Teaching After Midnight

A few hours ago, Wick Sloane taught his first section of an 11:45 p.m. to 2:45 a.m. course. He’s inspired by his students and community college – and mad as hell that no one seems to care about the nationwide conditions that make it impossible for so many students to find sections at the hours they need.
September 11, 2009

3:15 a.m. Friday, today, as in a little while ago. Back from teaching my midnight class, College Writing I, 11:45 p.m. to 2:45 a.m. at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. I drove past Harvard and MIT on the way home. The lights were out. I only have a few minutes until Inside Higher Ed’s 4 a.m. deadline. Here goes.

Any students at midnight?

Yes. My section is full. Same for Pysch 101, which began Tuesday. Forty-seven students in all are enrolled in the two midnight courses. Four students are taking both courses. Two thirds of the midnight students are part time, same as at the college as a whole. The youngest of the 47 is 18, the oldest 59. Sixty-four percent of the midnight students are 18-22 years old, the so-called traditional college age. Nationally and at Bunker Hill, most students are women, but most of my midnight students are men. The national average age for community colleges students is 27. Languages other than English in my class this morning: Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Somali. The Russian student also spoke Ukranian and German.

Since the classroom had no windows, I couldn’t tell it was midnight. No one nodded off. This was just a regular class. Kathleen O’Neill, who taught the Tuesday midnight class, said that her section may even have been livelier than daytime sections. This morning we applied Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle, writing in class to read aloud. I sent them off with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and an assignment, from the Advanced Placement English composition exam, to analyze the rhetorical strategies Lincoln used to achieve his purpose. Students stayed after class to ask questions.

Why midnight?

“Adding other sections during the day or running classes until 10 p.m. isn’t enough. We are already doing that,” said my colleague John P. Reeves, chair of the behavioral sciences department. “And there is also a whole population whose day begins after everyone else’s ends. There’s a crying need to address their education as well as we do everyone else’s.” Reeves and his colleague Kathleen O’Neill, who taught Psych 101 on Tuesday, thought up the midnight classes last winter. “What if we ran all night?” O’Neill wondered.

Reeves, as it happens, was a model for the Robin Williams character in the 1997 film, set at MIT and Bunker Hill Community College Good Will Hunting. Reeves took the plan to Bunker Hill’s president, Mary L. Fifield. She loved the idea. By July, posters and fliers and newspaper ads were appearing all over Boston. I volunteered. The economy has since driven enrollment here to 10,849, an increase of about 25 percent, and the registrar has added 109 new sections. No one knows how many midnight sections could have filled this time.

Take a course at midnight? Why?

Two thirds of my class this morning enrolled at midnight because all the day, evening and weekend sections were full. The rest have night jobs, most of them at hospitals, and one is a taxi dispatcher. Almost all plan to go on to a four-year college. One loves physics. One is earning the credits to transfer to become a doctor of pharmacology. It was midnight or put their ambitions on hold.

Is this a good news story, or what?

No. This is a national nightmare. Not a cry but a scream for help from these students. Sure, it’s great that community colleges are finding ways to respond to the huge enrollment increases they are seeing. But, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, do we want to be citizens in a country that forces its poorest students to go to college at midnight?

We, the people, are all supporting federal education policies that discriminate against students like my 47 midnight students. There’s federal tax policy, extravagant overhead reimbursement for federally sponsored university research, and fine print for student aid even a CPA can’t figure out. Yes, I rejoice that the Obama team is here. Simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is on the way.

But actually providing community colleges with enough money to meet the demands of their very hard working students? Actually give these institutions enough money so that there are professors and classroom space before midnight? No one is really talking about that – and students are being denied sections in massive numbers, nationwide this year.

Why me? I already have a 7 a.m. section of College Writing I.

Outrage. Fury. I’ve shredded several drafts that were not in a tone, as I’d point out to my students, likely to persuade anyone of anything. If motivated students want to learn writing and psychology at midnight, Kathleen O’Neill and I are honored to teach them. This is what community college professors do. Kathleen and I agree that we are examples, not exceptions.

Outrage? Fury? Too strong? No. As I’ve noted before, the federal tax policies of we, the people, through deductions on donations and tax-free endowments, subsidize Ivy League and other wealthy-college students by at least $20,000 per student. A single mother at a community college or a 23-year-old student supporting her parents are lucky to win a full federal Pell Grant. Harvard lost $8 billion from its endowment and Williams College, where I went, lost hundreds of millions by taking their charitable, federal tax-deducted dollars to the dog track. So what? We haven’t changed any of the federal tax rules, and these wealthy colleges are out panhandling for more money.

Last Sunday, I settled in on the lawn of the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. I can’t make this up. I ended up, to my left, surrounded by a busload of Williams freshmen, with picnics and tickets bought by Williams. I telephoned Williams this morning. Are jazz festivals a prudent use of money by a place that’s just lost hundreds of millions of dollars? No clear answer. I learned that this was a freshman orientation group that had also done community service. I don’t begrudge the Williams students great music. What about my students? Why no federal penalties for losing hundreds of millions? (Anyone know U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, Ranking Member on the Senate Finance Committee? Please forward him a copy of this column.)

Are we professors getting time and a half? Like the people who fix the roads at night?

No. Our union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, made no provisions for this possibility. On Tuesday, I e-mailed our NEA president, Dennis Van Roekel, to ask what exactly the NEA has on the table now to address the exploding workload for community college faculty. True, the states have no money. The federal stimulus package is just sitting there, I said. I gave Van Roekel my cell phone number and asked him to call. No reply.

Is anyone else there after midnight?

A security guard and a campus police officer, who was already at work when I arrived yesterday morning at 8 a.m. She had arrived at 6 a.m. and would be back at 6 a.m. today, Friday. She is also a Bunker Hill student, putting in as many hours on the job as possible to help her daughter, a BHCC graduate now at Northeastern University. Tuesday night, though, had a reporters and photographers from the Associated Press and the Boston Globe, plus a reporter from WBUR, Boston public radio. Channel 5 TV was going to come to my class but postponed until next week.

Why Bunker Hill Community College?

Charlestown, the Boston neighborhood where BHCC stands, has known midnight action and history before. Just a few blocks from the campus, on the 18th of April in ’75, Paul Revere mounted his horse and rode to warn the colonists. (The BHCC site then was water, part of the Boston Harbor. I’ve suggested to my students that Paul Revere rowed here.) In the 19th century, The Charlestown Prison, designed by the Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, rose on the present BHCC site.

That prison housed Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, two immigrants convicted of murder amidst an international uproar over whether they received a fair trial. Shortly after midnight on August 23, 1927, according to an article in The New York Times, Sacco and Vanzetti were both executed in the Charlestown Prison electric chair. (Thank you, Jessy, at the Boston Public Library Reference Desk.)

Back to John Reeves and the 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Reeves has been teaching since 1967. In the film, Matt Damon/Will Hunting is night janitor at MIT, who left solutions to impossible problems on the black boards for students and professors to find in the morning. Robin Williams, from his BHCC office, helps Damon/Hunting out of the trap. “It’s not your fault,” was Williams’s repeated point to the anger and pain of the trapped Hunting/Damon. Robin Williams and director Gus Van Sant ("Milk") spent an afternoon with Reeves talking about how to make the story credible. Nine years later, Reeves is still living that story.

I hope this semester we add to the midnight history of Charlestown. I think I’ll imagine that Paul Revere, reining in his horse before galloping off and looking over his left shoulder across the water, where Bunker Hill Community College would stand 324 years later, tipped his cocked hat to Kathleen O’Neill and John Reeves and Mary Fifield, who would take another run at freedom 324 years later, but with the pen, not a musket or a sword.

Are nobility and altruism and history my true motives?

No. I want a movie deal with Denzel playing me.

Haben wanagsan. That, I just learned, means “Good night” in Somali. Subah wanagsan, though, means “Good morning.” Whatever.



Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He is also the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.


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