On Campus
Dec 17, 2013, 07:15AM

Confessions of a Disillusioned College Instructor

Does value in education stem from demonstrated skills?

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When Esperanza stayed after class, waiting as students made sure I didn’t mark them absent due to tardiness, I knew something was wrong. She stood with a blank expression on her face and didn’t speak until the other students left the room. This is my first semester teaching at a community college, and I have come to appreciate the life experience older students like Esperanza bring to the classroom.

“Shane,” she began, “I’m having a really hard time right now.”

Before I could finish asking what was wrong, tears ran down her face as she told me that her brother had evicted her from his house. Her husband was recently charged with crimes that could warrant 18 years in prison, and she was scrambling to find a lawyer while also looking for a no-kill shelter to place her two Pit Bulls. She planned on dropping most of her classes, but needed to pass my freshman writing course to gain acceptance to the nursing program at the local university. I told her that she could take some extra time to complete the assignments, and she thanked me, leaving in a hurry to attend to the obstacles the world had so suddenly thrown in her way.

This happened several weeks ago, and I haven’t seen Esperanza or any of her assignments since. Unless she fills out the paperwork to withdraw from the course, I have no choice but to fail her once grades are due at the end of the semester. Either option will impede her progress toward becoming a nurse.

Four summers ago, I learned that, in addition to attending graduate school, I’d be teaching for the first time in my life. The prospect of standing in front of a classroom terrified me, so I scrambled to learn anything I could to prepare. In my frantic search, I stumbled upon Bell Hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. In it, Hooks challenges traditional methods of education that teach obedience rather than critical thinking. The book lays out pedagogy of student-empowerment, and it profoundly impacted the way I understood my role as a teacher in the classroom.

In my first three years of teaching as a graduate student, I experimented with different assignments and classroom activities geared toward empowering my students. Through reading and writing activities that encouraged students to seek out the gray areas between controversial social topics commonly presented in a black and white manner, I’ve watched students begin to question and challenge the sometimes poisonous ideologies that many of them have inherited from their families and the culture-at-large.  Over time, I began to take my job as an educator very seriously. I believe that education is our best bet at challenging the “red vs. blue” binary responsible for the stagnation of our national discourse and the hindrance of all of our attempts at progress. A generation of students armed with the ability to think critically has the potential to radically alter the dark world we currently inhabit.

This assertion may be naïve, but even if it isn’t it means that change is a long way off. Many instructors, even at the college level, continue to cling to traditional methods that emphasize following strict directions over critical thinking, and we are only very slowly making progress. But what can I do to affect the immediate future? What about Esperanza? If I am truly trying to empower my students, shouldn’t I do everything to get Esperanza into nursing school? Isn’t it within my power to give her a passing grade even if she doesn’t attend class and doesn’t turn in her assignments? To some, these questions may sound absurd. I think most of us would agree that the value in a college education stems from a set of skills students must demonstrate in order to earn their degrees.

I’m not so sure anymore. I’m an adjunct professor and, since there have been several articles and infographics highlighting the disturbing trend of hiring part-time instructors in higher education, I won’t go into that too much here. I will say that I teach four classes of Freshman Composition with roughly 30 students in each class. When my classes turn in five-page papers, I have to read and respond to 480 pages of student writing on top of planning for my classes. I’m only paid for the hours I spend in class, and have taken on side jobs in web development to supplement my meager salary.

I don’t bring this up as an invitation to my personal pity party. I only mean to point out that, due to time constraints, it’s impossible to give my students the individual attention they require to develop and demonstrate competence in college-level writing. In fact, if receiving a passing grade in my class meant that students demonstrated college-level writing competency, I’d have failed the vast majority of my students.

This experience is nearly universal to all of my colleagues and, I’m almost certain, any instructor who has recently taught in a university’s first-year-writing program. Most students enter college writing classrooms woefully unprepared by dismal writing curriculum at the primary school level. Writing instruction at that level (see the five-paragraph essay) simply doesn’t prepare students for the types of in-depth analysis expected at the college level. Add that to the fact that college instructors like myself have too many students and only a single semester to work with them, and it’s entirely unrealistic to expect students to reach the levels of competency that most of us would like to see. I can only take comfort in the knowledge that all of my students’ writing improves, but it only improves because—like anything—the more you do something, the better you get at doing it.

What, then, constitutes a passing grade in my class? When I think about this question, I realize that my own classroom fails to live up to Bell Hooks’ call for a pedagogy of liberation and student-empowerment. If my students attend class, participate in classroom activities, and turn in their work, they will receive a grade somewhere in the “C”-“A” range depending on other factors loosely tied to the quality of the writing they produce. Just like the teaching methodologies that hooks criticizes for their emphasis on obedience, my own teaching methodologies, in a way, emphasize following directions and meeting deadlines. I prepare for my students a series of hoops that they must jump through over the course of the semester.

Why should I make Esperanza jump through these hoops? During graduate school, my peers and I met weekly with faculty supervisors to discuss any problems we encountered in our classrooms. Some told stories of students in situations similar to Esperanza’s, and our supervisors always answered the same way. It was up to our own discretion as to whether or not we allowed the student more time to complete the work, but they had to complete the work. We were told to explain to students that, perhaps, it just wasn’t their semester. This made sense to me at the time, but I’m not sure I could bring myself to say this to Esperanza now. Every semester during my college career was my semester. I never had to contend with any of the struggles that students like Esperanza regularly face, nor was my immediate livelihood ever at stake.

I will probably fail Esperanza because I don’t know of any other solution that is fair to the rest of my students who attend class and turn in their work. But I can’t help but think about the implications of this decision. What impact could a nurse’s salary have on Esperanza’s life? Her own life would certainly get easier, but it may not end there. With the increased security and free time offered by a career in nursing, she might dedicate herself to addressing some of the problems ailing her community. Her actions could ripple outward and spawn a movement with the potential to radically alter the world. All without ever having to turn in a five page paper.

  • Shane, I really enjoyed this piece. I'm a Junior year undergrad student. Just as you had Esperanza, I've been in many classes where older students were being placed in horrible social situations, jeopardizing their school careers. From a student's perspective, it's hard to watch a fellow classmate struggle so much. On the other hand, I've had many professors, just like yourself, who are always patient and willing to extend a deadline if need be. The need for professors who focus on critical thinking is crucial. I've only had a couple truly amazing professors. The best professors I've had make critical thinking, and looking at ideas in different ways, a central tenet to their classes.

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  • Smart points made, Shane. My own view is that if the education system was torn apart from the start, students would be better off. Break the unions and get rid of complacent teachers, replace them with young college grads who'd work hard. Most would leave, but some would stick, and the cycle would continue.

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  • I appreciate the sympathy of this piece, the willingness you obviously have to not only think about your students' circumstances, but also to care. That said, I fear it may be the philosophy of passing students through high school (in order to "improve" their chances of future success) that renders so many freshmen unprepared for the university level. Passing a student may make you feel better, but how far will that philosophy get her through nursing school? And how comfortable is the idea of a nurse who couldn't prioritize the one class that would apparently reap such rippling benefits? If she chose not to show up and she chose not to withdraw, then it doesn't sound like the critical thinking skills demonstrated warrant that passing grade.

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