Students ain’t no cows

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The most valuable thing I learned about teaching writing came from being a social work student. Providing therapy is like teaching writing.  People achieve only if they want to. It has little to do with training. Sometimes, though, people need to hear genuinely positive things about themselves, and that can go a long way. Cash cows is not one of them.

The other thing I learned is that no writing program, curriculum, or technique will work well with all people. We have more composition experts now but worse writers. Writing is no science and cannot be approached that way.

It is no secret that student’s writing generally sucks. It does suck, but that has little to do with teacher preparation, as some think it does, and more to do with the business model that came from failed for-profit schools: get fannies in seats, inflate grades, and graduate them, baby!

As a former administrator in Pennsylvania told us, students are “cash cows.” Your son or daughter is an animal for profit to them. Welcome to academia where schools often manipulate parents and students with fake faculty-to-student ratios.

What most schools don’t tell you is that their adjunct faculty, those that teach most of their classes and are grossly underpaid, are not considered “faculty.” It’s time we punish schools for such manipulation. We are not selling hot dogs. We are educating people.

Writing programs are failing because teachers are left burdened, and where students need it most, at community colleges, is where we get the least funding and support. We may have new buildings, but there is little time or resources for faculty to teach and be student-focused. The toll adds up for caring faculty.

OK, Dr. Earl, But Ain’t Colleges Data-Driven

Ah, the data, yes. The general rule in higher education is if you can apply a number to it, it is good. Say data with a good-looking piece of datum, and you will win administrative souls. It never has to go anywhere else until the next strategic plan, which will start as soon as you are done with the current strategic plan. These plans are no more than a dog chasing its tail for all of eternity: same crap, different packaging, the “new and improved college, the one grandma almost got into.”

Such is nothing more than “busy work” at the professional level. But if you want a promotion, please think of as many acronyms and catch phrases you can like “stackable degrees” to get their institutional synergies flowing. You will be a star and may even get an award or gift card that’s left over from last semester.

Administrators are convinced that faculty have nothing to do except teach, and why would any cost-driven administrator give faculty time for that?

Faculty are largely seen as poor investments because administrators don’t see a return on their investment like they do with student-loan exploited students or the millions of states happily give them for building construction. Good real estate sells better than good students, or so they think.

It does not matter where that number came from. It just has to look good. Let me explain, and then we will go to pasture with the cash cows.

One Cannot Quantify Art

Let’s say that an English department wants to assess its freshman writing sequence courses. How exactly does one assess good writing? Do you know?

Neither do we, so don’t feel bad. Just wing the damn thing. The students won’t care, trust me. They all, and I mean all, demand an A.

The first problem is that writing is an art form, not a science, unless you are one of those weird linguists, and they never get invited to those end-of-the-semester department parties at a chain restaurant.

Now, I don’t mean sociolinguistics. That’s kind of cool because, as I recall, a Portuguese girl called me good looking in Portuguese. Or at least that was my sociolinguistic interpretation. And at the time my understanding of Portuguese was as good as one of those writing assessment rubrics.

Should I give a 5 or 7 for cut-and-pasted factual content from the Onion, or should I weigh grammar a 3 or 5 because “i” will never be equivalent to I.

Maybe I will give a student an A on the final paper even though he wrote “Ruff draft” because I knew what he meant and since the paper was about his dog, I can appreciate the Freudian slip, doggo eroticism. Besides, I like dogs, but not in that way.

Or maybe I give him an A because I am sick of being a goalkeeper in students’ way and being the butt of all criticism. Teachers are why kids cannot write, but I spent nearly 11 years in a mold-infested, asbestos-ridden building that is the “rectum of the college.” English faculty always get the worst buildings on campus, even though every single student will take more than one course with us. All that matters is that the college looks good. You will never see the English building in their flashy advertisements.

That is the real, more serious truth. In the last five years, I could not even look at a novel. When on my ride home, when NPR would interview an author, I would turn the station. After all, according to novelist Sherman Alexie, there are only about 140,000 serious readers of literature in the United States. That is the equivalent of one and a half football stadiums. For a literature professor, the lack of interest in good, difficult works, and the cultural desire for the quick and easy, is killing our ability to think and write in comprehensive and sophisticated ways.

In A Fad-Driven Culture, Glitz Distracts From Quality

We live in a fad, feel-good culture because we are in emotional pain.

Now, in psychology, it’s all about “neuropsychology” because psychologists can pretend that they are real doctors. But don’t feel bad, I am a doctor of literature, so I never studied anything like important either, like Black China, Kim Kardashian or Howard Stern’s constant putdowns and verbal assaults on women (well, actually, I kind of studied that) or our President’s disrespect for his own daughter while on the Stern show.

Yet psychologists, clinical social workers, and writing teachers have something in common. We have to be good at the application of art, the art of helping to mend hearts and souls, mind and body. In that way, medical doctors are the real quacks. We cannot cure people with a pill; we help them by developing trust.

We think one hour of watching Dr. Phil makes us relationship gurus, one session of therapy will “unclog the brain,” and doing “research” on Facebook or Wikipedia will give us the success of an angry, money-pampered Trump, the fame of BTS, and the smarts of Steven Hawking. But these new fads will change little because they never change much.

People feel better when their mentors have time to teach them. Both can learn from one another. We need to give students what so many of us lack, a challenging and safe community that cares about them, not their money or their “pathway to success.”

The problem with therapy and current teaching standards is that they shoot for the middle. This makes sense with mental illness because one struggles to find a balance, but it’s difficult to be a gymnast on a beam 24 hours per day. If we all were that mindful, we’d still live in caves and pick fur out of our teeth, if we have any teeth. Breaking down writing to fix problems breaks down creativity. If one wants to write better, read several Charles Dickens’ novels at 900 pages each. That’s a good start.

The best writers started by imitating other writers, not by memorizing strong verbs.

As Alexie also says, great works of art likely came from the most manic parts of an artist’s life, and so it is with writing. That is what I want to teach, to take a student’s flaws, their weaknesses and make them positives, to make the “neurotic” a best-selling author or, at least, happy.

Good writing is a life process, but if one is not living that writing life, they will never be a quality writer. Good painters cannot paint occasionally or cut and paste a Picasso and claim it their own.

Writing Is Not Data-Driven; Rather, It’s Human-Driven.

I got back my desire to teach literature when I looked at a job posting at Harvard. They wanted a writing teacher for their Expos 10 and 20 classes. I clicked on the link and my heart fell. This is how to teach writing: theme-based courses capped at 10 or 20. The teaching load is 2/2. In such a place, I could focus on each person, their ideas, and their writing.

I could find what works for them, not me. I could come up with a plan for each, and we could build mutual respect. I felt I belonged to teaching there. For the first time in many years, I was excited about teaching writing.

But at my school, I have to often teach a 6/6 load with no support or salary increases (just adjustments that barely cover inflation), and each student writes 5 essays. My classes are at 23 each. I read 575 essays per semester with no theme-based courses. I created themes so that I can utilize my extensive education, something my department and school frowns upon. They want me to simply check boxes. Most students never read my feedback or revise their drafts. I almost stopped commenting.

I refuse to let my job be just a job. I have to be able to care for my students, but I really feel that I am failing them, not in grades but as a teacher. This is not what education is supposed to be like, mostly young people on shelves and me the shoe salesman.

What teaching has lost is its humanity. Here is what would improve writing:

  • Where’s da money: there is no way around it. If we can build nice buildings then we can fund education;

  • My advice to administrators is to find the money or get another job;

  • All writing courses should be capped at 15;

  • Community college professors should have teaching loads of 3/3, but if 4/4, then teaching assistants or adjunct faculty should be used to assist the teacher;

  • Go on an active campaign to entice big donors to give endowments to community colleges, the places that really need it; however, the directive should be to spend that money on teaching and students, not nice perks or flashy buildings;

  • Learning would really be student-focused so that teachers can use resources and truly individual plans to help students succeed.

Such would increase costs, but we know that investing in students’ education really does pay off for them and for local businesses and the community. We have to get that message out to our state governments as well. We cannot help students succeed by pushing them through unprepared. In my world that is called exploitation not education. Let’s give a little privileged education to all the rest of us.