money?
  • If you made it through the month without running out of money, how much longer do you think you could have made it under the conditions of the exercise?
  • What surprised you about this exercise?
  • What parallels did you see between this exercise and the Ehrenreich reading?
  • Did you make any decisions that seemed wise at the time but which you later regretted?
  • This game isn’t gender-specific. How does it relate to our class theme of Women and Work?

The students had lots to say. Those that grew up in more financially stable households found the experience of trying on low-wage work eye-opening. Students that grew up facing similar financial difficulties seemed to find the experience validating, and shared further examples with the rest of the class. All in all, this is an activity I would do again.

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This activity was paired with the following readings:

Kessler-Harris, Alice. 1990. A Woman’s Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

  • “The Wage Conceived”

Sacks, N. E. and C. Marrone. 2004. Gender and Work in Today’s World: A Reader. Cambridge: Westview Press.

  • Ehrenreich: “Nickel and Dimed: Selling in Minnesota”

How to: Applying to Give Conference Presentations

I’ve been invited to be a panelist at an event in my department tomorrow titled “Tips and Tools for Applying to Present at Professional Meetings.” The event is a great idea. When you are new to academia navigating big conferences can be overwhelming, and there are a lot of steps involved in the application process that are not always clear when you get started.

Here are a few of the things I plan to talk about on the panel:

1. Joining professional associations

Professional associations hold yearly conferences that they often call “Annual Meetings.” These are opportunities for people around the country, and often from around the world, to share their work with their peers, get feedback, meet new people and visit with old friends and colleagues. Attending and presenting at these events is an important way to meet and exchange ideas with other scholars with similar research interests.  In your first year of graduate school it is a good idea to begin asking your advisors and peers what professional associations they belong to so you can find a group that fits your interests.  For example, I belong to the American Sociological Association, the Association of American Geographers, and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. I’ve also attended and presented at the Rural Sociological Society and Agriculture, Food and Human Values.

2. Joining sections and listserves

Once you’ve joined one or several professional associations, you’ll also want to join a few of the sub-groups within these large associations, often called sections.  For example, I’m a member of the American Sociological Association’s “Environment and Technology” and “Collective Behavior and Social Movements” sections and the Association of American Geographers’ “Cultural and Political Ecology” section. Again, it helps to ask your advisors and peers with similar research interests what sections they belong to.

One of the benefits of joining a specific section is getting put on their group listserve. These can be wonderful ways to stay current on news and opportunities in your field, and are often rich resources for asking questions specific to your research.  For example, you might post a question to the list asking for suggestions for articles on a specific topic related to your research, or you might ask for examples of syllabi to help you design a new class. These listserves are also where you will find out about opportunities to present at annual meetings.

3. Different ways to participate in conferences

Most conferences offer a number of different ways to participate: presenting your own work in a formal paper session, presenting a poster during a poster-session, or being part of a round-table discussion are several common ways to present work and exchange ideas. Or, sometimes particular sections of a professional association will offer pre-conference workshops that provide a space to focus on the interests of the section.  I attended a 2 day pre-conference workshop hosted by the Collective Behavior and Social Movements section of the ASA once and found that the small size of the group facilitated getting to know people over the course of our two days together.

4. Navigating conference deadlines

Here are some of the dates and deadlines you’ll need to track:

  • Date of annual meeting: Each professional association usually hosts their annual meeting at roughly the same time each year. The location and dates of annual meetings are often set more than a year ahead of time.
  • “Calls for papers” begin to be released: After a set date, conference session organizers will release “call for papers” that describe the theme of their particular session and invite others to submit papers for inclusion. The session organizers read through the all the submissions and then pick 3-4 to include in their panel. If you are not accepted, your work may be sent to a general pool for other session organizers to choose from, or your work might be sent to your second choice session, or you may need to re-apply to a different session. Each professional organization organizes this process slightly differently.
  • Abstract due date: Many conferences require only an abstract to be submitted for the session planner to read as they decide whose work to include in their session. Some, however, require an entire paper be submitted.
  • End of “early bird” registration: Many conferences offer discounted rates to people who register to attend their conference early.
  • Full paper due date, if applicable
  • Discounted hotel room registration end date: Many conferences offer discounted rates to guests who stay in the conference hotel if those reservations are made early.

Download a worksheet to help you track these dates for multiple conferences here.

5. Making the most of conferences

Attending large conferences with thousands of other scholars can be exhausting. I usually try to find a few sessions a day that I want to attend, but do not try to attend sessions during each of the time slots available. I find that I need regular time away from the presentations for down time and meeting up with friends and colleagues. Conferences offer many opportunities for socializing, which is often where the best personal and intellectual connections are formed. Some schools host a dinner or night out one night of the conference, and attending these events organized by your own school, a school you used to attend, or the school of a friend are a great way to meet people.

6. Paying for conferences

There are a few ways to help defray the costs of attending conferences:

  • The two big conferences that I often attend (ASA and AAG) are often held on opposite coasts, so for the last several years I have been alternating which conference I attend by choosing the one held closest to where I live on the West Coast.
  • Don’t stay in the conference hotel! I have always been able to find hotel rooms within walking distance of the conference that are cheaper than the rooms within the conference hotel itself.
  • Share hotel rooms with other students.  This is cheaper, and often, more fun and a good way to get to know other students.
  • Some grants and fellowships include funds for attending conferences.
  • At my school, my department and our Graduate Student Union both offer annual opportunities to apply to get reimbursed for at least some of the money spent on conferences during the year.
  • Apply for paper awards!  If you receive an award for a paper you present at the conference, you also often receive some money to offset the cost of your participation.

7. Conference participation over time

Conferences get more fun the further along you get in your program when you know more people in your field.  As you get more comfortable in the academic setting and further along in your own research, you may also want to start organizing your own paper sessions, attending the business meetings of the sections to which you belong, or running for office as a student-representative in your section.

8. Other resources

Happy conferencing!