More on the Basement of the Ivory Tower
An essay in June's Atlantic Monthly, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," bemoans the difficulties of teaching developmental students.
"Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes," writes the anonymous Professor X. "Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence."
And this, according to Professor X, points to a larger failure in our society:
"No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty."
The Atlantic essay is beautifully written and much of it rings true. I've certainly participated in my share of grouchy end-of-term rants about impossible students. But I think we're charged to avoid that absolute thinking about students who "will never pass," "can never write a coherent sentence," enrolled in classes "they cannot possibly pass." If you think that way as a teacher, you're doomed. We have to add the word "yet" to all of those clauses: "cannot write a coherent sentence . . . YET." "Cannot possibly pass . . . YET." After all, where's the challenge in teaching students who could just as well learn on their own? Why revel in the successes of students who have had spectacular home advantages before arriving in our classes and who go forth to connections, cushions, and opportunities far beyond the norm? The truth is, we have little to do with those folks' life outcomes, even if the emotions of graduation day make them hug and thank us for teaching them the finer points of Hamlet.
I'm with Holly, who writes on Community College English: But what of the glorious optimism of the community college mission? (Pardon the violins...) In the face of too many underprepared students and, probably, too many students whose ceiling-level abilities do not stretch to college-level, what do we say to that one individual student who wants to try?
Not only that, but many have thought about the larger implications of admitting underprepared students to univerisity life. We've been doing it in the USA since the first Harvard students in 1636 "had to be tutored because they did not know Greek and Latin well enough to study classical works written in those languages," according to Hunter Boylan's introduction to "Teaching Developmental Reading." The 1960s and 1970s were all about reopening the universities to older students, to the poor, and to minority students.
Boylan also points out that, given the declining size of this country's workforce and the increasing demands on it, "we can no longer afford to deny educational opportunity to those who might not yet be fully prepared to take advantage of it." We need workers who can read, write, and think critically.
We in academia are supposed to be the smart ones, the super-educated ones, the ones who can theorize about anything. It's our job to figure out how to get all those underprepared students from incoherent sentences and certain failure to a decent level of success. That might even be more important than the another metafictional analysis of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles. (And before my fellow medievalists jump down my throat, that's my master's thesis I'm dissing.)