Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I have been rafting/paddling/struggling for air in a river of paper, hence blog neglect, and on Sunday did something unprecedented since maybe college: I stayed up until 5:30 a.m. plowing through a particularly urgent batch of short stories for WITS. Morning Edition comes on at 3:00 a.m. out here on the West Coast, which is my definitive cue to close up shop and head to bed--while the BBC World Service's sonorous seesawing strings feel like nighttime itself to me, when that syncopated smiling-with-eyebrows-raised Morning Edition theme strikes up in the middle of the night, I leap up from the couch to hit off on the radio.

But this time Morning Edition was well into its third cycle by the time I finally wrote the last wobbly comment. I closed a black folder over the whole stack and said, "Want to go for a walk?" The dog looked up, surprised--we had not even gone to bed yet--but of course he was game. Outside the sky was already pale gray. Birds were singing, etc. I was dreamy and loopy all day. Banging hand percussion with the Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra for a TJO recording session was the height of my mental and physical capabilities. Though exhausted, I felt the immense relief of Being Done, the book closed on one class.

Teaching is strange and wonderful work. The high of a great class session is nearly unmatchable; the dread and grind of grading a stack of papers, same. In the June issue of the Atlantic Monthly, an unnamed Professor X writes a passionate and disturbing essay about teaching at what he calls "colleges of last resort." Discouraged by the inability of his students to write a research paper, he questions the entire philosophy that more education is better, that everyone should and could benefit from college education:
The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty. No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.
Much of what he writes rings absolutely true to me. Grading is maddeningly subjective and occasionally disheartening. Students can be shockingly uncouth and clueless in their demands and behavior (previously noted.) And really, how useful is it for the aspiring auto mechanic or dental hygienist or engineer to know how to cite in MLA format?

I feel for and with Professor X. I think he's correct that many students are not adequately prepared for college. I think he's wrong that they are simply not cut out for college. His justifiable exasperation is more a result, I believe, of two major flaws, neither of which are the students' fault: the increasing failure of high school to teach adequate writing skills, and the exploitation of adjunct faculty.

Why do I regularly encounter students in their late teens and early twenties who literally do not know how or when to put a period at the end of a sentence?(1) Meanwhile, my
students in their mid-thirties and older--despite their profound insecurity about being back in college after decades out of school, claiming they have no idea what they're doing--write at the very least, competently and at best, beautifully. Obviously the causality is manifold and complex, but the generational contrast is stark.

What I would gently but sincerely suggest to Professor X is that if one finds oneself failing 9 out of 15 students, perhaps it is time to question not only the students' basic abilities, but also one's own a) expectations, short-term and long-term and b) methods for teaching students how to meet those expectations. Our motivations and methods of going to college were likely completely different--after all, we went to college and became college professors. We also went to colleges that turned people away, and at least in my case, cost salary-sized amounts of money, and created an entire social as well as academic universe that enveloped students completely. You cannot replicate those expectations for people who live entirely disparate lives and come in for four hours on a Wednesday evening. But you can have realistic expectations for them that still challenge them and help them to become better readers and writers and thinkers.

It doesn't always work. I too have failed students. I'll never give an A just for effort. But I do actually end up giving quite a lot of As and Bs, and I read a great deal of student writing that is funny, smart, and enriching for both of us. For me, the real reward of teaching these students is that they do come from busy lives, they have long and complicated histories, they have fantastic stories to tell, and they change from seeing writing as a dreaded task that generates a sea of red marks, to an interesting and meaningful way to discover new things and reshape their experiences in the world.

At the heart of it, Professor X shares this idealism, I think:
Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. ... Although I may be biased, being an English instructor and all, I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and broadening and ultimately good for you. If I should fall ill, I suppose I would rather the hospital billing staff had read The Pickwick Papers, particularly the parts set in debtors’ prison.
In this last line beats the real heart of disillusionment: adjunct faculty are utterly screwed in this country. You care so much about your work, and your work is so valuable, and yet you are not paid fairly for it, and you have no legal recourse. Forty years ago, only 3.3 percent of faculty were part-time. Today, 68 percent of all college instructors in the U.S. are part-time faculty, with no job security and usually no benefits. They teach the exact same courses as full-time faculty, but get paid half or two-thirds what they do, for the exact same work. It is no less than an academic sweatshop. Despite the buoyancy of genuine student connections, there are corresponding deep dips in morale when you taste the bitterness of that inequity. Those are the times when you call into question everything that you do, and start wondering if you shouldn't just go work at the advertising agency writing perfectly punctuated copy for Starbucks.

(1) I can't answer that question, but I did get a glimpse into the dark depressing source when I taught creative writing for a week at Taft High School in Lincoln City, OR, a coast town with a tourism economy--bustling in summer, dead nine months of the year, split into the beachfront property-owning class and the service-jobs class. My first two classes of the day were ninth graders, already at age fourteen diverted into the lower track--low expectations, low-quality teachers, low spirits. (And most of them, low-income.) The first class was taught by a retired principal who had been recruited back out of desperation in a teacher shortage; as the students filed into the classroom, he stood by the blackboard with his travel coffee cup in hand and told me, without lowering his voice, that they weren't a particularly bright or motivated group and weren't going to do much for me. The second class was taught by a weak-chinned, mustached shop teacher inexplicably assigned an English class, which seemed to flummox him even more than it did me. There were about eight Mexican-American students in the class; he told me, "Some of them will pretend not to speak English, but they all do. Don't believe them." When they acted up, he threatened to call America on them. That was the name of their ESOL adviser--America. No joke. It turned out that doe-eyed Raul, who gazed at me helplessly and longingly when I explained the assignments, actually didn't understand English--but when I knelt by his desk and fumbled out some instructions in Spanish or when his friend translated for him, he eagerly wrote the poetry.

My afternoon classes were the upper track, and it was as if the day had been turned upside-down.
Their teachers were English teachers who expected them to do well, and they did. They wrote as fast as they could move their hands across the paper; they were quiet when asked and spoke up when prompted.

I left that town feeling completely shell-shocked. John Edwards' concept of "two Americas" never rang more true.

The other possibility could be that despite the fact that this generation communicates more than any previous via the written word, the structureless breathlessness of texting, e-mail, IM, and MySpace comments has utterly fucked the understanding of how the language actually works. It's kind of like on Project Runway, when they're frantically gluing the outfit onto the model the second before she steps out before the judges. At least that's what a lot of these papers come in looking like.

1 comment:

tilda said...

I've registered for writing 121 at PCC 3 times and I've dropped out each time because it's so frustrating to me, on the first day, that each of my professors explains about how to use periods. Seriously, what?

And when I worked at the Salvation Army's residential, there was a 15 yr old girl who'd been given an A on a paper that switched points of view two paragraphs in, no grasp of grammar and spelling that was nearly as poor.

I don't know where I'm going with this, it frustrates me too much to think about.