I went to the office today and got a few tasks done; I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student who graduated several years ago and wants to enter a grad program.
I emailed for an appointment with the retirement counselor. I'm bad about procrastinating about some things (that would be one of them), but I did it.
Then I dealt with one of my advisees via email. This advisee has been on suspension (for grades), and is coming back to finish a full semester of work to graduate. When A was suspended, I suggested a course of action including taking a study skills course at a local community college and so forth. But the dean didn't require anything like that, so of course the student didn't do anything like that, but was re-admitted anyway.
We met last semester to plan A's curriculum so that A could graduate with an English major and A's chosen minor. Part of the plan was that A would take a course in our winter term.
But A emailed me last week, said there was a problem with one of the classes for spring term, and then asked me what to do. Unfortunately, I'm still not back on the computer as A's official advisor, so I couldn't get at the on-line files, so I asked A to forward a copy to me. Today I went over that and tried to make sense of the questions in terms of the plans we'd made. Unsurprisingly, A didn't sign up for the winter term course, and that's messed things up. Okay, resources (time and money) are limited; I understand that. So I went through the paperwork, figured out what's missing, and emailed A.
In my career so far, which started with TAing and such, I've had two students I thought were intellectually incapable of doing college work. One is A. The other was Mary. Thinking about A took me back to thinking of Mary.
I taught Mary in my former job at a private SLAC (emphasis on the S in SLAC). She was a non-trad, and I was a brand-spanking new assistant professor in my first tenure track job, teaching four classes. I was earlier Brit lit for my first year or so, and all of Brit lit my third and last year (because of a retirement). The schedule was for me to teach Shakespeare every other spring, and something else the other spring related to earlier Brit lit.
Mary was in my fall semester early Brit survey that first semester. I remember the first paper she wrote, in response to a prompt asking students to discuss the imagery of Christ in the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Dream of the Rood" (translation here; the poem is a first hand narrative of the crucifixion from the point of view of the rood/cross). It's a pretty basic assignment that asks only that one read fairly carefully; the key is that our culture tends to use Christic imagery that's either pathos-filled (the pieta and suffering/crucifixion imagery) or pastoral (the Jesus hanging out with little children or teaching imagery), while the poem's imagery is more heroic:
Then the young hero did disrobe -- that was God Almighty--,
strong and resolute; on the wretched gallows he did ascend,
bold and courageous as many observed for mankind's past he
Tremble did I as the hero embraced me
It's really helpful for students to learn to pay close attention to the way a poem imagines Christ because Christian imagery has changed, and those changes are important and fascinating. A poem that shows Jesus disrobing, climbing onto the cross, and embracing it says something really interesting. It also challenges students to think about their experiences and previous learning. So it's a pretty good assignment, if I say so myself.
Poor Mary, though, didn't do well. We got her through the course, because she was willing to revise and revise and came to endless office hours, but it wasn't easy. She was a hard worker, but by the end of it, I had a pretty good sense that Mary wasn't really capable of reading with good comprehension. It's not my ego saying that; I regularly recognize students in my classes who seem way smarter than I am. But Mary had difficulty with basic understanding. (Okay, I'm no expert, but her patterns didn't seem to fit dyslexia, and she had difficulty with spoken comprehension, too. English was her first language.)
She didn't do as well in my Shakespeare class the next semester, alas. And that was the beginning of the real difficulty. As I learned much later, Mary was an English Education major; now there are a few things English Ed majors seem to have in common, one of those is a Shakespeare class requirement (because so many high school curricula require teaching Shakespeare, I suppose), another is lots of classroom time observing and teaching. The final term for most education majors involves student teaching full time, and at that SLAC, students had to be passed by a committee to do that semester's work.
Having failed Shakespeare, Mary's curricular pathway was at an impasse. The education folks decided that they'd let Mary by this requirement if she took my early modern drama class the next year. She signed up, and class began. This time, Edward II was the problem. Mary refused to read or talk about a play that dealt with male-male eroticism or sodomy because it was against her religious beliefs. (She was willing to read and talk about plays where characters committed enough murders to flood the stage with blood. I know which commandment talks about not committing murder, but I've never heard a college student object to art representing murder. What's so different about sex?) Having failed my class and butted heads with me about sexuality and religion more than once, Mary seemed to feel I was her bane.
So Mary dropped my class; she talked to the education department folks, one of whom suggested she take Shakespeare via a correspondence course. At least she wouldn't have to take another course with me. So, I didn't run into Mary again until my last fall there.
Faculty members at small schools end up doing lots of broad service; I served on search committees for faculty members in business and accounting, for example. And in that year, I served on the committee that made decisions about student teaching appointments. We read Mary's file; her cooperating teachers found her unable to handle teaching or managing a classroom. Her gpa was at the bare minimum. And then the education department professors talked about how weak a student she was, and how she shouldn't get a degree in English Education.
It was frustrating because they'd let Mary continue on in the program until her senior year, and now they were saying she wasn't capable of doing the program. We turned her down for student teaching and advised her to change her major to English. (I don't remember, but I suspect the college would have worked it out so that she wasn't enrolled an extra semester.) But they simply hadn't wanted to be honest with her, to have the difficult conversation. Instead, at every point, they'd circumvented their own program rules; they'd worked around the Shakespeare rule and they'd ignored the worrisome reports from her cooperating teachers.
Mary petitioned, and was given a date for a meeting with the committee about student teaching. To this day, I remember with total clarity sitting in that meeting, watching Mary walk in, seeing that she saw me there, and seeing her face fall. I felt so bad that I'd become a sort of focus for the difficulty of her experience at the school and then in her English Ed major. The meeting went well, given what we were doing, but we didn't let her proceed to student teaching.
So when I think of A, I think of Mary. Like Mary, A doesn't have good comprehension, either of what she reads or of what she hears. She has difficulty putting together ideas or thinking critically.
Mary finished her degree at the SLAC after doing a summer course somewhere else, I heard. And if we work things out, and she pulls off the classes, A will get her degree.
But I still worry about them because they're really not quite up to dealing with the complexities of the world, and I worry that they'll be chewed up and spit out in ever more painful ways.