Notes from The Professor

August 27, 2011

Pete: the kid

It will make me sound like a fossil to say this, but I can’t always tell how old my students are. Everyone under 25 looks like a high school kid. What I did not know when I first started teaching community college is that some of them actually are. In high school, that is.

A couple of programs in our state allow kids to get a start on their college degrees and earn high school credits at the same time. It’s a great option for students who, for whatever reason, are not thriving in a traditional environment. Most of the kids who exercise this option are not the overachievers you might be imagining. They are not always super-bright kids whose academic needs are not being met by secondary education. Sometimes — maybe usually — they are kids who are just “done” with high school. They may be bored, at risk for dropping out, or balking against authority. Some are just kids who do better with more autonomy and a less rigid schedule.

Pete was one of these kids, but I wasn’t aware of it until I’d known him for a month or two. He was ridiculously tall and thin, well over six feet but probably 140 pounds sopping wet. He had nearly white skin and orange hair — not I’m-a-rebellious-youth dyed hair, but naturally bright orange. He was the reddest redhead I’d ever seen.

And he was a terrific writer. Funny. Insightful. Mature.

I learned just how young he was the day we were discussing topics for argument essays. There are many subjects I prohibit, some because I know I can’t be objective grading them, and some because I would rather gouge my eyeballs out with my own red pen than grade another paper about them. Two topics that fall into the latter category are favorites of the under-21 boy crowd: lowering the drinking age and legalization of marijuana. No matter how much they beg, I will not budge on this.

So Pete took another tack.

“Ok, how about this,” he said during our conference. “How about I write a letter to my mom persuading her to let me smoke pot?”

“Come again?”

“My mom is all over me about smoking weed. I want to make a deal with her to get her off my back. As long as I keep my job, keep my grades up, and stay out of trouble, it shouldn’t be any of her business if I get high.”

“Um, Pete?”


“It’s illegal.”

He rolled his eyes. “I know! But you won’t let me write about how stupid that is. Man. I thought you’d be cool about this, but you sound just like her.”

I laughed. “How old are you?”


“How old is your mom?”

“Too old to be cool about this.”

“How old is too old?”

“Pffft. Forty.”

At the time, I was forty, too. If this similarity occurred to him (or if it was a deliberate jab) he didn’t let on. Just as I thought everyone under 25 looked young, he probably deemed everyone over 30 ancient. I sighed.

We talked through the various pitfalls of the paper, how he’d make his claims, how he’d address her concerns and counterarguments. Even though it felt strange giving a teenager a platform to convince his mother to let him break the law (no matter how pointless and ineffectual) and endanger his own health, I let him write it.

And of course, it was funny, charming, superbly written, and quite convincing. I gave him an A.

“You know what?” I said to him when I handed it back to him. “If I were your mom, I wouldn’t be convinced. And you don’t get to use your grade as ammo.”

He laughed. “No worries. I’m never going to win this one, but it was fun to write.”

It was fun to read, too. I doubt he ever made any headway with his mom, but since he went on to take two more classes from me and transfer to a university with a 4.0, I think he’s probably doing just fine.


April 28, 2011

Matt: the aimless

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 8:58 pm
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Lest you think I am a Pollyanna or a liar, I suppose it’s time to admit that there are some students I just don’t care that much about. I picked on the KKKKKs, the pleasant but indistinguishable young girls, a couple of weeks ago, so let me tell you about Matt, the indistinguishable young guy(s).

Matt schlepps into class twenty minutes late every single damned day he bothers to show up, which is a little over half the time. He’s wearing baggy jeans or cargo shorts, depending on the season; a hoodie or logo Tshirt; and some sort of headwear that’s supposed to camouflage his lack of hygiene, usually a stocking or baseball cap. He looks like he has just rolled out of bed, because he has.

Count on Matt to skip days when an assignment is due, only to show up the next class day and act shocked when I won’t accept it.

Matt: “Here’s my paper.”

Me: “Thanks, but it was due last time.”

Matt: “Right, but I wasn’t here last time.”

Me: “I know. But that’s when it was due.”

Matt: “But I was absent that day.”

You see where I’m going with this? Or not going, as the case may be.

Matt’s generically attractive face looks utterly blank when he’s called on. He does not have his book, or if he does, he has not read the assignment. When given class time to work on something, he will instead check his Facebook page and scroll through pictures of his pals back at the U doing beer bongs. (I know this because I can see all the computer screens in the classroom from the instructor’s terminal. Technically I can block certain sites, but they are chronologically adults, and I’m not a micromanager. Besides, sometimes the pictures are entertaining.) When I circulate around the room, he comes up with some earnest question to distract my attention from the fact that he isn’t farther along in his work. He is always very polite, despite his apparent disinterest in just about everything, with the possible exception of the girl who sits in front of him, and only if she’s a KKKKK.

Maybe Matt is here because he drank so much beer at the State University he could’t be bothered to go to class. His parents have yanked him out of school and sentenced him to a couple of quarters at community college–possibly to rehabilitate his GPA, or perhaps just to save the many thousands of dollars they were wasting on tuition, room and board only to have Matt fritter it away. Or, he might be here because he prefers playing Xbox in his parents’ basement to any future he might be working toward, and Mom and Dad have made school a condition for his continued mooching their continued support. Or perhaps Matt has decided that being a line cook at crApplebees isn’t the best terminal career goal. There may be many, many reasons why Matt has landed here, but one thing is consistent: he has very little idea of where he might be headed.

At the end of the quarter, Matt will be very disappointed in his grade. He won’t understand why, despite turning in some reasonably well-written papers, he did not earn at least a B. He seems to have completely forgotten that every paper was late, every draft incomplete, every in-class assignment done haphazardly, and that he was late or absent more than half the time. When he is reminded of this, he seems nonplussed that I am actually holding him to the standards that are clearly spelled out on the syllabus. By the end of the quarter, I’ll have trouble being polite to him.

Of course it is unfair to generalize about young male students this way. Fortunately, there are only a couple of these guys in each class, and there are many other young men who do not fit this stereotype, along with some girls who do. But I am curious and a little bit alarmed by the difference between young men and young women. Anecdotally, it seems that guys suffer from a sort of malaise and lack of direction that does not afflict their female counterparts nearly as badly. Recent research has shown that college attendance and completion rates are significantly higher for women than for men. What is happening–or not happening–to these guys that makes them so, well, Matt-like?

October 15, 2010

Adam: the noob

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 10:50 am
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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.

I settled on a B. He was delighted.

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