Friday, May 16, 2008

"The Ivory Tower Basement"

This morning I found an article from Atlantic Monthly in my RSS feeds called “The Ivory Tower Basement”, written by a community college adjunct professor identified only as “Professor X” who teaches basic English composition courses. He discusses the American ideal of everyone being educated, and everyone going to college. Yet, it is clear to him that not everyone should go to college; not everyone has the aptitude. He fears that he sounds like an intellectual snob for even saying it, but the facts speak for themselves.

In one of my many roles, I am also an adjunct professor, in Library or Educational Media programs. These are usually graduate level courses at universities, and for the most part, I don’t run into the kinds of issues that are cited in the article. However, I did teach aspiring school librarians at a particular place that shall remain unnamed, and I was appalled at the writing and grammar skills possessed (or not) by many of them. They were graduate students, but felt no need to pay attention in class. They were very vocal about their grades, as they needed a certain grade to get compensation from their districts. Some of them were very good students, but the bad ones really stood out to me, mainly because they WERE schoolteachers. All I could think was, “you can’t even put a basic sentence together, and you’re teaching elementary school children??” How do these people get into a college course, never mind graduate school?

The university I work for (not the same as the school mentioned above) has prided itself on being a “business school” for years. I work in the university library, and we get copies of students’ Masters’ theses. It is rather disconcerting to see the misspellings and poor grammar in many of these theses—and astonishing to see the professors who have signed off on them. Some of the misspellings are right on the title page of the work. Nothing like ruining your university’s graduate program reputation right on the first page!

The Atlantic article got me thinking of all of the teacher/student conundrums I have come across on both sides of the fence. As a freshmen in college, I didn’t have my priorities straight the first year, which is probably not uncommon. After my first “C”, I decided I had to get my act together, and was nearly a straight-A student after that. When I went for my first Master’s degree, I was taking 5 classes (NOT recommended), working 3 jobs, and was a newlywed in what turned out to be the Marriage From Hell. By the end of my first semester I had mononucleosis. I was still in the MFH while working on my second Master’s, and was in a corporate job that gave me a grand total of 9 days off per year. Once I left my corporate job for a university job, it became easier to do my graduate work because I had more time and breathing space.

Why even mention these things? Because I know what it’s like to be a student under pressure. I have been blessed with the ability to write and have a command of the English language, which is probably how I got through most of my coursework at those rough times. But even with that aptitude, I found it very difficult at times to balance my family life, work life, and school life. When I look at my graduate students, I tend to be more lenient, because I have a pretty good sense of what they’re going through. However, that doesn’t mean compromising academic integrity. I agree that you don’t do students any favors by giving them grades they don’t deserve.

From my own experience, I have seen 3 reasons why students do not excel:

1. Life gets in the way (students are too tired/overwhelmed to make the effort)
2. Students are not making the effort out of laziness or indifference
3. Students are making the effort, but don’t have the competence to excel

I think many graduate students, and students who return to school after many years, fall into the first category. The second category is a frustrating one, if not understandable from time to time; the fact is that students are just not interested in some of the courses they have to take. Students in the third category should not have been steered towards college at all, but go anyway because it’s the only way to get a job, or be promoted.

In a country that does value education (and as someone who personally values education), it sounds outrageous to say that some folks shouldn’t go to college. But it would be nice if our culture did not tout the college degree as the calling card of intelligence and ability. I can see the value of a liberal arts education in terms of teaching people about the wider world and how to evaluate its ideas. But do students really care about that? How many times have I heard “I’m going to take courses that will get me a job, not this philosophy stuff”? The word “scholar” comes from the Latin word “schola”, meaning “leisure”. The idea was that a scholar had time to contemplate the world—that person was a person of “leisure”. They were not out plowing the fields or doing other kinds of labor. While that kind of separation seems elitist today, it is clear that trying to marry the college-as-vocation view with the scholarship-as-contemplation view does not always work out so well. Both types of skills are needed for different reasons, but not everyone is suited for both.

I will be teaching undergraduates for the first time this Fall in my pet subject, Religious Studies. It will be interesting to see how that experience compares to the graduate teaching experience. I hope that I will not encounter the same issues “Professor X” encountered, as I am not at a “college of last resort”, but I need to be prepared for anything.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I think it's wonderful that you're teaching Religious Studies in the Fall. Lucky students!
You're right, of course, about the lowering bar. I see it in the private schools in which we've lived/taught. Money talks. Kids are commodities and parents are the customer, and in education, at least, the customer is always right.
It wasn't all that long ago that a middle school student would learn Latin and Greek alongside the Queen's English.
Elitism isn't necessarily bad... (what about eugenics?)