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:
THIS IS A C?
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.