June 24th, 2008

Who Should Be in College?


Have you seen this article in the June issue of the Atlantic? http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200806/college If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth taking a look at. The writing is powerful; the message depressing at the same time it’s provocative. A very smart writing teacher I know described the piece as “a screaming canary, showing off about a dozen things going wrong in the coal mine.”

The author, whose byline is “Professor X,” is an English adjunct who teaches evening class at places he/she describes as “colleges of last resort.” They sound like institutions with open admissions or something pretty close to that—lots of adult students doing college work to advance their careers and some younger students. The author describes them as “in over their heads” with significant “skill deficits.” He/she doesn’t say these students don’t have the intellectual muscle to succeed in college, but that conclusion is clearly implied especially by the poignant anecdote about a female student whose research paper earned an F. The professor reports that this student was in trouble right from the start.

Among many things that trouble me about this article is whether professors have any business deciding who will and won’t succeed and the extent to which those decisions become a self-fulfilling prophecy? What happens to the integrity of your teaching when you don’t believe it’s going to help students learn? At issue here are not those behaviors like skipping class, doing half-assed work and in other ways not taking the educational enterprise seriously. Those behaviors have consequences and students deserve to experience them. The issue here involves those students who do what’s appropriate and still fail, but for more endemic reasons.

The article ponders the ethics of admitting poorly prepared students, the way higher education has been opened to everyone and the pressure that puts on instructors who stand at the vanguard with standards to protect. The intrigue of these issues made this article worth discussing with my nonacademic spouse over breakfast. The issue not discussed in the article is the teaching and how it so completely failed this and other students. The instructor describes the approach, method, and assignments used, but I wonder if he/she ever considered that they might be just as much of a problem as those students “in over their heads.”

—Maryellen Weimer

  • Dispersemos

    The article is indeed provocative, and although I had a few suspicions about the writer's genuineness as a teacher, I came to the conclusion that he/she was probably a concerned, self-aware instructor. Even so, I did not appreciate the either/or assumptions about students and writing skills. Writing is a proficiency, if I'm not mistaken, and anyone who has the ability to learn can learn to write better. There will always be students at most institutions who need (remedial) writing instruction, because there are simply all kinds of students who display the full range of writing proficiency. We could argue that there is some cut-off proficiency level below which student writers should not be admitted to college, but this does nothing to address writing proficiency itself. It seems to me that at the college level we must be prepared to address writers at all levels of proficiency (just like we do in languages and other areas) and instruct them in such as way as to advance their proficiency. There is a need for summative assessment to determine who passes a course, completes a major, receives an award, etc., but if we apply this type of sine qua non to entering college students, we'll simply lose them forever as life-long learners.

  • Sharon

    I also teach numerous students who do not have the necessary skills to be in college, mostly in preparation writing courses. It is my job to get some of my students from a Grade 9 or 10 level of reading and writing skills to a university level. In 13 weeks.I am asked to do what 3 full years in a high school could not do. I am asked to give students skills in one term that they did not acquire in 30 months of continuous attendance.And when they fail, I am told I didn't do things right, that I should have taught them differently, taught them in a more relevant way. The fact that nearly all of my students improve one grade level is only significant if they came into class ready to achieve that one last skillset before going on to university level courses (and many, many of them do). The rest may have doubled their knowledge and skills in the term, and still fail the class, or be overwhelmed by the research paper and not complete. There are real world consequences to failure for these students: they may lose funding or not advance in their jobs. They took it seriously and did all the work they were capable of doing. They simply could not advance far enough in one term to pass.Often, I have students placed in my class who did not achieve the pre-requisite because they have been accepted into a programme. They will work really hard, I am told, and will have a tutor. Good intentions aside, it's like going from obese to marathon runner in 4 months. It can be done by a few, but most fall by the wayside.The structures at a college are set up in an either/or way – there is no point in ignoring that. I AM the remedial teacher in my university, and once they have failed with me there is nowhere else to go. The writer of the article is not blaming the students personally for their failure, but s/he is exhausted at taking the blame.And so am I – so exhausted in fact that I am leaving teaching. I can no longer look over a class of 24 students and know that as many as half of them will not be able to achieve the level of writing proficiency they need to go on, that failing my class will be the reason they do not go on in their programme or receive their certificate. We shouldn't stop people from coming to university. But we should be realistic: if a person needs more time to achieve the goal, that time should be available. Otherwise, all we do is tell people over and over again that they are failures.As if they haven't heard that enough in their lives.