His name was Bobby. He sat in the front row. He paid attention and asked smart questions; he engaged his classmates in debate. He wrote his first paper about pistol-whipping another 20-something in his trailer park over a drug deal. Bobby had so many stories. He wrote about rescuing a woman after she had been raped by a neighbor. He wrote about being homeless after he left gang life. He rode a beat-up bicycle five miles one way to the college in all types of Minnesota weather, then sat wet and shivering in the front row, his hoodie pulled over his head. In late November his girlfriend gave birth, and all we had left to remind us of Bobby was that empty front-row seat.
Next came TJ. He dressed like Eminem and sported white sneakers, floppy and unlaced. He smelled funny, an overpowering bodily odor that I would learn to recognize as meth recovery. His classmates avoided being put into groups with him; they gave him space around the table. Between classes, he chain-smoked in the courtyard. When he visited me during office hours, his hands shook from nicotine.
TJ wrote about dropping out of school to join a circus. He had worked as a carnie and developed a nasty addiction. TJ wrote intoxicatingly about his past; he wrote convincingly about his new, sober life. He had no license, so his grandmother drove him to and from campus. But she was afraid to drive in snow or sleet, so TJ missed a lot of class.
TJ brought me an early draft of his essay to read. He also brought along his notebook from last semester’s remedial writing course, in which he had taken copious notes. He referred to those notes as he explained what he knew about paragraph structure, thesis placement, and the use of examples. We discussed voice shifts, tense shifts, and where to break up paragraphs. I encouraged him to visit the writing center, which I direct, and a tutor discussed his second draft with him.
The day I handed back these papers, he walked in late and slid into the back row. I walked to the rear of the room, still talking, and handed him a paper with a large blue A- circled at the top. I was already back at my teaching console, showing items on the course website, when TJ approached shyly and stopped me in mid-sentence by holding up his paper.
“Is this my grade?” he asked.
“Yes, TJ, that’s your grade,” I replied.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes, TJ, you earned that grade through hard work and good revision,” I said, loud enough for the class to hear.
We all watched TJ walk, beaming, back down the aisle to his seat. TJ was my model developmental writing student. But three weeks later, he vanished from my class.
I have 60 to 80 developmental writing students in my classes each term; many of them lead precarious lives. They come to me, to college, to the hope of a brighter future, but they are wounded and vulnerable and unprepared. They lack self-confidence in general; they lack academic confidence in particular. And if one thing tips the scale out of balance in their precarious lives, they will disappear.
I lie awake at night, worrying about them. Not them collectively, as one-third are doing fine and another third are squeaking by. It’s the final third, the vulnerable ones, that rob me of sleep.
As a lifelong educator, I used to worry about paper-grading burnout. Now that my teaching load is largely remedial English, I worry more about emotional burnout: the accumulated psychological toll of caring for so many.
Because the more I care about my students, the more they break my heart.
I wish that I knew less about them, that they could simply be students to me. But the best subject matter for fledgling writers is their own lives, and my students love to tell their stories. While my colleagues in other departments are feeding multiple choice bubble sheets into Scantron machines or ticking off points for math equations, I am scribbling comments in the margins of my students’ papers. I am writing things like, “Do you know how to get a restraining order? Please ask me; I will help you” and “Here’s the counseling #. Ask for Robert.”
I am also writing letters and emails, to both these students and their advisers. I am seeking student services and support agencies for them. I am trying to put a finger in every hole in the dikes of their lives so that they can stay in my class, they can learn, they can move on to college level English and the rest of their lives.
I am teaching the disciplinary material which I was trained to teach, but I am also serving as a life coach, student success skills instructor, and amateur therapist, and I have no training in these areas.
Jeff is my latest heartbreak. The last day he came to my class was a much-publicized workshop day, and I was unhappy with him for arriving without his draft. When I asked him to retrieve it from his car, he stood up and nearly keeled over. He told us he felt funny, he felt tired; he slurred his words and the sentences trailed off. His classmates looked frightened. I told him to forget about the writing assignment and go see the school nurse. I wish so badly that I had walked him to the nurse’s office myself. He never went there. But she followed up, on my request, and has since told me that he is “under the care of mental health professionals.”
I will never forget the shock on TJ’s face, followed by intense pleasure, when I confirmed his A-.
Am I the only person to ever recognize TJ’s academic aptitude, to ever tell him that he did a good job? I hope not. But so many of my remedial students hover on the brink of “I can’t do this” that I work mightily to find qualities to praise, to point out aptitudes, even as I tough-love them with sentence structure, journaling, grammar quizzes.
I cannot say that these students disappear from the world; rather, they cease to attend my class. They are still members of my community. I saw Bobby in Walmart last spring, looking as happy-go-lucky as ever, as his friends shoplifted.
TJ may be the man putting my child on a carnival ride at next summer’s county fair. Even if my female student does get that restraining order I mentioned in the margin of her last draft, she could still become a city statistic, another assault victim or death.
I live with my students perpetually on my mind. I worry about the stories that they’re not telling me. Sometimes, teaching them how to write college essays seems trite in comparison with the other challenges of their daily lives. I wish I could pour the knowledge into their brains, test them on it, and go home. I wish I could see them simply as students.
I know the way out of my dilemma. I could go back to teaching courses with names like Writing Poetry and Women’s Perspectives.
I could teach the students who are college-ready, who passed that arbitrary, high-stakes placement test, or who have already schlepped their way through a remedial course like mine.
But then who would encourage John to get tested for dyslexia? Who would ask my Hmong student about her pregnancy, or my Somali student about her father’s heart surgery? Who would watch the 30-year-old veteran’s face for signs of anxiety and reassure him?
When I was a graduate student, teaching freshman comp, I used to walk home each day, asking myself one question: “Did I do a good job?”
At the end of a day teaching remedial English, I still ask myself one question, and it’s always the same one: “Did I do enough?”
Pam Whitfield is an English and equine science instructor and writing coordinator at Rochester Community and Technical College, in Minnesota.
“Now bear with me, Gentlemen, if what I am about to say has at first sight a fanciful appearance.” --John Henry Cardinal Newman, from “The Idea of a University”
Imagine your job is to help students get into college, and one of the students you’re advising says to you, “It has always been my dream to study philosophy at Harvard.”
Let’s say that this student is graduating from a private prep school and you know that money will not be a major worry for her either during or after the college years. She has a deep hunger for knowledge, connections who can help her figure out a career path after graduation, and a family safety net that will catch her if she slips. How would you respond?
Now let’s say that, instead of graduating from an elite high school, this student is graduating from a local ESOL program, where she has been a student in night classes for the past three years, working her way up from near illiteracy to a decent command of spoken and written English. Let’s say that she came to the U.S. alone as a refugee from a war-torn part of the world, and she worked with an employment counselor upon arrival to land a job in the fast-food industry before her tiny assistance allowance from the government ran out.
Let’s say her counselor also helped her to find a room in a small apartment in a cheap part of town that she shares with two women she’d never met before she moved in. Let’s say she works nearly full-time on an irregular schedule and sends money back to family members in her home country, hoping that her husband and young child will soon be able to join her in the U.S. She, too, has a deep hunger for knowledge.
How do you respond now?
Or let’s say that your prep-school student comes to you and says she wants to enroll in a patient care technician certificate program at a nearby community college. What do you say? How about if your ESOL student says the same thing?
If studying philosophy at Harvard seems like an extreme example, what if we changed it to studying international relations at a state university? Or what if both students wanted to start out studying history at a community college, with dreams of law school down the line? Would you encourage one and not the other? How different should advising be for different populations of students?
This is the question I struggle with every day, the dilemma that makes my head ache with an ethical clench. The idealist in me wants so badly to say that the students I advise – adult students in ESOL classes and alternative high school programs – deserve to be taken seriously when they express the same dreams and desires as those in more privileged positions, that they should be challenged to consider educational programs that may not, on the surface, seem to be appropriate for their life circumstances.
After all, I got into the education game because I believe it to be a great equalizer – it opens up opportunities of all kinds, and everyone gets a place at the table where the ideas that shape the world are being discussed, debated, and refined. If we start selecting who gets to sit at that table, however well-intentioned we may be in doing so, what are we really doing? And what are the consequences?
I understand why, within the adult basic education world in which I operate, advisers, administrators, instructors, our national and state governments, even the students themselves tend to consider only those educational pathways that offer near-immediate payoffs: job-training programs; short certificate programs at public colleges; anything that bears the label “work force development,” the pragmatic antithesis to a highfalutin “liberal arts education.”
Older students, students with children, students with jobs, students with bills, commuting students, students who have already spent years sacrificing to acquire language skills and high school credentials … none of them have time or money to waste, so they need to know that an investment of their time and money will yield a very concrete, very quick return.
They need to earn above the minimum wage, and since college is really the only way to reach that end these days, we help them get to college. Or at least, we help them get to those colleges and those programs that serve specific vocational goals. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out, get ‘em to work. We score one for the completion agenda, and we’ve done our jobs.
But have we? Or are we diminishing the students we claim to care about as well as the concept of higher education itself?
This is a source of internal tension for me, because I’m sold on John Henry Newman’s idea of the university as the place where the primacy of a liberal education is upheld, over and above technical training.
He does not deny, and I do not deny, that a college education can (and probably even should) result in a good career. What he does deny, and what I also deny, is that this should be the only and principal result, for, as he argues, “education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent” which is truly useful, not “in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world.”
Education, if done right, confers a treasure – first to the student, then to the world.
Newman likens this educational treasure to physical health. No one would dispute that maintaining physical health is a good unto itself, which may even be worth a sacrifice of time and money. We can easily identify the innumerable things we are able to do when our bodies are healthy, even though we cannot pinpoint an exact, specific use of good health. So, too, with a liberal education. Its practicality lies in the infinite unpredictable ways in which it will enhance all of our endeavors. “A cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself,” writes Newman, “brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number.”
I’m hooked on this kind of higher, deeper, broader understanding of education that cannot, cannot be an elitist model, for it’s this type of education that yields a stronger, more useful citizenry. Engineers, paralegals, lab technicians, phlebotomists, all need to be considering and questioning their roles, as professionals and human beings. We all need to understand systems and question authorities. We all need to critically consider our world. The opportunity to do just that is what a college education should provide. To learn, to listen, to reason, to speak, to contribute and be heard. To flatten social hierarchies, to gain and to give social capital. To be equal. To develop marketable job skills in tandem – sure, absolutely – but not at the expense of the greater good to be gained.
I do not want to decide, and I do not want superficial circumstances to decide, which students can pursue a quality liberal arts education and which ones are shunted toward job-training programs. If the immigrants, high school dropouts, refugees, older students, single parents, ex-offenders, and full-time workers who come to see me wish to enroll in college, I want to encourage them to consider programs that go beyond pure skills instruction. They need to be at the table where the big, meta concepts are laid out for ingestion, or we risk filling these positions of power exclusively with people of privilege. We risk losing nontraditional students’ input and perspective within entire branches of knowledge, within countless spheres of influence.
I will admit, though, that I have a hard time advising adult students from this viewpoint when what they need in the short term is preparation for a job that pays the grocery bill. It is awfully hard to say, “Study philosophy!” when they’re desperate for relief from the burden of poverty.
Knowledge may be power, but a paycheck is survival.
I get it, I really do. But I sure do hate it.
Shawn E. Fisher is a pre-college adviser with JVS in Boston.
Pope Francis was not thinking of Marx when he made his prophetic call that the church be an inclusive “home for all” and not a “small chapel” for select groups. But his timing could not be better. Today’s religiously charged political climate is bubbling over. We see it in Syria and the Sudan, in Iraq and Ireland, in Afghanistan and, at times, in America. And it’s not discriminating. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others are all affected.
The Pope’s vision that “God is all promise” is echoed by Eboo Patel, a distinguished Muslim advocate for interfaith dialogue, who believes the nation’s colleges and universities can be catalysts for productive faith-filled discernment and service.
A member of President Obama’s Faith-based Neighborhood Partnership and CEO of the Interfaith Youth Core, Patel was recently in economically hard-hit Reading, Pa., to talk to students and community members about the interplay of religion and politics. He believes students at American colleges can become interfaith leaders, marshaling the mind-power, energy and enthusiasm needed to make religion a bridge, not a barrier -- a shield, not a sword.
It’s a vision compatible with the Pope’s challenging analogy -- that the church be a “field hospital” after a battle, where wounds are healed.
It is not just in the Middle East that religion is used to divide, even polarize, societies. History provides a sad encyclopedia of examples, including the long history of religious prejudice in the United States. The presence of Patel on Alvernia University’s campus drew objections from some outside the university who complained about the mere appearance of a Muslim, just as they had when an imam participated in an interfaith service at my inauguration.
Universities are often criticized for hosting a speaker who holds positions at odds with a particular religious perspective. Outside protesters at my campus did not object to the content of Senator Robert Casey’s recent lecture, but instead felt that because of some of his opinions, he should be barred from speaking at a Catholic university.
It is ironic that the speeches of Patel and Casey dealt with the importance of civility and respectful discussion about religious and political differences. And ironic, too, that both men sought to motivate students to be active citizens. Such controversies help explain why religion sometimes gets a bad rap.
Yet religion is, for many, a positive inspiration for personal and social transformation. Religion can unite rather than divide us, especially in a country with a far stronger tradition of tolerance than of narrowness and prejudice. And it is in the university that differences of religion and politics should be engaged -- disputed strongly, sometimes stridently, yet always responsibly.
The university, in its treatment of such differences, should model for students the democratic culture envisioned by Thomas Jefferson and others. It should be a “sacred space” for dialogue and debate. A place where students are encouraged to explore the values -- including religious beliefs -- that they hold dear.
There is social good in this: studies confirm that religious people are significantly more likely to be civically engaged and serving those in need. So those colleges and universities shaped by distinctive religious traditions -- be they Catholic, Lutheran, or otherwise -- have added responsibility to ensure ethical, values-based perspectives infuse intellectual inquiry and campus culture.
Before his convocation address, Patel and I discussed his observation that Catholic universities are ideal places for Muslim students since such schools support the personal and spiritual growth of all students. By celebrating differences of belief and the common ground of shared values, interfaith dialogue models the civil discourse at the heart of the contemporary university.
Marx’s dismissal of religion as an opiate may seem strangely out of date today, when religion inspires both destructive strife and positive passion. Interfaith dialogue at a university rebuts Marx by helping ensure religious faith is an active force for good. It requires the self-reflection, collegiality, and genuine openness to the beliefs of others we value on our campuses and sorely need in our nation’s capital and throughout our country.
As Pope Francis said, “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one.”
Thomas F. Flynn is president of Alvernia University, in Pennsylvania.