04
Jul
11

My response to Circular Running’s Response to “functional illiteracy”

This blogger recently commented on this post and linked me to this post of his from last August.

Here’s my reply:

I actually remember reading the Atlantic article when it came out, and as an adjunct instructor at a community college (I omitted the for-profit because it seems redundant these days – aren’t all colleges actually FOR profit?) I feel the author’s pain. The difference is my adjunct job is my FIRST job, or tied with the private teaching I do at home at least, and definitely not the apex of the career path I had laid out for myself while in my 20s or even 30s. I also know that this has deterred some of my better students – they see what I’ve accomplished professionally as a performer, and with a Doctorate in my field, and how hard I have to work to make a living, and decide to do something else. I guess that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve always said that if you don’t HAVE to be a musician, you should do something else, but this is certainly not the result I would have said I hoped for if anybody would have asked.

And I agree that what seems to be holding students back is to some degree innate (talent), and possibly to a much greater degree, apathy (the desire for ease). We could address the first point by NOT requiring college educations for certain types of work – packaging for example, or “soil science.”  Here are some examples of academic programs at a typical large American university that seem to me would possibly be better delivered via trade school:

Accounting
Advertising
Apparel and Textile Design
Apparel and Textiles
Athletic Training

Construction Management
Crop and Soil Sciences
Dietetics
Food Industry Management
Food Science
General Management
Interior Design

Landscape Architecture
Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism
Packaging
Professional Writing
Supply Chain Management

While there might be relevance for some of these topics as graduate programs  — somebody has to be doing research into the science of soil, for example, or someone has to have the breadth and depth of knowledge to TRAIN budding dietitians or maybe even aerobics instructors or a golf-course maintenance crew, but is it a good use of time and resources to require the dietitians or aerobics instructors or golf-course maintainers to spend time and money taking two semesters of social science, two semesters of English composition and/or literature, etc. etc.?

But let’s get to the real problem(s).

1.  Students can’t write complete, coherent sentences. Many of them can’t even speak complete, coherent sentences, even if you remove all of the “like”s. Most are unfamiliar with the rudiments of spelling and punctuation, and can’t see why they should have to change that, as they are planning on going into, oh, I don’t know, the police academy, or nursing, and can’t see what writing has to do with anything. (Ummm, duh?) But even if this is something which should be required of all citizens (except for the mentally disadvantaged, of course), is college really the time to be doing it? Shouldn’t this problem be being addressed in their elementary through high school years? Why isn’t it? Maybe we should stop focusing on “creative” writing and spelling things whatever-which-way and actually teach children how to write a sentence first. Or at least sooner. Or at least at all.

2.  Students have spent their elementary, middle, and high school years being patted on the head for showing up, for bringing a pencil, for turning in their work no matter how poorly done. Parents hover, bail them out of difficulty (you forgot your lunch? Your library book? Your homework? I’ll be right there sugar pie), try to get coaches fired for teaching them to behave decently, complain if little Johnny or Susie got the prize or the award or the trophy and their little Jimmy or Sally did not.  The ironic thing is, these acts of support don’t actually help little Jimmy or Sally be any happier when they’re adults, possibly even the opposite. The teacher can’t “criticize” the student because that would make the student feel badly about him/her self, but must couch “critical” terms in “would you like to try it this way?” or “very good, you really tried hard, let’s go ahead and do the next one.” If the teacher really does challenge the student, the student can pay them back by ripping them to shreds on the student evaluation forms, an evaluative tool which has taken on way too much significance in the evaluative process of the teacher by administration.

One of the most powerful and effective experiences I had as a piano student was when I played something for my teacher, and she looked at me with a look of bewilderment, and said, as if she knew I was already in agreement with her, “well, that wasn’t very good, was it?” The compliment of her treating me as capable of identifying that paired with the challenge of making it better was all I needed.

I have very few students I could be that frank with, even if I thought it was exactly what they needed to hear.

3.  College = business. Grant proposal obligations, a slash-and-burn approach to tenure-track positions with replacement by overworked, underpaid, un-benefited adjuncts, coerced residence of undergraduates in dormitories and required overpriced meal plans, raises based on student-as-customer evaluation forms. And while the student is the “customer” who is being catered to, sometimes blatantly so, their needs are not being met. The prominence of the student-as-customer evaluation forms is most disturbing, as it seems to be based on the premise that students know what they need, when most of them really, really don’t.  And the self-esteem-boosting, let’s-pave-the-way-for-you-and-make-it-as-painless-as-possible approach seems to be institutionalized, and not just at community colleges. I actually had a student tell me once, in the midst of a very disrespectful and plaintive email exchange where I was being berated for being too “tough,” that her adviser had recommended she take the class (Music Appreciation), because it would be “easy,” and that she felt ripped off and betrayed when it wasn’t. First of all, it’s not easy, and if it’s being offered as a college class it should NEVER be easy; second of all, what a ridiculous thing for an adviser to be telling a student.

The blurring of the line between student and teacher doesn’t help. There is no ingrained sense of respect, of deferrence. The plaintive email exchange I mentioned in the previous paragraph is an example of that. I would never have even thought much less dared to speak to my professors in any circumstance the way some of my students speak to me, both in person – calling me by my first name, for example – or via email, where I’m addressed as “hey” if addressed at all, written to in txtspk, told that he/she doesn’t like my attitude. If I thought a class was too hard, I might have complained to a colleague, or my roommate, I would never have complained to the teacher. (It was inappropriate then, and it’s inappropriate now, and teachers who cave to complaints about work load or difficulty of material only make it worse. If you as the teacher have thought carefully about what the students need to know and the best way for them to learn it, then the only thing left for you to do is stick to it. If you haven’t, and you don’t, well, then, maybe you shouldn’t be teaching.)

I have a few policies in place now which really seem to have helped draw this line for them.

1. If a student emails me in txtspk, or lacking the rudiments of formal written communication, the student gets this message in reply:

Dear Student:

It is my policy not to reply to emails unless they are written in a formal style. If you would like a response, please reformat your message to include a greeting, complete sentences including appropriate capitalization and punctuation, and a signature.

Thank you.

2. I do not reply to emails sent between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. I state this in my syllabus, and encourage the students to network with their colleagues in case they have emergency questions. I have a life, too. I think it’s good for them to know this.

3. The use, no, the appearance of ANY electronic device — laptop, cell phone, etc. — is expressly forbidden while class is in session, and earns the student a “0” for the day.

4. I graciously refuse friend requests on facebook from any student who is currently attending the college where I teach. I write back: Thank you for your friend request. Unfortunately, I am unable to accept, as it is my policy not to be “Friends” with people who are currently students. Please feel free to follow me on my professional page: ____________________.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with Circular Running’s statement: In fact, in most cases, you have to pay for the abuse being heaped on you, and sometimes you have to pay a lot. Put simply, the educational process is all about discomfort, both personal and financial, and that’s a good thing because it makes you grow.

I would add, if you don’t want to grow in such a way, save yourself the money and both of us the anguish, and find something else to do.

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2 Responses to “My response to Circular Running’s Response to “functional illiteracy””


  1. July 14, 2011 at 3:24 am

    Thanks for this. I’ve been out of commission looking for more teaching work. As I think you know, it’s all about the hustle when you’re trying to make it as a teacher. That’s why I didn’t reply sooner.

    That said, though I agree with you and sympathize, I do want to touch on something that I don’t think either of us has gone over yet. I go back and forth on this. I know I don’t want to blame teachers or the system, though both share the blame. I also want students to take some share of responsibility, but at the same time, if they’ve never been taught to value learning, can we blame them? That’s the question I ask myself often, and it’s what keeps me from going nuts when I come across apathy as I so often do.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and for the dialogue.

    • July 14, 2011 at 12:00 pm

      You’re completely right — and might be the biggest problem of all.
      And they do need to learn it from EVERYONE. And it should start with the parents.
      BUT:
      I have wished, many, many times that my children’s teachers would expect more from them. Too many people expect too little, and if I’m the only one trying to convince my children of how important this is, they’re just not going to be convinced. It’s just mom yammering away again. Blah blah blah. Too easy to discredit, too easy to ignore.


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