27 October 2013

What Professors Do: Anguish

We're in the business, most of us, to educate.  We want to engage students with the things we're passionate about.  For me, that includes literature and ways of reading as well as the desire and the tools to write well.

When students fail or do poorly, we beat ourselves up, assuming we've failed to inspire, to engage, even to explain adequately.  At the moment, I'm anguished at a remove, watching a young woman who was once one of my best students suffer from her students' disengagement.

At The Offspring's school, one of the best public schools in New York City, there are parents who complain, year after year, about their kids' teachers.  My response: I'm an educator, but I don't know how to teach fifth grade math -- or, for that matter, fifth grade anything else.  I can still get a scale out of my old clarinet, but I can't explain to The Offspring how to make the right sounds; it takes a music teacher to do that.

But we live in a culture that second-guesses teachers all the time, a society in which it's assumed that politicians and business leaders with no educational experience should make pedagogical decisions that affect the nation's kids.  That ideology starts with preschool and goes all the way up through college and beyond.  And if some of the students who grow up in that system think a degree is a credential to be received after doing time, and see their teachers and professors as an annoyance along the way, no one should be very surprised.

Twenty-five years ago, I watched students struggle because of a completely different kind of bureaucratic failure.  I was teaching four courses a semester in English composition and conversation at a university in Shanghai. Three classes were full of Shanghainese students who had been chosen to attend because they had recieved the best scores in English.

The fourth class consisted of students from a remote Chinese province who had been brought to the city to be educated.  Rather than taking classes with the other students, though, these students were kept in one group, separate from the others, and the entire class assigned the same major.  There were students in that class who were excellent at English; others probably would have done very well in engineering or business or the sciences.  Yet it had been decided that in their year, they would study English, regardless of their aptitudes or interests.

I loved the job, and it convinced me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life teaching.  But I felt terrible about those students sent to the city to learn English, working so hard, yet struggling to succeed in a field where they couldn't do their best work.

Today, I face students who are perfectly capable of doing good work, but don't want to bother.  Or they're working their way through school, trying to take as many credits as possible each semester to keep tuition costs down while working 30 or 40 hours a week -- and there just aren't enough hours in the day and night.

One kind of student exemplifies our national bad attitude toward the teaching profession; the other our political failure to support higher education.  The mechanisms are a little different, but we're failing our students, much as the Chinese were, quarter of a century ago.