Notes from The Professor

July 5, 2012

William: the disappeared

I read the obituaries every day. It’s a habit that started when I was in my early twenties, mostly out of morbid curiosity, and continues to this day for more practical purposes. I scan the names, then the ages, pausing over those who seem familiar or particularly untimely. Today, I came across one that was both.

William was in my class several years ago…really, when I say that it all runs together after a few years, I mean it. I have no idea how long it’s been. Maybe 2, maybe 5. I have thought about writing about him before because he was someone who stayed with me, but I didn’t know much about him.

Judging from the age printed in today’s obituary, he must have been in his late twenties when he was in my class. What I remember most is that he was polite, respectful, and extremely well-spoken. And he had a gentleness about him: a soft voice, a grace of movement. He was eager to please and eager to learn. I liked him right away.

In his introductory writing sample, he confessed to a difficult past. I don’t remember the details, only that he had done time in prison, a fact that seemed utterly at odds with my impression of him. I wondered how such a gentle soul would survive that environment — but then, it may be that he was not so gentle as all that to have wound up there to begin with.

At any rate, he was nervous about school, and I was eager to help him. I saw in him a genuine desire to do better. He showed me pictures of his kids — told me he owed it to them to do better.

His first paper, the dreaded memoir essay, was about his father. Or was it his step father? Again, I don’t remember. But I do recall that he talked about the scar on his back: a triangle seared there by an iron, applied as a means of discipline. He had cigarette burns on his forearms, too. He wrote about being angry as a young man and about learning to let go of the past — about forgiveness and separating the boy from the man. When I handed it back to him, I told him how much he had to be proud of. There were a lot of other things I would have liked to have said, but they hung in the air, too difficult or too personal to say in class. He nodded and thanked me. I hope he understood.

For about the first half of the quarter, William did just fine, but then he started to miss class. At first, he was good about keeping me informed of what was going on: his daughter was sick, he had a meeting with his probation officer, his grandmother needed help, etc.. But then he fell behind, and even the excuses came at longer intervals. I emailed him — told him he could still make up the work if he’d come meet with me. But eventually, he disappeared. This is not unusual, but it made me particularly sad in his case. I believed in him. I wanted him to win.

I’m not sure I would have remembered his name out of context, but because his obituary ran with a picture, I did. It said that he died in his sleep. I have no idea what that means. Did he overdose? (I didn’t remember whether or not he referred to drug use in his past.) Had he been ill? (No mention of this in the obit.) Was it just one of those times when an aneurism ruptures or a heart explodes or the body cruelly betrays an otherwise perfectly healthy person? There is no way to know.

Reading through the obituary, there are no clues. He is survived by his parents (no mention of a step father — maybe I just wished that) and his three children. It says that he attended college, but doesn’t mention whether he graduated. That’s the least of what I’ll never know about William.

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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.

December 1, 2011

Rhonda: the addict

I didn’t notice Rhonda for the first couple weeks of the quarter. A middle-aged woman who sat in the back of the room and listened carefully, she rarely participated. One evening after class (we met once a week for three hours, which was grueling enough, let alone that class let out at 9:45pm) she asked if she could speak to me.

She was, she told me, suffering from lupus, and lately had been having some pretty unpleasant symptoms. She held up her fingers, the tips of which were wrapped in bandages.

“My fingertips have split,” she said. “I’m not sleeping very well because of the pain, so if I seem out of it, it’s not you.”

Somehow I resisted screaming “Omigod your FINGERS HAVE SPLIT??? OUCH!!”

Instead, I offered a sympathetic and professional “Thanks for letting me know, Rhonda. If there’s anything you need or if you have to miss class for any reason, just let me know.”

“I will, Ms. Professor,” she said, her voice a little ragged and her huge brown eyes sunken slightly in her face. I wondered how I could have neglected to notice she was ill.

Sure enough, she was gone the next week. And the next. This was about ten years ago, before students communicated with me via email. She never called, and I had no way to reach her. Each time I saw her empty seat, I privately worried that something terrible had happened to her.

When she returned to class, she was like a different person. As tiny and waif-like as she had been, now her stocking cap and thick wool coat nearly swallowed her whole. She shuffled into the classroom, sat in back (as usual) and struggled to stay awake while I spoke. After setting the class to work on a group assignment, I went over to her.

“I’m glad you’re back, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”

She looked at me, her huge eyes glassy, her formerly clear brown skin mottled with gray. When she spoke, her speech was slurred.

“The pain got so bad I finally had to go to the emergency room. The medicine they gave me helped, though. It’s called OxyContin. They use it for cancer patients,” she chuckled, “it’s that strong. But at least now I can sleep at night. I can take care of my babies.”

Her “babies,” I knew, from her introductory paper, were nearly grown men: big, strapping boys of 16 and 18 who played football and adored their Mama. I hoped they were taking care of her.

At the time, I had barely heard of OxyContin. Just a few months earlier, another student had written a paper about this relatively newly available drug and its terribly addictive properties. He worried that it was being used indiscriminately when its original intent had been to treat intractable pain in patients too ill to function anyway, not unlike morphine. He wrote about a black market, about junkies crushing the pills and snorting them, about addicts hooked after a single use, about physicians prescribing it in emergency rooms.

The next week, Rhonda was even more out of it. She approached my desk on a break, and with eyelids at less than half mast, asked me to explain what I had just gone over.

“I’m not sure I understand the assignment,” she murmured, barely intelligible.

I did my best to clarify the details for her, but I could tell she wasn’t getting much. She barely stayed conscious the rest of the evening, then shuffled out the minute class was over.

I stayed behind to answer a few stragglers’ questions and pack up my bag, and just as I was leaving, Rhonda reappeared in the doorway.

“I can’t remember where I parked my car,” she slurred. “Can you help me?”

“You drove here yourself?” I tried not to sound as horrified as I was. I wanted to tell her she was nuts, that she had no business driving, that she was being overmedicated, that she needed help. But instead, I just said, “Why don’t you call one of your sons to come get you?”

“I have the car. They don’t have any way to get here.”

Had this happened now that I’ve been at the same school for 11 years, had it been at a time of day when not every single campus office was closed, had I not had a babysitter at home who had to be home by 10:30, had I been more willing to venture well outside the comfort of my usual boundaries, I would have called her sons or found out where she lived and taken her home myself. Instead, I just said, “Let me walk with you. I’ll help you find your car.”

I knew that there would be a security guard in the parking garage, and sure enough, one of the friendly regulars was there, bundled up to his eyeballs in the frigid February night.

“Sir, this lady needs help finding her car and getting home. Perhaps you can find a campus police officer to help her?” I looked at Rhonda, wondering if she’d be embarrassed, but she was too far gone to care. Then I patted her awkwardly on the arm, told her to be safe, thanked the security guard for his help, and hurried off to my car.

Rhonda never came back to class, but I thought about her all the time. I took to skimming the obits in the local paper, wondering if I’d see her name, and what the cause of death would be: Rhonda Simpkins, age 42, of complications from lupus.

Six months later, I was in the college library with a research class when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Rhonda. I was so happy to see her I almost grabbed her and squeezed her. She looked great. Healthy. Alert.

“It is so good to see you, Rhonda. I was worried about you.”

She told me she had been through rehab and had been clean for a few months. That she had been so badly addicted to OxyContin she’d almost died. That she didn’t remember very well the last time she’d seen me or what happened that night, but she was sorry I’d had to see her that way. That she was reenrolled and starting classes anew. That her boys had been wonderful, and her lupus was under control. I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Then I gave her a hug and she went on her way. I haven’t seen her since.

I never found out what happened that last night she was in my class. I don’t know if her sons came to get her, if campus police took her to the hospital, or if she somehow drove home herself, God forbid. All I know is that I passed her off, and that things turned out okay either in spite of or because of that. That’s good enough for me.

October 3, 2011

Quincy: the gentleman

I’ve said many times that my classes are composed of unlikely combinations of people. Currently, my oldest student is well into his 60’s, my youngest not yet 18. Even as a veteran teacher, it is somewhat daunting for me to presume to teach anything at all to someone twenty years my senior. I know I have something to offer them, but I also know that they have an awful lot on me in terms of wisdom and life experience.

And yet, it is these older students — sometimes those with the least skin in the game — who are the best learners. Sometimes, they’re the best teachers.

Quincy was one such student. But it wasn’t his age that impressed me when I first met him; it was that he was the consummate gentleman. He wore a tie to class every day, and a Fedora. He would doff his hat as he sat down at his desk, perching it neatly on top of his books–a simple act that might have seemed foppish or calculated from someone younger or less elegant than he. He insisted on calling me ma’am, which I found somewhat disconcerting from someone old enough to be my father.

During discussions, Quincy took copious notes on a yellow legal pad in neatly slanted longhand. He listened intently to everything I said–to everything anyone said, and he nodded and sometimes even muttered a “yesss!” or an “uh-huh!” in agreement, as though he were in church. He asked plenty of questions, and I did my best to answer them, even though they were often prefaced by comments so tangential and rambling as to be unintelligible. I’d try to wait politely for him to get to his point, resisting the urge to make a “wind it up” gesture. His classmates sometimes rolled their eyes and glanced impatiently at each other telegraphing “here he goes again” to one another and squirming in their seats.

It’s always a challenge when there’s one student who dominates discussions or gets off topic or compulsively argues. I usually don’t have any trouble steering those people back on course. But for some reason, I found it nearly impossible to do this with Quincy. Moreover, I didn’t want to. He was so eager, so earnest, so genuinely seeking to understand and persuade, I just could’t bring myself to shut him down. Sometimes, he’d turn to his classmates, shake a slender finger, and preach right to them: about commitment, about racism, about hard work and sacrifice. I was not surprised when I found out he had been a minister.

His writing was as discursive and strangely poetic as his speech. When I worked with him on drafts, he’d listen intently and nod. I could tell, even as I spoke, that he often wasn’t following me when I talked about organization and unity and transitions between ideas. His vocabulary was good, and there were these lovely nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout his papers. But punctuation was a mystery to him. Trying to get him to write in any way other than stream-of-consciousness proved nearly impossible. I hated putting grades on his papers. I could’t justify anything higher than a C for most of them, so riddled were they with comma splices and nonsequiturs. I cringed inwardly every time I handed one back.

“There are so many wise insights in your papers, Quincy. You always say something I haven’t thought of or make me see something in a new light. But you understand, I have to take writing conventions into account when I grade…” I’d apologize as I showed him his paper, riddled with corrections and question marks and marginal notes in my handwriting.

He’d listen and nod, telling me he understood and not to worry–that he was enjoying the course and learning plenty, and that he wasn’t worried about the grade. Then he’d smile and pat my hand, put his Fedora back on, and tell me to “have a blessed day, Professor.”

I’m not sure Quincy’s classmates always appreciated him. I’m sure many of them thought of him as an eccentric old man, but I hope they listened to him, too. If they had been more patient, they might have noticed that there was another, wiser teacher in the room.

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?”

“What?”

“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?”

“Seventeen.”

“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.

June 29, 2011

Olivia: the basket case

“Ok, I have all my sources for the research paper. Now, what’s due next time?”

Olivia had stayed behind to ask this question despite the fact that I had spent the last twenty minutes of class explaining that very thing.

“The research proposal is due next time, Olivia. You shouldn’t be gathering sources until your proposal has been approved.”

“What’s the research proposal?” She looked at me blankly.

“The short paper I just assigned. Just now.”

“So we’re not supposed to be conducting research for a research paper?” she said accusingly, looking at me through narrowed eyes and brushing aside the lock of hair that perpetually hung over one of them.

“Of course you are–just not yet.”

An exchange like this one happened nearly every time Olivia came to my twice-a-week class. She made it most days, but almost never without being 15 or 20 minutes late. She made a lot of racket coming in, and noisily settled herself at her computer. If I was speaking when she came in, she would go straight to her seat, but if the class happened to be working on something, she’d come up to the front of the room where I was seated at the instructor’s podium and start in on an elaborate explanation — always in full voice and peppered with way too much personal information. She spoke entirely in run ons and nonsequiturs.

“My son woke up this morning with welts all over his legs we’re pretty sure it’s bedbugs so we’re going to have to move out while the exterminator fumigates the place but my mom just got evicted so we can’t go to her house and my boyfriend isn’t exactly on speaking terms with his family so I have no idea where we’re going to be living over the next week or so so I’m not sure what I’m going to do about getting my school work done and my car is in the shop and my boyfriend can’t drive because his license is suspended so I may have to bring my son to school with me next week if I can even get a ride because we can’t really afford daycare and we can’t be in the house with the bedbugs so it’s going to be sort of a weird week.”

I waited for her to take a breath, nodding sympathetically and trying divine one single piece of information that was at all relevant to her performance in my class.

“Sorry you’re having such a tough week. How can I help you?”

It is not unusual for my students to need a break now and then, when their families, jobs, transportation issues and health interfere with their schoolwork, but Olivia needed one every single week. More frustrating, though, was that she never, and I mean never, paid attention in class. She was always hard at work, her keyboard clacking loudly, but she was always doing the wrong assignment, the next assignment, or the assignment that was due the day before.

“Olivia,” I said one day, exasperated, “you have got to start paying attention to what’s going on in class. If you will just stay with us, you’ll be fine. Reading ahead to figure out where we’re going isn’t helping you. If you get too far ahead, you’re going to have to redo a bunch of your work. It doesn’t make sense to do research before you have hammered out your question. Trust the process.”

Or, that’s what I wanted to say. In the course of my plea, she interrupted me at least three times. “But I don’t have a computer at home. But I already know my topic. But I already know how to do that.” You get the picture.

I’m not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of teacher, and if I had thought Olivia were equipped to go it alone, I probably could have tolerated her refusal to conform to my schedule. But she wasn’t. She was obviously bright and curious, but her writing was a mess — often tumbling out in the same haphazard stream of consciousness her speech did. I found it nearly impossible to communicate with her.

Other students started to notice her, too. They were annoyed by her tardiness and by the fact that I would frequently have to interrupt class to ask her to stop typing when I or one of her classmates was speaking. When she did participate in discussions, her contributions were often overly personal reactions to the material that derailed the conversation. In short, she was exhausting.

The day she insisted she was going to write her term paper her own way, I finally had enough:

“Olivia. Stop,” I said. “Stop talking. Listen to me. I am the one who is grading your paper. I am the one who designed the assignment. If your paper does not meet the course objectives, you won’t get a passing grade. Do you understand that?”

This pulled her up short. She looked at me, again with narrowed eyes, her thin face pinched. Finally, she sighed.

“Well, okay,” she said, and turned on her heel.

Apparently, something had finally sunk in. She managed to get through with a C. Her final paper was really quite well-researched and informative, if a bit disorganized. Still, I was somewhat relieved to see her go.

And then she turned up in my lit class not two weeks later. It was not a course required for many majors, so I was surprised to see her there. And I wondered why, when she had been so disdainful of all my pesky requirements, she’d take another class from me.

The first day, she approached me when class was over.

“Are we really going to need the book?”

“Well, it’s a lit class and the book is an anthology. I don’t see how you can get by without it,” I said as good naturedly as I was able.

“Well, I’m on financial aid and I can’t really afford it.”

“Oh, well, you can probably get away without it for a week or so, but as soon as you get your money you’re going to need to buy it. In the meantime, I might be able to get you a loaner.

“Oh, no. That’s not the problem. I got my financial aid check. I just can’t afford to spend it on books. My boyfriend just lost his job and it turns out it wasn’t bedbugs but fleas and my son is allergic and scratched so much he got an infection so we had to get an antibiotic and we don’t have health insurance and we have to get rid of our dog…”

I didn’t have the energy to explain that using financial aid funds for personal living expenses was fraudulent. I knew she wouldn’t listen. And as it turned out, the point was moot. She didn’t make it very long this time. She showed up to class with her visibly ill toddler one day. Once her boyfriend actually stuck his head in the door of the classroom and said he needed to see her “right now.” By the end of the third week of the quarter, she had disappeared.

Olivia seemed to live in a constant state of crisis and upheaval that probably just overwhelmed her. And while I was relieved to get her through one class, I was sorry when she disappeared entirely from the second one. I had hoped she might persevere — that one class at a time, one crisis at a time, she might get herself out of whatever mess she was in. But sometimes, chaos wins.

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.

May 23, 2011

Nathan: the patient

Since we are an open enrollment commuter school, and a “teaching college,” it is part of our responsibility to teach students how to “do” college. Data consistenly show that success rates are heavily correlated to attendance (duh) so if we can keep bodies in seats, we can improve outcomes. To that end, and unlike a lot of four-year institutions, we have a mandatory attendance policy in most of our classes.

I am deeply ambivalent about this. One of the hardest parts of my job is keeping track of excuses. Because their lives are so demanding (nearly all of my students work; many have kids; some commute an hour each way; you name it) there are plenty of good reasons people miss class. With 125 students per quarter, it can be a recordkeeping nightmare to keep up with excused and unexcused absences, tardies, and makeup work. And when students are a) adults, and b) paying tuition, it sort of seems like it should be up to them to decide what they want to get out of the experience. I try not to take it personally when people don’t show up, but I do.

It especially galls me because of students like Nathan, who never missed a class. Ever. He always did the reading, he never missed a deadline, and he (most shockingly of all) frequently read parts of the book that weren’t assigned, just out of curiosity.

When he asked to do his research paper on stem cell research, though, I was disappointed. We spend a lot of time brainstorming topics so the proposals they write end up being something that might actually be useful to them, rather than just busywork for a grade. Surely he could come up with something more original than that.

“Why that topic, Nathan? Surely there’s something more relevant to your life.”

“I’m diabetic,” he told me. “My kidneys have failed. I spend six hours a day on dialysis. Researching a cure for this disease is pretty relevant to my life.”

Gulp.

We chatted for a while about what he hoped to learn, about whether a pancreas transplant would work for him and what advances were being made. He was politically conflicted — a Republican who was very unhappy with then-President Bush’s restrictions on stem cell lines.

Finally, I asked him how he managed to keep up with school (and work, and life in general) when he was hooked up to a machine for one quarter of his life.

“Dialysis has made me the student I am,” he told me. “For six hours a day, I have no choice but to sit still. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t spend it watching t.v. or playing video games or messing around online. When you’re on borrowed time, you don’t waste it.”

He went on to describe the setup he had at home, his bedroom serving as both his office and his clinic. I couldn’t help but try to imagine how much better my other students would do if they would devote six hours a day to school work. But then, I can’t imagine anyone–myself included–having that kind of discipline.

Despite his considerable challenges, Nathan looked perfectly healthy. He was thin–maybe too thin–but his color was good and his energy level completely normal. Had it not been for our conversation, I would never have known he was sick. He managed his diabetes just fine, but it was doing a number on him anyway.

His final term paper was smart, informative, and balanced. He concluded that the most promising therapies for type I diabetes would have to rely on stem cell research, and he cogently addressed the ethical issues surrounding it without getting bogged down in identity politics. It was a great paper.

I don’t know what became of Nathan, or whether he got his transplant–a kidney, a pancreas, or both–or even whether he’s still alive. But I think of him now and then when some kid skips a class or misses a deadline and makes a lame excuse. It’s not exactly fair to say, “Nathan got an A when he was on dialysis for six hours a day, and you could’t make it to class because you had a fight with your boyfriend? Really? You overslept because you were playing World of Warcraft until 4am? Really? You didn’t bother to even make an excuse? Really? Do you know how much harder you could have it?”

But I don’t say any of this. Instead, I try to give my students the benefit of the doubt without being a sucker. I try to make it worth their time to come, with natural consequences if they don’t. I try to make them want to come to class for intrinsic rewards. And I enforce the stupid attendance policy, just in case.

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?

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