At the beginning of my junior year at the University of Pittsburgh (’89-’90), I took a cross-listed English lit and Black Studies course on African American women and men in literature. I took it partly to fulfill a writing requirement, and partly because I wanted to explore literature written by Black authors for once.
Besides the decidedly poor view of Black men in this literature — no doubt why Tyler Perry sees no need in developing a Black male character with the minimal complexity of a Worf of Mogh from the Star Trek franchise — there was another issue I needed to overcome. It was a 5:45 to 8:10 pm class on a Tuesday evening. Prior to the fall of ’89, I’d only taken one course that started after 4 pm, an assembly language course, and I withdraw from it after switching my major to history the previous fall.
But this course was great, despite books like The Women of Brewster Place and A Woman’s Place. I knew what some of the smartest Black women on campus thought of me before I opened my mouth. But much more important than that, I got to know a greater cross-section of students than the traditional daytime students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Nontraditional students — adult learners as we educators call them now — populated our classroom.
They were housed in the College of General Studies, which didn’t mean anything negative to me. Some of my older friends from my freshman courses were CGS students, and were sharper in wit and wisdom than many of my Honors College friends and Humanities classmates from Mount Vernon High School in New York. They added tremendously to this course, and made it so much more fun than I would’ve had with other twenty-year-olds.
I ended up taking six 5:45 to 8:10 courses in my last two years of undergrad, and two more evening courses my first year of grad school at Pitt. They were some of my most memorable courses, with a diverse student population because of CGS, with students who were fully capable of performing well in a college setting. In part because counselors and other student services staff at CGS were available to help these students overcome their relative lack of academic preparation and because almost all of the courses these students took were fully integrated into Pitt’s course schedule.
It seems obvious. But treating adult learners with the care they needed and giving them courses that any traditional student could take made them feel more at home, and probably were significant factors in the success I saw so many of them have.
Fast forward eighteen years to my two semesters as an adjunct professor at Howard University. Besides
the laziness of the students in my Teaching Black Studies course — not to mention the stuffiness of the faculty (imagine referring to all of your colleagues as “Dr. So-and-So,” and not by their first names) — the main problem I had with them was with the times offered for my course. They originally wanted me to teach on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday noontime schedule. But I worked full-time, and preferred to teach an evening course. The Afro-American Studies department compromised, and gave me a 5 pm course that met Monday-Thursday during the summer.
My fall course, though, fell through, as the latest Howard wanted to schedule it was at 4 pm, and then mislabeled the course on top of that. It was a ridiculous experience, dealing with underprepared and entitled, spoiled students, not to mention a lethargic faculty and administration. I learned later that Howard didn’t offer evening, weekend or distance learning courses at the undergraduate level. I learned soon after that many universities — historically Black and otherwise — were more like Howard than they were like my student and teaching experiences at Pitt, Duquesne and George Washington.
There’s real money that universities — especially HBCUs — are giving up to maintain a false sense of the college experience for faculty and students alike. Even among traditional students, working part-time jobs and having expansive extracurricular activities makes it difficult to fit appropriate classes in between 8 am and 5 pm. While online teaching is one way to go, putting together course offerings that fit the schedules of twenty-first century students is a better place to start.
While the Harvards, Yales, Princetons, and even Carnegie Mellons of the university universe can afford to act like its 1969 still, Howard, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and so many others cannot. You want to stay solvent and academically relevant? Dusting off the course booklet and looking at evenings and Saturdays to accommodate all of your potential students is a great place to begin.