Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Kindergarten Cop

with 11 comments

So I was going to access a good computer today, so I decided to wait to post this.  I like it when I can just sort of do it and not have to struggle with the one I’ve got a home.

Instead, I’m struggling with something else, and it’s more and more an issue in the places where I teach.

Traditionally, college students are considered to be–at least in regard to their academics–all grown up. 

Teachers took attendance, of course, and collected homework, but it was up to the students how they handled their academic life.  If they handled it badly, they flunked out–and too bad, but it was past the time of handholding, and that was that.

Increasingly, in the places I teach and in the programs I teach, policies are being changed to resemble something like high school–teachers take attendance and report it to the administration, who contacts students who are cutting class a lot and tries to “intervene” to “help” them “stay on track,” all in the name of “retention.”

Sorry about all the scare quotes, but this situation is making me fairly nuts.

So far, it’snot compulsory for students to attend college.  One has to assume that if they’re there, it’s because they want to be there.

And that assumption, of course, is false.  Most of the students who show up in my classrooms don’t like school, and never have.  They would have dropped out at fifteen or sixteen of the state still let them, except that they’ve been told they have to go to “college,” because without “college” they won’t get a job.

And they won’t, because high school no longer guarantees the skill set that employers want, not because that skill set couldn’t be learned in high school, but because nobody teaches it. 

The kids I teach have no idea what an education would really look like–in fact, they have no idea what actual training would really look like.  Their experience has taught them that being made to sit still in classrooms for five hours a day most of the months of the year and then to be made to feel like idiots and failures over what goes on there are the dues necessary to”get a good job.”

So, of course, they try to get away with doing the least work possible. 

So, of course, lots of them just stop working altogether, just stop coming to class, and either drop out or flunk out.

The universities want to “retain” these students because retention is an economic issue–a student who drops out stops paying tuition.  In the publicly funded places, lots of student drop-0uts lead to questions about whether the institutions are doing a good job or whether we should halt their funding.

The legislatures want to “retain” them because–well, it’s hard to know why.  They assumption that “education is good” seems to be without content. 

But what’s bugging me today is  not the students, but the methods we have begun to use to keep them students.  It’s beyond my comprehension what value a “college” program has when it’s run like this–when we track and map and cajole as if these were four year olds instead of eighteen and twenty year olds. 

When I get really pessimistic, I think this is one more example of our burgeoning inability to accept that other people know what’s in their own best interests–that we should be able to force people to act for what we’ve decided is “their own good.”

Mostly, though, I think it’s just a symptom of the fact that we’ve stopped thinking, period.

I can’t imagine that we honestly think we’re preparing them to get and hold better jobs.  There isn’t a job on the planet where your supervisor is going to call you up at home and chivvy you along because you didn’t make your deadline this week, then hold your hand until you get the work done.   If you miss a few deadlines, you get fired, and that’s the end of it.

Most of all, I think, my real problem this year is that I hate being a cop.  I spend so much of my time taking attendance, doubling checking homework, and chasing people around for deadlines, I do about half the teaching I used to.  And the worse the situation gets systemwide, the narrower are the limits I have to work in.

I used to tell kids at the start of the term that I was not a deadline Nazi.  They could hand things in when they wanted, be as late as they wanted, I didn’t care–but they didn’t have the right to complain that they would have done better if I’d been more of a Martinet.  People pay me to write, I told them, and I couldn’t write ten papers in two weeks and do it well.  If they wanted to try, they were welcome.

I had more than one student over the years who did try it, and failed the course (inevitably) and then came back in subsequent terms to retake the thing and get it right.

These days, though, that’s more and more not an option–no, no, we must help them to succeed.

So I’m not feeling very successful.

Written by janeh

September 15th, 2009 at 10:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses to 'Kindergarten Cop'

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  1. Never mind that high-school isn’t teaching what it should. *Elementary* school isn’t teaching what it should. My son is currently enrolled in the local CC program for FAA Aircraft Maintenance certification. (he’s been wallowing about for 4 years trying to figure out what to be when he grows up, at least now he’s got a direction)

    The first week or two he was tremendously bored because the teacher spent it on BASIC MATH. Adding. Subtracting. Dividing. Multiplying. Yes, third grade math. We were appalled. First, this is college. Second, if you don’t know it already, a week isn’t going to help.

    I’ve got to think that your frustration, and that of so many other higher level teachers, has got to stem from the feeling of “what the hell have all those other teachers been *doing* with their time??? Tiddlywinks?” Granted that it’s harder for teachers at all levels to really teach, these students have spent years in class, and still can’t be relied upon to add a column of numbers correctly?

    And then of course you’ve got to wonder if your time with them will fall into the same abyss of non-productive non-learning.

    It’s all a screaming waste of human potential, and the solution isn’t obvious.


    15 Sep 09 at 12:30 pm

  2. Jane, Could you clarify something about where you work?

    Is it a community college (GED preparation, diplomas), a college (BA or BS) or a university (BA,BS, PhD)


    15 Sep 09 at 3:45 pm

  3. What Jane said. Only more so.

    I just had to let an employee go today for continued inability to do her job. It’s awful. But keeping her here would have been worse. But she’s an adult, and I can’t coach her for the rest of her life. I tried for several years, and it didn’t work.

    Bad day, though.


    15 Sep 09 at 5:06 pm

  4. I can think of another reason. People are supposed to be nice. If you are nice you help other people. If you tell someone they’ve made a mistake or their work isn’t good enough, their feelings will be hurt, and this means you aren’t being nice and you aren’t helping them.

    OK, to accept this sort of thing you have to believe that there’s no particular value in hard work or making and learning from mistakes and that anyone can do anything without trying hard or otherwise inconveniencing themselves. You also have to ignore that if, as so often recommended, you always preface any tactfully-wording correction with ‘positive reinforcement’, you will end up with people who assume that any compliment is false or exaggerated and sure to be followed by devastating criticism and people who hear the compliment and miss the criticism under all that tact.

    I could write for pages and pages about coddling adults and over-extending childhood and screwed-up evaluation systems, but I’ll spare myself and the rest of you.

    But there has to be some halfway point between treating adult students as children and the professor from my undergraduate days who said, only half-jokingly, that that particular institution of learning was a poor one because almost no students committed suicide. None of them were capable of putting that much of themselves into academic work.


    15 Sep 09 at 5:25 pm

  5. Welcome to the world in which there are no responsible adults–not the sutdents, obviously, but not you either, since the administration doesn’t think you capable of deciding the degree of supervision necessary.

    The first time I pulled a tour in Korea no one under E-7 (Platoon Sergeant/Sergeant First Class–generally eight years service and up) was allowed to draw cash instead of eating in the mess hall. An E-6 could be thirty years old and married with an advanced degree, but he was not considered fit to purchase and prepare food. The Army was afraid they’d spend the extra money on mink blankets and celadon pottery and forget to eat.

    Now, of course, an 18 year old soldier is considered fit to decide when to kill someone, but not whether he needs a drink afterward. Looks as though smoking to calm his nerves will be the next thing to go.

    Soon comes the age of the eurovote, in which we are all allowed to make our own decisions–but of course our many and wise counsellors will keep us from making any wrong decisions, so we’ll just have to go on freely choosing until we arrive at the approved answer.

    The good news is that such a system, once fully implemented, can’t possibly last very long.


    15 Sep 09 at 5:52 pm

  6. Reminds me of my first Journalism professor. She was a professional journalist herself. If you wrote an article (with no teaching, mind you, this was the first day in class) worthy of appearing in a small local paper, you got a C. One that could appear in a large metro paper (like the Detroit Free Press) was worth a B. To earn an A you had to write well enough for the NY Times or Newsweek. Really. And that’s exactly how she graded. First day of class there were 28 students. Second day there were 16. Eight of us finished the term. I *earned* that A-.

    Gotta wonder how today’s students would do with those standards. Oh wait. I can see that by looking at any periodical. I wouldn’t give any of them above a C, lately.

    As I recall, her name was Jane too.


    15 Sep 09 at 8:36 pm

  7. Okay, Google is a marvelous thing. Her name is Jane Briggs-Bunting, and she’s now the Journalism Chair at Oakland University. She’s probably still terrorizing juniors. There’s no *way* she’s lowered her standards. So there is hope.


    15 Sep 09 at 8:42 pm

  8. Same problems down here in Oz. The military trade/specialised training schools here that take recruits after their basic square bashing weeks and try to turn them into tradespeople have been running remedial classes in basic readin’, ritin’ and rithmetic for quite some years now – probably 20 or more. The regular schools simply aren’t doing it despite awarding these people graduation certificates that imply that they are ready for prime time. I believe the same is happening in most if not all of the civilian trade schools.

    As for the monastic nature of military accommodation, there was more to it than just not trusting people to spend their money and eat wisely. Military high command dreaded the inevitability of Government bean counters stripping the forces of their essential accommodation facilities if people were allowed to choose not to use them. They feared that if the beds weren’t being slept in, the barracks blocks would be seen as superfluous and disposable; if the food wasn’t being eaten in the messes, then those facilities and the essential cooks and bottlewashers would be seen as redundant and disposable, and so on. In fact, these facilities were often redundant in the peace-time forces, but were seen as essential for contingencies.

    i think the same sort of attitude is being seen in education. Why do kids need to learn to write properly and do their mental arithmetic when they all have computers and calculators?

    Philistines rulez, OK.


    15 Sep 09 at 10:27 pm

  9. Anyone who teaches at a college or university has horror stories about unprepared students. I’m in the process of grading papers that don’t meet the minimum requirements for the assignment. Students expect me to give them a passing grade anyway – their high school teachers always did.


    15 Sep 09 at 11:37 pm

  10. Ya know, if I didn’t live all the way on the other side of the country I’d come out and build you a new computer for home so you’d have one that was pleasant to use.


    16 Sep 09 at 1:06 am

  11. I have been reminding my students–loudly–every week that getting a PhD is *supposed* to be hard! Yeah, they are better prepared than Jane’s students, or our own undergrads, but they want to show up and do what we tell them and get plenty of “support” and get a doctorate for it. Not from me, sweetie!

    But yes, it seems to be a general trend that making people work hard makes them feel bad. Wouldn’t want to drill the little ones on math facts or phonics–that’s hard, and meaningless, and boring, and cruel….


    16 Sep 09 at 9:34 am

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