What is a beleaguered professor to do when a student writes rhapsodically, even well, about the Cracker Barrel? For a few beautiful moments as I was reading, I thought to myself, “You comic genius, you. Look how you have touted convenient parking and an old timey candy shop as assets to your dining experience. Look at the clever babe-in-the-woods persona you have adopted to make your hipster point about chain dining and the utter lack of culture in this culinary wasteland. See the clever political commentary about Interstate consumerism and suburban blight! A + + + +!!” I imagined myself writing with a flourish. And then I saw the name at the top of the paper, Adam, and realized that it was written without the tiniest whiff of irony. In fact, I’m not sure Adam yet grasped the concept that what the words on a page say is not necessarily what they mean. (He was certainly not alone in this. To befuddle a group of undergraduates, just have them read “A Modest Proposal,” then sit back and watch the fun.)
On the first day of class, Adam was twenty minutes late. That’s not unusual at the community college where I teach. The parking garage is jammed for the first few weeks of each quarter at the commuter school–at least until enrollment settles down, which is usually around week three. Three weeks is about how long it takes for students to be purged from the system for nonpayment of tuition or fees. Or how long it takes for them to get their first tests or papers back. Or to give in to the fear that they have made a terrible, terrible mistake by thinking they could make it in college.
So on that first day, I was tolerant of the latecomers, even welcoming. I ended class early to catch them up on what they had missed. Of the half dozen or so people who lingered, Adam was particularly apologetic.
“I’m so sorry, Ma’am. I’m new to town, and all of the streets down here are one-way. I got so lost.”
I resisted the urge to tell him not to call me Ma’am. Instead, I just remarked that at least it wasn’t a very big downtown. He looked nonplussed.
“Well, to me it is. I just moved here from upstate New York.”
I don’t remember the name of the town he mentioned or what brought him here, only that he spent the next few minutes talking about how confusing it was to have landed in such a big city, what with all of the traffic and things being so spread out.
I am fairly certain that by no metric would this place qualify as a big city. I love it that I can get from one side of town to the other in under half an hour. Any place that is more than twenty minutes’ drive from my home in an inner ring suburb is too far away to merit my serious consideration; but then, in order to be more than twenty minutes away, it would have to be in a strip mall or in the middle of a cornfield. Sort of like Cracker Barrel.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it soon. Just let me know if I can help.”
Nervous as he was, Adam did just fine those first few weeks. His first essay was a personal narrative. I don’t remember what he wrote about–probably something about losing a grandparent, or getting his first car, or putting his dog to sleep. I probably made some suggestions about how to move it along a bit more briskly. I probably marked up some comma splices. He took all of my feedback with an earnest gratitude that I seldom see. His face was round and open, his hair thick and boyishly cut. I was surprised to learn that he was married and a father of children almost the ages of my own. He looked to be just out of high school.
When the time came for more critical topics, Adam, like many of my other one-hundred level comp students, was flummoxed. The next assignment was to write a review of a subject of the student’s choice, based on criteria that were clearly established in the introduction. This somewhat pedestrian assignment is pragmatic at best, and dreadful at worst. Yes, it is dry and formulaic. A bigger problem, though, is that most of my students stubbornly refuse to distinguish between opinion and judgment. I return dozens of papers for revision because the authors want to write about “three reasons I love Ben Folds” (he’s awesome, he’s amazing, and his songs are awesome!) rather than objectively critique his latest release. When they ask me for advice, I am ashamed to admit that out of sheer ennui and exhaustion, I often say, “Why don’t you just try writing a restaurant review?”
For whatever reason, they get this. They know what they are looking for in a dining experience: good food, good service, good atmosphere and perhaps, depending on the restaurant, a good value. Check. There’s your outline. Now just write the damned thing.
Adam seemed excited when I made this suggestion to him after he had failed to define exactly why Rascal Flatts’ latest c.d. was currently in heavy rotation.
“I hope you like this one better,” he said proudly as he handed it in. “I took your advice and went somewhere I had never been before. It was really fun to write.”
“I’m sure I will, Adam. See you Thursday.”
And now here was this paper, this glowing review of a restaurant that, to most denizens of the coasts, represents everything that is wrong with my beloved flyover state. I had to put a grade on it. Like the assignment itself, I had to make a judgment about it based on objective criteria. It was not mine to offer an opinion, but to determine to what extent the student had met the outcomes of the assignment. It was correctly written, if not exactly sparkling. It was unified and well organized, if not subtle. It offered vivid details to support its clearly established criteria. (Why yes, the macaroni n’ [sic] cheese is delightfully orange and creamy, the portion nearly the size of the writer’s fist!) Adam had listened to my directions and had done exactly what I asked of him, and yet, the impulse to shake my fist at the heavens proved irresistible. I think I actually made a noise, something like “Gaaaah!” that echoed in the cinderblock box that is my office.
During moments like these, I am often thrown into existential confusion about my role as a community college English professor. Is it in my job description to get students to think more critically about their chain dining experiences? Maybe. But this kid (I can’t help thinking of him this way, his 30 or so years notwithstanding) just wanted to be a radiology tech. He just wanted to do better for his family. He just wanted to learn how to write more clearly. That was all exactly as it should have been, and I had the means to help him do it. I felt mean for having held him up to my private ridicule. After all, I had never even been to a Cracker Barrel. What did I know?
I read the paper again, fending off the familiar feeling of ambivalence about my job, my students, my town.