Student Orientation

May 10, 2016

Student Orientation: “Please sir, some advice?”

A couple weeks before the Fall semester begins, the Admissions people of Paragraph City host an orientation and luncheon for new students. It’s attended by all the student support services – Financial Aid, Career Counseling, the director of our tutorial center, a couple librarians, a Computer Center person or two, Health Center staff, personal counselors – and maybe a third of the new students attend. It’s just enough people to guarantee that none of the new students will remember anyone from the 60 second introductions. By sending an open invitation to the college, usually a half dozen scrounging faculty show up, too.

So this year I was enjoying a plate of pasta salad and a meatball sub, half listening to the introductions and the lack of questions from students, when the dean moderating the event turned to faculty for a few words.

It’s an interesting challenge. The new students are actually listening and being recently fed are in a pretty good place right now. What can we say in about a minute that will have any effect three weeks or three months later when they are making bad decisions about their classes? Some routes we just can’t go down because shelling from the high school wars has made them impassable. For instance:

“Would you just go to class, to all the classes. Woody Allen supposedly said that 90% of success is simply showing up, but I’ll tell you that 100% of those who don’t show up fail.”

For two reasons, this is hard advice to transport. First, they’ve missed plenty of high school classes with no consequences; high schools cancel their own classes for field trips to gum factories or rallies for football teams or tributes to athletes with head injuries or meetings with representatives from colleges they have no intention of attending. And second, the decision to skip class is made with that deeper reptilian brain we can’t reach with a word of advice. The pleasures of the bed or of a good coffee-and-bagel breakfast or shopping with besties trumps class attendance. So does the ache of hangovers and hangnails and other debaucheries.

“College is harder than high school, so plan ahead for that. Remember, you’ll be doing two hours of work outside of class for every how of work in the class.”

That college should be harder than high school is a lot like telling someone who has never seen concrete that it’s harder than goose down. The comparison fails to communicate. Besides, they’ve already been told “you’ll have to work harder that this when you get to college” by high school teachers who they have learned usually don’t mean what they say. But further, college faculty – often the many adjuncts who live or die by the student evaluation forms – have given up on students doing more than cursory homework. The two hours has shrunk to 15 minutes or less, and some faculty are embracing the flipped classroom perverted in this way: I’ll hand out my notes for them to read at home (which of course nobody does) and spend classtime with their books open explaining to them what they have not read. Not only does the flipped student spend no time at homework, the flipped instructor has no prep time. (“Look at the diagram on page twenty. Who can explain to me what that means? Would someone read the caption?”)

“Don’t let your independence go to your head. Without teachers and parents bugging you to do the work, you will need to motivate yourself.”

This is the piece of advice I’d be most likely to give, since I think it’s a hurdle for nearly all community college students.  What makes this advice ineffective, though, is that people have always learned this by experience, not by advice. It’s only in the light of “I told you so” that we start to distinguish our own responsibilities. Until then, we actually think that a) we have been motivating ourselves already and that b) all that whining from parents and teachers about deadlines and duties has been completely unnecessary.

At this point I had planned to suggest what we as faculty could say that would be memorable, insightful, generous, and useful, but I can’t think of what that would be. What I actually said, given 30 seconds of preparation, was this: “The people who you are meeting in this room are your life savers. Use them. Financial Aid won’t chase you down to throw money at you and the college nurse doesn’t follow you about tossing condoms in your path. You have to cross the threshold of their offices.”

I didn’t mention the corollary, which perhaps I should have. It goes like this: ‘That’s also true of your courses. Boring or inconvenient or irrelevant doesn’t make a bit of difference. It’s on you, the student. Your education depends upon you.’  Without that realization, higher education will continue to be defeated by the formula of passive students plus an impoverished work ethic times constant shiny distractions.


Mental Students

May 12, 2015

If you teach writing in Paragraph City, in the very shank of the semester, students sometimes take up residency in your head. They gain access without permission, in clandestine ways. They stay there on a stool in Noggin Central because you care and usually because you can’t do a thing for them.

They are not the students who tell excuses, which is to say saying whatever in order to get something from you. Just assuming the excuse is not true is easier than chasing down the real story, and it avoids the let down when you find out that lying to you is just what they do, just the game, just the excuse, and you, dear professor, look a lot like a patsy.

So excuses go into my refrigerated heart of not-caring. The real stories from student lives creep into the attic in other ways, ways that aren’t manipulation.

This semester the stories couch-surfing my head came in via blog entries and a chat about tension, normal class talk and an email explaining why one guy was 75 miles away from home. I’ll call them June and Greg, Maura and Mike.

As prep-writing for a reflection essay, I asked students to write a blog entry on what they’ve been thinking about in the last week. About being thankful for little things, Maura wrote. Like being married for two months and living in her parents’ basement and the family still being able to eat dinners together, while she and her husband and her father hold down seven part-time jobs between them, and two of them work at being full-time students. She wrote about her father’s worry about losing the house, and she wrote about being handed an envelope full of cash in church by someone she doesn’t really know.  It’s the envelop I remember at odd times, months later: the church pews emptying and people shaking hands and the fat fold of paper there in her hands.

Mike sent me an email, asking for his oral presentation to be delayed, maybe a week. It’s according to my policy, since presentations haven’t begun yet, so I typed back an OK and ask for a specific day. That’s when I find out he doesn’t know exactly when he’ll be back. He’s seventy-five miles away at the region’s best cancer hospital where his mother is in her last days. I told him to take care of family and we would work out school later. Ten days later and one parent less, he was back in class.

“Can I have a minute before class starts?” June asked and looked out at the hallway.   Out there she says she’s kind of fragile and she might leave class but she’s OK, she says. I ask, or maybe I just looked a question. I know her boyfriend, a student of mine from some years ago; she’s taking my class on his advice, she told me earlier, the same conversation when she said he’s had brain cancer in remission for two years. We’re in the hall now because remission is over and surgery is imminent.

In my writing class, we talk about proof-reading and revising. I urge them to find editors to work with, maybe people in the course, “Maybe your mom” I always say, “but someone patient enough to really read your words and give an opinion. How many have someone like that?” Some of them have a friend or an aunt or an older brother in grad school. Greg says his wife is a great writer. Then I ask who’s looking for an editor and start to pair them up and Greg’s there, too. He shrugs. “My wife’s losing her eye-sight pretty fast,” he says. “She’ll be blind soon,” and he pairs up with a quiet guy behind him.

I sometimes fume alone in my office about being ignored when I write comments in their papers or when I review in class yet again some strategy that is just not that hard to follow. But looking at their faces in the classroom, and at quiet moments away from campus, I wonder how they do college with lives that leave no room for it. Maura’s managing pretty well, with youthful energy and some fine natural talent. Mike’s major paper was a disaster; I don’t think he’s ready to be back, but he will be back, next semester, likely in that second seat in the third row. June is taking an incomplete, and hasn’t said how the surgery went. Greg’s grade is fine, and the quiet guy behind him turns out to be pretty helpful. I asked vaguely about his wife at the end of one class. He shrugged and looked somewhere where I wasn’t.

The Difference Between Motion and a Movement

August 21, 2014

It was called a movement when I first got involved: the community college movement. That appealed to me by its romance of revolution, by breaking to pieces the chains that kept the poor and powerless in their places.  My circle of friends would talk about living lives that forced change. We wanted to break the self-charging cycle of privilege and open up doors for the kids shut out of the candy shop. We were going to be elementary school teachers, social workers, writers, reporters.

And so we graduated and scattered to jobs (them) or graduate school (me) and I first heard of community colleges. They had been around since 1950, but no one anywhere I’d been had ever spoken of them as if they were real. They were places I drove by, nothing more. But suddenly there was a surge of students wanting or needing college and not enough room in the 4 years; they became more selective; the community college enrollments grew and so did new faculty positions.

I jumped into a graduate program designed around community college teaching and was in the movement.  That movement opened the doors to give everyone a chance at a college education. It dropped the tuition cost. It planted community colleges within driving distance of nearly everyone in the state.  It hired and promoted according to teaching ability, professional development, and contributions to community and profession.  It drew people who dropped out or flunked out, who were too poor, who never finished high school. And it needed a teaching faculty who could take real academics, drain the pomposity and egoism out of themselves and their disciplines, and make it all meaningful.

I still like that challenge. I found, like my circle of friends did, that the problems of poverty and privilege are far more complex than we imagined, that enthusiasm and good intentions don’t take one as far as we thought.  But there is still the feel of a revolutionary movement in much of our thinking about this kind of education. Neil Postman wrote that teaching was a subversive activity, and it is.


How to Write a Paragraph About a City

February 6, 2013

People arrive in Paragraph City by accident all the time. They step into the tiled train station or pull their luggage from the carousel in the airport or glide down the Interstate exit ramp looking for “a paragraph about a city.” That’s what they asked the Google for and the Google brought them here, and I feel a little sorry when Paragraph City doesn’t have one for them. So here’s the instructions I would give for writing a paragraph about a city.

  1. Collect data, a heap of it, a mountain of information, way more than you can use. This is my “Write from richness” axiom. If you have 40,000 things you could say about your city, then you can pick the very best 120. If you have only 120 things to say about it, then it all goes in, regardless of quality: that’s bad. So what are the city’s nicknames, its founding date, its major exports & imports & industry & employer, its most beautiful & ugly & dangerous & loneliest parts, its average income & SAT scores & rainfall & snowfall & days of sunshine, its number of parks & apartments & malls & markets & theaters &  firehouses & schools & homeless shelters, its rate of violent crime & college education & taxes & cancer…..? Download photos. Jot down notes on your favorite memories. Use all your senses.
  2. Decide on a dominant impression you will build from a selection of that data. This will guide your description and help you decide what to include in your paragraph. Will you describe the city as a friend, a monster, your child, your mother, a ghost, your culture, your coffin, your wings, a mockery, a trap, a springboard…? It can be fact-based, such as a picture of the city as polluter and a stain on the landscape, or more subjective and personal, such as the place that launched you into a bigger world.
  3. Gather and order the stuff that will show or prove your dominant impression to your reader. Put all the rest of your heap in a closet and shut the door (another axiom: “What you leave out is as important as what you put in”). What will come first; something that makes a convincing splash about that dominant impression? Some odd contradiction that will make the reader curious to read more? A perfect first impression of the city?  A commonly held false-face that your paragraph will contradict? What will come second, what third, and so on?
  4. Compose a topic sentence, which will probably be your paragraph’s first sentence. You can’t do all the work creating that dominant impression in the first sentence, but everything that follows must be suggested by that topic sentence. The topic sentence is an umbrella in a downpour, and everything you will write about must fit safe & dry under that umbrella. Of if you prefer, your actual city is a mansion of a thousand rooms, and that topic sentence is a door that opens into the one single room that you’ve decided to tour.
  5. Now write the description. This is where you do your best thinking about the topic, as you write (another axiom: “We learn what we have to say in the act of saying it”). In the process you will think of things in the closet that you want to use, and find other things you thought you would use that now you discard. That’s good; that’s part of the process. Try to use every one of your reader’s five senses at least once – without being absurd.
  6. Proof read the draft and see if it still matches the topic sentence. If you have strayed away from under the umbrella, then either cut what has strayed or change the topic sentence to include it. Check the last sentence; try to make a lasting impression there. Re-write clichés & stereotypes so they are your own original wording (often getting a specific instance you have experienced to replace the generalization of the cliche helps). Replace the most general verbs (is-am-are-was-were, have, do, go, get, look, see…) with more descriptive verbs wherever that seems like an improvement. Read your paragraph aloud. If anything makes you stumble or sounds funny as you read, write it again until it sounds better.

Finis. Except a piece of writing is never finished, only abandoned (my last axiom for the day, with a nod to Hemingway). But it’s just a paragraph and shouldn’t consume one’s life; there are always new and more amazing things to write. At least that’s the attitude in Paragraph City.

On hiring a thoughtful colleague

February 1, 2013

In Paragraph City it sometimes snows over night, eight or ten inches bleaching the landscape into cold dunes and slowing everything down a bit. To clear the walks and driveways, people can receive either flame throwers and sponges or snow shovels. Their choices are revealing.

This morning as I was shoveling out my drive I thought about one particular faculty search we ran some years ago.  It came down to two people who looked really good to us, but in quite different ways as they were quite different people.  The committee had screened by matching the resumes to the published job description, then screened further by looking at the cover letters and judging which candidates had the “preferred” qualities, mostly mentioned in the job posting but also the typical desirables that don’t make it into print. Then came a round of phone interviews, followed by conversations with the candidates’ references, and finally several were brought on campus for a half day of meetings, Q & A, and a teaching demonstration.

They were both well qualified, but one had more experience teaching, some leadership roles in the background, a bit more maturity, less familiarity with community colleges, less interest in teaching the remedial levels. This candidate’s classroom manner involved very clear, crisp communication; precise boardwork of a textbook quality; a professionalism that gave his listeners great confidence in his knowledge and credibility; a detachment from those he communicated with. The second candidate had only part-time experience and less of it, but was familiar with community college students and comfortable teaching levels from remedial to advanced.  At the board, this candidate was much less direct and took longer to arrive at an answer, but interacted with the class more, taking a “let’s see how we can figure this out – any suggestions?” approach.  No leadership background, a less impressive degree.

After their presentations the committee gathered in a room and tried to weigh the two, recalling even casual comments made during a meal or a tour of the campus. Again and again, the two candidates came out equally balanced. I knew which candidate I’d take if it were just up to me, but I could more easily justify selecting the other candidate, and really either would be a great addition to Paragraph City.

In the end, the committee selected the one I preferred – the second, less experienced candidate – though  I never knew what finally tipped the committee to select this one. And I myself wasn’t sure why this one was my preference, until this morning, pushing around snow:  it was just more fun to sit in the classroom of someone who wasn’t entirely about the content but was also about the student in the class and how they could think about the content.

We professors, endlessly, keep forgetting that our little classroom gig is less about what we teach and more about how the students before us must take our content and think about a lifetime of things. It’s not first and foremost art or philosophy or writing or music or math or history or literature or sociology that we teach; it’s thinking.  To be a thoughtful human requires all our disciplines and more, but in a dynamic, vital way. To passively hold in my mind the reverberations of a Schumann piano concerto & the ironic operations of fate in Achebe’s “The Sacrificial Egg” & the obedient cruelty of the subjects in Stanley Milgram’s Yale experiments on authority is pleasurably enlightening and disturbing all at once. But it’s all selfish prattle until it nudges into better places the furniture of my mind and the actions of my hand and voice and wallet.  At least that’s what the last shovelful of snow, wedged out from under the front bumper, said.

In Paragraph City, it snows so that I have time to think while I clear clean bright places to go. 

Interview Questions to ask when applying for community college teaching jobs.

January 8, 2013

ParagraphCity is filled with predictable moments. I can prepare for them, imagine how they will come about, research even, yet each one often unfolds in the most original way. Registration days, the first minutes of the first class session, the class when the first paper is returned, and the exchange with a student who has plagiarized a paper are all like this. So is that moment in a search committee’s life when one of us asks a candidate we’ve invited on campus, “Well, after all of our questions for you, do you have any questions for us?”

I enjoy the work of the search committee: short term and fairly intensive, important work; an interesting interpersonal investigation of sorts;  a distinct end point when the committee dissolves; and afterwards some years to see how well the hopes and predictions we make when we hire will pan out.  For that reason, and because in Paragraph City we usually include one person on the search from outside of the discipline, I rarely turn down an opportunity and have found myself in all sorts of searches. I look forward to the questions the candidate asks; they can tell so much.

Search committees always want to hire people who are more than competent in their field and who have the communication skills to teach well, but by the time we have a live applicant in front of us, we are pretty well satisfied on that score: the cover letter, resume, conversations with references, and a phone interview have told us that. At the point of the in-person interview we are wondering if you’re better than the other people we will interview, and we wonder what it will be like to work with you. Will you make us better at what we do?  The search committee often asks itself, “Is this a good match?”

What I first look for during the candidate questions phase is whether or not the candidate is interviewing us as sincerely as we are interviewing him. Do you want any port in the storm of your work life?  Or are you looking for a “match,” too? I understand the “just hire me and give me a chance and I’ll prove how well I can do the job” feelings; been there. But any search committee has probably talked to a dozen or more competent candidates with the same desires, and they have to choose only one.

The second thing I look for in these questions is how the candidate thinks about teaching his discipline. Do the questions you ask reveal you care about seriously challenging students and thereby seriously teaching them? Do you have something like a calling to your discipline? Do you understand the quirky burden of being a professor, that calculus of responsibilities to students, to discipline, to college, to your own integrity, to a craft?

I’ll write elsewhere about the worst questions I’ve heard. Here are some of the best.

  • “How would you describe your students?”  Especially assuming the applicant has looked up the demographics of the student body on our website, I like the subsurface work this question does. What they – the search committee –  say about students will probably be nothing new, but may reveal much about the faculty and their teaching philosophy. Does the question initiate a quick, thoughtful conversation about the students at Paragraph City, and does it sound like something that these faculty (our search committees are entirely faculty) talk about often? Is the description of students laced with vitriol (some faculty are surprisingly hostile toward students), with weariness, or regret, or enthusiasm, or hope?
  • “What support does the college give to faculty who want to develop their teaching?” This question sends the message that you care about teaching, a core principle for nearly any community college. If I asked that question, I would want to hear three things: teaching technologies are in the classroom & office and training is ongoing, the college has money for faculty to attend conferences, and most importantly, the college has regularly scheduled conversations about teaching. Teaching, that stuff that happens in the classroom and online, not the stuff that goes in reports to the accrediting agencies, as important as that is.  As an applicant, I want to work at a college that goes out of its way – and spends money to do so – in an effort to make its teachers fantastic.
  • “What do you do to help your most under prepared students?” Even if you expect to teach nothing but rigorous, upper level courses,  you want to ask this question, and you will want to hear about a tutorial center, special programs or paired courses for academically weak students, counselor involvement and a placement process, and a faculty committee that oversees these efforts. I had a dean one time who glared at me and said, tapping out each word on the table with her finger, “You don’t throw away people. You give them a chance.” A college that isn’t straining at the impossible task of preparing the unprepared is throwing people away. You should know that before you sign up.
  • “From your own experiences, tell me about some students you consider successful and some that were not.” This is another chance to see what they think of their students, and also how honest they are willing to be with you. If they speak only of grades and placement in transfer schools or jobs, that’s understandable but a bit troubling. It’s better if they can also see the notion of success from a student’s eyes, where attaining a C in a skills class or not skipping a day of class may be a meaningful success, one that breaks the pattern that has always created failure in the past.
  • “How are decisions made at this college?” This so wide open a question as to be hard to answer, but you will want to hear that there is a process (or more likely a number of processes) and they are known and even published somewhere. You probably want to hear them describe lots of communication around big decisions, faculty involvement and debate, and an evaluation process for really big decisions. That means deliberations can be slow and that faculty burn too many hours in committees, but it’s better than autocratic decisions where cost efficiency is the dominant consideration.
  • “How innovative would you say this college is?”
  • “What do you think are the most important qualities your graduates should possess?”
  • “What would you hope to see over the next year from the person you hire for this position?”
  • “What values or goals unify the faculty and administration of this college?”
  • “What other positions have been hired recently?”
  • “Is there a direction the college is taking? Something it hopes to attain in the next five or eight years?”
  • “What was the last accreditation process like?”

I have left off a lot of other questions that you will probably have answered in the general course of the interview, such as why the vacancy you are applying for has occurred, the size of the faculty in your department, and what the process for retention and tenure is. It’s OK in my opinion to write questions down on a card and bring them to the interview, but never read them to the committee – too much like they belong to someone else. OK also to jot down and ask questions that the interview brings to mind. Several times, I have seen great conversations begin when the candidate asked us a question we had asked of her.

You will have to judge on the fly how many questions to ask. If the group is getting bored or distracted after one or two, it probably means they are deciding against you and this is your last shot to make them interested. On the other hand, if the interview has fallen way behind schedule (and your questions are often the last element of an interview), then when the committee head encourages you to email any further questions you have, take it at face value. I remember one interview, however, where a meeting with a candidate that was scheduled for thirty minutes stretched to two hours; it was that interesting.

The Way We Fail Students

June 10, 2008

The much discussed Atlantic article, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” got me thinking about how failing a student affects the faculty, and Prone to Laughter’s recent reflection re-ignited the concern a few days ago.

Failing students comes with the job of teaching, but for some faculty it’s almost as strenuous an act as sanctioning a student for plagiarism. Some faculty go to great lengths to avoid either one, and I know of one community college faculty member who has left the classroom because the decision to fail a student is just too weighty. For the most part, I think these are instances where the faculty considers failure to be a heavier burden than the student does, and I wonder if this is the case with Professor X from the Atlantic article.

I fail students, a lot of students, probably too many students, and it doesn’t much bother me. I doubt that this makes me a better teacher than faculty who bleed over every F or perform extra-credit gymnastics to get every student to pass, but I do know I’m different, probably more by nature than by pedagogy. So this strikes me as an opportunity for one of those classification/division lists that fuels blogs of every ilk. My list follows, then, of the kinds of internal clockwork I see functioning in the clammy hearts of faculty as they fail a student, in no particular order.

  • My failure is your failure. I think of this as the high school model, where the instructor holds himself responsible for the failure of the student, and the F then is rare and comes drenched in guilt. “He hardly ever came to class,” she says. “What could I have done to get through to him?” And I callously respond, “You could have failed him in the first three weeks of the semester and either gotten his attention or been done with it.”  
  • I’m sorry but you’ve failed – how can I ever make it up to you?  This failure is expressed with an apology, and I have seen students turn from thinking “Oh what the hey, I’ll just re-take the course” to “I am slain Horatio, slain!” as the remorseful teacher convinces them that an F grade is a sucker punch they didn’t deserve.
  • The secret is, you’ve failed. Here the faculty has a grading system that is either never explained or is complicated enough that no student realizes the grade she is getting until the semester has ended, at which point the faculty can’t be reached for an explanation. It avoids the messiness of confrontation for the faculty member, but I think it breeds wild rumors as students invent magical explanations for their failure. “Man, don’t take courses from him. You miss a single class and you’re toast.” I have a colleague who, according to student wisdom for several years only passed women over 30 years old. Then a few years later the same colleague supposedly only passed men under 20. Well, at least it’s an objective measure.
  • You have failed because I can’t stand your guts. As far as I can tell, this is the Loch Ness Professor: despite the many reported student sightings of this basis for a failing grade, it doesn’t exist. How sad to think that students believe we’re that hostile toward them.
  • You have failed and because of that I can’t stand your guts. This one is real. Every semester I encounter somebody who is steamed at a student because the student just didn’t do x, even though he was capable. Sometimes this steam comes from an igneous layer of pride — “How dare he fail my course when he could have passed!” Sometimes it comes from a need to turn the failing student into an enemy, since it seems too mean to fail anyone else.  Some students encounter this sort of failure enough to expect it from all their faculty. They come apologetically to me after they have failed a class, checking to see if they might, please, take my course again because they really are good people. They promise not to screw up again, really… I need to convince them I hold no grudge against students I’ve failed. It’s a clean slate every semester, and I encourage them to use everything they learned the last time through and build on it. “Some people just take two semesters to get through the course work,” I might say, and I believe more often than not, that’s the case.
  • How did you manage to fail, given all your talent?  This response comes from a real desire to see the student legitmately succeed: “There’s nothing you had to do that you couldn’t do!” I’ve seen that response be an encouragement to the student to try again, largely because the faculty member believes in the student’s capability that strongly.
  • You earned an F probably describes my own attitude most closely. Over 15 weeks, with this work to do, given your unique abilities and pressures and handicaps, this is how your work stacked up against the course standard. It’s not a character flaw, not a critique of your intelligence, not even a predictor of how well you will do next time with different motivations, more or less time and energy devoted to the course, better or worse jokes in my delivery, higher or lower self esteem — whatever.

I do often wonder if my students would somehow be lifted to greater achievement if I was more psychically invested in their success. What if I hounded them, agonized over their absences and pleaded them into perfect attendance? What if I sought them out when papers were late and IMed them over deadlines? Would they be brilliant if my world depended upon it?

Nah, I’m not about to find out. And I’m not about to put more energy into their success than they do, because when they do succeed they will own 100% of that success, even if it’s a C+.


Math with Bad Drawings

Lover of math. Bad at drawing.

Incurably Stir Crazy

because life is too short to sit still

University Diaries

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.


A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious Says: Teachers are People Too

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Confessions of a Community College Dean

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Ferule & Fescue

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.