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 artiles about what it's like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: I'm trying not to be annoyed at my students who have e-mailed me that they won't be in class today and tomorrow because their flights back to school were cancelled due to the snow. What business, I wonder, do they have flying out of town three weeks into the semester? And this snowstorm was predicted all week -- they knew there was a chance they'd not get back for classes. Then I remind myself that one said she'd left for a "family emergency" and another because his sister had just given birth. They have a right to set their own priorities -- it's up to me how to handle those decisions in terms of grading.
Mary: Very few of my students have a computer at home, let alone internet access, so they can't e-mail me about problems that come up, such as not being able to attend class due to a snowstorm. None of my women students with children attended class during the snowstorm -- not because they couldn't make the commute, but because they didn't have a babysitter for their kids and the elementary schools were closed in Camden. The priority for these students is exactly that -- their children first, class second. I am acutely aware of the time restrictions that my students face in their personal lives. Most, if not all, have part time or full time jobs, and as I said before, many of my female students have parenting duties when they get home. I find that I have to make homework assignment decisions based on what I think they can actually accomplish without overwhelming them.
Paula: Mine would love it if I took into account their part-time jobs and other obligations when I assigned homework, but I can’t do that. This is a residential college (more than 90 percent of our students live on campus), and I operate on the assumption that taking classes is their full-time job. So I assume that they’ll spend at least three hours outside of class for every hour they spend in class, and I assign reading and writing accordingly. They grumble, but most of them do it.
Mary: I would love half of that time commitment from my students! Instead, I have accepted doctor’s notes for prenatal care appointments and family court documents from students who wanted “excused” absences from class. If a student wants to see me before or after class for additional help, I feel that I have to be generous with my schedule to accommodate them given that, as an adjunct, I have no office or office hours. Since most students have part time jobs and several students even work full time jobs, they have to balance outside work, family obligations, and homework. I admire their tenacity, but I also have to make sure that they are doing a fair amount of school work outside the classroom. This is especially difficult because for many of them their only access to a computer is on campus, and they have to alter work schedules and family schedules to type their papers. To add on to their schedules, I encourage them to participate in a campus bookclub called Mental Elevations, which is one of only three school-sponsored clubs on the Camden campus.
Paula: On my campus, most students have part-time jobs, but many also participate in activities on campus -- theater, singing groups, clubs, and, of course, sports. Scheduling events outside of class is always problematic. We have to work around rehearsals, practices, and working hours. I have never had a student with childcare responsibilities. For me the biggest problem is to make sure they see the relevance to their future careers of what I’m asking them to do. The value of a liberal arts education is clear to the faculty, but it isn’t necessarily self-evident to a 19-year-old how reading Elizabeth Gaskell will help in the world of high finance or state government or retail management.
Mary: It’s much easier for me to make clear to my students that effective writing carries over into their other academic courses as well as future careers. We read paragraphs and essays in different rhetorical patterns that directly correlate to specific career choices. We recently worked on the process essay (“how-to”), and I told them to think about being a human resource manager who had to write a training manual. Before that, we went over the narration paragraph, which corresponded with a nurse’s record of a patient. For me, translating the usefulness of effective writing is relatively easy -- getting the students to believe that writing is a skill that they can learn is the difficult part. They bring a "one and done" attitude into the class, and I need to help them come to think about writing as a process. By following certain steps, they can learn to be effective writers.
Paula: Your students must have pretty clear career goals or aspirations that bring them to a community college at a nontraditional age.
Mary: My class dynamic is definitely interesting because I do have some students directly out of high school (with children of their own), as well as a number of returning students who have now realized that, say, having a CNA certificate (Certified Nursing Assistant) is not as valuable or rewarding as an RN degree. In either case, it seems that the beginning students in Basic Skills classes only have a level of practicality that college equals money and better opportunities for their potential careers.
Paula: I think liberal arts colleges like mine want to have it both ways, really. The students and their parents are investing huge amounts of money in this bachelor’s degree, so they want a return on that investment in the form of a job. At the same time, they have chosen a liberal arts college and not a community college or a state college or university, so they also have a sense that they want an education that is more training in critical thinking, writing, and arts and sciences than it is job training or vocation-oriented, as in engineering or business school. So in our courses we treat knowledge and inquiry as valuable in and of themselves, but outside of class we stress internships, networking, and job and graduate school placement.
Mary: I find myself having this exact duality in my role as graduate student and as a teacher. There is a huge gap between critically discussing 19th century novels like Bleak House at night with fellow graduate students, then turning around and teaching the concept of concrete supporting details in a basic skills class the next morning. What makes this even harder is the fact that in between teaching and being a grad student is working 40 hours a week at a job that doesn't have any relevance to my academic life. But it's the job that pays the bills, and allows for my education, so it has first priority. Maybe this is why I have so much empathy for my students....