The incomparable Taylor Mali, in his poem What Teachers Make, explains that:
I have a policy
about honesty and ass-kicking:
if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.
A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine at TCC circulated an email asking professors what we think our students’ strengths and weaknesses are in our respective classes. Of course, she asked for the weaknesses first – I really wish she’d asked for the strengths first; that was a much harder question.
Anyway, I sent her my observations of where my students struggle, and she returned with a question about where I thought the roots of those problems originated. She wanted my opinion, and I gave it to her.
Here’s the email that I composed over the course of a couple of days. I’ve got to tell you, I has some serious reservations about hitting the “send” button:
J, if I’m going to be honest here – and I recognize that sometimes honesty is a dangerous policy – I’d have to say that, while I think that the root of the problem lies in the generally rotten quality of primary and secondary education in our country – especially as it’s been sabotaged by standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, I think that a lot of OUR specific trouble comes from a lack of stringent standards when it comes to the kind of work that we expect of TCC students.
I recognize that we’re essentially a technical school and that our lack of admission standards means that we shouldn’t expect the same things from our students as other institutions should expect from theirs, but I’m not sure I agree with that as a policy (or, more accurately, perhaps, as a culture). I don’t think that it’s wrong for us to demand more quality work from our students across the curriculum; culinary and med. assist. and photography students – indeed, ALL of our students – should be able to read and write and speak well and eloquently – these aren’t skills that are the sole property of four-year degree students – or of English majors. I know for a fact that students turn in abominable work to their program professors that they wouldn’t dream of turning in to me – their program professors aren’t going to dock them for their rotten writing (in some cases, they won’t even call them on it – last term, during the Constitution Week celebrations, I saw a poster with GLARING grammatical errors that was mounted and displayed as part of the Bill of Rights presentation. I even got a photo of it). My point is that if we don’t expect the same high standards across the campus, that sends the wrong signal to our students. If we don’t care, why should they? (I realize that a lot of this culture comes from the desire for retention; the whole conundrum of education for profit (much like health care for profit) is something that will take smarter people than I to sort out.)
I think we do our students a major disservice when we make allowances for them because of the culture of the college or the lowered expectations of the student body in general. If anything, I think we should expect MORE of them; these are the kids who are going to have to work that much harder to prove themselves specifically BECAUSE they didn’t attend a more prestigious school or BECAUSE they “only have an Associate’s.” These are the kids who will be taken advantage of because they didn’t get the breadth of education that their four-year peers did, and I think that we owe it to them to send them out into the world – whether they’re going straight to work or on to more education – better prepared than I feel we currently do.
I may be WAY over my boundaries as an adjunct, but I really care about these students and I take my job – and the ethical and professional responsibilities that come with it – very seriously. I feel frustrated that most students don’t come to my classes (or, from what I hear, to my colleagues’ classes) with any sense of urgency or commitment, and I want to figure out a way to make them realize that they may be attending a little, low-prestige, two-year program, but that what we have to teach them is terribly important and they should take it seriously, especially BECAUSE we only have them for two years.
You did ask, however….
J emailed me back the other day and essentially said that she was grateful that I’d not only taken the time to respond to her, but that I’d pretty much hit the proverbial nail on the head as far as the culture of the school goes. “Thank you—for all of it,” she said, “…for your articulating this problem so eloquently and for caring so much…we are lucky to have you.”
I near about deflated with my sigh of relief. I was horrified that my missive would land me in hot water – or worse, the chopping block. Well behaved women may not make much history, but they generally get to keep their jobs.
J met up with me in the copy room this morning and fired a warning shot that she may recruit me to help her institute a cultural shift at TCC. I may be called to run faculty workshops about writing standards, she may ask me to help her write guidelines and best practices manuals, and she asked my permission to tell others what I told her. I answered “yes” to all of it. TCC needs an attitudinal readjustment, and if it happens, I’ll be proud to be a part of it.
(you can buy the button here)