Notes: 1. To suggest additional questions or topics, please email Cheryl Spector. 2. Instances of "Barbara" in this list refer to the autobiographical character created by Ehrenreich in her book.
- Using a current issue of the Los Angeles Times or Daily News, find a job with a stated salary and then find an apartment you could afford. How much money would you have left for food, clothing, cell phone, and travel expenses? (Hint: can't find the Los Angeles Times or the Daily News? Ask a CSUN librarian for help.)
- How would this book (or one section or even one scene) be different if Ehrenreich were a woman of color? If she were lesbian?
- Frequently in her Introduction, and occasionally throughout the rest of the book, Ehrenreich calls our attention to the many ways in which her experiences differ from those of "real" minimum wage workers--for instance, when she says "I was only visiting a world that others inhabit full-time, often for most of their lives" (6), and when she points out in some detail the "reassuring limits to whatever tribulations [she] might have to endure" (6-7). Why?
- How would Ehrenreich's experience be different if she had been a Briton living and working in London? What if she had been a Frenchwoman living in Paris? Or an Israeli in Haifa or Tel Aviv?
- How did reading this book change you or your opinions? What else do you still need to know? What other information would help you shape an informed opinion about minimum wage working conditions in the United States?
- This book is both wonderful and flawed. Consider for instance the references to "WalMartians" and to obesity. Ask students: what did you personally find offensive in this book?
- See the Nickel and Dimed Reading Group Guide for additional questions of general interest.
- Although Ehrenreich is a journalist, she uses techniques familiar to anthropologists such as ethnography and participant-observation. Select one section of the book and critique her approach given what you know about anthropology's approach to field work.
- Ehrenreich has a PhD in biology. How does this fact contribute to the success of her book?
Relevant films and DVDs:
- The Corporation (2003)
- Frontline: Is Wal-Mart Good for America? (2004)
- Roger & Me (1989)
- Sicko (2007)
- Waging a Living (2006)
- Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005). Available from Oviatt Library.
- Why Wal*Mart Works and Why This Makes Some People C-R-A-Z-Y! (2005)
- Debate/forensics topics abound in the book. For example: the effect of WalMart on local communities (specifying Panorama City or Porter Ranch or Van Nuys or .... )
- Another topic: should the government (the state, the nation) help the working poor? When? How? How much?
- Are we better off with Wal-Mart or worse off? Consider: who are "we"?
- Why did City Council Member Bernard Parks oppose the LA City Council's restrictions on Wal-Mart? If he had prevailed, would his actions have helped the poor?
- Why do so many people apply to work at Wal-Mart?
Gender and Women's Studies
- Though Ehrenreich doesn't specifically mention "the feminization of poverty" in Nickel and Dimed, the book offers compelling evidence that women are more likely than men to be poor in America. Agree or disagree with this claim, using evidence from her book.
- Research possibilities: the (American) labor movement; unions in the United States; the history of welfare reform leading up the late 1990s.
- This link to a Sundial review of the 2006 Theatre CSUN production of Nickel and Dimed includes details about costuming, setting, and music that differ from Ehrenreich's book. How would you account for these differences? ("Jerry's," "khaki," and "You Can Get It If You Really Want It" among them...)
- Ehrenreich began Nickel and Dimed as an assignment for a magazine. What features of the finished book exemplify good journalism? Where does the book fall short? Why?
- In Developmental Math as well as in Math 103, students might be asked to solve word problems based on data and situations drawn from the book. Topics Ehrenreich raises include wages, rent, food costs, gas costs, rent as a percentage of income, statistics about the poverty level, percentages by ethnicity of employees who are "private household cleaners and servants" (p. 79, footnote 8), the percentage of homeless people who work full- or part-time, and so on. In short: students who are performing arithmetical calculations could do them on topics with some relevance to the text. Their own income and expenses might even be incorporated into a homework assignment.
- Offer themed assignments targeting the world of minimum wage work, workers, and workplaces.
- Nickel and Dimed describes several scenes in which Barbara undergoes an orientation. What's involved in orientation? How does her experience compare with your own experience getting acclimated at CSUN?
- Moving to a new place can be exciting, but it's also often stressful. How does Barbara manage her many moves in the book? What lessons could you learn from her--either positive or negative--about making a successful move? If you are living on campus, are there any parallels between Barbara's experiences and your own? See for one example her overview of moving, on p. 52.
- Is Nickel and Dimed a true story? Explain.
- The book has many footnotes. Pick one or two and examine their relevance to the stories she is telling. (Suggestions: p. 26, p. 37, p. 79, p. 174.) More generally: why does the book include footnotes?
- Now that you're a college student, you should take some time to learn about your own health insurance coverage. Are you covered? By whom? For what? What does this coverage cost?
- How much does it cost to live in Los Angeles? How much would you need to make in order to survive (food, clothing, shelter)? What would you need beyond these basics?
- What is the minimum wage right now in Los Angeles? In your opinion, is this minimum adequate? If so, why? If not, what would be an adequate minimum wage and why do you think so? (What should it cover?)
- Consider some of the negative consequences of raising the minimum wage, such as fewer opportunities for unskilled workers to develop labor market skills (on-the-job training) and higher costs of goods and services. How should we (Los Angeles, or California, or the nation) evaluate the costs and benefits of raising the minimum wage?
- Scenes of "orientation" and "move-in" (two big issues for most freshmen) abound in the book. Students might draw parallels between Barbara's experiences and their own, for better or for worse. A partial list would include
pp. 15 ff. (starting at the bottom of the page with the interview): orientation to work at the Hearthside Restaurant; p. 16 ff. Gail.
p. 36 I make friends, over time, with the other ‘girls’ who work my shift.
p. 53 the Motel 6
pp. 69-70 the Blue Haven
pp. 70 ff: “I am rested and ready for anything when I arrive at The Maids’ office suite Monday at 7:30 a.m.… Forty minutes go by before anyone acknowledges my presence with more than a harried nod.”
pp. 73 ff: Barbara learns how to be a Maid.
pp. 76-77 ff. Liza, the team leader, helps Barbara
pp. 61 ff. The Woodcrest Residential Facility…I am a dietary aide
pp. 124 applying at Wal-Mart
pp. 136 ff. orientation at the weird “customer service” place (Mountain Air)
pp. 143-147: Walmart’s corporate orientation
pp. 150-153 “the worst motel in the country”? The Clearview Inn. See also 158 sewage backup; and 160-1 as she begins to acclimate
- Have students examine the variety of chores, jobs, tasks they have done over the years and how those experiences might help them succeed as students.
- Here's a Study Guide for use in Spring 09, targeting students who probably read the book in a reading/writing class during Fall 08. (The Study Guide can be viewed online using free Microsoft Word Reader software.)
Writing Classes (097, 098, 155)
Note: questions 4-10 below are adapted with permission from Mary Kay Harrington, Cal Poly SLO, who suggested during her 8/21/08 visit to CSUN seven things students could gain in a writing class using Nickel and Dimed:
- (1) reading strategies applicable to a variety of texts;
- (2) ways of thinking through writing topics;
- (3) knowledge of how thinking helps reading;
- (4) how to read rhetorically;
- (5) how to analyze;
- (6) how to make an argument, noting in particular Ehrenreich's own form (see question 10 below); and
- (7) the importance of revision, especially if faculty are willing to bring in their own drafts of a writing task.
- Ehrenreich mentions her writing process occasionally in Nickel and Dimed, for instance on p. 8: "I went home every day [ . . . ] to a laptop." When, where, and how do you write?
- When Barbara begins working at the Hearthside restaurant, she compares that job to her former work "in the writing business" (17). Which do you think is the more difficult task: writing or waiting tables? Explain.
- In one memorable passage, Barbara invites us to "Picture a fat person's hell," and goes on to describe Jerry's restaurant (29-30). What kind of writing is this? What is her aim?
- Pages 58-9: opinion surveys. Barbara suggests that we lie and attempt to psych out surveys. What is your view? Why?
- Pages 67-9: "Deliverance" episode. How would you characterize Ehrenreich's tone as she describes this experience? Explain by using examples. How does she make you personally feel?
- Pages 76ff.: What do you find most upsetting about this description? Why? Have you or your family hired someone to clean for you? Have you yourself performed this work for someone? If so, what would you like to see changed?
- Pages 90-93: Analyze Ehrenreich's rhetorical stance. How does she use logos, pathos, and ethos to ensure her desired effect on us?
- Share with your students your own engaged, idiosyncratic responses to parts of the text. Then have them write their own responses to specific passages.
- To focus on engaged reading: tell students that they should avoid underlining (and highlighting!) the texts. Instead, they should write out their responses to the reading.
- Ehrenreich's arguments often have a consistent and readily identifiable three-part structure: they begin with an anecdote about some other individual; move next to Barbara's own story or situation; and then Ehrenreich steps back for sociological analysis through examination of the big picture. Help students learn to identify this pattern. Then ask: do you buy her arguments?