Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I know, I know....I promised a discussion of movies today. And I did watch Red last night, and maybe I'll get to that because it was good. Very good. Full of symbolism. But, through a series of events I don't exactly remember, I rediscovered the following article by Chris Hedges, whose political and social commentary I've always found especially astute...dark, but astute. The following passage struck a nerve in me because of personal experience, past and present. First, check out Hedges' passage. A link to the full article, published in 2008, follows his text:

"The elite schools, which trumpet their diversity, base this diversity on race and ethnicity, rarely on class. The admissions process, as well as the staggering tuition costs, precludes most of the poor and working class. When my son got his SAT scores back last year, we were surprised to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. He dislikes math. He is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive tutor from The Princeton Review who taught him the tricks and techniques of taking standardized tests. The tutor told him things like “stop thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting test time thinking about the ideas. Just spit back what they tell you.” His reading score went up 130 points. Was he smarter? Was he a better reader? Did he become more intelligent? Is reading and answering multiple-choice questions while someone holds a stopwatch over you even an effective measure of intelligence? What about those families that do not have a few thousand dollars to hire a tutor? What chance do they have?"
-- Chris Hedges, "The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff"

I'm an adjunct, a very poorly paid adjunct. I spend 16 weeks each semester doing a great deal of work for far less than minimum wage, and that's with three or four classes and their relevant office hours, prep time, grading time, and dealing with the whitewater churned by abusive students. Believe me, I've had them. And at community colleges, especially as an adjunct, you are on your own. Get tough, girl, or go home. But, putting that aside, the issue I mean to get to here is that I spend a great deal of time in my composition and rhetorics classes on "critical thinking." I tell my students that this is one of the most important skill sets that you can leave college with. I often say, "Knowledge of statistics and factual details is extremely important to your future professions, but critical thinking is something you will use in every facet of your life. Consider critical thinking to be equivalent to freedom of choice--the freedom to make an informed decision. Look for the deeper message: what are they really saying when this author or commentator tells you something? Or, what is the real agenda? What does this word mean in light of what you already know?"....etc, etc. I tell them that the words "should" and "must" and the phrase "have to" should make red flags go up in their minds because each of these signal an imposed opinion, including the statement I have just made. If they are aware of these "watch words" and their implications, they then have the choice to follow the prescription or ignore it. There are some students who pay attention, and for this, I am grateful. But many of them could give a rip. So, I teach to those who (I think) do care. That's all I can do.

Lately, I've been having trouble getting any of my work published. I'll call it creative non-fiction because while it is embellished, it is largely based on truth. One of these works is about the education system, a system that makes it hard for adjuncts to give the grades students actually earn, grades that would fail out most of these students who do not invest the appropriate amount of effort. The schools themselves are worried about retention numbers because high numbers means earning power and access to government allocations.

An adjunct, whose pay is never assured from one semester to to the next, who must often smilingly accept the cancellation of and non-payment for classes they've spent weeks preparing for, fears the loss of work if the administration must become involved in too many students appeals. And I'll tell you, students will appeal everything with more might than they ever applied to their course work. By and large, they will not accept a C, even if their work really has consistently warranted a D or worse (we're often talking one-page, hand-written submissions on notebook paper, when it was supposed to be a two-page typewritten assignment). They will not accept being told they cannot take the final exam even if they failed to show up for it. The list of student expectations goes on. All of these students, who receive a grade commensurate with their lack of effort, travel directly to the administration and file a complaint, against which said adjuncts must mount a defense to justify the grade awarded.

Many of these students are going into the healthcare field, which I find relatively frightening. Some of them manifest such a lack of engagement that I wonder what kind of healthcare workers they will become. Their desire seems only to text during class (either furtively or sometimes openly), to watch the glowing smart phone screen instead of the information being presented on the board. Some of them are so high when they get to class, I can see their expansive pupils all the way at the front of the room, or I can tell that they can't keep their eyes open. Many openly sleep as soon as class begins. And I wonder why they bothered to show up. Often, they do not. Combine this with their combative nature over having to write a 5-7 page paper by the end of the semester, and I realize that, if this is the new student--the future of this country, or at least this region--we are in serious trouble. This behavior and this failure to engage in anything but social experiences, suggests that our nation will simply continue to decline. If they do not develop their critical thinking skills, these students will continue to be lead by whoever looks good, whoever has the most superficially 'persuasive' speech (I use the word 'persuasive' loosely), or whoever can blow the thickest smokescreen. Some of these students, I would wager, won't even participate at all. It's like an opium den in so many of my classes, although the opium can be anything from weed to dilaudid (I'm guessing on this from the slurred speech and closing lids) to texting to Facebook for the iPhone --they're hooked on things that have little value to real life and its true issues.....

...and then, I realize that I, who studied extremely hard and graduated at the top of my class and went abroad on a relatively prestigious scholarship, am teaching for less than minimum wage and taking abuse for it to boot. And I wonder if these kids don't have it right after all. Maybe everything I'm teaching them is completely irrelevant to the new society we appear to be moving into. Isn't celebrity gossip and mean-spirited talk the common currency, replacing constructive debate and the critical thinking I hold in such high regard. And this is why I wrote the last two paragraphs to a story that has not found a home and likely will not find a home at any publication I currently know of:

"And your life lesson is that thinking is neither profitable nor fashionable. It is not even very highly valued. And so, to a large degree, it is avoided. When you teach a segment on how to analyze an essay, how to deconstruct and understand an idea’s expression, eyes glaze over, brains switch off, heads go down to gaze at the glowing screens held behind purses or under desks—the screens illuminating faces with that ghoulish glow that says everything about their hypnotic effect. You say nothing because you’ve stopped believing in what’s coming out of your own mouth. You follow your notes, you make jokes because that is how you get through it. And then you administer the final test, the test they are all stumbling through now.

When the students depart, handing you their completed exams, some avert their eyes, sheepishly. Nearly all of them go out of the room with their heads down, looking into the shining oracle that beams more important data into their brains than you’ve ever given them. They scroll through Facebook updates, YouTube postings, dynamic pop-up ads, celebrity gossip. And you wonder if they’ve had it right all along, if they actually know more than you do. You wonder: is anything I’m teaching them really of value in this world after all?"

-- me, from "The Value of a Community College Education" (submitted under a pseudonym to protect the innocent, but in reality, who's innocent here?)

And so this is my two cents for the day, a day when I go back into the trenches (that is, the classroom) to fight the good fight. What I write here may seem ridiculous to some people, but I think it reveals everything about where this region--no, this entire nation--is headed. Students now are social bellwethers. So, where exactly are you leading us, kids?


  1. It's stories like yours that cement for me that I never, ever, ever want to teach (you know, unless I could jump straight to creative writing workshops, but really, who can these days?). I applaud you for making such a monumental effort with your students. I know others who are teaching who have similar stories.

    The funny thing is, I graduated from a small, not particularly well-known university in 2006 and NEVER saw this problem in the classes I took. Maybe it was because I went to a private school as opposed to a community college, maybe I was just lucky when it came to my classmates (I know this is true in a couple of cases), maybe it was sheer luck, but students at my university seemed genuinely engaged in the learning process and it just blows my mind, the stories I hear from professors.

    To be fair, I was in college before the advent of the smart phone, which seems to really be contributing to this crap, and yes, there were usually one or two students who only sort of paid attention, but the volume of students who blatantly ignore professors, from what I'm hearing, is insane. Honestly, I think a part of the problem is that the student is treated as a consumer, and the college as more a store at which the student shops for a degree and the consumer, of course, is always right.

    Have you tried independent journals for this story? I am absolutely certain you would have more luck at a journal not affiliated with a university.

  2. Hey, Margaret! Thank you so much for what you said here. Yes, I really think that students have become consumers in a very big way, and colleges cater to them because they bring in money. On certain days, I almost feel them really saying to me, "Here we are now, entertain us." And sometimes I can, but if I get into hardcore talk about tone, or voice, or word connotations...or oh my goodness, MLA citation formats, I can just tell they're drifting into other dimensions (some of them, literally). But yes, I will definitely try an indie journal. I guess I need to do a little more research, too, and find one that has similar stories, so it's a good editorial fit. But definitely, in the last five years, the classroom situation has just gotten amazingly bad. I'm not there to discipline them, and I'm not allowed to eject them, so often I'm stuck with them. They're just out of control sometimes.