Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of articles about what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Mary: I took spring break week off from my 9-5 job at Rutgers as well as my adjunct teaching and my night class, and I spent it reading, resting, and relaxing. But as soon as I got back, I noticed a lot of students missing for our first class. So I did a head count of the number of students who showed up -- 11 out of 22. Where was everybody? I waited an entire week -- three classes -- and the same 11 students showed up. I think to myself, "Can students actually believe that they can pass a class without showing up?" I log onto Web Advisor (Camden County College's administrative Web site) to see if they have dropped the course -- and only two of them have officially dropped! Then, as if by fate, I ran into one of the students who officially dropped my class and I asked her why she dropped. She replied that she has two young children and she was finding it too hard to arrive on campus by 9 a.m., so she withdrew and plans to take a late morning class in the fall. But this leaves unanswered questions about the students who are just not showing up. Are they not interested in finishing the course? Are they not interested in my class or school entirely? And most importantly, how can I get them back into my classroom?
Paula: That is so not my problem this semester! I started with 51 students in my Victorian class, and I was praying for it to shrink. One reason is the U.S. News & World Report college guide statistics. We lose points for classes over 50 -- even if there are only 51 in the class. So it was a good result the day I dropped to 49 in that class. Now I’m down to 47 and I am not the least bit interested in why the students dropped or in getting them back into English courses. If it’s not their cup of tea, that’s fine. It would be a different matter if it meant they might be dropping out of school entirely. With your teaching, so much hinges on keeping them in the class -- students’ futures are at stake. That’s the difference between our institutions but also the difference between our courses. Teaching literature is lovely. It opens up minds, and it pushes students outside their own perspectives in wonderful ways; I wouldn’t give it up. But teaching writing, especially teaching writing the way you do and where you do, can change lives.
Mary: Stop scaring me! That's what bothers me the most -- I know the magnitude of the importance of education in these students' lives, but I can't make them come to class. I know that some of their excuses are sometimes just that -- lame excuses. But for the other students, like the one I ran in to, their issues are real. I contacted the program director to ask her about my retention rate this semester and she advised me that the spring semester is problematic for retention. She also said that retention problems for Camden County students could be caused by numerous reasons, among them are that some of these students lack the support, commitment, or confidence to make college their first priority.
Paula: Well, I had a conversation with a student of mine today that could have been a conversation with a student of yours, I think. She’s a second-semester first-year student, living at home (itself highly unusual at Wheaton, where something like 95 percent of our students live on campus), working to help pay the family bills since her parents broke up and her dad lost his job. Whereas you worry about your students sticking it out at Camden County, I found myself advising this student to get the heck out of Wheaton. We don’t have the kind of financial resources that would allow us to give a student like this one the financial aid she’d need to stay here once her home support has fallen apart. I could just picture her trying to support her dad and brother on three or four summer jobs, all the while accumulating massive student loan debt. It does not make sense for her. I’m a huge believer in a liberal arts education, but I think she could get a very good liberal arts education at a place that could get her through more cheaply, and that needs to be a priority for her now. It’s different at your place, where the only option for someone like her would be to drop out entirely.
Mary: It's an ominous choice, though, isn't it? Maybe that explains why I still have 20 people on my roster and only 11 or 12 showing up to class -- they just can't bear the finality of dropping out. Or another explanation -- which I think may be more likely -- is that these students don't know how to withdraw or ask for help because, as the director of the program pointed out, they lack the necessary support. I don't think she's referring to financial support; it's more personal and familial for these students. Most of my students do not have parents or siblings who graduated college, and therefore they are in a totally different world with no assistance from family members.
Paula: That seems like a real issue -- you can make help available, but you can’t manufacture the conditions under which students can take advantage of it. A student whose family members are used to depending on each other, who has never sought help through an institutional structure, may not know how to do it. She might not know how to walk into the financial aid office or the counseling center or even the advising office and say, “I’m lost. My life is out of control, and I don’t know what to do about my classes.” And the longer they delay seeking help, the more things spiral out of control. And how can you, an adjunct instructor, know how to find them so they can get the help they need?
Mary: That brings me back to my issue with computers, or my students' lack of computers at home. After many of my students did not show up for a week after spring break, I used the e-mail addresses that were on the Web Advisor program to try to contact them and encourage them to come back to class. Out of the eight e-mails I sent out, six came back undeliverable. The two who actually received the e-mail opened it when they came back to class and logged into their e-mails from the classroom workstations! Obviously the e-mail approach doesn't work too well. Similarly, the phone numbers listed on the student handout sheets from the college are also outdated. The college does have a Student Support Service office, but they do not have the resources to track students down. If the students do come back to class, I work with them as much as possible to help them catch up. But the ones who don’t come back or seek help may not make it, and to me that is devastating. I think I’d better learn not to take this as a personal failure, or my teaching career may fizzle before it starts.