Success for Every Student

I stumbled across an essay entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” written by Professor X while looking for a picture of a professor for my Gravatar. The essay was published in the June, 2008 issue of the Atlantic Magazine.

The image is a good summary of the article. Students killed by pools of red ink and begging the instructor to change an “F” grade. In the background administrators gloat in this slaughter.

My experience has been similar to Professor X’s. While I wouldn’t call our college a “college of last resort”, our college has a mission to promote the success of every student and every student with a high school diploma is welcome. Similarly, these high school diplomas may be newly minted or decades old.

I love trying to convey to a class my passion for literature, or the immense satisfaction a writer can feel when he or she nails a point. When I am at my best, and the students are in an attentive mood—generally, early in the semester—the room crackles with positive energy. Even the cops-to-be feel driven to succeed in the class, to read and love the great books, to explore potent themes, to write well.

I also love those early days of the semester when “the room crackles with positive energy”.

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.

Ah yes, the worst part of the job is evaluation. I hate being judge and jury. I hate the realization that some students just don’t have what it takes to succeed. The question that Professor X and I then ask is “what do we do about it?”. Throughout his essay, Professor X mentions  these solutions to help the students succeed:

  • clearly stated learning objectives for each assignment
  • the use of analogy to explain the assignments
  • instruction on basic principles to bring students up to speed
  • using a textbook that breaks the assignments down into manageable steps
  • suggest the use of counseling and/or extra help to deal with deficits
  • providing feedback outside of class hours

Despite all of his efforts, students still do not succeed.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

I feel horrible for lowering the hammer. Like the image that accompanies the essay, I view the students lying in a pool of red ink, slayed by the pen.  Professor X struggles with the idea of lowering his academic standards so that students don’t get an “F”. I can relate to that struggle, but unlike Professor X, I’ve also faced pressure from administrators that depend on the financial income to keep students in the program. I stuck firm with the academic standards. I’ve always thought that if I didn’t have what it takes, I’d want to find out sooner rather than later. Some students keep trying, but I’ve also had others reexamine their goals and change paths because of their failure. I was pleased that these students found a better path that better suited their strengths.

Professor X asks whether it is morally wrong to even admit students that lack these basic skills.

We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns. Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

I’ve struggled with this dilemma too, but decided that everyone does deserve the opportunity and my job is to provide all the tools I can to make the endeavor successful. The students may fail the class, but at least they tried and within that failure may be a lesson for better opportunities.


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