Tuesday, June 08, 2010

"Just Read the Eudora Welty Story Already"

or

"In Which I Mix Metaphors Wildly, As Though This Post Is A Mime Stuck in an Invisible Box and So He Has No Place to Hang His Hat Because It's Not His Cup of Tea, and Then He's Carried Away on a Wave of Emotion That Leaves His Heart Desolate, a Veritable Sahara Desert"

Summer session began last week, and I was immediately reminded that the nub of my job is closing gaps.  For everyone, college does some bridging:  from past to future; from who one was to who one wants to be; from never having had a beer to imbibing a twelve-pack every Monday ("Rock ON, dudes!  Chug for Monday Madness!"). 

At the community college, the bridges we build often call upon a multi-faceted team of engineers, from teachers to administration to student services to counselors to the diversity office to the learning center.  The bridges we help students build can be quite complicated, spanning miles, requiring the construction of depth as much as breadth.  Put another way, many students enter our college having never read a book. Many of them, even when given a layout of all the points they've earned against all the points that have been possible, cannot figure out the resulting percentage. Every term, when I distribute the final exam in my Novels class, half the class reads over the questions and then asks me what the word "resonate" means.  I used to tell them to get a dictionary and look it up; nowadays I tell them to hit dictionary.com.  Either way, their reaction is a blank, unbelieving stare.  Even more tragically, I had a student my first year of teaching who had never before met a period or a comma and proved that quite stunningly in his first five-page paper.  Of course, that was when I was teaching in the panhandle of Idaho, so he'd probably spent his formative years grasping a semi-automatic and firing off bullets from Ruby Ridge in lieu of grasping punctuation and firing off pithy bon mots.

Hence, while I am ostensibly passing on some content in the classroom, the truth is my job is more about looking at where a student is, looking at where a student needs to get to, and creating a catwalk between those points.  That, I'm used to.

What I often forget, however, is that the bridges need to be built in a variety of directions--education does not follow a simple Point A to Point B trajectory.  I'm also building bridges between where I, the teacher, am and where the students are.  Sometimes that means I'm a standard-bearer who is waving a flag and asking students to run towards it.  Other times that means I see my students far off in the distance, ahead of me--better read, more articulate, crazily analytical--and I realize I need to kick it up a notch if I hope to remain in the race.  Sometimes, the chasm between our life experiences seems unbreachable; I have students who have served in Iraq...two times...three times, and then I have students who have never left their hometown, even to visit the state next door (a ten minute drive).  In both cases, I am left gasping at how my own experience has left me ill-equipped to comprehend their world views.

Even more, in addition to the gaps between the students and myself, and the gaps between the students and the material they are expected to master, there are the peer-to-peer gaps between the students.  It seems wrong, in fact, to use a collective term like "students" when there is such variety even within one class.  I have had an 88-year-old minister and a 16-year-old skateboarder sitting in the same room.  I have had women working their way out of domestic abuse enrolled in the same class with domestic abusers; in this case, my job is to run interference so that these individuals never intersect, even on the most innocuous of assignments.  I have had meth addicts and former nuns sharing a classroom--imagine the rousing "Hail Mary" that issued forth when the frustrated addict yelled "Fuck this" and stormed from the room after glancing at the grade on a returned essay.

These discrepancies in values and experience are highlighted when the class peer reviews each others' papers, when they swap drafts and attempt to critique the writing of their classmates.  Last semester, a very dear pony-tailed, acne-ridden hardcore gamer wrote, with some excitement, an essay on e-sports (particularly the rise of Starcraft in South Korea).  Throughout the process, I cautioned him to keep his audience in mind, to make sure he explained all of his terms and imagined that a 75-year-old grandmother would be reading his work.  By the time he wrote his final draft, I (the 75-year-old grandma) was able to understand his topic and points, but his peer reviewers remained bewildered.  Having never heard of Starcraft or e-sports or, in one case, South Korea, they could only sputter, "I didn't really get this paper."  Poor Gamerboy had poured hours into his research and writing, only to be told, "I didn't really get this paper."  The bridge between Gameboy and his readers was rickety, built out of rotten timbers and frayed ropes.

Based on two emails I read last week, as my online classes geared up for the summer, I foresee similar issues arising this term.  Read for yourself:

Hi, Jocelyn! (What a fabulous name. I used it for a main character in one of my novels years ago.)

I'm looking so forward to starting this class with you!

My home school is Ichabod Community College, but I've taken online courses with host schools DCC and LSC as well. I encounter the same dilemma every semester: not getting my financial aid until after my online courses have started, ergo no books. Not to worry! I'm a dean's list student, and I work very hard to catch up then excel! I've taken about eleven online courses, and I am confident with it. I just feel it's fair to let my instructors know that I cannot get books until about a week or two into the semester.

If you would ever provide me with the ISBN for our texts, I'd be so grateful. Now, please let me know if there's anything I can do for you! Thank you so much for your time.

~Marion~

P.S.

Outstanding intro on our home page. I laughed out loud.
------------------------------------------------------------ 
 
Hi, Marion:

Thanks for touching base and for the kind words. I'm named after a lullabye in a French opera of the same name: "Jocelyn." You presume correctly if you guess my parents were musicians.

I put the titles of our texts into the magic Google machine and get these ISBN numbers:

For the American 24-Carat Gold:

ISBN-10: 0205617654

ISBN-13: 978-0205617654

And for the World of Short Stories:

ISBN-10: 0205617662

ISBN-13: 978-0205617661

The good news is that our first few short stories (the ones for next week) are anthologized heavily and pretty well known, so if you just search them online, you'll be able to read them from the Web and, thusly, not get behind (which is helpful since I don't accept late work). Please remind me, if you haven't gotten your texts by the end of next week, that you need the Writing Prompt for the first Reading Log, and I'll type it into an email for you.

I am always confounded by the financial aid system that makes it so hard to get textbooks from the very start. No worries, though!

You're going to be a terrific asset to the class; I can tell already.

Jocelyn
----------------------------
That first email from Marion was followed immediately by this one, from a different student:

Hello,

I just tried to send you a page with the pager but it says that it is disabled because I have not filled out a student services work study quiz because I work as a Campus Ambassador but the quiz I'm supposed to finish is not available anymore so I do not know if I will be able to send you a page... but I do know how it works!! Let me know what I can do about this!

Thank You!!!

Madge Smith

-----------------------------------
Hi, Madge:

I'm a litttttttttle bit confused. First off, here's a copy and paste from my syllabus, which is at the top of the Content page in the class: "Also, please note that I don't use the pager feature of the class, so don't even try it, Mugsy."

Clearly, knowing that information is important, as I'll never get any pages you try to send. Email or the "Ask Jocelyn" folder in the Discussions area would be the best ways to contact me.

I don't know what a "student services work study quiz" is--never heard of it!--so don't worry about it. Just know that I don't use the pager, and it's not an issue.

So what were you trying to page me about in the first place?

Jocelyn
----------------------------------------------------------
After reading those two emails, back to back, I was left pondering anew how to bring together such disparate students coming from such disaparate levels of preparedness.  How will they read and respond to each other's thinking?  How will Marion make sense of Madge's spinning brain?  How will Madge understand the big words Marion uses?

Fortunately, we all will unite around the material of the class:  reading short stories.  I leave it to Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, O. Henry, Kate Chopin, Juan Bosch, Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, Roch Carrier, Grace Ogot, R. Sarif Easmon, Guy de Maupassant, and Leo Tolstoy to provide all of us, from whichever direction we come, with common language, common experience.  They are the finest of bridge builders.

I just hope Madge doesn't try to page Tolstoy.

17 comments:

yogurt said...

So Madge uses no periods, only exclamation points. Bet you can't wait to read her papers!!!

secret agent woman said...

Should be another interesting semester. Kind of similar to the incredibly wide range of patients I get in my small town. Ain't no specializing here!

Do all you students call you by your first name? That's not done at the college where I've done adjunct teaching - everyone goes by Dr. or Mr//Ms.

unmitigated me said...

Madge wouldn't try to page Tolstoy, silly! She'll text him with her iPhone...duh!!!

alwaysinthebackrow said...

What an amazing collection of people you must have as students. I love the picture you have painted of all of these people from so many walks of life discussing their thoughts about Tolstoy. Holy crap! (in honor of your nun) There can't be any better advertisement for the universality of the human experience.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

Hahahahaha. The trials of a teacher. Once might think a college teacher wouldn't have such diversity. I know better.

How I wish I could sit in your class this summer. I can picture your face as your students speak. I'll try to keep mixing my own metaphors to keep you on your toes.

Jocelyn said...

Citizen: They struggle enough with "Jocelyn"; my last name is ten times harder. Plus, I'm pretty informal, so I've made the choice to be fine with Jocelyn.

Midlife: The class is all online, so only my husband gets to see the reactions on my face...

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I really love this analogy. And, as always, you really make me laugh!

Becky Cazares said...

Yay for the 88 year old minister! I somehow feel an affinity. You gave me a new perspective on why all college syllabi have deep and extended explanations on how many points you must earn to achieve your desired score. I truly didn't know some students couldn't do percentages. Yikes! I expect that's less likely with my upper division accounting peers though… I hope.

I always hated "peer review" time in English 101 because, at age 50, I felt completely at a loss as to what I was supposed to do. I figured that everyone had their own style of writing and it would be an imposition for me to mess that up. Darned if those kids didn't come up with some pretty good suggestions for my work, though.

As an older student, I find myself imagining the kinds of emails professors must get from these kiddos and you've just painted a wonderful portrait of them. I both envy and pity you, and all my college profs. I always make sure I'm brief and to the point whenever I have to email them because I know they are dealing with so much whine and fluff. Can't be easy! Wish I needed a few extra credits, cuz I'd definitely sign up for your online course!

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Please submit this to the English Journal. And threaten them with bodily harm if they refuse to publish it. THIS is the truth of college that the Ivory Tower cannot see with their blinders of prestige and privilege. Plus, this is hysterical.

Jeni said...

When I started my college classes -at age 46 -I thought everyone else there had at least had the basics of math and grammar instruction. Like maybe in 4th or 5th grade or so. Boy, was I wrong!
Capitalization seemed an unheard of entity -for openers -and whoever would think to need a comma to kind of well, break things up a tad or a period to end a sentence and before starting something new. Spelling was another item that must have become a lost art or subject of learning from my days in elementary school to the 90s (when I began college) but what really amazes me to this day of such heavy computer usage and supposed knowledge, that so many people have never heard of or don't know how to use good old spell-checker. Works wonders, it does.

And the excuses these kids could come up with for why they hadn't finished an assignment or the arguments they would have with the professors over exam questions and answers to try to scrounge around a get a half-point better grade totally amazed me. But then too, my previous experience in a learning setting had been one in which you NEVER questioned the instructor about test answers which were graded, handed back to you and that grade wasn't quite what had been expected, ya know!
Just trying, at various intervals, with the stepgranddaughter here to help her review a little for a test or some such, was often a totally mind-boggling experience to see how little she had absorbed of what I felt was or should have been, a part of the extreme basics of education. And now, she's been accepted to attend college, majoring in Ornamental Horticultural Design, and why or where she came up with the idea to study this is also beyond me!

Jazz said...

Another interesting class no doubt.

As a Quebecer, I can't help but wonder what you're going to read by Roch Carrier. Who knew he had made it to Minnesota.

Jocelyn said...

Jazz: We read "The Hockey Sweater"--it's a favorite of the sports fans in the class, those who wear their Minnesota Vikings jerseys on game days. Personally, I don't get it.

Meg said...

What great fodder for your next novel! I would think that the mix of students at a community college would keep you more sane than an entire class full of smug, over-privileged brown-nosers like some of yoru ivory tower colleagues might encounter, no?

lime said...

it's an interesting soup you get to stir, isn't it?

Someone's Mom said...

FYI That "Jocelyn" opera was composed by Benjamin Goddard, French, in 1898. - And doesn't that namesake just WRITE!!!?!!!

Michelle Wells Grant said...

You've got the hardest job, requiring oceans of patience, tolerance and flexibility! God bless ya!
I've been away so long that I'm way behind on your antics! I've missed your humor and insights!

Patois said...

I'd worry more if she says Tolstoy received her page.