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.

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