Sunday, February 8, 2009

Mitch from the Motor City Writes us From the Learning Ghetto.

"I stand in the ghetto classroom -- 'the guest speaker' -- attempting to lecture on the mystery of the sounds of our words to rows of diffident students....In the face of their empty stares, I try to create enthusiasm. But the girls in the back row turn to watch some boy passing outside. There are flutters of smiles, waves....But only one student seems to be listening....In this room her eyes shine with ambition. She keeps nodding and nodding at all that I say; she even takes notes. And each time I ask a question, she jerks up and down in her desk like a marionette, while her hand waves over the bowed heads of her classmates."

This is the opening to Richard Rodriguez's "The Achievement of Desire." It is also an accurate description of my expository writing classes yesterday, minus the ghetto and the lecture topic and the guest speaker bit. And the windows. Our classroom has no windows.

It's interesting that my classes acted this way when they had done this exact reading for today. Or maybe it isn't, since only five students out of thirty-four bothered to read, as far as I can tell.

I am sitting in my office right now. I am too pissed off at my students to read the essays they turned in a few days ago; I'm worried I'll take my frustration out on their grades, which isn't fair --especially since the essay is unrelated to the reading they didn't do.

I want to throttle them, all of them. I want to tell them that yes, expository writing is a general ed requirement and I know they're only in my class because the college says they have to be. I also want to tell them that I have some knowledge to share with them, and since they show up three times a week (like it or not), they may as well get something out of it. I wish there was some way to get through to them that they can only benefit from doing the reading, paying attention in class, and contributing to the conversation. Why bother getting out of bed for an 8:00 class if you're just going to stare at the teacher like a zombie anyway? And that $35,000/year tuition payment? (Well,OK, that figure includes housing...) If you don't read, don't think,and don't participate, you're flushing your loan money (and the future interest!) down the toilet. And why buy that $60 book if you're never going to open it?

"I got bored."

"It was too long."

"The words were too big."

You were bored by the reading? 15 pages was too long? The words were too big? Excuses. This all means, "I'm lazy." I was doing 15-page readings in junior high. I learned how to use a dictionary in second grade. And you were bored? Oh, no, that doesn't fly. Unless you are brain dead, there's plenty to mull over in Rodriguez: race and class, for starters. If you're completely uninterested by race issues and class issues (especially when you go to school in a small, rich, white community just outside of a big, poor, black metropolis) then get out of college. And what about all the other issues in there? Education. Privilege. Culture. Language. Family. Values. Family values.

I swear, if it doesn't involve a football or Britney Spears, there's just no hope. The weird thing is, this is my eighth time teaching this piece. Never before have I had a class react this way. In the past,though, my students were of a different demographic; this is only my first semester teaching expository writing at my new college. Is it something in these kids' backgrounds, which don't really seem that different from my previous students' backgrounds, that make them react so adversely to Rodriguez? Or is it something in the water?

I guess we need to have a talk at the start of our next class about personal responsibility, maturity, being open to new experiences, challenging ourselves, and what it means to be a college student. How absolutely lame. I may have to stick the gun in my mouth when we get to the part about how they're only cheating themselves.