Monday, December 8, 2008

Our Children and My Self-Induced Anxiety

I have figured out the true source of my anxiety. While there are some challenges in my personal life that warrant attention, they should not be causing me anxiety and vertigo. But I realized today as I got on campus, that the true source of my anxiety is acknowledging the degree to which so many of my students at the community college and university where I teach are ill prepared to be in classes at either the college or the university. At the college my students' lack of preparedness boils down to a deficiency in basic reading and writing skills. At the university, it is a lack of study skills and seriousness.

I've always advocated that not every high school graduate is ready or willing to attend college or university. Some high school graduates need a dose of reality and should go immediately into the work force. Thus, when they realize that their promotion opportunities are limited because they lack a bachelor's degree, then perhaps they will buckle down, get focused, and apply themselves.

My anxiety intensifies at the end of each semester when I watch the attrition rate in my classes rise, the failure of students to submit their final essays, and the increase in my students' lackadaisical attitudes. Then it is the deluge of e-mail messages and phone calls with the explanations for why they haven't been to class in two months, but really need a grade in my class. They always forget to say "passing grade." Yes, a failing grade is a grade, but my students lack the savvy to be specific.

I probably have more anxiety than usual because the majority of my students are U.S. Africans, and native Africans recently immigrated to the United States. Many have graduated from the public school system in this country. While I cannot fully blame my students' lack of preparedness on the public schools, I am seeing an increasing number of students who seem to have been simply passed through the system. Any student at the college level who cannot craft a coherent sentence has not only been passed through K-12, but also has been passed through freshman-level English courses: a prerequisite for every class that I teach.

So while I want to get to content, I spend too much of my time teaching basic research and writing skills. Yet, my students are not astute enough or lack the courage to hang in there with me and acquire the skills that they need in order to be successful. Either it is apathy or they disbelieve me when I tell them at the beginning of the semester, "if you hang in here with me and take this course seriously, you will not only learn the course content, but you will also have better writing skills."

Ultimately, my anxiety also hinges on my annual review. Last year, my colleague and I (the only two U.S. African in the department at the college at the time) were verbally reprimanded for having the highest failure rate in our courses. I succinctly explained to my chair and dean, that far too many of the students had been passed through lower-level English courses, and when I got them, they were woefully deficient in their writing skills. This year, I have put in place all types of mechanisms to make it virtually impossible to fail my class unless you produce and submit nothing. And some of my students are producing and submitting nothing.

How to solve this age old problem? Do I accept the fact that an entire segment of our population (mostly African and Hispanic students) are purposely under-educated? Do I continue to emphasize to my students the need to have excellent writing and critical thinking skills when they cannot see how these skills are relevant to their economic survival, no matter how many examples I give them? And how can a sorely underpaid college or university professor tell students anything about having marketable skills when they perceive my sole skill as teaching, a skill with limited economic returns from their points of view?

It is a complex issue. But it is an issue that I am not willing to abandon until I figure it out. I know that this country educates at least two kinds of students: the elite and everyone else. If you fall into the category of everyone else, but have the economic resources to attend school in an excellent school district, you just might survive. However, if you do not have these options, chances are you will neither be prepared nor survive college or university without a lot of commitment, sacrifice, and tenacity: qualities which far too many of my students lack.


E. said...

I applaud the fact that you actually CARE Michele. So many folks, including those walking around all indignant about the African community are heartless and less than helpful, unavailable or uninterested.

I don't blame anybody, I've fought at every level and hope to fight for others the way you do. And education has helped me to respect all paths, even if I do not agree. Let me understand you brother... and if I cannot, let me get out of your way that you may proceed in peace.

But it doesn't take any special training to realize that someone in the system has your back.

(sigh) I cannot fathom this level of disrespect. Not only from the students but also from those who say their purpose is to educate, only to treat the professor like paper-pusher. I thought one of the reasons one becomes a professor is to advance knowledge with integrity in order to inspire others to be of higher consciousness?

You have one very grateful student in a very cold and dreary Michigan.

M.L. Simms said...

Well, E. you were one of my best and brightest students. I recall recognizing your intellect and refusing to allow you to slack. I was rewarded by watching you rise to the occasion and producing the work that I knew you were intellectually capable of producing. Unfortunately, at the two institutions where I teach, I have been reduced to being a paper pusher. Grades, that is above-average grades, placed on the transcript is what my function boils down to. I encounter some of this at the U of M, but at least students were willing to meet me half way, even when some of them negotiated grades on the back end.