Notes from The Professor

June 16, 2012

Vince: the invisible

Early each term, I let my students in on a little secret: some of the writing tasks assigned in college are about as far from any real-world application as can be. Most often in the real world, one person writes for an audience of many — whether it’s a novel, a letter to the editor, or a business plan. But in college, the many write for the few — dozens of papers pile up for an audience of one. And the “one” for whom it’s intended is going to judge it. How terrifying.

I try to mitigate the horrors inherent in this scenario by trying to convince students that their audience is their classmates. I have them peer edit before they submit their work for a grade. I encourage them to rewrite and I reward revision. But ultimately, my little show doesn’t work. The fact that I deliberately eschew red ink does little to ease their anxiety, my purple pen just another little fake-out that they see quickly see right through. They are the students, and I give the grades.

There’s a strange kind of intimacy in teaching composition, particularly the personal narrative. Because the subject of their essays is their experience, (as opposed to, say, WWII or the life cycle of a cell), we comp teachers learn things about our students that most of their teachers in other disciplines will never know.

Online classes add another odd dimension to this intimacy, as students share their work with each other but may never see one another face to face. When I grade their papers, I don’t have a face to put with the name in the online dropbox. Unless I happen to look up their pictures on my electronic roster, which I seldom do, my online students exist for me almost entirely in text.

So, despite the fact that I wouldn’t know him if I passed him in the hallway, I do know a few things about Vince:

In his first paper, he wrote about the day his mom left when he was fifteen. And the day his dad, overwhelmed with his own grief and rage, left, too — three days later. He wrote about getting himself up to go to school every day. About being alone at night. About living on Ramen noodles and peanut butter. About getting a job to pay the rent, and trying to stay in school. About wearing clothes that were too small, because he was still growing and could not afford new ones. About finally dropping out and winding up getting evicted anyway. About making a life for himself since then. About his own family and his devotion to his kids.

By the end of his paper, I was sobbing. It certainly wasn’t the first time a narrative essay had moved me to tears (the ones about putting dogs to sleep get me every time) but this was one of the few that got under my skin. It was completely raw and matter of fact. And it made me angry: at his mother for her faithlessness, and at his father for indulging his own pain at the expense of his son. I thought about it constantly for days after I read it. I think about it, still.

Even though nothing in the personal narrative assignment requires students to write about something serious, it does ask them to write about something significant and meaningful, so certain topics emerge. In our more cynical moments, my colleageus and I refer to these as the “dying-grandparent-and-car-crash papers.” An account of grandpa’s funeral titled “The Worse [sic] Day of My Life” that is riddled with comma splices can cause a beleaguered teacher’s heart to harden rather than empathize. But then there’s a paper like Vince’s that cracks it wide open again.

Some of my colleagues have stopped assigning personal narratives in Comp I. One says she just can’t bear it — it’s just too hard to read these tales of hardship and trevail that inevitably bubble up from students’ psyches. One says he doesn’t see the point. Freshman comp is supposed to prepare students for the rest of college, and it’s not as though they are ever going to be required to use narrative writing again. It’s just not practical, he reasons. I can’t really argue with that.

But at the end of the quarter, when students write about their experiences in the class, they invariably say that the personal narrative was their favorite piece to write. Often, it is also their best. Many say that writing it was therapeutic. Some say it helped them work something out. One student came to my office two years after she’d graduated asking if I still had a paper she’d written about her dad; he had died recently, and she wanted to read from it at his memorial service. I’m not sure how practical the assignment is, or even how well it prepares them for future classes, but somehow, it seems important.

In Vince’s case, writing his story allowed him to sort out what had been taken from him and see what he had made from the ashes of his childhood. It made a record of how he became the husband and father he is today — something he could point to and say, “Look what happened to me. Look what I did anyway. Look at me now.”

I don’t remember what grade Vince got on that paper. I don’t know if he tells people about his childhood, or whether he keeps it to himself. I don’t know what he looks like. In fact, I don’t even remember his real name.

At today’s commencement ceremony, over 1000 names were called. I’m sure there were dozens of my former students in that sea of black robes. After ten years, their names all start to sound alike, and their faces are a blur from where we are seated. But their stories, I remember.

February 22, 2012

Tim: the displaced

My little rustbelt city has been hit hard by the recession. When I started teaching community college in the early aughts, very few of my full-time students were over 25. Now, there are displaced workers in every section of every class I teach. Many of them haven’t set foot in a classroom in well over twenty years. They have been set adrift from manufacturing jobs and laid off from shrinking companies. They are down, but not out.

Tim was an electrician in a manufacturing facility for thirty years before he was laid off the day before Thanksgiving 2008, when his company was purchased by a Chinese corporation. Even though his union contract guaranteed him severance, the new owners kept enough people around to fire up one production line every now and then until the contract expired, thus circumventing their obligation to the 120+ workers they had displaced. He was, for the first time in over 30 years, unemployed and without a paycheck.

Undaunted, he filed for unemployment and soon enrolled in school. He showed up in my English class at the end of his first year, having breezed through the first two quarters of our composition sequence in short order. He took the “hard” classes first: Math and English–subjects he hadn’t taken since high school.

He sat at the back of my classroom, a big guy with a shock of graying hair and a goatee. He wore jeans an army jacket just like a good college student should. While he was quiet at first, it wasn’t long before he started to distinguish himself, both in class discussions and in his writing. He had a poet’s ear for phrasing, and was a sensitive and appreciative reader. His papers were a pleasure to read. And although the math classes nearly kicked his butt, he started to see the power of mathematics in engineering. Going back to school, he told me, was harder than any job he’d ever had.

During his second year, he stopped by my office now and then to say hi, or to show me pictures of his new grandchild. To my delight, he said going back to school had kindled a love of writing, and he continued to do so, both for classes and for fun. When he graduated, he was in the top 3% of his class. He had made the most of his second chance at an education; he never missed a class, and the one tiny blotch on his otherwise perfect academic record was a single B in a math class that he just couldn’t quite beat. By all measures, certainly by the college’s metrics, he was the perfect “completer,” the “success” referred to on our marketing materials. Surely, his spanking new Associate’s Degree in Operations Technology had given him the skills and the resume necessary to compete in this job market. Surely the two years he’d spent in school would have been time for the economy to recover.

Tim and his family had managed to make ends meet while he was in school, thanks to a number of programs designed especially for people like him. He had done everything in lockstep: from filing for benefits, to enrolling in school, to completing every class successfully and on time, to graduating with honors. His TAA benefits (the Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits designed to help those who became unemployed due to the impact of international trade) kicked in exactly two weeks before he graduated. The minute he did so, the benefits dried up.

Over the next six months, he sent out literally hundreds of resumes, which resulted in a handful of interviews. Each of those, after seeming to go well, led to weeks of waiting, often for no response at all. With a resume and academic record like his, it’s hard to believe that his age didn’t have something to do with the lack of offers, but of course, no one says that. At first he applied for management jobs, but after a few months, he had to lower the bar.

Finally, in January, Tim was offered a job more than 45 miles from his home. In a manufacturing facility. Doing a job that he was qualified to do the day he was laid off over three years ago.

But it’s a job, and he’s happy to have it. Even with his wife’s income, things had started to get tight, and he needed to work. He was close to taking a job at a Home Depot or the like, just to make ends meet. And there may be an opportunity for advancement from his hourly union job to management. It’s not an easy leap to make, but it’s possible. I have my fingers crossed for him.

Still, it’s hard from where I sit not to wonder if the two years he spent in school did him any good at all. Our students, our state, and our President look to community colleges to retrain the workforce for bigger and better things.

But no one anticipated that the recovery would take as long as it has. In 2008, the idea of taking 2 years to go to school while the economy turned around seemed reasonable. That it’s taken closer to four was harder to predict. In this morning’s paper was an article about the mini manufacturing boom in Ohio, but they are not the high-tech manufacturing jobs Tim trained for. The tremendous optimism and hard work that accompanied his journey into academia must be hard for him to remember at the end of a long day. In fact, when I asked him if he wouldn’t like to tell his own story, he said:

“I will always continue to write, but for the near future I have to pour my heart and soul into this job to establish a foothold and maybe then I can advance. For the foreseeable future I am looking at lots of overtime, night shifts and a 97 mile round trip drive daily. As you can imagine, by the time I get home, I feel like a bird with no song in me.”

I like to think we did right by him, but there’s a part of me that feels like we’re making false promises to students like Tim when we say their education will lead to a brighter future. Deep down I know education is valuable for its own sake and not just as a means to an end. When asked if he would do it again, Tim said he wouldn’t have traded the second chance at a degree for anything. Discovering a facility with words, the power of mathematics, and having the satisfaction of exceeding one’s own expectations are all benefits that none of our institutional metrics can quantify. For now, that will have to be enough.

June 11, 2011

Commencement

Over the past several years, I’ve developed a small ritual during finals week.  I go to the bookstore on Monday, the day the paper avalanche starts in earnest, and pick up my Josten’s packet — black robe, mortarboard with tassel, and Master’s hood — and take it back to my office, where I hang everything on the hooks behind my office door.  When the baskets of portfolios and folders full of research papers and stuffed online dropboxes overwhelm me (which is many times a day), I look at the phantom professor in the corner and remember that the end is near.  Summer begins in a week.  No matter how bad it gets, it will all be worth it soon.

It is sort of a tradition among us professors to whine about having to attend commencement.  Other than teaching a certain number of hours each quarter, it is one of the only duties specifically enumerated in our contract — ostensibly because no one would go if they didn’t have to.  It’s a long evening. There are more than 800 names to read.  We are tired.

Then there’s the fact that it is held in an unairconditioned basketball arena on the second weekend in June. In spite of the enormous fans whose roar fills the air even over the chattering of the crowd, it is sweltering — and we are dressed in black poly-blend and velvet.  With hats.  One of my colleagues has dubbed it “the sweat lodge.”

The black-robed near-graduates fill the tarp-covered arena floor, awaiting their diplomas.  They flap at their already sweaty faces with cardboard paddles emblazoned with the college logo. The atmosphere is somewhere between that of a NASCAR race and a church service.  The crowd is so big that even when Pomp and Circumstance begins to play, no one really quiets down.  People cheer and wave like they would at a sporting event.  Once in a while, an air horn blasts.  It is not a solemn occasion, nor is it stuffy (other than the temperature).

Because I teach entry-level classes and prerequisites, it is unusual for me to see any recent students in the crowd.  Although technically we offer only two-year degrees, few of the students who enroll in English 111 their first quarter finish in two years.  Many can attend only part time.  Many have their two-year plans interrupted — by babies, financial exigencies, illness, or any number of other inconvenient hurdles.  Many of them transfer and will earn their degrees elsewhere.  Many will simply disappear.  Of course it is important for me to be there, but would any of my students know the difference if I weren’t? Do they even remember me by now?

The ceremony is roughly the same every year. The benediction and President’s welcome are followed by the conferring of Professors Emeriti.  (No honorary two-year degrees granted, folks. Sorry.)  Then the keynote speaker addresses the class.  This year it was one of our Senators, who apparently thought he was somewhere else when he joked about the graduates’ parents being glad not to have to pay tuition anymore. I have no idea what the numbers are, but his little quip got not so much as a chuckle.  Probably fewer than 10% of those assembled have someone else to pay their bills.  Everyone looked at him as if he were daft. That he went on to quote Socrates, MLK, and Joseph Campbell in the space of the next three minutes (his theme:  “follow your dreams.” Truly original and inspiring!) made me wonder if he’d just Googled “inspirational quotes” on his Blackberry ten minutes before the ceremony.  And when he ended his speech by congratulating the class of 2001 (that is not a typo) I cringed.

While our keynoters are usually much better prepared and less — well — vapid, the best part of the evening is after the diplomas are handed out.  The college President, a big man with a booming voice, does what I’ve come to regard as his commencement schtick.

“Stand if you are the first member of your family to graduate from college.  Stand if you were ever told that you ‘weren’t college material.’  Stand if you started here more than five years ago.  Remain standing if it’s been more than ten years.  Twenty…” and he goes on until only one or two people are standing, and talks about goals and persistence and perseverance.  The crowd goes wild.  More airhorns.

I have a love/hate relationship with this scene.  Last night, I was sitting next to my department chair, who is constantly being hounded by the administration about our passing rates.  Why aren’t they higher? What can we do to improve retention rates?  Those who worship the almighty “completion rate,” that number we are constantly trying to improve and that dogs our every decision, do not regard this sort of longevity kindly.  At some point, we counted some of these very people among those we had failed to “retain.”

But they came back, and this night is for celebrating. This night is about the ones who have made it, however we count them. Some sail through; some struggle and repeat classes and suffer false starts.  But the 842 graduates here, and the many hundreds more who opt not to sweat it out in the arena, did it.  They did it.

And so did I.  I made it through the piles for one more year. I submitted my grades.  I convinced at least one guy that reading poetry wasn’t for sissies (although he made me promise not to tell anyone he said so) and another that he had something valuable to say.  One student told me my class had changed her life.  Another said I’d made her glad she wasn’t an English major.

And so it goes, as does my love/hate relationship with commencement.  The odd mix of solemnity and rowdiness in the arena embodies all the good and the bad of my job, the successes and the failures of my students, the hopefulness and cynicism that are constantly at war in me.

When the ceremony is over, we faculty file out the back doors of the arena, peel off our regalia, and drop them into enormous cardboard bins to be returned to the rental company.  Black robes, jewel-toned hoods and mortarboards lie in heaps as though their occupants have melted out of them, which is not too far from the truth. During the ceremony last night a thunderstorm passed over, as one does most nights this time of year. When I pushed open the doors and headed out to the parking lot, the heat of the day had dissipated, and a cool breeze washed over me.  Summer had commenced.

February 20, 2011

Irene: the grandma

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Every so often, a teacher just gets one of those classes: a weird mix of people, an imbalance of genders, an odd time of day or a not-quite-right classroom. One spring quarter 6 or 7 years ago, I had a class that met all of those criteria. It was small for my school, which is to say there were fewer than twenty students who showed up regularly. (These days, with enrollment skyrocketing, it’s more typical to have 28-29 students enrolled in a section. But that’s a rant for another time.) Anyway, it was not looking good.

Of those twenty or so students, nearly all of them were young males–teenaged and young twentysomething guys who looked as though their parents had sentenced them to community college. They schlepped into class five, ten minutes late, looking like they had just rolled out of bed, even at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Thank God for Irene. She was not messing around, and was not going to have her time wasted by those little punks. She’d glare at them when they came in late like the disapproving grandmother she was old enough to be. She had retired from a long career as an autoworker, and thought it was about time to get her college degree. For her second act, she wanted to be a cop. You might think that goal was pretty unrealistic, but then you’ve never met her. She was no little old lady.

Irene was tall and broad shouldered, and had a deep, sandpapery voice earned by at least a pack a day (until, as she proudly told me, she had quit smoking after retirement). Her skin was tanned and as wrinkled as crumpled paper, but she moved like a much younger woman. She spoke up in class often, asked smart questions, and took notes furiously.

The day of the first draft workshop, she was in a group with three of the aforementioned young men. As I circulated around the room eavesdropping on their progress and checking drafts, I heard her say to one of them, “Why’d you only write two pages? It’s supposed to be at least three.”

The kid she’d addressed gaped at her like a fish and mumbled something about it just being a rough draft and not counting for a grade.

“But the professor said three pages.” She stared at him over the top of her reading glasses and waited for an answer.

From then on, a mutual grudging respect formed between her and the kids in the class. She became the ad hoc grandma of the teenaged boy crowd. Irene was not a great writer. She had plenty to say, but sentence boundaries eluded her. Fortunately, Caleb was in her group: a lanky, heavily tattooed, copiously pierced, Doc Marten wearing artist and a fabulous writer. She kicked his ass when he was late or absent, and he proofread for her. It was a perfect symbiosis.

When Irene turned in her first paper, she remarked that it had taken her longer to type it than it had to write it in the first place. And when she said “type,” she meant “type.”

“I’m thinking about getting a computer, but I don’t really know how to use one.”

I told her I thought it would be a good investment, but that she could get by without. Two weeks later, when her next paper was due, she handed in a perfectly-formatted computer-generated document.

“I bought that computer on Friday,” she told me. “Took me all weekend to figure out how to use it, but I think I’ve got it down.”

Her essays improved steadily as the quarter went on. One was about the night she went on a ride-along for her criminal justice class. I kept wondering why a woman her age would want to subject herself to such brutal hours and dangerous conditions, but she loved every minute of it. “I worked in a factory for thirty years. I’ve raised my kids. I could use a little excitement,” she told me. I could hardly argue with that.

By the end of twelve weeks, my ragtag bunch had become my favorite class. I was sorry to see them go. Irene said her goodbyes to her boys and to me, promising to keep in touch. I didn’t see much of her after that, but a couple years later, at commencement, I saw her name in the program. She was profiled, along with three or four other “nontraditional” students, in an article about student success. I watched for her as the 1200 or so students filed past the college president to receive their diplomas, and sure enough, when she was handed hers, a cheer went up from the other graduates in her major. She pumped her fist in the air as she went back to her seat, a grandmother, a retiree, and a graduate. Commencement, indeed.

*An edited version of this post was featured on The Story with Dick Gordon, an American Public Media production that airs on NPR stations nationwide. Please listen here.

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