Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oh yeah. That's right. I'm a teacher.

I haven't been sharing much about my current teaching gig lately.  With anyone.  My wife asks me how class went, and I reply, "fine," just as I used to do when my mom asked her sullen teenage son how school was.  Nothing bad, nothing great, just "fine." 

This lack of response is odd to my wife because she is used to me being, when I'm teaching, completely consumed by it.  In my past teaching lives, I would spend entire weekends in my "office" (chaise strewn with laptop and papers), muttering, cursing, clickity-clacking out pointed yet encouraging comments, and periodically sharing a ridiculous turn of phrase or malapropism.  (Dr. Mom's standard response to my announcing these gaffes was to shout, "GOLDDIGGER!!!!!!!," a verbatim quote of a one-word sentence in an essay I received from a student in 12th grade AP English about the "Wife of Bath's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.)

The reason I haven't been consumed with my current class is that it's just so easy--for my students as well as for me--that I sometimes forget about it.  I preside over a classroom of four students.  There used to be five, but one dropped the class, supposedly because of a financial aid issue.  Curiously, she was the one student who consistently complained about the workload.

This "workload" (based on the template given to me by the dean of the college) consists mostly of me reading short stories and poems aloud, giving a little lecture about certain literary elements, and then conducting a class discussion.  I require students to contribute to a class blog twice a week, and there is a weekly assignment wherein the students write something in the style of whatever we have been reading in class (i.e., short story, epic poem, dramatic monologue.)  And after six weeks of this, they receive General Ed credit toward their bachelor's degrees.     

My students don't take much work home with them, and neither do I.  They're not "bad" students, and I hope I'm not a bad teacher: it's just that the culture of these particular hallowed halls does not include notions of "studying," or "doing homework." 

Let me explain.  I'm teaching this class at a tiny, for-profit college that specializes in computer graphics, animation, and web design.  I think of it as a digital trade school, but it's actually accredited, and offers associate's, bachelor's, and even master's degrees.  Most of the students work full time and take between two and five classes per six-week "module," which is ostensibly intensive enough to be equivalent to a traditional college semester.  Each class meets for about five hours a week, so you can see that it would be difficult for anyone to find time to squeeze homework into their schedule if they were working and taking a full load.

Despite the snobbery you surely detect in the above description, I'm actually ambivalent about these kinds of institutions.  On one hand, it irks me that someone can get college credit for an English class that includes no reading and a total of about ten pages of unrevised reflective and creative writing, when I had to typically read a thousand pages or so of difficult text and write 25 pages of polished analysis to earn that credit.

On the other hand, I'm all for technical and vocational schools.  If I had been an academic counselor in the high school where I used to teach, I would have pushed about half of my students toward vocational school, instead of insisting that a four-year college was the only route worth pursuing, which is what the counselors actually do.  In fact, if I were on the school board, I would campaign to change many of the schools in the district to vocational/technical high schools.

As a guy who made a living building houses for fifteen years before I got my teaching credential and eventually my MA, I was--and continue to be--a little appalled by young adults who don't know how to drive a nail, twist a wrench, or read a tape measure.  Many of my high school students would have been better served with classes that taught them to weld, fix engines, or wire houses than to write about their feelings.

So I'm okay with the idea that the place where I'm teaching is not a "real" university.  It's a great alternative to a traditional liberal arts education and it's probably more likely to lead to gainful employment in a relatively healthy sector of the economy.  And I'm okay with my role as a cultural ambassador, providing enrichment in the area of arts and letters.  And I'm definitely okay with the tiny class size and paucity of essay-grading responsibility, which translates into a decent wage for me.

But despite my populist sensibilities, the idea that someone who completes this kind of program ends up with the same degree that took my peers and me four (or more *cough*) years of full time (minus keg parties, road trips, despondent inertia, etc.) studying still sticks in my craw.

It's a truism that the BA is the new high school diploma, and the MA is the new BA, but do the labels we use really matter?  Should a BA from a technical college have an asterisk next to it?  Do employers care whether your bachelor's came from Ivy U, Very Large State College, or Turnpike Tech?  Should they?  Or is it only snobs like me who think about these things?   


  1. Hmm, I say, hmm, hmm, hmm. I'm with you on thinking that college certainly isn't for everyone. Or rather, I think everyone can benefit from a liberal arts education, but not necessarily at the age of 18. We don't have compulsory military service in the US, or a traveling year, or any of the other things that sometimes make students a little more ready to settle down and study. I've always liked non-traditional students more than traditional students, mostly because they know why they're in school and aren't just sitting there because of social pressure.

    I think some (most) employers do care about Turnpike vs. State vs. Ivy. The worst part of that, as a teacher, is knowing that I am part of a system that gives identical degrees to very different students, some of whom didn't learn jack shit while they slept in the back of my class.

  2. Full disclosure: I'm one of those hiring people.

    And yes, it matters where the BA comes from. And yes, I find myself wearing a snobby hat when I'm evaluating resumes.


  3. @Mmme.P--I like non-traditional students best too! My favorite class was a bunch of Marines and sailors who had been all over the world and seen all kinds of stuff. It was so easy to teach them rhetoric because they were used to working in a huge bureaucracy that plays all kinds of games with language. And, like you said, they knew why they were there.

  4. I did a fair amount of hiring in my last job. The one thing I cared about? Internships. That's where all the practical learning is done these days. Not the classroom. Doesn't matter how you got them, I just wanted to see at least one on a resume.

  5. As a teacher at a Very Large State College, I can think of many past students who would've been happier at a vocational/tech school. Not because they weren't able to complete the work in their university classes, but because they SO didn't want to be there in the first place. They got shoved in to it, usually by their parents.

    I also teach night classes at a private college that is designed for returning (non-traditional) students, and i gotta say: I love them. They're the ones who didn't just barrel straight through school thinking it would help them fast-track to some easy-yet-extremely-lucrative career. They went out into the world, worked hard, often times went through a vocational/trade program, and then decided a few years later that a degree would help them reach their loftier career goals. They appreciate college a lot more as a result, obviously. You get the most out of college when you go at the right time in your life.

  6. I'm just generally impressed when people want to get more educated; not everyone has to graduate from Harvard. Let's not forget "Precious." Isn't that the whole point of that film?

  7. I think trade schools are a great alternative to liberal arts ed and it doesn't bother me that the English classes at those schools are fluff. Even within the schools I've graduated from there is a discrepancy. My English classes were harder than others--as it should be since I was an English major. I also think in the end it doesn't matter what it says on paper--when it comes to education you get out what you put in: I can learn a lot at a state college and nothing at all at Harvard.


  8. I went to a major provincial university for 7 years to finish a software engineering degree, and really, it didn't give me that much of an advantage. I was doing the same job (and earning the same salary) as the guy in the next cubicle who'd completed a 2-year comp. sci. diploma. Annoying -- mainly because that guy was an ass -- but if he could do the job as well as I could, he should have the same chance as me. I just wish I hadn't taken so much time and money to get there.

  9. Sad that there is a certain amount of 'snobbery' out there. We would all love to be able to send our kids to a great University, unfortunately cost is a major factor. After all no one cared what high school one graduated from when a high school diploma was worth something.

  10. I didn't go to college after high school for several reasons, some better than others. After all these years of being out in the work force, I sometimes feel disappointed that I didn't get the full college experience. However, I'm getting ready to go back to school and the one thing I'm certain of is that at 18, I wouldn't have busted my ass like I plan to now.

    But to tell you the truth, even though I've desperately wanted to go, I've been putting it off because I'm terrified that I've been out of the game too long. It's nice to know that there are professors like you and your other commenters that appreciate "returning, non-traditional students". That makes me feel a little better.

  11. I went to a vo-tech. Was it the equivalent of college? Nope. Did it give me the skills I needed to land a good job? Yep.

    That said, I'd LOVE to go back and get a college degree. Just because I enjoy learning.

  12. Yeah, college definitely isn't for everyone. I wish they wouldn't push it onto everyone either because a lot of people would waste a lot less of their lives going straight into a trade school instead of figuring out that they aren't the college types. Can you tell I have strong feelings about this? Probably because I couldn't get into college and trade school didn't even want me.

    Single Dad Laughing

  13. I have 3 college degrees, a BA and two master's. This discussion causes me to reflect on what all this effort was/is worth. First of all, as a history major I learned to read. "How To Read A Book," written by a Harvard professor, pretty well sums up what I mean by 'read.' Then I had to learn to write about what I had read. That was harder. At UCLA I (believe it or not) took four history classes in one semester because I was in such a hurry to graduate. After all, the tuition was $74 per semester, and who could afford that?

    Then I earned two degrees in the very low-paying couseling field. I honestly didn't care a whit about money at the time. Now I do, because I would like to be able to pay my mortgage. Beginning master's level counselors in the mental health field are paid $16/hr in Washington. I get $22 because I have been at it for a while. My son who is a builder charges $50/hr. My attorney charges $50 to accept a phone call...

    I guess I learned some valuable stuff in my master's programs, but I didn't "master" anything. I learned how to give clients my full attention, and that that is a rare experience in people's lives. I got better training after graduate school, in the many seminars and workshops on practical aspects of my profession. Best was the "real time" education I received on the job.

    So what? The family I have tried to support has suffered financially because I dallied in college for 10 years while really smart people were building businesses and investing. They are now living in the mansions I visit as an "Order Generator" (translate "solicitor") for Evergreen Tree Care. They are driving Mercedes and their kids have to settle for BMWs while I drive around in my 2002 Prius.

    What's it all about, Alfie? As you can see, I have very mixed emotions about higher education. I am "highly educated," but tend to identify more with friends in low places.

    Sorry if this is a bummer, but it is what it is. Maybe there is something to be learned, so maybe it will be helpful to someone.


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