I’m Not “Professor X”, but I Could Be

I’m Not “Professor X”, but I Could Be

from Karen E.comes this great essay, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. It expresses so eloquently so many of the thoughts I had while I was teaching college writing and literature in my long-ago, pre-children days.

There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. 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.

I doubt any of my students would believe how I agonized over handing out grades. If I could have taught without grading, I’d have loved it; but the grading was one long nightmare of anxiety. And so much of that is because I know a grade is so much more than just a grade, it becomes so tied up in a student’s sense of self-worth.

I gave Ms. L. the F and slept poorly that night. Some of the failing grades I issue gnaw at me more than others. In my ears rang her plaintive words, so emblematic of the tough spot in which we both now found ourselves. 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. What exactly, I wondered, was I grading? I thought briefly of passing Ms. L., of slipping her the old gentlewoman�s C-minus. But I couldn�t do it. It wouldn�t be fair to the other students. By passing Ms. L., I would be eroding the standards of the school for which I worked. Besides, I nurse a healthy ration of paranoia. What if she were a plant from The New York Times doing a story on the declining standards of the nation�s colleges? In my mind�s eye, the front page of a newspaper spun madly, as in old movies, coming to rest to reveal a damning headline:



  Illiterate Mess Garners �Average� Grade

  Adjunct Says Student �Needed� to Pass, �Tried Hard�

No, I would adhere to academic standards, and keep myself off the front page.

I didn’t have as many “non-traditional” students as Professor X, most of my students were kids straight out of high school. But I did have a few like Ms. L. The first time I taught students older than myself and had to give them poor grades it was so very, very hard. And like Professor X, I soon learned that many, if not most, of my students were simply not equipped to succeed at the college level. Many of them, I wondered how they graduated from high school.

America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone�s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it�try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn�t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I don’t know what the answer is, primarily because I’m not sure what the real root problem is. I get the sense that schools are failing at all levels, starting at elementary school. Is it a problem of methodology, of educational philosophy, a cultural issue, a family issue, or a little of all of the above? I suspect the latter, which means there are no easy solutions. I’m pretty sure, though, that politicians aren’t going to untangle it.

Be sure to read the entire essay here. It’s so worth it.

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  • I am still uncomfortable that both Montessori and Cavelleti do not hold up the role of the parents as primary teachers. I realize that the work is aimed at traditional religious programs, but this catechesis is one of the hardest to adapt to the family. It doesn’t flow naturally, and the ideal is the classroom, which is opposite thinking to me, considering the domestic church, especially for the very young.

    The tangible materials are wonderful tools at this age. My son really pondered the Gospel stories this season when he had the figures to reenact the stories.

    Over and over again it is stressed that children learn by our example, that we have to work at our sanctity to help them to heaven. But I also love the twist that observing their little, childlike qualities in their Faith helps ME to grow deeper. We are both teaching each other.

  • I agree, it makes me uncomfortable too. That’s been a big issue as I read. I would love to see an intelligent homeschooler develop a homeschool curriculum that builds on Cavaletti’s insights into the needs and capacities of very young children but that recognizes parents as the primary educators and the home as domestic church as the ideal place for beginning catechesis to take place.

    I know there are many homeschooling moms out there who borrow from the Good Shepherd model; but it would be nice for someone to collect and record those experiences so there was one place to go to access that collective wisdom and experience. Unless there already is something out there that I’m missing?

  • Moira Farrell has created some albums (at Our Father’s House) that is an adapted Catechesis for the home. That is the main source for many of the homeschooling moms. I think it’s wonderful, but a bit lacking in some areas, but provides materials and presentations beyond the CGS plan.

    To really get the full potential out of Moira’s albums, I’d recommend really studying the books by Cavelletti and Gobbi. So it’s not really a one-stop shop. She has the “scripts” for each presentation, materials instructions, but no in-depth explanatation of the philosophy behind it all.

  • Thanks, I’ll check it out. I do want to get a firm foundation on the philosophy before I start wading into scripts and how-tos.

    I suspect a major element in the emphasis on the classroom/ atrium rather than home is simply because Montessori’s starting point was institutionalized children. I think that foundation colors her entire method and is a huge blind spot that hinders the home educator who is attracted by her otherwise astute insights into children.

  • We set aside two bookshelves, one tall, and one only about 2 or 2.5 feet tall (for the “altar”) to use for our upcoming atrium materials.  I think a separate space, however small, is a good emphasis on sacred and holy space, where they can make the connection to the church setting.

    I am going to be ordering Moira’s books soon…looking forward to starting this program at home!  The kids were involved with a church CGS program, at two different parishes, but for various reasons we’re doing it at home, as a part of homeschooling this year.