Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years, since earning her Ph.D. at Indiana University. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty has been an administrative assistant at Rutgers University’s Camden campus for a year longer than Paula has been at Wheaton. Last fall Mary taught her first course, Basic Writing Skills III, on the inner-city, campus of a two-year college, Camden County College. She teaches on her lunch break from her job at Rutgers. Mary has been taking evening classes toward her M.A. for three years, ever since she finished her B.A. at Rutgers via the same part-time route. This article is the first in a series in which Paula and Mary will discuss what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: My place is about as different from yours as can be, I know. I often find myself longing for your city setting, your students who are so motivated. At the same time, I realize that teaching my students is a real privilege -- I can push them in exciting ways. Wheaton’s admissions standards keep going up, and I’m starting to see it in my classes. This semester my sophomores in English 290, Approaches to Literature and Culture, seemed to finish with a really good sense of how they can use literary criticism and theory in writing essays for their other English classes. They weren’t intimidated by the critics and theorists they were reading -- they actually used them well in their final essays.If only they could follow MLA style and prepare a proper Works Cited!
Mary: MLA style is something my students can do. They were able to pick up on it easily -- I think that’s because they take well to the idea of structure. They like the five-paragraph theme. The part of the class they had the most difficulty with was the content of their papers -- they couldn’t find their voice at all, let alone critiquing literary theorists.
Paula: Oh, mine had plenty of voice. Sometimes I wished for a bit less voice and a bit more work. I think sometimes that the sense of entitlement many of them have means that they don’t necessarily understand that their word isn’t always good enough. They need to cite some authorities, place their work in a larger context, indicate their scholarly debts. They have pretty good skills coming in, so it’s sometimes difficult to make clear to them how they can push to the next level. If they’ve been getting A’s on their five-paragraph themes in high school, they find it difficult to understand why their first efforts, in English 101 or a beginning lit class, are producing C+’s or B-‘s. Some are grade-grubbers, but most just don’t understand what makes a college A.
Mary: Just a week before the semester ended, one of my students finally understood what makes a college B. In the beginning of the term, her grades were “R’s,” which means that the paper cannot receive a grade; it must be revised. When she failed her midterm portfolio, she cried to me that she couldn’t see her mistakes so she couldn’t fix them. She continued to work on her essays and revise them, over and over. Close to the end of the semester, she approached me before class and said, “Mary, please take a look at this paper that someone wrote for another class and tell me what you think.” Knowing that I was being set up, I quickly looked over the essay. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her smirking, so I told her “You’re right, I wouldn’t have graded this paper.” She shouted, “I knew it! Look at the subject-verb agreement error in the first sentence. There’s even a fragment in the introduction!” Not wanting to trash another teacher’s grading, I pointed out to her that the most important thing was how she had changed since midterm -- that she was now able to identify mistakes so she could correct her own. She passed the course with a B and I am so proud of her.
Paula: See, that’s what’s so great about teaching! I knew you’d love it. That pleasure when you see the lightbulb go on over their heads. That’s the same at Camden County as at Wheaton. But I think you have to do a different kind of work than I have to do in order to get it to happen. In some ways, both our students believe in the value of what we’re teaching, but we both have to do some convincing as well.
Mary: Mine need convincing that what they have to say is important and that saying it in an academic format is worth the effort. Most of the Camden campus students are from Camden city, recently awarded the dubious distinction of being named the most dangerous city in the nation for the second year in a row. They are typically from poor or working class families whose parent(s) may or may not have a high school diploma; many students are parents themselves, and most are minorities: African-American, Latino, or Asian-American. Many CCC students test into basic writing or reading skills classes, which is an indicator that their high school education did not prepare them well enough for college. In an informal discussion, I asked several students about their high school experience, and they claimed that they were never asked to write for content in English class -- the focus was on grammar and fill-in-the-blank or short answer tests. This explains why they are more comfortable with the grammar portion of the writing skills class, as well as how easily they grasp the five-paragraph essay structure. Following the rules is easy for these students, but finding something to say is much more difficult. I am there to assist them in this writing process and hopefully to convince them that they can grow as individuals and be successful in the academic community.
Paula: I have to do some of that, too. But we’re starting from such different places. Mine come to college because it’s expected of them. They need convincing that a liberal arts education really can bring them advantages after they graduate -- that digging into how a literary text works, learning to put together a really well researched research essay, or understanding the connections between Darwin and the poetry of Robert Browning is worth the money the parents are investing and the time the students are investing. In some ways, it’s a harder sell than yours. I have the luxury of time, though, in a way you sure don’t. My teaching is my full-time job, and my teaching load is relatively light. I can’t even imagine what it is like for you, working fulltime and taking classes while learning to teach in probably the most challenging of circumstances -- as an adjunct at a community college. I know how hard it is for you to keep all these balls in the air. Do you think it’ll be worth it in the long run?
Mary: I certainly hope so. That’s the reason I’m teaching this year -- to find out the answer to that very question.
Paula and Mary's next exchange will be about the out-of-classroom work they can ask of students.