Thursday, June 26, 2008

Nobody's basement

Last month, much beloved Kirsten forwarded an article from The Atlantic Monthly to me to get my opinion, and it has been a recent topic of discussion on Female Science Professor's blog. The title of the article is "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" and supposedly is about the "destructive myth" that college is for everyone. It is written by an anonymous part-time instructor (Professor X) at a "college of last resort." First of all, I agree with the notion that not everybody needs a college education. I think a good debate about society's attitude towards higher education is in order. I think a discussion of how institutions of higher education continue to take money from students who need remediation without providing them such is warranted. However, that isn't really what this article is about, and it horrifies me that people may read this article and agree with the author. I'm going to highlight some of the comments from the article and address them with my experiences.

By colleges of "last resort", the author means a small private college and a community college that he teaches at. He describes the student population: "Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go." Because we all know that university students are NEVER like that. Let's see... in my community college experience, I've had students who volunteer at clinics and emergency rooms, work as tutors, are members of national honors societies, etc... And I'm particularly proud of those with "indifferent grades" who come in and live up to the expectations I place upon them.

Another quote from the article:

"Ms. L. had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified for college."

Why isn't she qualified? Especially for Professor X's discipline of English, which Ms. L. would have been required to take in high school, it seems to me that Ms. L. was let down by her K-12 education. Is that necessarily all her fault? Perhaps she didn't put in appropriate effort in high school, true, or perhaps she was just funneled along like so many of the students I see with math deficiencies.

And then later: "I knew that Ms. L.’s paper would fail. I knew it that first night in the library. But I couldn’t tell her that she wasn’t ready for an introductory English class. I wouldn’t be saving her from the humiliation of defeat by a class she simply couldn’t handle. I’d be a sexist, ageist, intellectual snob."

So basically Professor X doesn't want to do his job. He could have referred her to a remedial English class, one that doesn't count towards a degree, but would have prepared Ms. L. to then take his introductory English class. I've had this discussion, and it isn't pretty. I've had to tell students, "No, I'm not teaching the class too hard. YOU don't have the math skills necessary for this course. Come back when you have made up your deficiencies." It's an awful confrontation, but I've had a few cases where I've seen these students later, after they have obtained the necessary remediation, and they've thanked me for it.

But for me, this is the statement that demonstrates that this article is NOT about whether college is for all.

"Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up."

I think I've made my feelings clear about my evening classes. Being in my night-time classes does not mean any of my students have screwed up. And, I haven't screwed up either. I have often weighted my schedule towards teaching in the evening, even while full-time and tenured. I'm sorry that Professor X is so miserable, but I'm even sorrier that he takes it out on his students. How can he possibly give the students the education that they are asking him for, when he is full of self-loathing and despises them?

I just want to make sure that my students know this: we are in nobody's basement. And, if you feel low, I will do my best to bring you higher and will never resent making the effort.


Doctor Pion said...

Followed you here from FSP's blog.

I teach at a CC, yet my experiences are more like yours and FSP than they are of Prof X. In particular, our faculty generally find that students in the night classes (other than ones who are stuck there because all other classes were full) are highly motivated and make teaching fun. But I also see my share of the others, and I try my best to wake them up and engage them in learning.

My concern, voiced at the very bottom of a May 18 blog mainly about the Norfolk State tenure denial, was that neither college had done a proper job of identifying problems requiring remediation. I don't know if a tiny for-profit "college of last resort" even bothers with this or has any standards, but even a CC that works hard at this can end up passing students who are not ready for the next class.

My view is that a major part of the problem is that students don't grasp the meaning of "prerequisite", so they choose study methods that become self defeating (even in "prep" classes). A recent discussion on my blog generated some interesting suggestions, which were summarized for further consideration as I plan for fall. I welcome any feedback you might offer.

Anonymous said...

Good for you, Lisa!

When I was a re-entry student at SD Mesa College in the late 80's, I would probably have been Prof X's personification of a failure: 38-year old immigrant woman taking evening classes and getting an F on her first essay.

Under extra-curricular activities I might have listed "sole business owner" and "caregiver to a terminal cancer patient," but that would just have been a cop-out in the Prof's eyes.

Unlike the unfortunate Ms. L., I had some of the most wonderful and caring instructors at Mesa. They were truly dedicated to their students, with high expectations but also with great compassion and an understanding of how students learn.

Forward to the mid 90's. I earned my BA Cum Laude from UCSD and two Master's degrees, and know that if I can do it, Ms. L. can do it. She just needs REAL teachers.

Cousin Ellen

Dr. Lisa said...

Cousin Ellen - thanks for posting your experiences. I think high expectations and compassion are a good combination of traits for an educator. I'm glad SD Mesa treated you well!

Welcome, Dr. Pion! It is true that prerequisites are hard to, um, enforce. Just because the student has passed the class doesn't mean that they have acquired the skills. At one point, as part of the course description for an astronomy lab, we were able to insert the phrase "working knowledge of algebra," which does seem to get the point across a little better. I'll respond a bit more on your blog about this issue.

Sarah Prineas said...

Sounds like he's transferring his own feelings of inadequacy and failure onto his students. HE is the loser. Ugh.

Dr. Lisa said...

Sarah - I feel that way about Prof. X, too. I was frustrated that the article miss the bigger problem - Prof. X teaches intro English classes, which should not present a huge stumbling block to prepared students. But while Prof. X finds it easy to say "maybe not everyone should go to college," the bigger issue is "why aren't high schools giving these kids the education they need to succeed?"