Students and the Joys and Travails of College Teaching

July 16, 2014

Argentina's Pablo Zabaleta lies on the pitch as Lionel Messi stands beside him after losing to Germany in the final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AP via http://usatoday.com).

Argentina’s Pablo Zabaleta lies on the pitch as Lionel Messi stands beside him after losing to Germany in the final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AP via http://usatoday.com).

Maybe not to that extreme, but there are circumstances where teaching a college course can be a joy or torture or even sometimes both at the same time. Some of this has to do with the actual nature of the course, some of it with my disposition, some of this with the types of students that walk through the door. But, in teaching somewhere around sixty courses since ’91, working with a civic education nonprofit and consulting with another one, I’ve found two large categories of students who have made teaching more enjoyable over the years, though not always an actual joy. One group has been graduate students, the other high school students aspiring for college.

There are a number of reasons why, of course. Some are pretty easy to understand. High school students aspiring to go to college or taking college-level courses are often ambitious and motivated, students who are amenable to learning. Graduate students often aspire to be better at their specific profession of study, which in my experience, has this group of students essentially aspiring to be some version of me. Even the brown-nosers in both groups tend to have the motivation necessary to be better students, or at least, to look like they’re better students.

It also has helped over the years that the several hundred high school and graduate students who’ve been in my classrooms have actually wanted to be there. Doing a week in Washington to learn how Capitol Hill really works, or a summer course at Princeton on AP US History or taking one of my undergraduate course over the years at the University of Pittsburgh, UDC and UMUC, those students (and their parents) made the choice to take those steps. Those students wanted to get into a college of their choice, to be well prepared, to make themselves better students, and perhaps even, better people.

History graduate students have choices, for the most part, in terms of which graduate seminars they take and in their specific cultural, geographic area and time period focus. In my experience teaching school of education courses, though, at Duquesne and George Washington University (courses like History of American Education, Multicultural Education or History of American Education Reform), the students I’ve taught in those courses chose to be there. They chose to read as many as eight books in eight weeks, to write term papers and research papers and do original research. Those students wanted to become better as teachers, as researchers, and in a few cases, to become college professors themselves.

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country's World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/worldcup2014/).

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country’s World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via http://www.dailymail.co.uk/).

So what’s different teaching undergraduate courses with undergraduate students? Well, they’ve tended to complain the most about general education requirements, ones that require them to take a course in US or World History (my African American History students are generally happier about taking the course). But that’s not all. A fair number have treated me as their enemy, not as their professor or a teacher invested in their learning. Of course these students were in school to complete a degree. But college was no longer an aspiration. It was now a reality, with all of the responsibilities and complications that come with the five-year march toward a four-year degree. For traditional college-aged students, there have always been competing interests, the need to organize a life that involves working 15-20 hours per week and some semblance of a social life, and attempting to figure out a major (often not history).

With my adult learners, those pressures come from at least three directions. The personal pressure to perform academically, the workplace, familial and parental pressures, and the pressure of learning how to be a college student on the fly. Add to this mix the general lack of academic preparation for college for those over twenty-five. All of this has frequently led to a combination of insufficient motivation to learn — even when I’ve explained the “what’s-in-it-for-them” piece — and a quiet hostility toward the process of college matriculation. For this group as a whole — traditional college students and adult learners — aspirations can frequently turn into Being and Nothingness, or rather, a state of being and meaninglessness.

This mindset has been the most difficult aspect of my job as a teaching professor over the years. It’s somewhere between extremely hard and absolutely impossible to teach students whose minds have been closed to learning or self-improvement, whose idea of an education is a piece of paper and a rubber stamp. That most of those students who’ve made my work most difficult are undergraduates isn’t surprising, though. That’s part of the job.

Still, there are times where I miss those days when I taught or worked with high school students fully motivated to get into college, who already had a sense of where they wanted their lives to go. There are times when I miss a grad student angling for a higher grade or with a real interest in my writing and research. For better and sometimes for worse, at least they’re interested in the learning enterprise.


Teaching Teachers – and Learning, Too

June 5, 2013

Sad teacher, May 9, 2013. (http://www.guardian.co.uk).

Sad teacher, May 9, 2013. (http://www.guardian.co.uk).

I’ve been in a classroom as a lecturer, teaching assistant, teaching fellow, instructor, or professor off and on since November ’91, and consistently as an adjunct associate professor for the past five and a half years. I’ve taught roughly 2,000 students in that time (not counting the high school students I worked with when I was Director of Curriculum with Presidential Classroom in ’99 and ’00). I’ve probably had about 100 or so difficult to impossible students in that time. But no group of students I’ve taught have been more difficult for me to work with than teachers, actual and aspiring. Yet I’ve learned more about teaching from teachers in my classroom than from any other group of students.

This month marks fifteen years since I taught my first graduate course, History of American Education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. It was my first opportunity to teach since I’d graduated from Carnegie Mellon University the spring before. It didn’t necessarily show. I figured out fairly quickly, though, that the students in this required education foundations courses weren’t the wide-eyed grinders I had during my Carnegie Mellon years.

Twenty-two students in all were in my course, and nearly half of them were already in the classroom at suburban schools scattered through Western Pennsylvania. Most of my students had at least five years on me, and the youngest was my age, twenty-eight years old. I had only one Black student, and a classroom full of ready-to-be-bored White women with low expectations for any history course. On top of that, we were supposed to meet for two hours a day, five days a week for six weeks. And all for the wonderful salary of $1,935!

Canevin Hall (where I taught for four semesters, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, June 5, 2013. (http://w4.campusexplorer.com).

Canevin Hall (where I taught for four semesters, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, June 5, 2013. (http://w4.campusexplorer.com).

I wasn’t intimidated. But I probably should’ve been. I taught the course as if I was teaching a watered down upper-level undergraduate history course, great if the course was only for history majors or high school history teachers (of which I had two or three). With so many actual teachers in my classroom, though, I realized by the beginning of the second week that they were privately critiquing my teaching style. They noted that I lectured too much, that I didn’t facilitate discussions well when I did have discussions, that my paper assignments were too open-ended for a group of classroom and aspiring teachers.

A student who didn’t like their B+ on the first paper assignment aggravated some of the tensions in this first class. She stood up during my review of their first papers and yelled that her master’s “thesis committee didn’t find as many problems with [her] writing” as I did. I said in response, “Well, I didn’t read your master’s thesis or grade it, for that matter.” Just short of losing control of my classroom, I met with the student in the hallway to settle her down (albeit by threatening to report her actions in my classroom to the dean) after that class meeting.

That first semester resulted in a love-hate relationship with the teachers I taught. Most truly liked the way I related US history to the short and winding history of American education. About a sixth of my students tore me apart in evaluations, criticizing everything from my lecture style to how I pronounced certain words with a “New York” or “Black” accent.

This only grew worse in my fall ’98 graduate course. I truly thought I’d drawn the worst group of students ever. Fourteen in all, and none of them seems interested in earning an MAT (Master’s in Teaching), much less in an ed foundations course. They never seemed to do the readings, much less understand them.

Chicken and broccoli stir-fry over rice, February 2013. (http://slimimzsolutions.com).

Chicken and broccoli stir-fry over rice, February 2013. (http://slimimzsolutions.com).

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, one of my students brought a chicken and broccoli stir-fry dinner to class, which she proceeded to eat during the lecture portion of my class. She continued during the break and into the discussion. No one was prepared. I finally asked, “How many of you have done the readings for this week?” Not a single student raised their hands. I immediately dismissed the class for the week, adding “there’s no need for us to have a discussion this week, then.” I said to the female student intent on eating her way through a three-hour class, “Now you have plenty of time to eat. Don’t bring your dinner to class again.”

I was so frustrated with this group of students. I mean, they were grad students, right? They seemed about as motivated as a group of ninth-graders at a low-performing school, on the verge of dropping out. I decided to do some background checking into my students, and realized that most of them barely met the 2.5 GPA requirement for the MAT program at Duquesne.

That’s when I also realized that some of what my students had said about me during my summer course was correct. I did lecture too much. I didn’t devote enough time to discussion. I never discussed what I wanted to see in their papers. Most importantly, I didn’t meet my students where they were before raising their expectations in their own academic performance. I treated them as if I didn’t care if they learned the material, even though I obviously did care.

I immediately began to apply these minor epiphanies in the last six weeks of this class, with my students more involved as I became more of a facilitator and less of a lecturer. While this group was hard on me in their evaluations, they also noted how their views of history as teachers had changed. Meanwhile, my views on teaching had changed, and for the better.


Grading and the 21st Century Professor

September 3, 2012

Between a rock and a hard place, The Simpsons (movie), September 2, 2012. (http://clubsnap.com). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws –  low resolution.

The Chronicle of Higher Education and other prominent periodicals have been talking about the precarious rise of grade inflation for more than two decades now. Article after article and story after story has shown professors at elite and public institutions lowering their standards and bending into advanced yoga positions to give students higher grades than they’ve earned. All to ensure a minimum of contention over grades and maximum scores in student evaluations of their courses.

But what of the many professors who don’t want to lower their standards but so far, who can’t ignore a student’s lack of attendance or participation, their late assignments or attempts at plagiarism? For those college instructors, they can expect more grief and stupid ass excuses from students, not to mention lower evaluation scores.

Sigmund Freud hanging by one hand by David Cerney (1997), Prague, September 2, 2012. (http://swick.co.uk/). Qualifies as fair use – pic has low resolution.

For tenured professors, particularly those at research universities, this doesn’t matter at all. For some tenure-track professors, instructors at teaching-focused liberal arts colleges, and the army of adjuncts that are the majority of instructors at the college level, this could mean the difference between steady employment and homelessness. It’s a sad situation when folks aren’t secure enough in their jobs to actually do the most difficult parts of their jobs, to evaluate a student’s performance accurately and to confront students whenever they violate an academic code of conduct.

It was part of the deal that I made with myself when I began teaching my own sections and then course as a graduate student twenty years ago at the University of Pittsburgh. To be fair and flexible, to be tough when necessary, but to be compassionate when the circumstances called for it. For the vast majority of the 2,000 or so high school, undergraduate and graduate students I’ve taught since ’92, that has been a workable philosophy. It’s even gotten me the occasional praise and recognition for being a very good professor.

Of course, I faced the occasional student who complained to me about their grade. Most of those students were C students looking for a C+ or a B, or a B+/A- student hoping for an A. Really, prior to my current faculty position, I had only had three complaints of any major consequence. One was from a student who managed to never show up for my US History to 1877 sections the spring semester of ’93, who failed the final exam so badly that I let him get away with his attempts at cheating — his cheat notes were that bad!

The other two came from two students in my History of American Education graduate course in the summer of ’98 at Duquesne University. One thought that someone as young (and as Black) as me could give her a grade lower than an A, while another harassed me with emails for a month because her A- in my course ruined her 4.0 average. Though an adjunct, I stood my ground, knowing that I had the support of my department chair.

Since starting my current teaching position in January ’08, I’ve faced a couple of dozen situations in which students have complained about their grades. I think I’ve only taught three courses out of about twenty in the past four years in which I haven’t fielded any complaints from students about their grades.

Most of these complaints have been really ones about me not accepting every cockamamie excuse for a late assignment or plagiarism. Excuses like their Internet or their access to the university’s online classroom platform being down. Or not knowing that cutting and pasting ten pages’ worth of other people’s words for a ten-page history research paper was in fact blatant plagiarism. Or that their jobs, last-minute deployments (which were hardly last-minute), children (who in many cases were teenagers), three car accidents in two weeks or other life challenges managed to get in the way of them submitting multiple assignments on time, even with extensions. But somehow, when I’ve held these students accountable and assigned an appropriate grade, I’m the bad guy.

That the students I teach these days are technically adult learners (I say “technically” because they don’t act like adults when they complain about their grading) actually makes this matter worse. Whether in the military, married with children, or working a full-time job, these students in their twenties, thirties and older tend to complain, beg, threaten me and then beg again. It’s exhausting to constantly have to persuade students to read my syllabus in order to make them understand that the rules and rubrics I’ve laid out are the reasons for their F, D, C or B.

But no matter the vitriol I provoke from assigning a grade, I also have to be careful in my language, emotions and tone. That is the reality that is teaching in many higher education institutions today. It is unfortunate, for there are many students who don’t understand that being a student requires being a responsible and ethical adult. Whether seventeen or seventy, whining, complaining and threatening your professor for a higher grade is completely unacceptable, and deserves at least a little sarcasm in response.


The Quest For Work, Past and Present

August 21, 2012

Down and out on New York pier, 1935, June 2009. (Lewis W. Hine via FDR Presidential Library). In public domain.

Election ’12 should be about how to generate more jobs and how to grow the economy. Sadly, it hasn’t been about these issues, and given the toxic political and cultural climate, it will not be about jobs or the economy when this cycle ends on November 6.

I’ve seen this horror movie of economic downturns and mini-depressions in American society and in my own life now three times in the past thirty-five years. Each time, I’ve been better prepared, more informed, more able to ride out the storm. And each time, I’ve seen the ugly side of what we call the United States of America, a place that has and will continue to punish the unemployed and underemployed for problems beyond their control. Especially if they were and are women, young, over forty, of color, and among the poor.

In the period between ’79 and ’83, when the effective inflation rate for that four-year period was more than thirty-five percent, when we experienced a double-dip recession, when interest rates reached 22.5 percent. My mother’s meager income of $12,000 in ’79 didn’t keep up, even as it reached $15,000 in ’82. We were late with our rent at 616 by an average of three weeks each month and didn’t have food in the apartment the last ten days of any month, going back to October ’81. Things were so bad that my mother, a supervisor in Mount Vernon Hospital’s dietary department, brought food home from the hospital kitchen for us to eat for dinner several times each month.

“Negro Women,” Earle, Arkansas, July 1936, August 21, 2012. (Dorothea Lange via Library of Congress/http://libinfo.uark.edu). In public domain.

The good news was, Mount Vernon Hospital’s employees went on strike for higher wages and increased job security in mid-July ’82. The bad news was, although Mom was a sixteen-year veteran, nearly fifteen of those as a dietary department supervisor, Mom never joined the union. She didn’t want to pay “them bloodsuckers” dues, and said that she “couldn’t afford them” anyway.

I can only imagine how much spit and venom Mom faced on her way to work every day for three weeks. Considering our money situation, which I knew because I checked the mail and looked at our bills every day, picketing and getting union benefits might have been better than working. It wasn’t as if there was food in the house to eat anyway. As much as I enjoyed Mount Vernon Hospital’s Boston Cream Pie, I thought that picketing for a better wage was the way to go.

Soon after I started eighth grade, the other shoe dropped. Mom, so insistent on not joining Mount Vernon
Hospital’s union, was the odd woman out. The hospital’s concession of five percent increases per year over three years left them looking to cut costs. The only personnel left vulnerable were non-union service workers and their supervisors. My Mom had been cut to half-time by her boss Mrs. Hunce. Mom was screwed, but it was a screwing partly of her own making. It was the beginning of a two-decade-long period of welfare, underemployment, unemployment welfare-to-work, with an associate’s degree along the way. So much for hard work leading to prosperity!

I’ve gone through my own periods of unemployment and underemployment over the years. The most severe one for me was between June and September ’97, right after I finished my PhD. It was the first time in four years I hadn’t had work or a fellowship to rely on, and it was brutal. I did interviews with Teachers College and Slippery Rock University for tenure-track positions in education foundations, only to finish second for one job, and to see the folks at Slippery Rock cancel the other search. In the latter case, I think that they felt uncomfortable hiring someone of my age — twenty-seven — and my, um, ilk (read race here).

What made it worse was the fact that I couldn’t simply apply for any old job. I did actually try, too. McDonald’s, UPS, FedEx, Barnes & Noble, among others. I couldn’t even get Food Stamps in July, because my income threshold for March, April and May ’97 — $1,200 per month — was too high. And because I technically was a student for tax purposes my last two semesters at Carnegie Mellon — even though I was adjunct professor teaching history courses — I didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits either.

Shuttered Homestead steel mill, 1989, August 21, 2012. (Jet Lowe/Historical American Engineering Record). In public domain.

I had to omit the fact that I had a PhD to get a part-time job at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which began after Labor Day ’97. I ended up teaching as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University’s College of Education the following year. Still, my income level did not return to where it was my last year of graduate school until June ’99, when I’d accepted a position with Presidential Classroom in the DC area.

I am nowhere near those times of being considered or treated as a statistic, marginalized in media and in politics as being lazy, shiftless, not smart or hard-working enough. But as a person who teaches near full-time and has more than occasional consulting work, I know how precarious and temporary work can be.

Ironic, then, that the people making decisions that have put people like me and my Mom in terrible financial straits have never missed a meal or not paid a bill because they were choosing between heat and not making phone calls. That most Americans regardless of party affiliation shun the poor, unemployed and underemployed is a shame and a pitiful example of how we really don’t pull together during tough times.

These attitudes are why rugged individualism and hard work aren’t enough to get and hold a job. An education, a real social safety net, even regulation of the job market, would help level the playing field for millions. Or, maybe some of us should learn Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Arabic or Portuguese and move to where the jobs really are.


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