West vs. East – part 2

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In part 1 of West vs. East, I discuss the trivial issue of what we call bread brands, and the more serious issues of bad driving and pedestrian habits, and people’s rough exteriors in the East, and homelessness.

As winter approaches early this November, I’m reminded of why people may be a bit rougher around the edges in the East – the friggin’ cold. I’m used to the cold now. I lived in Kansas for 14 years and it gets very cold and windy on the plains. Last winter was mild for a cold winter, so it wasn’t too terribly difficult to get through. In San Diego where I spent the previous 13 years, the weather is warm year round. When it gets to be about 60, we grab our sweatshirts and coats and make cold noises like “brrrrrr” and grab our own arms for a hug to warm ourselves up. The sun and mild weather allows for 24/7 beach access and ocean and bay sports. The reason that people are fit in Southern California is that they can be outside year round. The sun provides a healthy dose of Vitamin D, though of course it can provide a lethal dose of melanoma if you don’t use sunscreen. In the Midwest, I learned about mall-walkers, those who didn’t have day jobs who got their winter time exercise by walking laps in malls. I haven’t seen that in the East. People just tend to hunker down and stay in as much as they can. You can’t really do anything about the cold, so life goes on. The Midwest brings frequent dangerous weather, so I saw many more people neglect their health by not going out – it’s just too cold, or icy, or snowy, or windy or a combination of all of the above.

Enough of the trivialities, the obvious differences between the West and the East. For the majority of my life, I taught composition, literature, and English as an Adjunct Professor at major universities (UNM, KU, and UCSD, SCSU), at for profit universities (Univ. of Phoenix, Ashford University), and community colleges (San Diego Mesa College and Norwalk CC). I have enough experience (more than 25 years of teaching English and well over a hundred classes, both in person and online) to fill several books, but let me tell you about the push I needed to finally say “enough of this!” and decide on a change of careers.

I got into English to be a writer. Life took me on a different path for many reasons, one of the first being that I learned in grad. school that I had an aptitude for teaching and pursued teaching as a profession. The sheer amount of grading for an English teacher was enough to keep me from pursuing just about anything else. When I started down this path, I was told by my own undergraduate professors that the field would open up, that the professors were getting older and need to be replaced. LIE #1 that I bought hook, line, and sinker. Now, my professors weren’t lying. They didn’t know major social, economic, and institutional realities would change – that universities would fill more professorships with cheap labor, namely Adjunct Faculty. I don’t have exact numbers, but at one point at San Diego Mesa College, there were 30 some full-time faculty and 160-180 active Adjunct instructors teaching anywhere from 1-3 courses a piece. Picture the world turned upside down!

An Adjunct has to make a living, so that means assignments at several universities. I knew one gentleman with a wife and a son who routinely taught 7 courses at 3 different schools each semester as well as summer school. Each course had 25-35 students, and we routinely assignment a writing each week and a major essay every two or three weeks. My colleagues were professional and they did their jobs well. The drop-rate for students at the community college was about 1/3 to 2/3rds of the students, with a good 1/3 disappearing in the last half of the semester. Most of these students would have passed, bu they just disappear, have life crises or a change of heart and don’t bother to discuss their situation with their teacher. At any rate, the problems with being an Adjunct are much bigger than the benefits, except ….

At San Diego Mesa College, as an Adjunct who was guaranteed 3 courses per term, I qualified for health insurance (thanks Union!). No money out, a good Kaiser plan – it was enough to want to keep that job for as long as possible, until the assignments started to be jeopardized by fluctuating enrollment and changing course assignment times. I don’t know why, but my standard 8:00 am class was changed to 12:00 pm, and fewer students signed up for the 12:00 pm class. Thus when a class didn’t make enrollment, it would be cut, and I would be out the monies for that class. Combine that with Ashford University (sued for Fraud by the State of California), who stopped assigning me courses one month without saying anything and I lost 3/4 of my income in a two week period. Ashford gave me a single reason – “You are better suited to teach in the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) than in the Division of General Studies (DGS).” Ashford is an online college with 5 week courses. I had been working there for more than 5 years, and with a steady 2 course overlap for more than 2 years, which amount to a steady income (no vacations), and about 1/2 my income. I figured out that “better suited to teach in the College of Liberal Arts” was code for “you are failing too many students.” Pardon me – but you accepted students without ANY pre-reqs or baseline of skills. Thus the very young military wives and 70 and 80 year old stay at home grand and great grandmothers who were sold the idea that education will change their lives so that Ashford could take their financial aid loans from the US Department of Education were not well-prepared. As such, my own standards dropped so dangerously low that I asked them merely to complete all the assignments and let me know that they could at least write an intelligible English sentence. A SENTENCE! That’s not too much to ask. So when they couldn’t, I could not see how, given a RUBRIC PROVIDED BY ASHFORD, they could possibly pass, no matter who many hours I put in (despite being told to limit my hours to only 12 hours per week per class. Ashford SUCKS! It’s a rip-off, and I’m glad to be done with that problem.

So as I moved East, I lined up two more teaching jobs, a 6-unit development writing course at a community college, a course I have taught many times, and two 3-unit Writing Argument course at a state university, followed by a single 3-unit course in the Spring.

The community college course was led by the Director. He dictated a rigorous curriculum, set up for a two-day a week class, yet I was teaching 3-days a week. I told I had to follow the curriculum to a T for the first 8 weeks, through the Midterm, and provided all handouts and assignments. Converting the course to a 3-day a week schedule was mind-boggling, despite the fact that I’m a reasonably intelligent experience teacher. I was offered no help. The IT department got my log-in credentials fouled up and for the 1st MONTH of the course, I could not even access all of my materials online. Fubar after Fubar. Turns out that the rigorous curriculum was far too rigorous. I’ve always had freedom to tailor a class to the students, but I didn’t have that luxury. These students were mute and unprepared. One student routinely slept in class and got angry when told her wasn’t going to pass and couldn’t sleep in class. One student missed every class in which an assignment was due. Students could not read, I mean, literally, had much trouble picking out topic sentences, from examples, from supporting details, even after a week of going over slides with the SAME INFORMATION on it. We studied for the midterm for 3 weeks. I didn’t teach the test, but came pretty close – “memorize this list. Know it backwards an forwards” – things like the writing process (Prewriting, Planning/Outline, Drafting, Revising, Editing). And 3 of 19 students pass the midterm, the 3 who passed with low D’s. The exam was structured for a week – 2 days of a “reading exam” followed by an in-class essay on day 3. If they scored poorly on the reading exam, they had to do better on the in-class essay portion in order to pass. If they scored better/well on the reading exam, they were said to have mastered the material and didn’t have to perform as well on the written exam. What kind of twisted grading is that?

We had one day of lecture a week, and two days of writing lab. On the day of writing lab, I was to stand at my podium and watch the screens of all the students who were sitting around the perimeter of the class next to each other. On my screen, I could see and control all of the student screens. I was expected to “keep students on task.” I could commandeer their computer screen and write “I see you aren’t working, Get working on your essay!” Babysitting. I did not take the job to babysit!

I missed 6 classes that term due to illness. I was completely stressed out -vertigo, heart palpitations, extreme stress (there was stuff going on in myt other assignment at the state university as well) and the commute was awful on top of that. (The traffic flowed toward New York city, and the last 5 miles took 3o-40 minutes due to its proximity to NYC traffic. A 30 mile trip was routinely 1 1/2 hours. Not even southern California traffic was that bad. Of course, my course met at 9:00 am. ) I only missed writing workshop days – days in which students were sitting at their computers and writing their essays – Babysitting days! They could do that without me there. I always communicated with the students, and they always knew what assignments they had to work on.

The Director found out I missed these classes, and he wasn’t happy. He had my pay docked. Only 5 students passed the final (same situation as the midterm, except that for the final, there was also a portfolio component). Because of missing classes, the Director mandated that all students must be given passing grades. Wait, what?

Let’s take a closer look. I’ve read portfolios for many years. There’s a rubric and some course goals, and a group of teachers evaluates the portfolios according to that rubric. Two passes, and the portfolio passes. One pass and one fail and the portfolio is graded by a third instructor. We make small notes to indicate what we see the student writer has adhered to or not to inform the instructor of record. During our REQUIRED final portfolio grading session, the Director sat in a chair with his feet up on the table and read the occasional essay. He required that any student we considered might get a B or A, that he read those portfolios and get to determine if they achieved Honors or not. In reading essays, he would remark, consistently, “I’m not feeling it” when he’d say a particular essay wasn’t passing. So despite a rubric – he went by his “feelings”? I’m sorry, but what a shitty director. Practice what you preach. And tailor a curriculum to your students. This particular director set those students up to fail. My BABYSITTING on those days I missed isn’t what cost unprepared students. Weeks spent going over material that was ON THE TEST, that I guided them to put on the board – they couldn’t remember that material on test day. It wasn’t just one or two students. This cohort was the least prepared class I had ever taught.

Fortunately, I only had to teach their for one semester. I have no intention of ever teaching their again, and I burned that bridge.

I have stayed in touch, off and on, with my first office mate I had as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of New Mexico. He moved to New York some years ago. When I moved east, I learned about where he lives and got in touch with him. He spent some years teaching at the same community college. He asked me what I thought of the students there, and I told him. I asked him what he thought. He offered a one-word response: dumb.

Most of my career teaching was on the West coast. I had many unmotivated students. I had many uninterested students. I had students who procrastinated too much. I had students who shot themselves in their own feet with excuses, or violating absence policies and making it so they were unable to pass. But I always viewed students as bright, capable, and able to offer something to the world.

I won’t proclaim those students as “dumb” as my old office mate has, but I know what he means. They were not ready or cut out for college, even at a community college. It didn’t help that the curriculum was set up for them to fail. What was dumb was a director who thought he was bigger and more important than the program that he was running. What was dumb is a director who didn’t trust his teachers to teach the students based on their capabilities and the teacher’s own experience. What was dumb was a director who didn’t trust his teachers to know his students. What was dumb is setting up a development writing course on the par with an English 101 honors section. Had the director noticed his own hubris just a little, maybe he could better serve students than to pass them out of a class that they clearly couldn’t handle so that they could fail further down the line.

Dumb.

Part 3 of West vs East will concern another teaching episode – a hostile student situation at a state university in which the university did not back up the instructor, did not communicate with the instructor, and let the hostile student off without any repercussions. The hostility concerned a student who was a veteran and occurred about 25 miles from Sandy Hook, the site of the devastating school shooting incident of 2012. Evidently people in Connecticut (those in charge) just don’t learn.

Until part 3 – be well. Thanks for reading.

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