Sunday, October 19, 2008

200 young people. part two.

I am an instructor’s assistant for a pre-1600 world literature class.

The week before school began, we had to go to an English department faculty meeting. The dean of the English Department announced that freshman English classes are capped at 21 students. To enable this cap, the trade-off is that sophomore literature happens in large lecture courses consisting of 200 to 400 students.

My class has 200 students. So you understand, I am an IA for a “small” class.

A couple of weeks ago I graded 120 in-class essay exams. The instructor I work for was nice enough to take 80 of them herself. Before the grading began, I did five, my instructor did five, and we met to compare, to ensure that we would grade consistent with one another. We also came up with a grading rubric. Sounds fair. And it was as fair as it could be.

But as I poured through badly written essays to essays that seemed to be written by nearly illiterate students, I came to the conclusion that, at a fundamental level, there is nothing fair about 200-student literature courses.

As an undergraduate, I was a lazy student. I was lazy for a lot of reasons. I lacked confidence in my own intelligence and in my ability to compete with “good” students. I was busy stretching the bounds of “independence.” Could I go out every night of the week? How would it impact me? I wasn’t necessarily making the connection that poor grades were a consequence to me personally.

In large classes, I was one of the students who sat in the back and hoped not to be noticed. I remember my own angst as a freshman and sophomore. I didn’t really get my act together until my 3rd year of college, and by then I’d screwed up so much that I needed 5 years to graduate instead of 4.

As I graded essays two weeks ago, I felt my heart at once sinking and wanting to leap out to each student. Would it be possible to meet with them one on one? To explain to them how to keep up with the readings, how to listen in class – how to decipher the “important” information, how to take good notes, how to study, how to write an essay, how to analyze subject matter? For that matter, how to balance fun and work and several classes with professors who all have different expectations? Of course not.

Part of the problem is in the hands of administrators. It is simply not okay to shove students into classes like a herd of sheep or cattle. This is not fair to instructors (who can’t give kids the individual attention they deserve), and it isn’t fair to students. At that faculty meeting, the dean also announced the university's push to increase enrollment. He praised the English department for meeting this demand. Now that I'm an IA, I wonder what right the department has to bring in more students when it can't adequately serve those it already has.

At 18, 19, 20, most people are too inexperienced, to new to self-autonomy, to understand that a college education is, in this country, a commercial transaction. It is a product that students, or their parents, purchase. For some it is a cash transaction, and for many others it is paid for on credit – borrowed money that will take years of life to return. If they’re in classes with 200 or 300 or 400 kids, they’re not getting the highest quality product.

If these kids are anything like I was – too intimidated to ask questions, too baffled by the transition from high school (where I wasn’t confident as a learner to begin with) to college, too new to navigating freedoms to effectively balance fun and responsibility, then they’re going to find themselves in financial and knowledge-based debt.

What do they do – these middle to working class kids whose parents are just glad to get them off for a higher degree – for whom tiny, liberal arts colleges are no option? What is fair?

In spite of my inadequacies as a student, I always loved to read. I always loved my English classes. If my university had decided that it was in my best interest to learn about literature among an ocean of other faces – I would have drowned altogether. I know this. My love of the subject was not enough, given the trials of growing up, to anchor me in learning.

How many of my 200 students are sinking in my instructor’s and my classroom? How many of them used to love to read, but are now burying themselves at the back of the amphitheater style classroom because ancient texts aren’t what they are accustomed to reading. How many are afraid to speak, afraid to be noticed, most importantly, afraid to say, “I don’t understand what I read. I don’t understand how to listen for what is important in a lecture. I don’t understand how to get excited and engaged in a classroom of this size.”

How many young college students are astute enough to ask, “Am I getting a raw deal? Am I going to spend forty-years paying for mass produced, factory-made lit courses? Do I deserve something more for the product I’m purchasing? Should an education be better?”

In my high school civics and free enterprise class, we had to make a budget. We had to pretend we were out in the real world working and living and paying bills. I never factored my student loans into my budget. I certainly didn’t give myself a hypothetical husband and his student loans. Now I can look back. I can see that in many ways, I made a poor purchase (on loan). In many ways, I went off to Target, a step up from Wal-Mart and better than the Dollar Tree. I got what a lot of people got.

There were better options, but not necessarily an equitable means to access those option.

Standing in front of 200 students twice a week, trying to assist my instructor to the best of my ability, I feel ashamed of this country. It sounds like a dramatic statement. I know that it is dramatic, but it’s no less true. How did we come to the conclusion that people of economic privilege are entitled to a better education?

It seems to me that state universities have the unique challenge of providing the absolute highest quality instruction possible. I know. Failings happen at the elementary, middle and high school level. I saw this clearly in the essays I graded. A university can’t necessarily turn miseducation around. But it can make an effort to provide better. 200 to 400 kids in an amphitheater is not the starting point. I know this too.

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