Mike Rose, one of my favorite writers about the education of first-generation college students (and much more) has written an interesting post on a recent Atlantic Monthly article by a faculty member frustrated by the lack of preparation among many of his freshman composition and humanities courses.
The professor doesn’t come across as a bad guy, and he frets over the grades he must dole out. But what is so frustrating to people like me, certainly to those who told me about the article, is that the professor seems clueless about alternative ways to engage his students in the humanities and help them become more effective critical readers and writers. Nor does he seem to grant them much experience or intelligence that could be brought to bear on core topics in the humanities.
I share this deep frustration with the “cluelessness” among the well-educated middle class, while poor and working class people shoulder (and internalize) the blame when things go awry in school.
Rose writes that the stance of such educators is one of “shock or dismay or cynicism rather than curiosity and engagement.”
In an culture in which even enlightened, educated, and otherwise liberal educators rationalize away their own professional frustrations by inferring that the students before them are not entitled to even be in their courses, how do we spur our colleagues to the most basic level of curiosity about students from backgrounds very different from their own?
This article was reprinted in the Atlanta Journal Constitution over the weekend and I had the same response to it. No, the writer doesn’t come off as a bad guy, it’s clear he’s struggling with many things as well (he’s an adjunct working two jobs and talks about these woes quite a bit). And he actually touches on an issue I’m passionate about: multiple educational paths for different occupational/career desires. I also believe that the marginalization of vocational education is an enormous problem for all of us. HOWEVER he never once acknowledges that the students in front of him were likely from working-class or poor families and therefore were likely to have attended K-12 schools that had fewer resources, less qualified/experienced teachers, less access to technology, fewer high level classes, fewer opportunities for extracurricular activities, and on and on and on.
Additionally, though he writes about helping a student one-on-one in a computer lab, he ends up telling her that she simply has too many “deficits” and should go somewhere else to get more help. “Deficit” is an educational concept that he finds very useful, in fact, and instead of the engaged curiosity and interest toward students that Mike Rose suggests, this man is clearly focused on finding problems in students that he cannot fix.
Here’s when I want to say something mean and hateful about the guy who’s teaching at a community college as an adjunct as a second job because he has to. I want to ask why he has been unable to find a faculty position, why he has such limited education himself, why his likely lower middle-class positioning makes him think he is any better than the students in front of him, and why he thinks the “classic” books he mentions in the article have anything to do with teaching English 101. Does he not know anything about teaching?
As you can tell, my skin was crawling.
But yet, he is exactly the kind of individualistic, self-centered, and judgmental person we produce every single day in this society. K-12 schooling helped him get there, and his college years likely sped up the process. And he’s working in a college system that DOES operate on a corporate model: more students, more hours, more tuition and less salary and benefits paid to full-time faculty members.
In the end, the anonymous adjunct writer uses The Wizard of Oz to demean his students’ cultural capital and intellect. I would say to him, “Find your humility friend. You’re no better off than the scarecrow stumbling around for knowledge and the Great Wizards you’ve come across already have not prepared you well enough for what you are supposed to do either. You and your students are not so different after all.”