Saturday, February 06, 2010

Welcome to the post-literate society

Jack Miller
Normandale Community College
Bloomington, Minnesota

Center of the American Experiment

January 2010

Of the 70 or so students currently taking my “developmental” (a much-used euphemism for “remedial”) writing classes, Debra, Andy, and Po might serve as models for at least some of the types.

Debra is 45 years old, has recently seen the last of her children move away from home, and is newly enrolled in college to prepare for a late career.  She is hoping to get into the very popular and over-booked nursing program, and she is anxious about everything pertaining to my course—compositions done in class, compositions done at home, every other assignment large or small, the readings, the minutiae of the syllabus, the distant but looming exams that can make or break a term.  In a recent piece, she wrote, “My friend been through many bad experience which helped her be strong, she was in a abusive relationship with a man.  This made her careful of all of them.”  Speculating on her own future, she added, “If I was to start a business of my own it would be a hair shop.  I would choose a hair shop because it seems fun.  A advantage it would have is, the stylist would be good.  I know alot of hair stylist.  My personally dont know how to do hair that good, that would be a problem I’d have to overcome.  My idea prolly wont come true, because I just wouldnt take the time to put it all together.”

Twenty-year-old Andy works as a part-time mechanic and is unsure which of two roads he’ll go down—becoming a full-time mechanic with hopes of having his own garage some day, or throwing his lot into the academic world as an entering junior at Minnesota State University Mankato.  Andy is diligent and not someone to dash off an assignment as quickly as possible.  Nevertheless, in a recent composition done in class, he wrote, “She is a very smart women, she has solved many cases at her job her last case is about one of the worst criminal in the town.  These fact makes her very suspecous.”

Po is a first-generation American whose parents brought her with them from Vietnam when she was nearly ten.  They continue to struggle with English, and their future is bounded by their linguistic limitations.  Her father works as a custodian at my college and can still get only a little past “Good morning.”  Her prospects, though, are widening quickly, and she foresees a four-year degree followed by graduate school, if the scholarships fall in line as they have for some of her friends.  Regarding her great-uncle, she wrote, “I don’t know how old he was when he got a job, he must have been about 40.  But everyone remember what a great man he was. Always helping people. And before he was died he gave me money for scholarship.”

At my community college, typical of the breed especially in urban and suburban settings, about one-third of students in English courses (and nearly all students take English sometime) are labeled developmental.  That is, they have not scored high enough on college entrance exams to take regular composition classes that have been the bread and butter of English departments.  Now these developmental courses, which exist to help students reach the starting point in regular composition, have elbowed their way into the bread-and-butter category.  Without them, some of my colleagues would not have jobs.  Community college professors sometimes complain that we are now doing the work that should have been done in the high schools.  Maybe so, but we need this work.  And the large numbers carry one advantage for the students—most of the stigma that used to be attached to these courses has dissipated.  The handicap is just too common.

Readers might be surprised if they got to know these students.  They do not represent a particular race or nationality, and the percentage of them who are “ethnic” (as my college puts it) is not appreciably greater than that number in the college as a whole (25 percent in our case, with “ethnic” encompassing everyone not “white,” another difficult term).  They go home to their high-rises in the city, to boxy homes in the inner suburbs, to 3,000-square-footers in the outer suburbs, even to farms where the suburbs have yet to reach.  They are single parents (in surprising numbers), teenagers still attached to another’s pocketbook, the newly employed and newly independent, immigrants from every corner of the globe, recently downsized older adults in need of retraining, and veterans back from service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Whatever their backgrounds, their writing problems fit into relatively few categories.  Not surprisingly, they have little understanding of grammar (though foreign students certainly tend to excel here and in the understanding of grammatical terms) and see it as a set of arbitrary “rules” concocted by sadistic pedants harboring grudges against the young.  The following may serve as typical examples of what instructors encounter daily.  Here’s a reference to a short story’s heroine: “She isn’t like most characters, whether its ‘Rags to Riches’, pros weigh more than cons or the character is to innocent for their own good; no.” (This person got a silent nod of approval from me for even trying to use the ultra-mysterious semi-colon.)

Another student wrote, referring to the same character, “They hired her to solve the mystery of whos who, she uses her self at times to bait in situations in order to get the answers she needs.  There is multiple advantages in this.”  Besides the obvious problems illustrated here, this example typifies another—the tendency of weak students to choose the fancy word, “multiple” where a simple one would do in a misguided effort to be literary.  A final example shows the common tendencies to shift tense without reason and to fail to recognize a sentence.  “He saw her lurking in his back yard and he comes out, so does his brother.  after talking to her they dial the secretarys number to report her.”

Punctuation is an equally baffling and dangerous area.  There exists little understanding of it as a set of signals that facilitate the reader’s comprehension.  “The author talk’s about the problem’s found in the goverment, he also asks the goverment to do what they say?”  When punctuation and grammar are combined, they produce a two-headed monster that makes many feel that every word, every mark on the page, may be the one that sets off the error buzzer.  To move forward with a sentence means to court trouble that hides just down the line.  If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you know something of this—you can hardly construct anything of more than basic simplicity without stumbling.

Vocabulary is weak, perhaps stemming from the legions of teachers since elementary school who have feared above all that their students might suffer confusion or dismay.  Understanding the rudimentary conventions of research is minimal.  Few are aware of what or how to quote from a source, or how and why to credit that source.  Knowledge of plagiarism is far from certain, and finally there is the oft-noted paucity of a body of shared knowledge, thereby inhibiting what assumptions a writer can make about a reader.  More than ever before, students live in an intellectual world of their own, a personal world where every individual’s baseline is likely to be different from that of most others and coincides with few.  Coupled with extremely spotty historical knowledge (Who fought against whom in World War Two or in Vietnam?  Any hands up?), the factors outlined here make for a classroom of wide diversity, though not necessarily the “rich” diversity that college catalogues claim for their campuses.

Other causes, less tangible, contribute to students’ poor record and performance in college (especially that 20 percent or so who demand extra time and energy from the professor), and here I venture on more speculative ground.  Some are not sure what is done in the classroom—how to behave.  They don’t know when or how to take notes.  They perennially miss due dates, drift in late, drift out during the break not to return.  They sabotage themselves and then seem to expect forgiveness and accommodation from their professors.  Someone showing up one day after having been missing for five or six weeks, only vaguely recognized by the professor, will assume that a way can and will be found to bring him up to speed and on track with the rest of the class.  Is all this the result of repeatedly being forgiven in the past?  I think so.

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.

Let me jump to the defense of the other 80 percent of my developmental students.  Most of them arrive at class on time, are attentive, work reasonably hard (as hard as or harder than their fellow students in “regular” classes), do their best in and out of class, juggle numerous family and employment-related roles, and display an unaffected earnestness that can be very refreshing.  They are, furthermore, appreciative of even modest attention and of the diligence put forth to help them by the vast majority of my patient, serious, and hardworking colleagues.  And they show improvement.  They can profit significantly from good grammar texts that are short on terms but high on practical application, from some excellent Web sites that provide self-grading exercises, and from a rudimentary grasp of common terms (adjective, pronoun, for example) that can be used for years to come across academic fields. 
These students are adults and want to be treated as such.  Assigned readings don’t have to be colorful, eye-catching, or full of references that prove their hipness.  Most students understand that they’re out of high school, and they don’t appreciate exercises with examples about borrowing the folks’ car.  I advocate using books that can be found at any Barnes & Noble, not texts sold in college bookstores.  Students see these books as “real books,” not something produced for the classroom, something of a different breed.  Readings and discussions can also start to fill a few gaps in knowledge of this country, its geography, its history, and any number of other subjects.  For instance, my English-as-Second Language students (one of my sections is exclusively ESL) were fascinated by a ten-minute digression on degrees attained by American college and university students—B.A., M.A., Ph.D.  The progression of study, the number of years to attainment, the meaning of the letters—all was unknown to them, though important.  Narratives can also be useful, informative, and good models.  I’ve used published obituaries, stories that are inspiring without trying to be so.  (Don’t get me started on the ones that try to be inspiring.)  And, of course, the writing assignments themselves should emphasize not just sentence correctness but the purpose of paragraphs.  Students are aware that they exist but not why they exist.

Meantime, a lot of effort is lost to well-meant but dead-end pursuits foisted on students by faculty and administrators who seek to do far more than improve facility with the language.  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.  Foreign students can’t escape this, either.  They are forever urged to write about their own countries and their own cultures, as if their readers must do continuous penance for being born and bred insular, an insularity that is a one-way street—only Americans suffer from it.  So while we ponder ourselves, we must never forget to “honor” diversity.

You’d think that enough has been written about political correctness on campuses to sink it, but it seems to sail along unperturbed.  Documents of all sorts purport to “honor each individual” and “value diversity” (the words can be interchangeable).  Web sites boast that the college is “committed to honoring [that word again] human differences,” and vigorously promote “free and open discussion,” while at the same time acknowledging “a special responsibility to be sensitive to the concerns of those who are most vulnerable to discrimination and harassment.”  And just about anything can fall under the all-purpose desire to “build awareness of _____.”  Fill in the blank as you wish—“Ethiopian culture,” “oppression of bisexuals,” and on.   The college further promises to provide students with “educational experiences which assist [them] to understand and celebrate their local, national, international, and multicultural environments.”  Whew!

By now students should be reeling if they’re paying attention.  Most are not.  Maybe they’re too busy, maybe too much of the message is a reprise of high school, or maybe they just don’t see the relevance.  At any rate, the great majority make their way through the requirements, write the compositions, read enough of the essays, cooperate with the professor, and move on to “regular” composition where it is usually assumed that they know what a topic sentence is and how to produce one.  The cycle of dismay, though, may repeat itself as some new professors remark on what did not get learned in the developmental classes, just as those professors commented on the failures of the high school classes.

I hope these new professors will have patience and forgive their developmental-teaching colleagues.  Those men and women are wrestling with classes consisting of students with wildly varied abilities and experience.  No diagnostic entrance test can be so accurate (unless it is too time-consuming to grade) as to weed out students who are simply far too weak even for a developmental class or who are, in fact, good enough to be in a regular class.  Furthermore, what does one do with the one-third of developmental students who are not native speakers of English and whose problems differ radically from those of their native-speaker classmates?  And where does one find the time or the inner resources to confront a problem like the one I recently had.  She came up to my table in the middle of class as students were writing.  “I missed class the last two weeks,” she said, “because my daughter was in the hospital and [here lowering her voice by half] I was in jail.”  I bent my rules, gave her extra time to complete an earlier assignment, wondered if I was being too lenient and what would ultimately be best for her.  Compromise is only too common.

In that same class, near the end when only one or two were still around writing diligently, one of my best said, “Can I ask you how to spell a word?  I just can’t find it in the dictionary.”  When I told him to go ahead, he said, “Taught.”  I gave him the answer and told him how to find verb forms in the dictionary.  But did he know what I meant by verb forms?  How much should I explain?  How much is enough but not too much?

How much will these sorts of handicaps influence these students’ lives?  How much will it matter if this bright person misspells “thought,” for example, or “driven” on a memo at work?  Would the ramifications, if there are indeed any, be more substantial than just embarrassment? Probably not, but it’s the job of colleges to afford any student they admit the opportunity to minimize the possible damage. And they are admitting plenty.   News reports these days tell us that never before have so many Americans been enrolled in college and that most of the recent increases are due to a surge in the community college population, now at about 3.5 million.  Perhaps nearly two million of them will spend some time in a developmental classroom, either English or math.  Virtually all of their professors, if my colleagues are typical, will work hard to provide them with what they might need.  I think it’s worth the effort when I remind myself that each face out there in the classroom represents a set of hopes and plans, most of which could be of value to others, and that misuse of the language is one stumbling block that most can overcome.

Jack Miller teaches English at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.  His previous American Experiment essay was “Appreciating Community Colleges: ‘In Many Ways, the Best Education.’”

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