Monday, February 01, 2010

You knew what I meant 

Next time I visit Normandale, I have to meet this Jack Miller. I have talked about remedial classes at SCSU, but at Normandale, Prof. Miller points out, they are the courses that keep many of his colleagues employed. In an English class, he should be considered a saint for dealing with problems of grammar, punctuation and a complete unawareness of the rules of plagiarism. But these parts are teachable. What on earth do you do with this problem:
While there are some, especially older students, who carry around excess anxiety and who sell themselves short academically, the more common affliction is overconfidence: �I expected to do a lot better.� The bump in the road that is the developmental class is seen as an aberration, largely lacking the sobering effect it would have had 30 years ago. No one is going to flunk out of school. Plenty of warning is given if you are in danger of failure. Most developmental courses can be taken on a pass/no pass basis. One�s GPA remains intact in any case, including a withdrawal. A system is in place to cushion failure, and students who have always been praised for just showing up need it. They have been told time and again, �You can be anything you want.� All that is needed is �passion.� So when the academic path contains a detour, explanations to yourself and to others can come easily. Scholastic problems don�t emanate from within but from without. So determined is the college to offer �support� and so long is the list of reasons to receive that support that almost anything can be explained by or blamed on an external cause�poor time management, attention deficit disorder, you name it.
Not much to be done. We could get all tough love-y and just whack their self-esteem into place. But the drill instructor part hurts "retention", which means those classes that keep Prof. Miller's and my colleagues in subscriptions to Granta. So we throw money at the problem through academic services that give us students who ... are now more overconfident. And narcissistic. Why should they have to know grammar? You knew what they meant.

And we encourage that narcissism too.
As the college Web site says, the goal is �the development of persons as well as intellects.� Oblivious to signals of topic fatigue, some professors continue to assign readings highlighting racial or gender oppression, closed-minded fundamentalist Christians, wise elders �of color,� and any reading that focuses a spotlight on the warts of U.S. policy, history, or culture. Some professors operate on the mistaken assumption that students will be struck by �Aha!� moments as they are enlightened. So slight do we feel our influence to be that we take undue delight in satisfying our reformer�s instinct. Ah well, students must sigh, what else can be expected from college English professors?

Furthermore, students are asked to spend yet more time (as if they hadn�t spent enough in high school) dwelling on themselves, the ever-fascinating �I,� their own lives, their own �feelings,� their own variations on the endless quest for self-discovery. ...
And it's not just community colleges. Here at SCSU the "freshman English" class is numbered English 191. Its course guidelines say that all sections will have as "focal points" "Strategies for critically engaging information and developing it in writing as evidence for arguments" and "Study of writing in relation to articulating human values, cultural perspectives, or interdisciplinary understanding." Things like "copy editing" (where I think you might try grammar or vocabulary) or "revision strategies" and "research strategies" are "secondary points."

I am reading senior papers this term (one reason my blogging tends to be a little spotty lately.) I would like to spend my time working on developing how their education here allows them to see economic theory work on their topic. I would like to play with the results of their statistical work, refine it, be sure we used the right technique and had the right data. But I spend an enormous amount of time having them write and re-write their papers. And at this point I should not have to keep finding each mistake they make -- they should be able to find some. If they don't and I find it on re-write, they wonder why I didn't find it for them the first time. And it's all I can do sometimes not to say, "I'm not the one who let you down."

As narcissistic as they can be, they aren't entirely the ones letting themselves down either.

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