Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Work . . .

As usual, the Chair was in his office when I arrived to work. As usual, he needed to speak with me. As usual, I didn't really know what his point was, but what I did understand I didn't care for. Nevertheless, I take this opportunity to learn something, since not all lessons are learned through praise and accolades. In fact, we many not learn anything from praise; I don't know.

I had written an email regarding the fate of our students once we really and truly force them to prove what they can do after a semester in a course (the philosophy behind the dreaded Student Learning Outcomes, very big in the state of CA at the moment). We have to abandon grade inflation, or grading based on anything other than their knowledge, skills and abilities in our classes. This opens up a Pandora's box for the unprepared student, who forms the majority of our population at Pierce. More students will fail to perform; more will receive failing grades as a consequence; fewer will be promoted to higher levels; fewer will be able to transfer to the university system.

I instituted this new policy of grading based on what students can DO instead of grading them on attendance, good will, effort and participation. A percentage of my grade does reflect such intangibles as participation and effort, but to the extent it did before. The students, as a result, are angry. They don't like the new system of mine, and I have been inundated with grade change requests and unhappy emails. I won't change their grades, and many people will not like me very much. I am trying to do what I think is right, according to what the school and the state are apparently requesting of me. But no one answers the questions I pose above--that long and thoughtful email I sent to a colleague (a VIP on campus) has gone unanswered. I suspect that no one has an answer, and no one wishes to admit it.

My Chair told me, after much hemming and hawing and beating around the bush, that I had made myself look vulnerable by writing and sending such an email, and that I should be very careful in the future how I present myself. I do not understand the politics of the campus, he said, and said politics boil down to this: the powers that be in the community college system and especially the Pierce players do not care whether or not the students actually learn anything. It's my job to make it appear that they do, and to not rock the boat. If I play along with whatever new guidelines come down the pike, I'll be fine--but let's not make this mistake of actually doing anything substantive, or trying to truly change how and what the students learn. It isn't about student success, it's about saving our collective assess from the bureaucrats in Sacramento who every now and then get their feathers ruffled about the dismal state of our schools and the pathetic lack of preparation that our students demonstrate, as they wander off to Cal State Northridge unable to write a coherent sentence.

"You are a very serious and solid person, in spite of appearances," he stated, leaving me to wonder what impression I make on him and my colleagues. Do I come across as arrogant, aloof, uncaring, frivolous, careless, uncommitted? If so, appearances are obviously deceiving. I work very hard, but I don't advertise my work; on the contrary, I try to hide out, lie low, keep to myself, and occasionally speak the truth at inopportune times to the wrong people. As my Chair pointed out, "no one likes to be reminded that the Emperor has no clothes." True enough; in my experience meetings, committees and administration in general at the college level thrive on doing nothing and talking too much. I have this tendency to point out that we are not making any progress on any issues whatsoever, that indeed we don't even agree on the issues.

What's the real dirty secret here? At Pierce, as with other institutions of higher learning, a frighteningly large percentage of the professors cannot write a coherent sentence, and are verging on illiterate themselves. This creates terror and panic in them, lest the truth get out and ruin all of our grand plans for student success. If we ourselves are not successful in the educational endeavor that we have undertaken, if we cannot look ourselves in the mirror and declare that we must continue our own education before we can enforce standards upon our students, then we will continue to do nothing and show no accountability.

The Emperor truly has no clothes; and yet, if we do not admit that fact and find him some damn clothes, our students--as usual--will lose.


Frosty said...

F@&% That is messed up. The educational system around our entire country is frightening. Really frightening. We once lived in a rich, strong, vibrant, intelligent society. And we've worked really hard to change ourselves into fat, bleating, ignorant jerks. I'm proud to be an American.

Kitty said...

Yeah, I almost quit yesterday, but the committee Chair talked me down off the ledge today and things are better.

Better for the moment, because I'm not freaking out and making an ass of myself. Like I did yesterday (see new entry).

Luke said...

A few things:

One: Hey, you have a blog! I didn't know about it until Katherine pointed out the link on your Facebook page.

Two: We've talked about grading before, so I know you know my opinion, but just to reiterate: Students need to be graded for the work they do, not for "trying really hard." Effort is appreciated, and is part of a grade, but students need to know they will be expected to do quality work to get a quality grade. It's incredibly frustrating to have someone in a class who didn't fairly pass the prerequisite courses. I know this because I have been the underqualified student. It sucks for everyone.

Students will perform at the level you expect of them. If they think they can coast, they will. If they think they need to work, they will. If you're lucky, you can pull off the magic trick of having students who excel in your class without hating you- but the learning comes first.

Three: manifestos, no matter how correct, make people nervous. If the creator is lucky, the manifesto (or at least some portion of it) is embraced and adopted, but the more common result is a negative reaction followed by the eventual marriage to Katy Holmes.