I am writing from the 11th week of our semester and kicking myself. What was I thinking agreeing to write a post at the end of April? So here you have my most honest and unfiltered thoughts now that I am nearing the end of my first year teaching community college full time.
Wow. It is hard. It is brutally hard on my body in a way that is completely unfamiliar from my previous experiences in higher ed. Teaching so many students at two different campuses requires much more communicating than I have done as an academic introvert. And it’s not just the teaching/ meeting with students/ grading responsibilities. While my students try to complete freshman writing, they are dealing with childcare worries, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction in their families, and significant health concerns. While I have been decent at setting boundaries in my past teaching experience, I find the cumulative weight of teaching in poverty conditions is starting to get to me. I am even questioning where those boundaries should be now that I am seeing life seep into school for all of my students. Is it really fair to ask them to talk to me mainly about their classwork?
In graduate school, I taught one writing course, or one literature course at a time. I usually had 25-30 students and there was a quiet consensus among grad students that we should be terrifying on the first day of class so that we could shrink the enrollment. This seems completely illogical to me now. In a research-focused culture, students (especially struggling, unmotivated, or underprepared students) are a distraction from the real work, and if they don’t learn, that is seen as their own fault. In a community-college context, it’s the opposite. We have a massive course completion problem that becomes a degree completion problem and a transfer problem. So I am slowly learning to change my ideas of student effort, and the value of resistance in those students who I would have ignored or allowed to drop. What is truly surprising to me is that my colleagues and I shared a belief that we were engaged in a social justice mission as educators in a public university. How can so many motivated scholars miss the glaring flaw in our teaching practices?
I’m looking forward to reading Alexander Astin’s new book Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students after I saw his interview in The Chronicle this week. I was struck by this passage:
“We concentrate far too much on our smartest students. Smartest in the traditional sense, kids who get the highest grades and test scores. We put tremendous emphasis on these students to the detriment of everybody else — the average student, the underprepared student. We have created an institutional structure that reflects this bias. Teaching an average student doesn’t get any value in academia. And a side effect of all this is we define smartness in a very narrow sense.”
In elite environments, innate talent shines brightly, especially for those whose intelligence aligns with the cultural values of whiteness and wealth. I remember a friend of mine in high school whose family paid for her to take the SAT 6 times, with a test-prep course before each attempt. I can’t imagine how much money they spent on that test. She ended up doing very well eventually and found herself at an elite university in the northeast. This is not a judgment of my friend or her family- I can see why they would use their resources in this way. It is rather a belated indictment of an academic system that I cherished because I thrived there. Now that I work in rural poverty, I cannot believe how wrong I was. Teaching engaged students who live on a verdant campus and get fed every day was easy for me. I plan to do a lot of writing in the future on what I would have needed to do in graduate school to prepare for the career I have now.
So that’s really it. I am exhausted in week 11 and thinking about how elitism works, particularly about how I was able to thrive in academia and how much I need to learn so others can thrive here. I welcome your thoughts.