The Atlantic magazine has a wonderful essay by a part-time instructor discussing the challenges of teaching (and taking) English 101 and 102 at “colleges of last resort”.
While his campus may have some of the trappings of ivy league, the students sitting in his classes are a combination of middle of the pack recent high school graduates and those coming to higher education after a real-world break.
The goal of English 101 is to instruct students in the sort of expository writing that theoretically will be required across the curriculum. My students must venture the compare-and-contrast paper, the argument paper, the process-analysis paper (which explains how some action is performed–as a lab report might), and the dreaded research paper, complete with parenthetical citations and a listing of works cited, all in Modern Language Association format. In 102, we read short stories, poetry, and Hamlet, and we take several stabs at the only writing more dreaded than the research paper: the absolutely despised Writing About Literature.
The bursting of our collective bubble comes quickly. A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught.
Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.
Much of that doesn’t sound a whole lot different from what most of these students were probably doing in their high school English classes.
This particular teacher feels a genuine bond with his students in a way that the “full-time, tenured professors” don’t (or can’t).
But my students and I are of a piece. I could not be aloof, even if I wanted to be. Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up. I’m working a second job; they’re trying desperately to get to a place where they don’t have to. All any of us wants is a free evening. Many of my students are in the vicinity of my own age. Whatever our chronological ages, we are all adults, by which I mean thoroughly saddled with children and mortgages and sputtering careers.
At the same time he also wonders whether many of his students even belong in college, despite the expectation set by society that anyone who doesn’t hold a degree is somehow substandard.
So, is it his students who are failing?
Or is the problem that the structure and curriculum of a “normal” college education has been designed for a world other than the one in which they live and work?
Read the whole story. You may recognize future versions of some of the kids sitting in your class right now.
Even if you do teach here in Lake Wobegon where “91.6 percent of high school graduates continue on to some form of postsecondary education”.