the circular runner

Why I Love the Obama-No Drama Class…

In observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on June 17, 2010 at 11:44 am

Today is the one day a quarter that I am both excited and scared to come to class. It’s the day when my classes have to turn in their big research papers. Usually, I get up in the morning and am cringing when I check my phone. I know I am going to find a ton of texts asking, pleading, and begging for extensions. I never grant them. I am really a relaxed instructor, and for other papers, if a person tells me ahead of time, I let him turn his work in late. But with the research paper, I tell my students from the beginning that this is it. There are no exceptions.

Holding this line goes against the grain–at least it does at this school. As I’ve mentioned before, I teach at a for-profit community college, what used to be called a career college and before that, a vocational school. (People around here don’t use the V-word.) Anyway, because of our for-profit status, we’re dealing with a numbers game. No one kids themselves about that. The recruiters here (some of the teachers call them “the salespeople”) go out and promise the moon to potential students who for myriad reasons have not been in school or did poorly there and think they should come back. My point in bringing this up is that so many of our students would not be in college if wasn’t for the salespeople. At one level, this is a good thing. As the president of the college always says at graduations, we open up doors for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend college. But at another level, it presents difficulties.

A lot of the students I have would not survive in a public community college. Many don’t survive our program. They are sick and can’t come to class; they are too poor to afford decent transportation; they are in trouble with the law and will not be able to come to class because a judge has put them back in jail. But they come because the salespeople convince them that they should–that an education will change their lives. I agree with this premise in general, but not for the reasons that the salespeople are giving out.

Most of my students come here with the promise of a better future, but they aren’t prepared for the painful present full of term papers and exams. The biggest problem is that because of the salespeople, their view of education is strictly utilitarian in the most severe sense of the word. This is true for many students in all kinds of institutions, but I think the people who struggle through more traditional programs have internalized (to varying degrees) college culture, by which I mean, they have some clue why teachers get upset at papers written at the last minute. They know that they are part of a culture and that culture has rules. They may choose to break those rules, but they realize that the rules are there.

The real difference is that even poor students at four-year schools have a clue that what they’re doing is not acceptable. A lot of the students in front of me truly lack that sense. They’re not dumb–not by a long shot. They just have bigger issues in their lives that keep them busy and worried. School is not real life for some of them. The consequences are not as harsh as they are outside these walls.

All of this to say, I don’t want to baby my students by not being strict about deadlines, but it is my fear that if pushed too hard, if given too many strict rules right out of the gate, they will become dicouraged. It’s one of the giant paradoxes of this place: I deal with some hardened street people here, and yet inside, many are as vulnerable as little children.

So, imagine my delight this morning when I come to school with no messages on my phone and a class that is turning their assignments in. One deadline is enough, I think. This is an Obama-No Drama moment!! Awesome!

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