Thursday, May 7, 2009

Paradise Lost Continued. How Students Ruin a Perfectly Good Career. Carney from Conshohocken Cries Out.

Last month on your site, Professor Apocalypse asked, "Does anyone else feel my pain?"

I'm living it. Or, rather, lived it.

Just five years ago, I was a fairly successful grad student. I had won several departmental paper prizes. My peers and colleagues told me they envied my writing ability. Professors recommended me to help other grad students with editing their papers and generally adapting to grad school. I seemed primed to get a TT job somewhere, even if it were some po-dunk backwater where I'd be happy and productive contributing to the discipline.

Then my departmental funding ran out. Despite most of my peers taking 5-7 years to complete the PhD, my department decided to stop funding everyone at the end of year three. But, they'd be more than happy to hire the rest of us as adjuncts at a fraction of the pay of a teaching assistantship...and no benefits! Who could pass *THAT* up? Since I thought I'd only need another 2 years to finish, I decided to take them up on their very lucrative offer. (ha!) I had been told teaching assignments would keep me "fresh" on the job market, and it never occurred to me that might be a fib. So, after a year teaching Intro classes, the adjuncting well started drying up as more grad students began sipping from the font. This meant I had to start taking whatever job came my way, which is how I got roped into teaching a series of writing classes.

My profs thought I was perfectly qualified! I had taught a remedial writing class for the department twice before. And several of the courses I TA-ed for had major writing components. It would just take a big leap for me to teach the Writing for the Discipline course I got hired to teach. Heck, fool that I am, I actually took on a writing course for the English department that same semester; it looked like a dream class, with just 13 students signed up for this sophomore-level class devoted to learning how to write a research paper. These were not freshman comp classes, so all the deadwood should be floating away, right?

Wrong! Just like Prof. Apocalypse, I soon discovered that most of the class (in every single section of the 5 I taught over the next year) could not [would not?] follow instructions. Most of them refused to learn how to use the word processing programs on the computers they shackled themselves to; I got papers that were single-spaced, triple-spaced, in 10-point font and 14-point font, with 2 inch margins and 1/2 inch name it, I saw it at least once in EVERY section...often with several of these in one paper. And then there were the 3-page paragraphs, the newspaper articles masquerading as scholarly sources, the made-up citation methods (because I guess MLA and APA are just too arcane to grasp!), and the plethora of comma splices, sentence errors, and "typos" (which is what the students called them) that littered most of the assignments.

If I assigned a reading, almost no one read it. If I asked them to summarize the reading, almost no one could tell me what it was about. If we went over a rule or method or technique in class, most everyone neglected to use it in their papers (as if class time assignments weren't designed for them to use on the papers they wrote for me to ASSESS their mastery for a grade). The inability of most of the students to grasp how quotation marks work still haunts me. If you didn't invent the idea expressed in the words you are typing, put the exact words in quotation marks and tell me who said it and where you read it. Why is that soooooooooooooooooooooooo hard?

But here's why all of this still bugs me: These lovely, precious cherubs of light mobbed together and blamed me for their failure to learn the course material. I was just a bad teacher. It didn't matter if they didn't read the book. It didn't matter if they openly admitted on course evaluations that the majority of them spent 1-3 hours per week on homework instead of the recommended 6. No, no, it wasn't that they were chronically absent, or web-surfed when they were to be using the lab computer to complete an in-class assignment. Nope, it was my fault they failed because I am a "flamboyantly homosexual," "racist" who "talks funny," is "unclear with instructions," and am "mean," "smug," and belong teaching in a "third level community college." Nope, it was my fault because I was a big failure who was incompetent and set them up to fail.

We'll ignore that these classes ballooned in size to almost double the recommended size for a writing course (the largest had 31, the smallest 22). We'll ignore that my syllabus was 8 pages long, with details on all course policies. We'll ignore that instructions for EVERY assignment were at least 1 page long, often written as a series of steps for the students to follow so they wouldn't forget something, and fully explained during classtime. We'll ignore that every major assessment was preceded by a short lecture/practice session for them to see how to do things properly (and for me to shepherd the little lambs back into the fold when they went astray). We'll ignore that so many of them disappeared for 10-25% of the semester, some longer. We'll ignore the fact that the international students often had a better grasp of written English than the native English speakers...let's especially ignore that!

I got so disgusted by all this that I refused to teach writing classes the following year. And so the adjuncting well went dry. When forced to choose between tuition and rent, I opted to use my meager savings to pay my rent, thus ending my burgeoning career in the academy. After years of angry e-mails and being shouted at in the hallway by C students, being infantalized by incompetent office staff who ruled the office supply cabinet like a petty feifdom, and being lied to by my professors about non-existent summer employment opportunities, I have been exiled and branded for my failure with unemployment. If anyone has any recommendations on how to deal the post-tramatic stress disorder resulting from years of dealing with plagiarists, cheaters, and lairs, let me know. I'm still feeling the pain.