Tiny Pants's Reviews > The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School

The First Year Out by Tim Clydesdale
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May 03, 11

bookshelves: academic, non-fiction, sociology, college-life, education, gave-away
Read in April, 2011 — I own a copy

This book has one star only because you aren't allowed to give zero stars -- zero stars here simply means "not rated." But trust, if I could give this zero stars, I would. By the time I finished this book, I felt genuinely embarrassed for UChicago Press that they had published it. What made it so horrible? Let us count the ways.

1) Excessively normative writing I don't think I have ever read a piece of work by an academic sociologist that contained such strong normative language. Clydesdale rests much of his argument on regular reference to "mainstream American culture" and "mainstream American teens," and while he does attempt to define the former (though intriguingly, never the latter), he never makes clear where it is that he gets his definitions from. That said, his own preoccupations pop up with astonishing regularity. He is clearly chagrined that the teens he interviews seem unaffected by the events of 9/11, and he advocates strongly that religious teens, and particularly Evangelical Christians attending Christian colleges, show the greatest moral development and expand their learning the most in college. Hmm, where did Clydesdale go to college? Oh right, Wheaton. Oh no, not the Wheaton College in Massachusetts that's a clearinghouse for preppies who didn't get into Trinity or Tufts. I mean the Wheaton in Illinois. Yes, that's right, the Christian one.

1b) Excessively normative evaluations It's clear throughout his writing that Clydesdale believes he knows what is best for his subjects, and has insights into their lives that they lack -- treacherous territory for a sociologist (and particularly for one who didn't even do all his interviews himself). But Clydesdale attempts to lead his reader to share his judgments, often in embarrassingly overt ways. Case in point: He lauds the findings of the Independent Women's Forum's report Hanging out, hooking up, and hoping for Mr. Right. Does he mention that they're a conservative group? Does he mention that one of the authors of this report isn't even an academic? Does he pause to consider that the report is very much based on a deeply biological, binary understanding of gender difference, and that its findings imply that women would be better off with the gender norms of the 1950s? Noooo.

But then later, when he discusses the findings of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, and particularly sociologist Alexander Astin, who has been their most prominent researcher for many years, he spends a few pages attempting to discredit them. He goes through all the reasons why HERI -- a non-partisan research center -- would have a personal or I guess institutional stake in promoting certain kinds of findings but not others, and why we should probably not trust their research. This in spite of the fact that compared to as blatantly agenda-driven a group as the Independent Women's Forum, HERI is, quite frankly, unimpeachable (and also has several decades' worth of longitudinal research that has been utilized by a wide range of scholars, as opposed to this one IWF report that has been mainly used by folks who'd like women to shut up and get back in the kitchen).

Why does he do this? Because he agrees with what IWF are trying to argue, while HERI's findings are disagreeable to the claims he's making (which is a whole other deal, given that he attempts to make claims in this book that are well beyond what he can reasonably infer from the data he has). Okay, fine, so he's blatant in promoting his own agenda. My question is, again, why would UChicago Press let him do this?

2) Excessive ambitions it doesn't even begin to reach You can think, in your deepest, most secret place, that your book will be on par with, and comparable to, Middletown, The Lonely Crowd, or Habits of the Heart. I'd say it's maybe acceptable to say it to someone else if you're really drunk, and they're so drunk that they a) probably won't understand what you're saying and b) even if they do, won't remember you said it later. But to actually come right out and say that in the first chapter of your book? Oh honey. This is no Street Corner Society. You're not even close. This is more of a "I can't believe it wasn't self-published," not a "people will still be talking about this book decades from now."

3) Excessive use of metaphors You know when the New Yorker can't quite fill a column, and so they'll pop in a funny little example of a newspaper's gaffe? Sometimes they're "Constabulary notes from all over," but often they're "Block that metaphor!", examples of sentences that are laden with multiple metaphors often working at cross-purposes with one another.

If I could, I would do a "block that metaphor" on this entire book. I started to make a list of them, but I got too tired by the second chapter. At that point, here's what he'd already busted out: Identity lockboxes, life tent, campground life, dark cloud, floods and mud, eating your vegetables, wobbly table, two pedestals ("new economic realities of global America" and "popular moral culture of mainstream America"), board game (which he spends pages upon pages describing -- sort of like a crap version of Monopoly. He goes through different spaces you can land on, cards you can draw, games pieces, rules of play, the whole deal), buffets, a beach party, surfing... I mean it just goes and goes. If this is what this book looked like after an editor was done with it, I can not even begin to fathom what this book looked like before.

In all, I can't say enough bad things about this book. I almost feel like I should go back through all my other reviews and raise those one-star books up to at least two, because this one has set a new low, and in retrospect I'm sure all those other books are better than this one. Words cannot begin to describe how much I hated this book. Clydesdale takes such an unapologetically polemical stance, yet pretends the entire time that he is a disinterested social scientist. His personal prejudices seep through every page. It was, for me, genuinely an uncomfortable book to read.
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