Tuesday, January 02, 2007


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
would amend.
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.


  1. It sounds like you did everything you could. With Mary's story, it's infuriating how chicken the Eng Ed folks were. I know far too many grad students this has happened to, where the committee or advisor can't quite bring themselves to say "you just aren't ready," and they certainly aren't ready to dive in and help them figure things out. So when some kind of hoop appears that the student has to jump through, regardless of that student's performance on that hoop, they get kicked out.

    It's likely that Mary will eventually figure out, somewhere in the back of her head, what a good ally you've been all along.

  2. I've worked with my fair share of Marys, A's, and weasly so-called gatekeeping committees. I worry that not only will the complexities of life chew them up and spit them out in most unpleasant ways but that the Marys and A's will have no inner resources to pull themselves out.

    Like you, I worry about the Marys and A's. Passing them through the system is not the way to help them.

  3. Just my own anecdotal evidence, but it's remarkable to me how many fundamentalist Christians have difficulty with basic reading comprehension. And not just my students--my late step-father was the same.

  4. The problem you describe with Mary is an all too common one. Weaker faculty members often have a problem failing students. Although their motivation may be kind, in the end, they are ultimately doing the student a disfavour. It is heartbreaking to see a student in their junior year who clearly lacks the brain power and/or the necessary skill to complete their degree programs. Failing them at this late stage is very hard on them as their expectations have been raised beyond what is reasonable, given their abilities. This makes the 'bad news' so much harder for the to handle.

    I actually think that in such cases it is a kindness to fail a student early in their college career. Some people are just not cut out for higher education. This can happen for a variety of reasons, not just 'intellectual horse power'. A student who fails early can change their path and begin to work. They also avoid the risk of accumulating large student loan debts. Thus, in certain cases, to fail a student is the kindest and most just thing to do.

    Another factor concerns the problem of having poorly prepared students in classes. This can often slow the progress of the class through the material, thereby giving the other students less 'value'.

    Thus, it seems to me that under the appropriate circumstances, failing a student is the responsible thing to do. I just wish some of the other people who teach at my institution felt the same way.

    The CP

  5. Mary's story is tragic, particularly the part where she makes the professor the root of the problem instead of recognizing her own responsibility. Imagine spending hours working one-on-one to help a student improve her negligible writing skills while the student insists that the real problem is that "you just don't like my writing style." This same student probably says that you "gave" her an F, as if the grade were entirely arbitrary and had nothing to do with her performance in the class. Is it possible to get through to students who interpret our earnest attempts to educate them as a conspiracy to destroy their lives?

  6. Thanks for your comments, all.

    I feel like I should defend Mary a bit. First, I wasn't her ally but her teacher, and then someone in a position to judge her readiness to do student teaching. I did my best to help her as a teacher, but tried to be neutral in the other role.

    Second, I think Mary already had tremendous internal resources. She had faith, which was important to her and seemed to help her. She was an incredibly hard worker; she'd gotten to college as a first generation student, not intellectually well-able to do the work. Somewhere, I hope she'll find a job where her hard-work is really valued. I think she had a spouse who was supportive of her deire to go to college; and a caring spouse makes a world of difference.

    Third, I don't think she made me the root of the problem or blamed me; rather, I think she recognized that I'd represented a wall previously. And I was in that meeting.

    The college failed her because it was so invested in keeping students at almost any cost. That pressure (and we all felt it at that school) came up against putting her in a classroom where she'd be eaten alive, and the faculty finally stood firm. They should have been advising her more thoughtfully all along.