A few weeks ago, I consulted with a student at the writing center at the community college where I work as an adjunct English professor. This student traveled to the US from Iran a little over two years ago. He was taking a required US Government class and had composed a draft of an eight page paper on FDR he wanted to go over with me. His first paragraph began something like this:
United state is long history of democracy condisions where president gain more individual power over time. Andrew Jackson make the veto pass for gain more power because he think presdent have not condition to make change when he doesn’t like it and have veto makes him more power this act begin gain power of executive branch over legislative ...
... As writing center appointments were only an hour long, I knew we were both in deep trouble at this point. I asked him gently if he had taken either of the two required English Composition courses yet and was surprised when he told me he had indeed taken English 1301, the first course of the two, just the previous semester. But, he said with a smile, the class mostly listened to the teacher’s jokes and didn’t really learn much. He added hastily that he thought the professor was a really nice guy, as if telling the truth about his lack of skills growth because of his professor’s lack of rigor was somehow wrong. A bell went off in my head.
“Did you have Professor (Insert Name Here)?” I asked.
A surprised look on his face, he replied, “Yes! How did you know?”
I couldn’t tell him what I really wanted to say. The unspoken rules of decorum dictate that another professor, particularly an adjunct who must beg for every class like a starving woman for crumbs, does not offer a negative opinion to students about a full-timer, though I was sorely tempted to do so. What I would have told him had I been less concerned with job security was that many students I worked with over the last three years had also told me how funny Professor (Insert Name Here) was and how easy his class was. I might have told him about the female student who told me Professor I--N--H usually called for a “research” day every third class day or so. This involved a day in which his students would meet in the library to find subjects they could write a two to three page paper about while he sat at a table in the front and read the day’s news, cup of coffee at hand. I might have told him about the student having major English as a second language problems who had somehow made it into an “English Honors” class this man taught. When she asked him the first day whether she should stay in the class, he told her, “Don’t worry. You can stay; this class really isn’t any different than a regular class.” This bit of wisdom offered to a student who wasn’t yet capable of writing a coherent sentence in English. A different consultant might have replied, “WTF?” I smiled and suggested we get on with the appointment.
Some individuals teach because they truly believe they might make a difference in a student’s life. Others teach because if the system is manipulated correctly, if they are charming and have the right connections at the top, they’ll have a smooth ride, year after year, paycheck after paycheck, and never have to do the tough work that is sometimes called for with students who truly need extra time, effort, and advice. Make ‘em laugh, they believe, and all will be well. Next semester, they’ll be somebody else’s problem, not mine.
I have been the beneficiary more than once of this man’s first semester comp. students who have signed up for my second semester class totally unprepared for the more difficult analysis and research required of them. Hell, they can’t even put their names on their papers correctly, much less read, research, and write about the cultural implications present in an author’s canon. I find myself playing catch-up with these students for many extra (uncompensated) hours outside of class to try to fill in the gaping holes left by their “fun” semester with Professor I--N--H.
Every day another article in another newspaper laments the dumbing down of American education. The statement itself has become a cliché, yet I see the process in action when I work with students like the young man who came to me in the writing center asking me for help with writing problems far beyond what an hour with me could provide him. One semester with a dedicated teacher, however, could have served to alleviate his basic writing flaws or at the least begun the process of helping him to master the format of an effective essay.
When a student manages to sit through an entire semester of English Composition and pass without having learned the basic writing rules for survival, the professor should be held to account. If there are no repercussions for lazy teaching, for using the front of the room as a stage for honing one’s comedic schtick, for gaming the system by letting students out early and assigning two page papers when government classes are expecting students to be able to handle eight, then learning is broken, and the implicit pact made between those who learn and those who teach becomes a worthless joke in itself. People like Professor I--N--H make the majority of professors’ jobs (who do care that their students leave their classes better prepared than when they entered) that much harder, as he strives in his complete solipsism to make his gig a piece of cake.
Students who struggle with English as a second language are not incapable of learning to write well. My experience tells me that frequently, these students are the most determined to succeed. They have left their home countries and traveled thousands of miles to an unfamiliar and sometimes even frightening new life, but they have hope for better lives and the bravery to try to fashion them in a place completely different than what they have been used to. As instructors, we owe it to these students to do our best to help them assimilate into their adopted country and to respect them by doing our best to give them the tools they need to be successful. Instructors like Professor I--N--H have no place in academia, no matter how charming their stand-up routine may be.
published 5 February 2014