Higher Education?

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I know college costs too much–not my fault. Anybody who sees my paycheck can tell you that. I know community college is often seen as pseudo-higher education–I have no control over people’s perceptions. I only know that I will continue to hold my students to a high, but reachable, standard. I know some instructors do not expect college-level work from their students–I’m not one of them. I know some advisors and administrators sincerely feel sorry for those with difficult life situations that often interfere with student success. I understand. I empathize with them as well. However, I can’t allow that to affect my judgement. I cannot, repeat cannot, let any of these considerations interfere with my assessment of students’ performance in my class.

To do so would be unethical.

Consider this: Let’s say I’m teaching a fully online foundational English composition course to a first-semester freshman. The student sends an e-mail the night the first major essay is due and says that they will not be submitting the assignment on time because they were working a double shift and were too worn out and sleepy to turn in their best work, so they are requesting, very politely, an extension.

Some people would say, “Oh, come on, give the kid a break!”

I say the kindest thing to do is, as gently as possible, deny the extension. Why? Because….

  • I accept late work that carries a significant grade penalty, allowing the student to begin to learn important soft skills while still salvaging their grade.
  • the student may begin to understand that in the “real” world, people are expected to meet deadlines
  • the penalty stings enough to begin teaching the student a valuable lesson about time management
  • the student may learn that making excuses and blaming circumstances are only short-term solutions
  • the student has a better chance of developing a growth mindset, learning from their mistakes and becoming not only a better student but also a better person.

It is true that denying any student anything nowadays carries with it certain risks. There is always the chance that the student, or the student’s parent, will complain, not to me, an instructor with no tenure and little power, but to one of my many supervisors, saying that I am being unreasonable and that I should not only accept late work for assignments that students have known about for weeks or even months but that I should also award points for punctuality to an essay that was not turned in on time.

But I am willing to assume that risk for the student’s sake. I learned long ago that enabling students only helps make my life and the lives of my bosses easier. It does nothing to truly help the student or to foster the higher education that my college claims to provide.

Student Teacher–Teacher Student

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If I can put aside my oh-so-fragile ego, I can learn a great deal from my students. I am trying to listen more to what they say. One way I am learning from my students is by requiring my first semester freshman English composition students to write a short researched persuasive essay on a topic that is relevant to our college specifically or to one of the communities it serves.

Students can choose from a list of research questions I brainstormed, or they can submit their own questions for approval. Most of the time, the students pick one of my groups of questions. One set that became much more popular during the pandemic has been about online learning:

  • What is our college doing to help retain online students? Is it enough? Why? or Why not? What are some things that other schools are doing that our college might do to help retain online students? Is our college doing any of these things? 
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This short summer semester, without any prompting from me, two of my best students chose the same group of questions. After research, including separate personal interviews with the college’s Director of Teaching and Learning, my students argued two different, but similar, theses. Happily, both recognized the students’ role in their own success and offered suggestions for what students could do to help themselves complete online courses with the desired results.

However, one student emphasized the faculty’s role in improving online retention, and the other argued that the administration could take steps to help more students achieve success. I found both viewpoints interesting and insightful.

So, what did I learn?

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The two big takeaways–Faculty should interact more with students, and administrators need to lighten instructors loads so that students can do so. Wow! I mean, my students didn’t teach me anything I didn’t know already. I’ve been saying it for years; however, what is new is hearing about the importance of interaction and building a personal relationship from online students themselves, one who has had six semesters of online classes at my institution.

Both students indicated how helpful it is when instructors quickly respond to inquires and return graded material as soon as possible. This is the first time, however, that I have had a student discuss the administration’s responsibility to be sure that faculty do not have an overload.

Their arguments are well-taken.

A case in point was my schedule this summer. I had three classes and a shortened semester of ten weeks instead of sixteen. Since I have been teaching sixteen-week English composition in eight weeks the past couple of years, ten weeks seemed like a summer vacation. With the lighter load, I was not only able to communicate more often and with more detail but also had time to develop my courses and further refine them for our mutual benefit. In addition, I was able to hold more live virtual sessions and record them for the sake of students who could not attend the sessions. Students mentioned how helpful these sessions were.

Both students mentioned the need for proper advisement when students are registering for online classes. Sometimes, they said, students are ill-prepared for the rigor of online classes and may not possess the time-management skills to be successful. I have found that some of my eight-week online students are not even aware that they are taking an accelerated English course and quickly drop out.

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One student mentioned in their essay the problem of recruitment taking precedence over retention. This point resonated with me. For example, on more than a few occassions, I have had developmental and other ill-prepared or otherwise weak students placed in my eight-week courses, or even worse, with advising restrictions removed since the pandemic, students are signing themselves up for classes, which can easily lead to misplacement. Most of these students withdraw; the expectations and pace are simply too much.

The hope is that administration will return to advising restrictions, but the lure of classes filled beyond capacity, and the funds that generates, so far seems to be too strong. As long as enrollment numbers are considered above all other considerations, including limiting the number of students in online classes, hiring more instructors, and better preparing them, I, and two of my most talented students, recognize that we will most likely continue to have low retention and success rates in online classes despite the efforts of even the most dedicated and talented faculty.

I’m not a doctor, or am I?

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Many people look at higher education as a business. Staff and administrators with no close ties to the classroom can, and maybe even should, look at it that way.  The leadership at the college where I work believes strongly in the business model for education, and that’s a-okay with me.

In the end, I think when they say, “run this place like a business,” all they really mean  is”organize this place like a successful business with happy customers and employees.” Those tasked with strategic planning, raising funds, balancing budgets, managing payroll, processing complaints, and other important institutional purposes are right, to a great extent, if they see the college as a business and  the students as customers.

However, as a faculty member, especially one who is tasked with helping students become more competent readers and writers, I would be, excuse the Southernism, in deep do-do if I treated my students like customers. Here are some reasons why I don’t:

  • The customer isn’t always right. Besides being a dismally outdated expression, it has almost always been poor business practice to believe that the customer is always right. Furthermore, it would be a ludicrous attitude for an English teacher to have because one of the biggest aspects of my job is pointing out how my students are in error and helping them correct and avoid those mistakes in the future.
  • My classes are often a required part of every student’s curriculum, a requirement that an increasing number of my students resent having to take. However, more and more businesses and institutions are telling educators, as I wrote about in a recent blog post, that the reading and writing skills of many potential employees are inadequate. Employers are turning more and more to colleges and universities, especially two-year colleges, to help bridge these gaps. Therefore, although my immediate customer, the student, does not always see the need for advanced technical writing skills and comprehension of complex texts, the college’s stakeholders most certainly do, or should.
  • Customers hire people to do things for them; I require my students to do things for me. A business model approach would put the emphasis on me doing things for my students instead of my students working for me. Of course, I am tasked with disseminating the information clearly, but I can’t help a student who does not complete assignments in a timely manner. The few students who are hyper critical of me tend to be ones who have put the onus of their education on me, which deprives them of developing in the subject.
  • Generally, one should not discipline a customer, but I must discipline my students. I spend a portion of almost every class managing disruptive students. I must also confront students when they are falling behind, correct them when their attitudes are inappropriate, and challenge them when they speak untruths or violate classroom policies.  If I am to be effective in the classroom, my students must see me as the authority, not only in subject matter, but also in matters of classroom management.
  • The classroom can not be dictated by customer satisfaction. Not that I don’t want my students to be satisfied and happy. I want them to enjoy my class, and  most seem to enjoy my courses very much. However, students must still earn grades. Sometimes, if students do not earn the grades they desire or if I do not conduct the class in a way that pleases them, they will criticize or blame me for their average or poor performance in the class. The same sometimes happens if I insist on adherence to class rules or the college’s policies and procedures. These students may be unhappy customers now, but down the road, they may thank their lucky stars that I challenged them, maintained strict standards, and disciplined them when necessary. If I treated these dissatisfied students as customers, I fear I would be far too conciliatory, and they would be harmed as a result.

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For these reasons and more, I like to look at myself as a doctor rather than a business person. Doctors and college instructors are both in the “business,” not of making money, but of enriching other people’s lives in a myriad of ways. We can only succeed if the patient or student is dedicated to exerting the effort needed to improve. My general practitioner and I talk a great deal about the similarities in our professions and share some of the same frustrations about how the customer approach, while useful in some ways, if taken too far, can be hurtful to both medicine and higher education. Here are some ways I see myself as a doctor:

  • Just like my doctor, I am an expert in specific disciplines, holding advanced degrees.  I have had five years undergraduate school with degrees in English and German, two years for a Bachelor of Science in English Education with graduate level classes in Chaucer, 17th Century English Literature, Modern British Literature, and American Poetry. My final degree took two years; I earned a Masters of Education and sat for comprehensive exams in 19th Century British Literature,  Rhetoric and Composition, Linguistics, and Curriculum Development, graduating summa cum laude. I was also awarded the Kim L. Brown Award for Excellence in Tutoring my first year and the Theodore L. Huguelet Award for Outstanding Graduate Assistant my second.
  • Just like my doctor, I must constantly seek professional development to stay current in my disciplines. I have attended numerous state and national conferences, including those conducted by the National Association of Teachers of English, The League of Innovation in Community Colleges, the Southeastern Theatre Conference, the North Carolina Community College System, and the North Carolina Writers’ Network, often times presenting, and always attending multiple sessions on issues ranging from developmental English to teaching advanced literature and creative writing courses to increasing student success and retention. I continue to read and study in my disciplines, as well as write. As I have written many times in my blog, I believe writing for publication is one of the best ways to become a better writing instructor. I practice what I preach, having published dozens of short stories in print and online publications, written two novels (working on my third) and having had four plays produced (soon to be five). Last year I launched the literary magazine Teach. Write.  35CCB4F0-960F-43DD-9348-E2C6A8D04B40(Submissions open until August 15–click to see submission guidelines) My third edition will come out on September 1.
  • Just like my doctor, I do my best work when I confer with students one on one. When students bring their papers to my office and we work on them together, they leave better writers. I can almost guarantee it. I have always preferred to teach writing one-on-one. When I can concentrate on one student and give her or him my full attention, I am at my best. I’m no slouch in the full classroom, but I’m best when there is just one student and little ‘ole me in the room.
  • Just like my doctor, I am an excellent diagnostician. I ask my students to write a diagnostic paper on the first day of class in my composition courses. After thirty years of teaching writing, it only takes a paragraph for me to have a good grasp of what a student’s primary writing issues are whether they be content, organization, sentence structure, word usage, grammar, mechanics, or a mixture of all of these, which is usually the case.
  • Just like my doctor, I must deliver bad news. It was very difficult for my doctor when I broke down after hearing a diagnosis of Type II Diabetes. Although my case isn’t particularly severe, my father, a double amputee, had died from complications of diabetes just two weeks before my diagnosis. Despite how difficult it was, my doctor had a moral obligation to inform me, calmly and compassionately, what was at stake and what my treatment options were. I have the same duty, not as severe maybe, but it can be difficult for some students to hear that I can not extend a due date, change a grade, or allow a re-write. I have had students dissolve into tears in my office over the stresses of managing school, work and family obligations. Trying to be as compassionate as I can while still maintaining my standards, I seek for a solution that will satisfy both of us–usually I do.
  • Just like my doctor, No matter how well-trained, experienced, compassionate, and effective I am, if the students do not accept my authority and follow my prescriptions for improvement, I am powerless to help them. I wish I could convince all my students that my methods, although they may be different than other instructors, really do work. Improvement, even over only sixteen weeks of instruction, can be astounding, under one condition–Students must dedicate themselves to applying what they’ve learned to the work as it is assigned. 
  • It is unfortunate that just like my doctor, although I am highly experienced and effective at what I do, many people, including those in the general society, sometimes do not recognize my expertise or don’t trust me to manage my own professional affairs. My doctor and I lament this sad fact more than any other. In her profession the insurance companies, hospital administrators, and patients, even though they are not the ones with the ability to deliver the required service, are increasingly the ones who make decisions that, in the past, were her purview–things like how much time to spend with a patient, which treatment options to offer, even something as basic as a diagnosis.

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So far, I’m happy to say, at my college anyway, although there have been moves toward standardized curriculum in some non-discipline specific classes, the English faculty still dictates what is in the English curriculum, and I, as an instructor, am given ample latitude, to conduct my classes as I see fit, as long as I uphold the college’s mission and the state’s expected goals and objectives.

I am sorry to say, however, the same can not be said for many of my colleagues. The overall move to standardize college-level instruction (mainly, it sometimes appears, to appease the data-collection gods) continues to alarm this 30-year teaching veteran. The short-sighted idea of making all classes look, sound, smell, feel and taste alike may be the kind of fast-food academic meal that pleases the palate of a freshman or sophomore, or fills the plates of the textbook industry, but what happens when students arrive at the four-year college or enter the work world and are suddenly asked to slowly eat a full, home-cooked, balanced meal, including green leafy vegetables and begin exercising their critical thinking, reading and writing skills to boot? I care about my students. I want them to eat right and exercise now!

Just like a doctor, I am tasked with helping sometimes unwilling patients/students look far into the future and see their lives ten, twenty, thirty years from now. I must convince them to take care of their academic health, building their strength with a diet of informative lessons and  strenuous writing exercises that will help them grow and develop, prepared for the rigors of the life ahead of them.

Okay, I’ve carried the metaphor about as far as I can, I know, so I will stop now. 

Wait.

One more thing. 

Reducing or eliminating faculty autonomy, also called academic freedom, in any area of curriculum, including planning, delivery, or assessment, will surely limit the diverse content, instructional styles, and varying assessment methods that effectively prepare college students for further education, training, and employment. 

Wait.

I can’t help myself.

The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC), which accredits colleges and universities in the southern states, seems to agree with me. Standard 6.4 (page 53) says:

The institution publishes and implements appropriate policies and procedures for preserving and protecting academic freedom.
(Academic freedom)

Rationale and Notes
The essential role of institutions of higher education is the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. Academic freedom respects the dignity and rights of others while fostering intellectual freedom of faculty to teach, research, and publish. Responsible academic freedom enriches the contributions of higher education to society.

If college-level education is to deserve the adjective “higher,” then it must offer students more than the homogenized curriculum of their elementary, middle school, and high school years. After all, as the great British poet William Cowper wrote in the poem “The Task,” (1785) “Variety is the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavor.”

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Trapped in a Cell

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A little while ago, I had a worse than usual incident with in-class cell phone usage. It was towards the end of class near the end of a semester when I was so distracted by a student’s texting that I asked him to put the phone away. He put it face down on the table in front of him. Less than a minute later, he was on the phone again. I asked him to put it away again. He put it face down on the table. I asked him to put it out of sight. He put it in his lap. I asked him to totally put it away, and he completely lost it, saying things I knew he would soon regret. (To his credit, he emailed me that evening to apologize.) I asked the student to leave for the day. He left, but reluctantly, and only after saying a few more regrettable things.

I have my own regrets: that I didn’t have a more clear-cut policy in the beginning of the semester, that I have been too loosey-goosey with inappropriate use of technology in my class. So, I have been drafting my new cell phone policy. It’s pretty hard core, at least compared to my previous policy. I know. I know. Some of you will think what a total marshmallow I must be, but like I told one of my teacher friends long ago, “You know what happens when a marshmallow sits on the shelf too long? It gets hard as a rock!”

So here’s the new policy:

Cell Phone Usage: Cell phone usage has become a major problem in my classes, distracting to the students who are texting or surfing, to those around them, and to me, making it harder for me to teach effectively. If I must consistently stop the class to discipline students on cell phones, I waste instructional time and risk embarrassing or angering the cell phone user as well as the rest of the students.

Therefore, I am instituting a stricter policy this year. Once class begins, phones are to be silenced and kept totally out of sight. Any student having a visible cell phone, holding, or using one during class may likely be asked to leave for the day, even if it is the first offense. If I am consistently having to ask any student to leave the class for violation of the cell phone policy, then I may submit a Behavioral Assessment Form to Student Services as described in the student handbook, which could result in further discipline, perhaps even suspension from the class.

What do you think?

Anyone want to share a policy that he or she has found effective?

I would love to hear from you. I have tried so many different things and nothing seems to work.

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It’s not too late to submit to the Fall/Winter 2018 edition of my online literary journal for writing teachers–Teach. Write. Submissions are open until August 1. Look here for submission guidelines.