My niece has been a freshman at college for few weeks now.
She’s home for a family dinner (her college is one hour from home) and she’s telling us about all the cool and exciting things she’d doing in college. She is a dream daughter; never skipped school or made bad grades, rebelled or ridden a motorcycle with a college boy out of the church parking lot. She’s somewhat shy, very conservative, sweet-natured, and outside of what she was exposed to in her public high school, very sheltered. She’s never had a job. She rarely dates, and spends most of her free time at home, hanging with family. She’s not dull, but she’s not a risk-taker; she’s not wild.
She’s telling us about her classes. 200 students in one 400 in another with a smaller lab taught by T.A.s, typical first-year fare at any large state school. When she shares that people sleep through her Psychology class, I mention that I don’t think I have ever had anyone fall asleep in one of my classes.
“That surprises me,” she says, to the relative delight of the table.
“Well my class is not lecture-based,” I try to explain. “Students are actually expected to talk and do things in class.” This is either not heard/ignored or is incomprehensible and the conversation simply moves forward.
Later that night, I am texting a colleague.
“Should I be offended at that?”
She LOLs me. And then says, “that’s just SCHOOL to her in general. She doesn’t know anything else.”
And our conversation also moves forward to more interesting things. Like college football* and this new bourbon our Hubbies are so keen on.(2)
“HAHAHAHA!” came another colleague message on FB.
HAS SHE EVER FUCKING MET YOU?”
Why, yes, actually. I’ve known her since she was 4, but my niece and nephew have never been interested in me at all, really, much less what I do for a living, so I think her ignorance on that score is genuine.
My academic life has been the only thing of TRUE PRIVILEGE in my life. My granddad (DB) was a Class A jackass, but his snobbery led him to pay for my outstanding education in a private (non-boarding) high school. When I got to college, I did not struggle; I quickly got through what core curriculum I didn’t place out of in order to get to the courses I really wanted to take. Things of real interest to me. Living Religions of the East. Archaeology.
As an undergrad, I sat in classes in which my peers snoozed. French. Political Science. I took some drugs to help me, true. I worked as a bartender in my undergrad years, so I often lived with my days and nights reversed. I was a vampire before YA novels made them so sexy. I caught myself nodding off a time or two but I don’t think I ever snoozed through a class.
And graduate school? Holy shit I couldn’t wait to get to classes. I drank them like absinthe and craved more, and was heart-broken when I had to finish my last term long-distance, away from campus and my source of strength.
My niece is smarter than me, with nothing other than academics on her plate; she is already taking courses that are of interest (versus required) and will no doubt do well in them. Which is also why she notices that her classmates are asleep in there.
But this idea of sleeping through class remains intriguing to me due to a lack of frame of reference. Both as a student and an educator.
Ugh. EDUCATOR. Why does that word make me cringe as I type it? I am happy to sing the woes of the poor teacher (especially in THIS state!) most any day to anyone with or without musical accompaniment. Teaching is a thankless fucking job, which I am becoming more vocal about now that I am growing more likely to not be one next year. I have been a college instructor for 16 years now. It was never a job I thought I would love so much, but now that my life has entered its 40’s, it is becoming clear that the next phase will not see me continuing on in this role. I am not unhappy with teaching; I LOVE my job. But it doesn’t pay well, has no job security(3) and the flexibility it provided me in my 30’s is no longer a high priority now that we have no need for nesting.
I teach Writing & Rhetoric. Argument and Inquiry. Researching-based fighting. How to write snark and get paid. This means that my courses have an ENG designation, which means to GenY-Millennials like my niece, BORING. English classes in her purview (as I have been reminded) are in fact, lecture-based. And regimented in a way that Gen-Xers like me can’t really remember.
When she was in 8th or 9th grade, her HS English class read Romeo and Juliet. She got points marked off for a question about “rising action” in the course of the play. She called me up (because evidently that’s what I do – again WTF?) and asked my opinion. She tells me the question, and her answer, which is right (and she knows it) so her quandary? Should she tell the teacher? Should she speak up and get the points she deserves or should she just let it go, and avoid making waves. (4)
Her quiz grade was still an “A” after all. I say that it may have been an error; the answer was clearly right even though I hadn’t had eyes on that play in at least a decade. When she asked her teacher to take a look, the teacher said that indeed the answer is correct but she had to count it as incorrect, and then showed my niece the TEACHER STUDY GUIDE PLANNER from which she was expected to teach. She pointed to the “possible acceptable answers” listed in the Teacher’s Guide and apologized; I can’t remember if she changed the quiz grade or not. *sigh*
We are not only NOT allowing teachers to use their own brains, but stifling students who attempt to use theirs. The Zombie Apocalypse is real, people. This is how they are created.
If contributing to a generation of kids that are taught to a test, and then measured against standardized exams (that, arguably, measure very little) had ever been an expectation for this job, I would never have signed a contract. And neither would many of my colleagues.
Which brings me back around to one big reason that I am considering retiring from teaching. I don’t think I will ever have a gig as great as the one I have right now. I teach at a small 4-year liberal arts university. My class sizes are capped anywhere from 20-35. You cannot hide. You cannot sleep. I will not lecture you into a coma, because I am not interested in teaching you “the book”. Any Book! Neither is my goal to teach you to read like me, or write like me, or think like me. Many choke on their coffee when they see the price tag on my university. But students will get an unparalleled education here and I am proud to be a part of that. They have access to amazing grants and scholarships. They will get an internship and/or job before graduation. They will most likely speak another language when they are through here. They will become the people who employ those who slept through state schools and daddy wouldn’t hire them later.
But in my mind, the best part? Because they are NOT sleeping through the privilege of an education?
Is that they will know how to THINK FOR THEMSELVES.
(1) FIGHT ON!
(2) LARCENY. I highly recommend it.
(3) I am too old and too poor to pursue a PhD and in my University, this limits my employment opportunities greatly. I do not think I need one, moreover, to do my job one fucking iota better than I do it right now, which is a hard sell to many who ought to know this as gospel.
(4)The idea of the teacher being so powerful with her “magic” at the head of the class is absurd, but in many high schools, this is taken to an extreme. My niece didn’t want to have that teacher think she was what? Being a brat? A suck-up? A trouble maker? Correcting adults is never easy, but should part of an education include this? I have had first-year students who love my class so much because (their words) I “don’t lecture them or condescend or belittle them”. WTF? Teachers who act as bullies should be given jobs at the DMV.