Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I find the preconceived notions about and interest in the academic world my students have refreshing, if at times confusing.

When I teach writing,* I make the point to my students that they ought to avoid bombast, lest they end up coming across as Oswald Bates from In Living Color.  Usually, I phrase it as something like "don't be fancy for the sake of being fancy," and the students usually claim to understand and then show that they do not quite get it as much as they say they do.  But that is a commonplace.

This semester, when I discussed bombast with one of my classes, one of the students brought up the insistence of many who hold a PhD that they be called "Doctor," a group among which I cannot say I do not stand.  The student remarked that calling for the use of an earned title is "fancy for the sake of being fancy" and that he (the student is male, I promise) would rather call someone "Mr." than "Dr." based on that idea.  Here, I confess to being confused; while I am well aware of an anti-intellectual, anti-authoritarian strain in the prevailing culture of the United States (something John McWhorter discusses at length in Doing Our Own Thing), I am not sure that the student has thought his position through.  It seems quite a bit less artificially ostentatious to insist upon the use of an earned title than to prefer an unearned one--and such honorifics as "Mr." and "Ms." are accorded based on (usually) imposed qualities rather than upon merit.**

Less confusing was a more recent discussion I had with a technical writing class I taught.  In it, I had the students read an article Lisa Melancon and Peter England wrote, "The Current Status of Contingent Faculty in Technical and Professional Communication" (College English 73.1 [March 2011]: 396-408).  They did, and the discussion that followed was one of the best periods of teaching I have done.  I did notice that many of the students' questions and comments were about tenure: what it is, why it matters, and what effects it has (and the lack of it among instructors has) on teaching.  They seem to have arrived at the opinion--of which I approve--that more classes at the introductory level ought to be taught by those who are most invested in their institutions and who therefore should have the most to gain from students of all sorts acquiring solid educations.

It is good to see that students in technical fields at a technical college understand the value of firm grounding in the humanities.  There is some hope yet.

*Insofar as writing can be "taught," which depends greatly on how "teaching" is defined.  But that requires more consideration than I can really give here and now.  I suppose it will have to wait.

**I am aware that there are problems in this statement.  I know that gender is performed, and that the presence of intersexed and trans-gendered persons complicates matters.  I know also that a great many people who have "earned" titles have not actually earned those titles.  I know not, however, a better way to phrase the ideas, for which I apologize.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


In his contribution to "Evocative Objects: Reflections on Teaching, Learning, and Living in Between," Doug Hesse remarks that "schooling is designed to teach things that mere living never will" (329).  I find the comment to be a provocative one, problematic in one sense, but illuminating in another.

The problem in the comment comes from the idea of "mere living."  While I am one of those whom Hesse identifies as having "never lived outside schooling for any appreciable length of time" (330), I find that there is not terribly much "mere" about my life--and many if not most of the folks I know have had far more interesting times than have I.  Many of my graduate school classmates (and no small number of my undergraduate classmates, in all honesty) spent quite a bit of time in the "real world" before returning to school--and the students in my classrooms now are often in the same situation.  They, and many of the other people whom I know through non-academic schooling (I am a student, albeit not good enough of one, of martial arts), church, and having been in the non-academic workforce while in high school and college, have had a variety of experiences, traveling and living around the world, engaging in activities of various degrees of illicitness and entertainment, and facing challenges of which I can barely conceive.  Facing censure, imprisonment, deportation, maiming, and death, sometimes on a daily basis, implies that there is some substance to that which is done, and a number of people I know face such things regularly; even more than is the case with me, there is little "mere" about the living that many people I know do.

That said, instructional as a fully lived, un-"mere" life can be, Hesse is correct in noting that there are things school teaches which cannot be had, or cannot be had with anything like reliability or certainty, outside of it.  If nothing else, schooling offers exposure to a number of ideas and concepts that typically do not fly about in conversations among non-academics.  If they do, they are usually not connected to the thoughts that other people have, over the many centuries of records of such thing, put together and disseminated.  Typically, the kind of time involved in formulating and developing an idea that school affords is not to be had outside of it, and the relative leisure to develop ideas, as well as the resources to see where they and similar ideas have already been developed and tested, is certainly of great value.

Obviously I think so, or I would not have spent so long in the classroom, both seated and standing in front of it, as I have.

It is incumbent upon those of us who do have the privilege of life in the academic establishment to keep in mind that there is quite a bit of world outside of the ivory tower, upon which we depend.  It little behooves us to condemn the working world as "mere," however true it is that we are able to offer to it something it cannot get, or can only get with great difficulty and little reliability, elsewhere.

Work Cited
Hesse, Doug, Nancy Sommers, and Kathleen Blake Yancey. "Evocative Objects: Reflections on Teaching, Learning, and Living in Between." College English 74.4 (March 2012): 325-50. Print.


In another "Only in New York" moment...

As I write this, I am in my office, working on grading a few papers while I have some free time.  For something like ten minutes now, there has been a steady stream of profanity coming across Eight Avenue and up several stories to reach my ears in my office, pouring out of the mouth of a lone woman shouting at police officers (who replied with a smile and a wave, to their credit).  Right now, she is standing in the middle of the intersection of the avenue and 56th Street, blocking traffic as she conitnues to rant.

The people walking by her spare a glance and move on.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I know that it has been nearly a month since I last commented here.  I have been busy, but that seems always to be the case, so it is no excuse.  Then again, it is not like I am doing this for anything other than my own amusement and, it is to be hoped, getting comments from others.

Also, Happy St. Patrick's Day!

When I first taught college English, I did so as a graduate teaching assistant.  Each term after my first year, I had one or two classes filled with students who, for the most part, simply showed up, did the work, and went home.  In brief, they accurately read the system of the university and did what was necessary to successfully negotiate it.

When I started work as an adjunct at a two-year for-profit technical college, the situation was different.  Over a weekend, I went from teaching two classes of students who at least paid lip-service to the scholastic environment to teaching seventeen hours of coursework in which the students for the most part had no idea what they were to do—and I did not, either.  Without exception, my students were disadvantaged.  Many had been away from school for some years.  Others had only recently come into the United States.  Still others had been among the populations that primary and secondary schools in the country typically do not serve well.  All were in dire need of basic academic socialization; they lacked lived experience with many assumptions that often inform higher education—or any education, really—in the United States: that education is a path to fuller civic engagement, for example, that it is a means to ease social ills, or that it has an ineffable quality which immeasurably enhances the lives of those who have it.  I was only loosely equipped to foster that experience with one student, let alone the seventy-two students with whom I finished that first term.  And it shows; I issued a great many failing grades that term, and I have done so in every term after.

Matters did improve, though.  With each term, I figured out new ways to manage my overly large classes; I often have more than thirty students enrolled in my writing classes at the beginning of the term, quite a few more than is recommended or than I had had before, so keeping them working takes some doing.  I also continued to develop ways to bring students who had lived outside “traditional” schooling more fully into it; I moved away from the worksheets and textbook drills my colleagues use and pulled upon my own studies for writing prompts and practice in “standard” usage and critical thinking.  (Riddles with proofreading errors, I find, are excellent tools for this.)  I learned better how to tailor assignments to the abilities of the students, usually by means of aligning writing assignments to a single theme with which the students have some prior experience; while they still have to master certain skills to pass my classes, that mastery is not set so far beyond their current ability that they give up on trying to attain it.

Even so, I face problems.  I teach at a for-profit technical school, at which the entirety of the budget is determined by the number of students enrolled.  There is therefore a large push to retain students, and that tacitly edges toward being a push to pass them—whether or not they meet the ostensible standards of performance the school has established—so that they do not become frustrated with failing and leave.  Because so many of the students come from academically disadvantaged backgrounds, they are convinced that they cannot truly master the materials set out for them; many have been repeatedly told and shown by earlier teachers that they will not be allowed to succeed, crushing their belief that they can acquire the kinds of knowledge that typically pass for education and “culture.”  Because they are attending a two-year school, and they are taught by people who think of it as a junior college rather than a junior college, many of them report that they ought not to be pushed as hard as I try to push them.  In their eyes, the school is a low-level institution they went to because they could not get into a “real” college, and so they are less deserving and less needful of challenge and rigor than students who go to “real” schools; sadly, many report that they view themselves as belonging to a permanent underclass.

Because they are attending a technical school, they tend to devalue the humanities as being irrelevant to their “real” coursework—although I have some success convincing them that at the very least they need to be able to recognize arguments so as to not have their heads screwed with, and they need to be able to craft them so as to be able to get people to give them things like raises, start-up money for their own businesses, or acquittal.  And because they are attending a technical school, one that quite appropriately advertises itself as offering hands-on experience in fields aligned with industry practices, there is an opinion among many students that the school in which they are enrolled, and for which I labor, is nothing more than a site at which to make a series of large payments toward the purchase of a fancy piece of paper that will help them get jobs.  While there is nothing wrong with looking for work, and there is nothing wrong with trying to get training so as to be able to find work that will be fulfilling and that will allow for a comfortable life, there is a problem in viewing “education” as nothing more  Even those who work multiple jobs do so not for the jobs themselves, but to serve another end, one thought of as nobler and better than the simple fact of the work itself.  For most of us, that end is to make life better for someone, and it is education that helps us discover what “better” really is.

I try to make my classroom more than just a stop on the way to getting a job.