Sunday, July 19, 2009

David Brooks and the American Graduation Initiative: Rant Continued

I want to thank the Society for Anthropology in the Community College listserv for, once again, refocusing my rants. George you are spot on and I owe this post to you.

Just this past week, I caught a glimpse of the the paperwork of our new faculty performance evaluation and that has made me a bit faculty-centric in my perspectives. But lets push aside my panicked rant at being made responsible for my students' success and focus more specifically on the underlying political implications of Brooks' assertions. As is usual, for me, I am going to take the long way to my critique. Here is the main point: many Community College students do not have the luxury of focusing solely on their education and, contrary to Brooks' unsupported, uncited conclusions, finances are very much involved but in complicated ways.

Student engagement: what it really tells you.

Conference #2, on the third day. I went to a panel on the Students Statistics being collected by the Agency for Educational Stupidity. Facilitator wanted to pretend that it was "collaborative" so we were made to break into groups and discuss a student we knew who had not returned to school. Turns out the whole point was we were to conclude by the end of her little presentation that students who had made some connection were more likely to return. I, actually, had to listen to her stupid story of the merry janitor who knew all students' names and was the sole reason students came to class every day. Ya, that would, totally, do it for me. And I, totally, believe that story. Maybe we need more merry janitors? Throw in a few cafeteria ladies. Now that Isaac Hayes quit South Park, we could get Chef. (Note to self: did he die?)

Needless to say, I lost it, internally. I raised my hand and shared the story of the student I lost. Dolores (name altered). I had her in two of my classes. She volunteered for archy fieldwork and stayed through the rain. We ate pork rinds together. It was almost like we were "engaged". And then her father cheated on her mother and she spent weeks going home to a broken and bleeding family: nurturing her Mom and trying to deal with an increasingly defensive and authoritative Dad. No extended vacations for her parents to try to do whatever Mark Sanford and his wife are trying to do: Dolores family has to keep working. Eventually, her Dad cut out, leaving a family missing an important salary. Dolores found a job as a bartender to help out. When I would see her in the hall, the shirts were lower cut, the make-up heavier, the hair more dyed. And she talked incessantly with false gaiety about the partying she had done the night before. From the pores of her skin came that odor of day old drunk, it was her I was thinking of in my previous post. And, yes, I tried to talk to her, tried to speak of her grief and her need to care for, herself. And, yes, I was glad she had finished taking all my classes because I would not have wanted to grade her. Does everyone forget we need some objectivity with students? It went over like the proverbial lead balloon, except for the four faculty members who followed me out of the door, thanking me for saying it.

Or Rick (name altered) who had found his way to the Houston area and worked his way up to a manager of some sort at Starbucks. Brilliant student. But the really good ones get more responsibilities at work; often their promotions are their undoing. School can't always compete with the ability to make just enough money to be tempting. No future advancement but more than most have ever had. Rick's natal family was, apparently, chaotic. Mid-semester of his second class with me, he disappeared. I had been worried about his long hours and apparent exhaustion. Then one week before finals, he showed back up. His younger brother had been living out on the street and he went and he went back home to collect him. In the process, the normal student flu turned into a sinus infection. It went untreated as Rick has NO HEALTH INSURANCE. He continued to work, supporting and caring for his brother and the infection got worse. When he finally made it back, I caught him up on what he had missed and because he is brilliant, he Aced the final. I don't know if he will be back in the Fall. America would be well-served to give him a free ride at the Ivy of his choice. It won't happen. He missed so much he pulled "F"s in his other classes--no make-ups allowed there; a policy I support and Rick does, too.

I suppose Brooks' would argue these students don't need financial aid or that their parents should be held, somehow, personally responsible for their inability to create stable Leave it to Beaver home lives. Paging Sarah Palin; although in all fairness Brooks is appalled by her, as well. Or maybe, there is something more I am supposed to do to make them successful? Or, perhaps, Mr Brooks, there is something more America could do? That is if your conservative brethren could get their hands off your thigh and, actually, understand the world you live in and not your narrow view of the way you think it ought to be. And, yeah, it is about the money for most of them--in complicated ways. You can't heal them but you can point the way to their success by making your investment in their futures clear and meaningful.

BTW, just like Sydney who commented earlier, I also teach 5 classes of 35 as a normal load. I don't know most of my students' back story. It would be imossible and I can't run a classroom making special accomodations for all--and I don't. The good ones don't ask for it or want it. And sometimes it is really hard to sort out the truly challenged from the "slacker". It is quite a skill set to deal with that.


Dustin said...

Thanks for sharing these stories, Pam. As a community college instructor for 6 years, these kind of heart-breaking stories are all too familiar to me. And then there are the ordinary, everyday heartaches -- the ones who struggle day to day to stay *almost* there and end up with Cs when you know that they're capable of so much more. For example, the young mothers -- I can always tell who has kids in my classes just by looking at my attendance sheet. A couple days with the flu here, a parent-teacher conference there, childhood emergency some other night, and so on.

Like you say, the proximate causes for community college problems are unlikely to appear, to an outside observer and even to the student her- or himself, to be directly financial, but I think Brooks is being pretty disengenuous to insist that affordability and student aid aren't key factors here.

I've argue this at greater length in a post at Savage Minds, if you want to have a look.

Pamthropologist said...

Hi Dustin. Actually, I am not done blogging on this, myself. We haven't even touched on the meaning of an education implied by Brooks and Obama and the whole "measurability" issue, yet. So much to little time.

Dustin said...

"So much to do... so little time."

Don't I know it!

The type of education advocated and the role of measurability in achieving it are pretty clear, and pretty unfortunate. Our entire higher ed system boils down mainly to admins and policy-makers asking themselves "what are poor people good for? what are middle-class people good for?" and designing a system to achieve that. And it's too bad for both groups, neither of which is being encouraged to seek educations wider than what is considered necessary in the job market.

One of the things that struck me as I was writing about this at Savage Minds, although it didn'tmake it into the post, is how much the rhetoric of individual advancement conflicts with the reality of an educational system that is designed to feed the status quo. Students go to college to "get ahead", but almost nobody in US society "gets ahead"; we almost all stay where we started. Higher education, then, just "fleshes out" the skill set students need to stay where they started. It's a nasty trick to play on young people, who (as I said in my post) deserve so much more.

Rebecca said...

I’ve been reading the articles about David Brooks here (and the one on Savage Minds) with great interest. I’ve just started back in school on masters in anthropology. However, most of my friends from high school, and several work colleagues I went to Jr. College with varying degrees of “success”, if success is measured in terms of graduation.

As a student my goal was not really to get a degree per se, but to invest in an education that could get me a better job. More troubling to me as a student is not how many students dropped out, but how often getting a degree made little or no difference in advancement in careers: associates or Bachelors. Two friends who became teachers recently were laid off. With my BA I struggled to get a job, and am currently working in a call center. (My job is a dead end job that only requires a high school education, but I there are a few others here that have Bachelors or Associates.) Another friend who went to Uni only with a BA is working data processing, another Uni only friend with a BA is currently working as an office assistant at a university. Two more with BS are unemployed.

I’m not begrudging the friendships or the broader mind or the knowledge that I gained from school. However, the reason I was sold on going to school was to provide a better future for me and my family, and in that aspect school has actually put me behind as I have huge student loans to pay off. We should measure how effective a school was by what the student was seeking from the experience (a better job, learning a new skill, making friends with similar interests) which is elusive but meaningful, rather than wither they received a degree that might prove useless to them personally but is easy to measure.

Pamthropologist said...

Funny how many people coming from different perspectives arrive at similar conclusions. I just had dinner with a friend and we discussed the same issues. We (whoever that is) promise jobs with the degree (or similar measure) but as, Dustin and Rebecca note, the result is not forthcoming. But then I hope for more than a job for my students--at least more from my perspective, I would like a thinking and reflective citizen of the world. Naive and idealistic as that sounds, I don't we stand a chance at recognizing what is happening without that knowledge base. Although what the value is in knowing you are being screwed frequently escapes me.

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Morgan said...

I think that, if we really want to be teachers who are not just about continuing class privilege, we do need to be flexible. There is no point in saying "rules are rules" when we know they are set up to hurt single mothers, as well as poor and racialized students. For example, I had a student whose father was terribly injured and then died: they were from Afganistan and she had been there to visit him for the first time in her adult life . The school refused to grant her any kind of extensions because she could not obtain an official death certificate from a country that is currently at war, as well as being desperately poor. Should I compound the university's racism by refusing to grant her an unofficial extension when she should have been eligible for an official one? The truth is that she learned way more of the course material about culture, development, war, colonialism, by spending time there. I allowed her some extra time on her essays, and to make up the discussion marks she had missed by meeting me in my office hours. (she didn't get as high a mark as she could have, but she did ok, mostly because she was brilliant) I really believe that to do anything else would be a betrayal of the ideologies that I teach: it is no good to teach lessons about how women/racialized people/poor are oppressed and then oppress them yourself in your own classroom.

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