A Community College Menagerie

J. Mark McFadden describes four types of students he often encounters taking his English course: the Conspiracy Theorist, the Schemer, the Veteran and the Dreamer.

September 2, 2016

Over the course of the last 25 years, enrollments at many of America’s community colleges have doubled and, in some cases, even tripled.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 7.3 million students enrolled in community colleges in 2014, drawn by their open-enrollment policies, affordable tuition and diverse populations. In fact, close to half of all undergraduates in the United States attend community colleges.

After 15 enriching, rewarding years of teaching in the Connecticut community college system, I have come to the conclusion that, in all likelihood, I will have at least one of these four different types of students in my English 101 course: the Conspiracy Theorist, the Schemer, the Veteran or the Dreamer. While I have great respect for all of my students, especially for those who come from less than humble circumstances, the aforementioned are the types of pupils I find to be the most challenging, disappointing, self-effacing and inspiring.

The Conspiracy Theorists. My typical Conspiracy Theorist is usually a woman ranging in age from her mid-20s all the way up to her early 50s. After high school, she moved straight into the workplace. Conspiracy Theorists work long hours as certified nursing assistants, customer service supervisors, restaurant managers or medical coding specialists or in some other career in which they cannot move any farther up the ladder unless they have a college degree.

Their essays display a grave unfamiliarity with Modern Language Association formatting and have poor sentence structure, combined with a whole array of alarmingly rudimentary grammatical errors. In spite of these shortcomings, they actively participate in our class discussions, sometimes finding it hard -- if not impossible -- to hide their disdain for the opinions offered by some of their younger, less worldly classmates.

Subsequent to handing in their first two writing assignments, they make a point of telling me that they “called out of work to finish the essay,” or “I just want you to know that I took this to the writing center, but they didn’t help me at all.” After they earn a D-minus on the first essay followed by a C-minus on the second, the seeds of a collegewide conspiracy are sown.

Regrettably, Conspiracy Theorists make the mistake of correlating time spent working on their essays with earning a high grade. They total up all the time and effort they put into the essay, and when that does not result in a grade of an A or a B, Conspiracy Theorists start whispering to other students seated in their immediate vicinity, “I did everything he said to do on this paper, and he still gave me a C-minus” or “This professor is so totally unfair” or “He just doesn’t like me” or (and with this allegation the whisper changes to an audible threat) “If he keeps this up, I’m going to complain to his boss.”

That kicks off an unrelenting campaign to convince themselves, along with their fellow students, that I’m unfair, uncaring, unsympathetic and basically un-everything with regard to their well-being in my course. With less than five weeks left in the semester, Conspiracy Theorists start lodging an incessant daily barrage of “You never told us that,” “That’s not in your syllabus,” “That’s totally unfair” or “My friend’s taking the exact same course, and her professor only makes her students write half as many papers as you make us write.”

At the end of the semester, once they’ve realized that they’ve earned a C-minus or lower, then the trips start. First they travel to my chair’s office, followed by a trip to the dean’s office. When they fail to convince either me or the dean that I’ve spent the last four months conspiring against their success, they post the following on RateMyProfessor.com: “I worked my butt off in this class showed i cared and yet he still gave no care to what i was doing. he loved to what i had to say but the min it came to handing this in he would rip it to apart and give me poor grades when any other professor would give me decent grades!! Dont take him.”

The Schemers. These types of students, commonly teenage males, enroll in my course directly out of high school. At the end of the first class, they make a point of stopping by my desk and introducing themselves. Oftentimes, they take the class with a friend.

Schemers take a full load of courses, leaving them little time to work; they are undecided on a major or career path. Their essays display some familiarity with MLA formatting and decent sentence structure, combined with a handful of basic grammatical errors.

Although their essays show more promise than those of their conspiracy-minded peers, instead of participating in our class discussions, they devote most of their time to texting. When asked to stop, the typical Schemer will simply take his device off the desk and, almost without fail, place it between his legs.

When turning in their writing assignments, Schemers make a point of telling me, “I went to the writing center, but by the time I got there, it had just closed” or “So far, I really enjoy your class” or “Your new haircut looks mad good.”

Alas, on the heels of earning a C-minus on the first essay, followed by a C on the second (primarily because their papers failed to meet the minimum length requirement), they do the following: instead of double-spacing their essays, they use 2.5 spaces; instead of one-inch margins, they use two inches; instead of a single space between their paragraphs, they have three or four; and instead of incorporating two short quotations from the reading assignments into their essays, they insert four quotations anywhere from eight to 15 lines in length.

Lamentably, they make the mistake of correlating time spent thinking of creative ways to make their essays appear longer with earning an above-average grade. When they receive a low score, they total up all the time and effort they put into tinkering with the spacing and margins, and when those efforts do not result in a grade of a B or a B-minus, the Schemer doubles down.

On the day of our quiz, the Schemer’s friend comes to class on time and completes the assessment before any of his peers. Now, depending upon the level of difficulty of the quiz, the Schemer will arrive anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes after his buddy has already left. Sauntering softly into the room, he takes the first available seat. When I walk over and place a new version of the quiz with the words “Late Arrival Version” typed in bold across the top, he coyly tells me that the reason for his tardiness is that, while walking to class, he felt a so-called moral obligation to help a wheelchair-bound student who had fallen out of her chair.

When I return to my desk, I furtively watch as he stares intently at the questions on the first page. When he finishes reading over the questions on the second page, he glances around the room with his mouth agape, a look of complete hopelessness on his gaunt face. I cannot help but smile as the Schemer’s hopelessness morphs into discouragement before eventually manifesting itself into a balled up white-knuckle fist.

After Schemers realize that to do well in my course they will have to complete the reading assignments, format their papers per the guidelines issued by the MLA and study for the quizzes, they simply stop attending -- traditionally the week before Thanksgiving vacation or spring break.

If my Conspiracy Theorist and Schemer students devoted less time and energy to thinking of ways to undermine my authority and devoted more time to completing the assignments, they would find the learning process more rewarding. These two types of students have the potential to earn high grades in my course, but far more often than I would like, their efforts are misallocated.

Veterans. In contrast, my archetypal Veteran students never miss a class. Enrolling in the military straight out of high school and serving our country in places like Aleppo, Islamabad, Kabul or Falluja in addition to many other war-torn places I learn about from NBC’s Richard Engel, my typical Veteran student is frequently a barrel-chested, bearded man who ranges in age from his late 20s to his early 30s. Most of them have their hearts set on joining the ranks of the Connecticut State Police, the New Haven Police Department or one of the many federal law enforcement agencies. Their essays display a faint familiarity with MLA formatting and a promising understanding of sentence structures, combined with a series of grammatical errors.

As I walk into the classroom, they are the first to put their phones away. At the conclusion of our first class, they wait until the Schemer and the rest of the students have left before offering me a bone-crushing handshake. As I grimace, in a low tone, they caution me, “Sir, I’ve been in the military for the last 10 years, so I might be a little rusty with my writing” or “Sir, when I was over there I didn’t have a whole lot of spare time to do much writing, so my first paper might be a little fubarred” or my all-time favorite, “Sir, in high school, I was a total cluster f**k, but now that I’m in college, I just want you to know that I’m not messing around.”

Upon earning a C-plus on the first essay, followed by a B-minus on the second essay, my Veteran students learn from their mistakes before vowing, undaunted, to work even harder. Almost always seated at the front table anywhere from five to 10 minutes before the start of each class, their books neatly piled on top of one another, they scoff at the Conspiracy Theorist as she arrives five minutes late and then cuts right in front of me as I’m talking to the class.

Later on, when the Schemer packs up his books and exits 15 minutes before the class ends (retracing the footsteps of the Conspiracy Theorist), the Veteran glares at him and simultaneously shakes his head in disbelief. Generally disinterested in bantering with his fellow students before or during class, more often than not, the Veteran lends an unwavering right-of-center view to our discussions on immigration, gun control and raced-based affirmative-action admissions policies.

A week before the due dates for our writing assignments, the Veteran stays after class to ask me if his paper is formatted “the way you explained in class” or if his thesis statement is “any good.” By and large, Veterans earn top grades on each of their quizzes, and much to my delight they put forth a compassionate, earnest effort while peer editing their classmates’ essays. On the last day of the course, the Veteran, extending his hand as he walks over to my desk, thanks me for helping him with getting his “writing skills squared away.” I shake my head -- “No, sir, thank you.”

Dreamers. Inasmuch as working with my Veteran students fills my heart with unparalleled admiration, teaching Dreamers fills my soul with untainted hope. (I use the word “dreamers” broadly, not in any specific reference to the proposed DREAM Act legislation for undocumented immigrants.) In general, Dreamers are introverted women who enroll in my English 101 course directly out of an underfunded, mismanaged inner-city high school. Born in cities like Juarez, Nogales, Aleppo, Islamabad, Kabul, Fallujah or Warsaw, a vast majority of my Dreamers attend community college for two years before transferring to institutions like the University of Connecticut, Fairfield University or Trinity College. In terms of career aspirations, most of them dream of becoming a doctor, an investment banker or the owner of a successful business.

Dreamers take a full load of courses, leaving them little time to help out in their parents’ restaurant, painting contracting business or janitorial company. Their essays display an impressive familiarity with MLA formatting and an above-average understanding of sentence structure, combined with a welcome dearth of basic grammatical errors.

I rarely, if ever, witness a Dreamer, unlike most Conspiracy Theorists and Schemers, texting. Instead, these students spend most of their time taking copious notes. Despite my pleas, many seldom participate in our class discussions. Upon handing me their writing assignments, they move toward the door without making eye contact with me. Earning a B-minus on the first essay followed by a B on the second, mercifully, they draw the connection between not making the same errors on each successive paper; thus they steadily earn higher and higher grades. By the end of the term, without a lot of fanfare, their essays demonstrate a mastery of the English language that might astound many of their American-born peers.

One of my Dreamers, who transferred to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, sent me a copy of an essay she wrote for her advanced composition course, on which she earned an A. In her note, she thanked me for writing a letter of recommendation for her before signing off with Feliz Navidad.

Clearly, more than ever before, community college students cannot be boxed into a mere four different categories. But, with rare exception, I find that some permutation of these types of students will enroll in my English 101 course. And while my Conspiracy Theorists take up far more of my time than I find palatable and while my Schemers fail to understand that they are better off turning in a paper that might be too short as opposed to one designed to dupe me, my Veterans will continually amaze me with their earnest efforts, and my Dreamers, semester after semester, reaffirm my steadfast belief that education will always be the great unequaled equalizer in American life.


J. Mark McFadden is a practitioner-in-residence at the University of New Haven. He has worked as an adjunct in the Connecticut community college system for the past 15 years.


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