English literature and composition

Essay: Finding great teaching at an expensive university and a community college

As a student at a private university I had a sneaking suspicion that the magic between the pages of our great books had nothing to do with the cost of tuition, but had much to do with the generous heart of the instructor -- no matter the setting. I think I was right.

I spent the fall of 2013 enrolled at a community college in Texas trying to discover what you really get when you pay the most in the world of higher education -- and what you get when you pay the least.

By day, I was a junior English major at Southern Methodist University, one of the nation’s most expensive private universities. By night, I was a commuter student in an American literature class at Richland College, a nearby community college. An English class at my university cost over $5,100, while at Richland it was only $153. While at SMU, after a few false starts, the liberal arts had come alive through accessible professors and vibrant class discussions, something near the fantasy of "Dead Poets Society" but with textbooks too expensive to be able to justify tearing out any pages. As the semesters passed, I began to wonder about the extent to which this experience was tied to the amount I paid for it -- what do the liberal arts look like on a budget? What does a literature class feel like at our most accessible institutions? I went to find out.

***

The most important thing I had done at SMU was to go to my English 2312 professor’s office on a Friday afternoon and tell the truth. The truth was not that I was unprepared for college, but that I simply didn’t like college. It’s a different world up there, my mother had warned. I must have misplaced the map. And I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at SMU. I wondered how I would I ever begin to come to terms with this whole college thing -- what it was for and how it could ever be worth the cost. These are hard questions to ask during the best years of your life, which is what they called college in the movies I had watched. But I couldn’t recall a scene where the freshman pulled doubts like rabbits from a hat and turned them into answers for his soul.

The teacher was there, door open and waiting, just as the syllabus had promised under the heading of “Office Hours.” My purpose was to discuss my second paper -- a postmortem. Tim Cassedy, a young assistant professor recently arrived from New York, observed that it seemed my high school had prepared me well for college writing -- an innocuous compliment to most students. But for me it was an invitation. The proper response is to say "thank you" and indicate how happy you are to be at college now instead of that dreadfully confining high school that taught you how to form simple paragraphs. I hesitated for a second, half-inclined just to agree, give the correct answer, and continue with the conversation. But another part of me, the honest part, wanted badly to tell the truth.

I began to unpack my situation, my confusion, my questions, my longing for something more from my college experience than just velvet green lawns and affluent classmates. And Professor Cassedy listened. He didn’t dismiss or diagnose. He didn’t tell me that everything would be O.K. I was surprised to find that he seemed just as interested as I was in finding the answers to my questions and wishful thinkings. He understood. I got better. And I became an English major.

That moment saved college for me. If I had decided not to tell the truth that afternoon, I could have continued to accrue credits and eventually a degree, but I wouldn’t have been to college. Something significant would have been missed and valuable time wasted. I went back to his office another time and again I was reassured and challenged. I went back again and again and the door was always open. All of my big and important realizations were tested there; made sharper through discussion, questioning and that ancient practice most simply known as “teaching.”

***

Three semesters later I was at Richland, looking again for a way to understand college. My search led me to a green armchair. You nearly trip over it when you walk into Crockett Hall 292, but its importance there has more to do with symbolism than functionality. Near the halfway point of the semester, I decided to go to the office of my English 2326 professor, Mary Northcut, and try to tell her the truth about why I was taking her class and the answers I was seeking. I say “try to” because I didn’t know whether it was even possible to experience this part of the professor-student relationship in the way I had at SMU. There were office hours listed on the syllabus, but how could my professor, who was teaching six classes that semester, possibly have the time or energy to engage meaningfully with her students one-on-one? I was mistaken in questioning her availability and commitment to her students, and along the way I found that I was wrong about many other things as well. Important, life-changing conversations are happening at community colleges too, and I was lucky to have found myself in the middle of one that afternoon.

Professor Northcut has been teaching at Richland College for nearly 40 years. After completing a doctorate at Texas Christian University, she immediately devoted herself to teaching outside the spotlight but inside a social mission. She first taught at Bishop College, a historically black college that later closed its doors in 1988, and then at El Centro College before transferring across the Dallas County Community College District to Richland. At some point during her decades-long stay she must have acquired this green padded chair, the arm of which served as my seat during our hourlong talk. She was a fascinating conversation partner, possessing the tendency toward eccentricity that marks college professors everywhere. Between exchanges on the nature and purpose of higher education we discussed her love for horses, East Asian cinema and collecting Ancient Grecian coins. (In fact, it seemed I had walked into her office at a crucial moment in an eBay bidding war over a coin bearing the image of Phillip II of Macedon.)

But what deeply moved me, largely because I had foolishly believed that it couldn’t possibly be true, was this important truth: Professor Northcut wants to be at Richland and she is there on purpose. She is convinced that community colleges serve a vital purpose in aiding the best and brightest students who lack the resources to attend four-year schools right out of high school, or perhaps got sidetracked along the way. By her description, Richland exists explicitly to help those students find their way to universities and brighter futures. She is not at Richland because she never found a better job, or to collect a few extra paychecks before retirement. And she certainly does not see her students as the caricatures they often become in our higher-education debates -- representatives of broken systems; too unprepared to make it at a “real college.”

She knows them to be just as capable of academic success as any other students. And she has an astounding track record of helping her students take the next step. Professor Northcut is full of stories of her students, many of whom she describes as being like her own children, going on to schools like TCU, SMU and even Columbia University. To her, Richland College is a serious place with serious goals, and despite decades of changes and challenges, she is no less committed to its mission now than she was as a newly minted Ph.D. joining the ranks of socially conscious community college faculties in the 1970s. She told me she plans to keep teaching full-time for the foreseeable future and to retire later, reducing her teaching load to only “one or two classes” per semester. Two classes per semester is the ordinary teaching load for professors at SMU and most other elite colleges.

As I sat listening to all this on the arm of the green chair, worn threadbare by the pants of many students before me, I was overwhelmed with an awareness that the ancient art of teaching had found a home in this small office also. And the stakes in this office were much higher, the problems more pressing and the margin for error more perilously thin than perhaps in most of the offices at SMU. Futures were forged here not from an abundance of advantages but out of a struggle for a fighting chance. I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say that lives were saved in that office, in addition to the moments of intellectual growth we expect from any college experience. And most important for me, I left with that same feeling I had found my freshman year in Professor Cassedy’s office -- that the world is full of complexity and college is here to help you recognize and make sense of it. The best professors show you how. The best professors are everywhere.

***

I can no longer assume that office hours and compelling professors are the exclusive property of private universities. But of course, I cannot guarantee that they exist at every single college either. I can only claim this: I am a product of office hours and great teachers and truth-telling, and I would not pay for a class, be the cost $150 or $5,000, that doesn’t include the chance to find an open door and welcoming ear whenever the questions become too large to face alone. This is the difference between a degree and an education.

Author/s: 
Preston Hutcherson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Preston Hutcherson is an undergraduate English major at Southern Methodist University.

Controversy over an article's publication renews Shakespearean authorship controversy

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Author and journal editors feud over paper on Shakespeare's identity.

Out with cursive, in with texting, in in-class writing exercise (essay)

Depending on the geographic locus, the beginning of the semester is upon us and we have begun to do real work, finishing the musical chairs game of finding seats for students in the classes they need or a match with an instructor that they can live with for 50 minutes three times a week.

In my English composition classes we are now at work on the narrative and in order to not just talk about English 1101 being a workshop or activity class, my students and I took 25 minutes out for what is commonly called "in-class" writing.

When I say "we" I mean that my students and I write at the same time.  This is by no means a radical or new pedagogical tactic, though for some reason most colleagues I have had over the years do not write with their students.

I write with my students because I want to feel what 25 minutes really feels like when one has been told to keep the pen or pencil going. Of course my 25 minutes might be very different from my students' 25 minutes, and that 25 minutes might differ as it relates to the writing experience from student to student.

I could not help but get philosophical, and maybe even a little nostalgic, about in-class writing this fall, the beginning of my 22nd year of full-time teaching at the college level.

My mind began to survey as I heard tables in the class creak -- most likely wood laminate surfaces, and these tables were good, tall tables where three students could sit, a far cry from the desks of my own school days and also most of my teaching career, which were uncomfortable and represented a strange continuance from secondary education. Come to think of it, and I did of course do so during this in-class writing session, most students would have a difficult time fitting into the "retro" desks; perhaps that is one reason they are no longer widely used.

Fortunately some things remain the same, such as students contorting their necks a certain way as they write, some with faces just above the erasure marks they make on notebook paper, while others have their own light imprint and yet others boldly press onto papers so that a felt tip pen would be short-lived prey in their hands. Thank God for cheap ink pens that are strangely resilient in the hands of some.

As I wrote this year I could feel my right hand hurt; I have begun to feel that very quickly these past three years or so, to be honest. It would be lovely to say that this is from all my years of hard manual labor of the mind and hand-writing. The truth lies in my orthopedic surgeon's diagnosis, "You're just like a car with a lot of miles on it."

I think most of my students will be spared, are already spared the experience of involving the whole hand, arm, shoulder, in the manual labor of writing. They are thumb writers, more advanced than I am when it comes to producing electronic texts.  I use one finger to type out texts, more advanced than many of my middle-aged peers if I may say so proudly and slightly in illusion and defense of being youthful still. My students are athletic writers made for our times, I have for the first time not only come to accept but also to observe with some admiration.

In my introduction to writing I somehow spontaneously said, "You can probably write an essay with two thumbs on your smartphone," and this remark was very well-received by my students, friendly smiles and eyes lighting up in a positive way. I must have hit a nerve. And as my students were making the desks creak before me, some even wearing earphones because I had encouraged them to wear them to be in their own world as long as they kept them turned down enough so that no one else could hear them, I thought, I should experiment this semester and have students write their one timed, in-class essay on their smartphone.

I began to take this enormous pride, almost parental, at the thought of my students brilliantly, or at least with accomplishment, writing an essay with probably better results than they could produce on paper simply by typing on their tiny electronic device, performing a feat I and many others of middle age would consider almost something for the circus.

My free-writing brain then ventured into the territory of students' in-class writing over the last few years.  I had one of those eureka moments, or if not that, the time was right for a revelation. Suddenly the answer was before me. I knew now why I had increasingly been receiving neatly printed essays and also anything that I had asked for to be written in class, in letters that were not cursive writing. I had over the years marveled at the students' scriptorium work, as if they were continuing some tradition, like monks illuminating manuscripts.

But the truth is more related to the gradual abandonment of cursive writing and the teaching of cursive writing in public schools.

I observe this not with negativity or in some kind of subdued snarl. Why would students really need cursive writing?  Why do so many of us complain that students do not know this "art," and why might we say, "Look at this stack: only one person wrote in cursive"?

No, students have evolved and they have no need to write in cursive, not even during in-class writing. Judging by the amount of words they can produce they have adapted to print faster.

And look at us -- we might employ that ancient, "lost" "art," but really, often that is used to record a thought that might as well have been committed to our idea bank on a smartphone. And when was the last time you wrote an entire essay or article by hand and then transcribed it on the computer? Let's be honest here. Evolution has taken place.

Is there room for cursive writing as we now begin the academic year in the not-so-hallowed halls of academe across America?

Sure, but along with this kind of circus-act writing there is room, even more so, for the two-thumb essay.

Ulf Kirchdorfer is a professor of English at Darton State College.
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Study raises questions about why women are less likely than men to earn tenure at research universities

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Study raises questions about why women are less likely than men to earn tenure at research universities. Hint: It's not research output.

Essay on why English departments should teach and embrace young adult fiction

As someone who teaches young adult fiction at a university, I am troubled by the recent crop of opinion pieces about adults who read this genre. At Slate, Ruth Graham wants anyone over 18 to be embarrassed to enjoy YA (as those who study, catalog, or publish the genre call it). And on the opinion page of The New York Times, in a piece plaintively titled “Adults Should Read Adult Books,” Joel Stein writes “I’ll read The Hunger Games when I finish the previous 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.” Over at The New Republic, at least, Hillary Kelly thinks you should have the courage to read whatever the hell you want.

I like Kelly’s commitment to seeing some continuity between adulthood and childhood. However, both those who defend the adults who now read YA and those who attack them seem to assume that such readers have suddenly departed from a long-established norm of adults reading novels written for adults only. 

Whatever you think of YA’s mixed-age readership, there is one thing you should know: there is no 3,000-year history of fiction written for adults. There is barely a 100-year history of such fiction. The adult novel is a relatively new invention, one that is not much older than YA itself. So all the adults now skulking or striding proudly down the ever-expanding YA aisle are not in fact breaking with a long tradition of adult reading.  If we look back a couple of centuries, we find that in many ways YA’s mixed-age readership is perfectly normal for the Anglo-American novel. Fiction about young people triumphing over adversity in morally satisfying ways has long been default reading for people of any age who read fiction at all.

Look at the title page of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 breakthrough novel Pamela, which shattered sales records and inspired Pamela fans, teacups, and a multitude of other consumer tie-ins.  It proudly announces that the book was written in order to improve “the YOUTH of BOTH SEXES.” And its protagonist, Pamela Andrews herself, is a beautiful and indomitable 16 year-old who confronts the perils, sexual and otherwise, of a hostile world, winning a resounding finale of emotional and material rewards. Sound familiar? 

The winning adventures of one plucky young protagonist or another play out through two centuries of the Anglo-American novel. And it’s not just these characters and the arc of their plot that resemble YA, but the ages of these novels’ actual readers as well. From Pamela’s day through the end of the 19th century, these novels were devoured by readers of all ages. They promised to teach moral lessons to inexperienced young people, and we have records of children as young as nine weeping over Pamela. But masses of older people read them as well.

Until recently, even boundaries between more specialized children’s literature and what we now see as literature for adults were quite blurry: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden first appeared in The American Magazine, whose other contributors include Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; E. Nesbit’s Adventures of the Treasure Seekers was first serialized in the similarly eclectic Strand. When Little Women came out in 1869, lawyers, merchants, and office clerks happily chatted at work about the tribulations of the March girls. 

People who are shocked by the fact that The Fault In Our Stars has mixed-age market appeal, even after witnessing the sales of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, will be equally shocked by a list of turn-of-the-century American best-sellers. Heidi, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, and Little Lord Fauntleroy topped the charts between 1865 and 1914. Ever since T.S. Eliot, critics have tended to draw a bright line between Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which Eliot called a "boys' book," and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which Eliot insists "does not fall into the category of juvenile literature."  However, through the first decades of the 20th century, both books were praised as equally fabulous for "boys of all ages" — which meant that they were good for a male of any age whatsoever. Gender, not age, was the criterion for identifying appropriate readers. The "great works of American fiction," the prominent literary critic Leslie Fieldler wrote in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), "are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library."

So what is “adult fiction” and why do we now use it as our standard? Adult fiction has never been a description of what most adults actually read, but rather a fairly new aesthetic and psychological standard riding the coattails of a trendy political ideal. In principle, adulthood is an egalitarian idea. The claim that everyone has the right to vote when they turn 18, for example, implies a more leveling view of the world than does claiming this right as the exclusive property of a few people who own a lot of property.  Coming into adulthood is now supposed to mean coming into power, in your personal life and in the wider world. But until quite recently, most people, most of the time, did not expect age alone to bring them much power over much of anything.

Late 19th- and 20th-century public policy and the emerging discipline of psychology charted a new path through life. In particular, universal state-sponsored education structured lives according to a new sense of age. Everyone became part of a cohort: we now read — as we reason, play, and love — at, above, or below grade level.  From kindergarten eligibility to child-labor restrictions, from voter registration to old-age pensions, this path created newly precise and standardized age distinctions and invested them with meaning. And the apex of all these developmental schemes is adulthood, which in the 20th century became not only a key legal status, but also an always-out-of-reach personal aspiration — the golden moment when we transcend our lousy judgment, sexual confusion, self-centeredness, and other woes. And in this sense, far from being an egalitarian, leveling sort of idea, adulthood becomes a deliciously elite one: most adults, it turns out, are not adult at all. Modernist novelists of this era like Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce, and the critics who valued them, were the first writers to rely on “adult” as a synonym for “good.” 

In playing down plots that reward good deeds and punish bad ones (and in playing up ambiguity, formal complexity, and explicit sex), the Modernists were not writing for an existing adult audience. They were calling it into being. They were fighting to demolish the mixed-age audience they had inherited: "Nothing is so striking in a survey of this field, and nothing is so much to be borne in mind, as that the larger part of the great multitude that sustains the teller and the publisher of tales is constituted by boys and girls," lamented Henry James. Eventually, the Modernists prevailed — in ideals about reading if not actual practice. Their new idea of the adult novel meant that other kinds of novels became suddenly and conspicuously non-adult, enabling all the guilty pleasures of the self-consciously crossover reader that flourish so vigorously today. 

Modernist ideas about adult reading were especially appealing to mid-20th-century English departments. They took root in part because they were helpful in establishing the profession of literary criticism as an adult affair, a proper part of the intellectual life of the university, in contrast to the poorly rewarded child-centered work of primary and secondary education.

So, as a market phenomenon that cashes in on a high-stakes, intensively calibrated sense of age, YA is indeed a late-20th- and 21st-century thing. But there is nothing new at all about great numbers of fully grown people reading fiction that was not written for adults. What is fairly new is the value we place on a particular sense of adulthood. There are lots of interesting arguments to have about what makes any novel bad, good, or great. Using age as shorthand for aesthetic quality is not the best way to frame these arguments. Since the ideal of adulthood is now so important, whenever another YA book tops the best-seller lists, the opinion pieces on mixed-age readership will continue to fly. But awareness of the complex history of age and reading may help to deepen the discussions we have about the place of YA in an English department’s curriculum.

Teresa Michals is associate professor of English at George Mason University. She is the author of Books for Children, Books for Adults: Age and the Novel from Defoe to James (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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Santa Clara adjunct job ad startles many by requiring candidates to have written 25 books

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A university's job ad requiring candidates for adjunct position to have published 25 books set off a frenzy online. Here's what happened.

A USC writing program moves to Vermont

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An upstart Vermont fine arts college saves a beloved writing program from death at the University of Southern California. 

Coping when your mentors move on (essay)

Ulf Kirchdorfer offers a paean to the retired professors who mentored him -- and wonders if other people miss their senior colleagues as much as he does.

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After abrupt cut, Purdue faculty call for restoration of common reading program

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Citing cost and lack of data showing benefits of a common freshman reading, Purdue cuts its program, but faculty members want it back.

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