Key to College Success: Be Prepared for the Worst

I just finished a class lecture/discussion on being a successful college student with my developmental writers. So much of what I do with those students is related to providing them with the reading, writing, research, and critical thinking skills that they will need to get their degrees. But I know, having been an undergraduate student and an instructor for ten years, it is often the things that happen to us outside of the classroom that derail our best efforts.

And I’m not just talking about the simpler choices we make, like going to a party instead of studying. I’m talking about when you have no money and no food. Or if you or someone you care about gets really sick, hurt or depressed. Or if you find yourself with a stalker. Or your professor just isn’t really all that helpful and you can’t understand your math homework. Sometimes fate steps in and hands you challenges that are stressful, distracting, and can really negatively impact your studies. I assigned my students for homework to make themselves up a list of university, community, and virtual resources to have on hand in case the worst does happen.
Academically, there are any number of resources out there now to help you study and understand your work when you’re stuck. I’d like my students to come to me or to use the tutoring service provided by the college, but I also know that at 3 AM, when they finally get around to their work, I’m not available. Go online, find the sites that you think might help, and bookmark them in advance. Some suggestions include, Quick and Dirty Tips, and even Khan Academy on YouTube. Why wait until your panicked and stressed to Google for help; when you get your schedule, take an hour and do some quick research to find websites that might help you at 3 AM when no one else is around. 
Socially, it’s a trickier matter. There are almost always support or activity groups for whatever you might need or be interested in. And if there isn’t one, you can always start it yourself. I always find that if students have a good support group around them and des-tress in more healthy ways, they will be better students. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding new and different friends, which can be hard. Knowing what is going on at the university and in the community you are in (obviously easier to do in a big city) can be a lifesaver. Read the student and local community newspaper; you’ll thank me.
Have the number and address for the on- and off-campus medical facilities. Know what services your school offers and don’t be afraid to use them. Also, don’t be afraid to get help for a friend. Nothing will ruin a semester more quickly than illness that goes untreated or a depression that goes unrecognized. Ask around; if students consistently complain about the services on-campus, head to the local hospital or clinic. If you don’t have health insurance, don’t let that stop you. But, plan ahead and see if you qualify for “free” healthcare. Know where their are free support groups run by community organizations or churches. Students are often too afraid, too ashamed, or too broke to get the mental and physical help they need. This can be devastating.
Finally, don’t go hungry. Find the local food back or church that does charity work. If you feel dishonest taking food from a food back, make a vow to pay them back when you have money or volunteer for them as thanks. It’s really hard to study and do well academically while you are hungry. But also find ways to make your dollar go further. Get all of the coupons you can and always ask if there is a discount for students. Find the “happy hour” when food can be up to half price. Find the sales at the local grocery stores. And learn to cook; once you can make your own food, the costs go down significantly. 
I know about all of these issues because I’ve lived them. I almost failed French because I didn’t get the help I needed. I watched one friend struggle with bi-polar disorder and another with severe depression, both ended up dropping out of school. Our social group did poorly those semesters, too, because we were worried and trying to help take care of them. I ate a jumbo box of instant rice for the last half of another semester that a friend gave me because I was broke. I also know that joining the school paper and getting involved in student government saved me from different stresses because I had a great group of people surrounding and supporting me. If not, I would have left school because of another student stalking me. 
I learned all of this as I went along and thankfully it didn’t derail my studies in any significant way. I know that so many of my students, especially those who are in my developmental classes, are already behind the 8-ball, so to speak, when it comes to the probability of getting their college degree. For me, it’s not just about the practical academic skills that will help them graduate; it’s about equipping them for anything life at university may throw at them, inside or outside of the classroom.

What I learned as an Undergrad

There has been a lot of virtual ink spilled over the past few weeks about how little our current generation of undergraduates are really learning (just Google it, you’ll see); students don’t read, don’t write, don’t think critically. Let the finger pointing begin. Colleges suck, professors suck, the K-12 system sucks, students are lazy and don’t care about their education, and we’re all on the short decline into post-apocalyptic chaos and destitute.

I’ve written in a lot of different places (like here and here) that I was not the best undergraduate student: I didn’t come to class, I was distracted while in class, and was more concerned with the social side of university life than the educational side. I selected my undergraduate degree because it offered paid semester-long internships in my area of study (professional writing); as long as my GPA was high enough so I still qualified for those internships, then I was fine.
This was not the fault of the (majority) of the wonderful professors who taught in my program; if not for them being just generally great, great teachers, I wouldn’t have stuck around to do an MA with them. Sure, there were some duds, but over-all, the quality of my classes was excellent. Could they have sat me down and said, you’re doing well, but you could be doing so much better if you just applied yourself (code for actually showing up to class and not being hung over)? Yes, but I give them credit for treating me like an adult and letting me make my own mistakes. Thankfully, because I got good grades, I could learn the life lessons without being forced to drop out, like some of my friends.
No, the fault lies with me. What I learned in college was about life, who I was, and who I wanted to be. I knew, pretty quickly, that I didn’t want to be a technical writer, that I loved literature, and I loved to write (not bad lessons, really). I learned how to budget (the hard way), I learned how to (minimally) cook for myself, and I learned that sleep was really important. I learned that I wasn’t indestructible or immune from failure. I learned how to recover from said failures; I learned resiliency. Or, perhaps I learned more ways in which I was resilient. You have to have a certain amount of resiliency to survive high school, divorced parents, and participating a competitive sport. Now I knew I could survive other situations as well.
I did develop my critical thinking skills, but mostly through my immersion in another culture and language; I went to a French university in my home province of Quebec just after a referendum. I also improved my writing and research skills, and I was “forced” read books I would not have ever read (or understood) otherwise, even if it took years to come around to them again as a professor. I’m not sure, however, if I would have self-reported any of these developments in a survey or if they would have shown up in a test. My brain, throughout a lot of university, was elsewhere. I remember almost failing a French grammar class because I was unable to answer basic questions whose answers I had known throughout high school and know once again today. But in that moment of my second semester, I didn’t know anything about French grammar. And I was trying.
What I learned as an undergraduate directly shaped who I am personally and professionally today. I just don’t think that if you had told any of my professors back then that I would now be teaching at the university level that they would have believed you. Just because an undergraduate doesn’t look like or even recognize themselves that they are learning anything as an undergraduate doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Maybe it just means they haven’t realized it yet.

Adjuncting and a Modern Literature Disaster

When I was a graduate student, I taught an intro course in comparative literature, comparative Canadian literature, to be precise. This was my exact area of expertise, so, other than the boring early discovery/settler literature, the class typically went well. This was my first experience teaching undergrads; I had previously taught English as a Second Language to bored and resentful teenagers over summers, so the literature thing seemed really easy to me.

When I moved out to California, I taught various levels of writing and composition as an adjunct, from basic developmental writing to an advanced course to upper division students. While I didn’t have much experience, I had wonderful mentors, great colleagues, and so, once again, generally ended up doing ok. I even like teaching developmental students because of my experience there.

Then, I hit what I thought was the jackpot: I was asked, at the last minute, to teach a upper-division class in Modern Literature. I was excited because, while not exactly my area of expertise, I longed to teach literature again. I also knew how important it was to have experience teaching upper-division courses while on the job market. I was just beginning to think of new ways to use technology in my courses to enhance the students’ learning, and I thought that this would be a chance to try something new.

One problem: I had no idea what I was doing and virtually no guidance in order to do it. When I asked if the title of the course meant what we would consider Modernist literature or just simply modern, as in during more modern times, I was met with a shrug. Looking at old syllabus didn’t help because it seemed that the course was whatever the professor wanted it to be. So I decided to focus on the “greats” of the Modernist movement, mixing in some authors who may not have been considered Modernist, but wrote during that period (most notably Langston Hughes and others from the Harlem Renaissance). I found a wonderful and inexpensive anthology of short stories, all virtually from the time period, which allowed me to hit the greats without a tone of large novels intimidating the students. The novels I did pick, I thought, were accessible, interesting, and a good illustration of certain aspects of the Modernist period. Virginia Woolfe’s To The Lighthouse, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Langston Hughes Not Without Laughter (I was told not to do poetry; this was a literature class), and James Joyce’s, Mr Modernist himself, Dubliners.

The short stories I had selected were not particularly well-known (ie, you couldn’t use Google to read up about them), so I had students select one short story each to create a Wikipedia-type introduction to be shared with the class and then lead an online class discussion through Blackboard on that story. I moderated the discussions about the novels and had groups of students create annotated bibliographies for each of them, in some cases limiting them to critical works from the past 20 years. These bibliographies were shared among all of the students before they had to go off and write their major essay assignment, which was an open topic.

If all of this sounds good to you, it was. On paper. I had to teach the class and get the students to buy into what I was selling. I wasn’t terribly successful. The students almost universally resented having to participate in online discussion forums (I loved it because it game me a jumping off point for class discussions; they hated that part, too) and didn’t understand why I wasn’t just teaching them what they needed to know, rather than making them do it. On top of it, they either thought my lectures and expectations were too hard or too easy. The final exam, which I had to give, wasn’t fair (although I’ll never understand why students complain about getting the essay questions in advance; would you rather go into the exam blind?) and I didn’t do enough to prepare them for it.

Which is, in a lot of ways, fair enough. I was used to only having to be one step ahead of 100-level students, and while there were students who weren’t too challenging to stay ahead of, many of my students were at the 400-level. It became clear that I was in over my head. I was reading some of these works for the first time cover to cover. Why the Dubliners by Joyce and not the more “Modernist” Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake? Because I didn’t want to have to teach them! There were so many different ways that I could approach or access these works that I became overwhelmed. It showed in my lectures. While it was easy to focus in on one element to work on in an introductory writing class, it was really hard for me to do in a 400-level class with works that have inspired thousands of pages of criticism and analysis.

It was the first time I ever received more negative than positive feedback from my student evaluations. One read that I wasn’t qualified to teach the course and didn’t even have a clear definition of what the course was supposed to be about. Another wrote that I was too demanding and not at all helpful. Yes another resented my attempts to integrate technology, calling it a waste of time and effort. I was chastened. This was my first failure as a teacher, in an area I most wanted to succeed. I figured that because of the poor evaluation, as an adjunct, I would never be asked to teach the course again, and thus never have the opportunity to revise and refine my approach.

I think that this is a huge double-bind that adjuncts often find themselves in: wanting or needing to say yes to a course they have no business teaching. Because I got the course relatively at the last minute, I didn’t really have time to prepare, read, and reread any of the works I was teaching. And, while where I worked had an extensive network of people and support to those teaching writing courses, there wasn’t anything in place if you happened to end up teaching something else.

But I did end up learning some things about myself and my teaching. I think the majority of the students in the class learned something too, however grudgingly. I am particularly proud of the student who created a multi-media final essay that integrated jazz recordings with an analysis of Langston Hughes’ work. Another professor might not have allowed the student to experiment like that. So for those students for whom the class, they felt, was a waste of time, I am sorry. I would promise to do better next time, but unfortunately, I probably never will have the opportunity again. And for that, I am doubly sorry that your experience was, in a lot of ways, for naught.

My Terrible Shortcoming as a Teacher

I am, according to many measurements, a really good teacher in the classroom. I didn’t receive ONE negative evaluation this past semester, which has never actually happened to me (there is always one who I don’t connect with and they let me know). My teaching evaluations have always been very strong, as have my peer evaluations. As many of my students’ wrote, I clearly care about them and their education. My heart melted when one of my students (who is studying to be a teacher) that I was now her professional role model. 


I have one very large shortcoming. I can’t learn students’ names. After fifteen weeks of handing assignments back, class discussions, emails, and meetings, I might know half of the students’ names. And it’s usually the ones who have either dropped or about to fail. When I hand back their assignments and I have the name in front of me, by about the middle of the semester I can usually remember the face. The same goes for emails. But without the name in front of me, when I look at the face, I can remember everything about the student (whatever details they’ve shared about themselves, their last free write response, what they’ve missed, their major, their career aspirations) except their name.

Learning the students’ names is the first thing they teach you in courses or seminars designed to improve your pedagogical skill and classroom presence; in fact my chair, in our new faculty orientation, said exactly that. If you want to make a meaningful connection with your students’, learn their names. If you want the students’ to be engaged with you, learn their names. The way other professors or facilitators talk about it, knowing you’re students’ name is the single most important thing you can do; everything else is gravy.

This has been a problem for me since, well, forever. I would forget my new teammates’ names for the first three months of the swimming season. When I started teaching swimming lessons, I couldn’t remember the names of the six kids in my class; worse, I would think that their name was something that it wasn’t, and then that’s the name that would stick in my brain. Word to the wise, don’t call a 6 year-old by the wrong name; they really, really don’t like it. I’ve tried everything: looking at pictures, having name tags for them, taking pictures with their name tags, memory games based on associations, everything. And every semester, I do no better than about 50%. Worse, by the beginning of the next semester, I’ve forgotten half of the half.

I admit this shortcoming to my students early and often in the semester, and it becomes a sort of running joke. Some days they’ll decide not to raise their hands when I call their name to pass a piece of writing back, just to see if I’ve finally learned who they are. The thing that they realize very quickly, however, is that I really do know who they are: I remember any and every other detail they’ve shared with me inside and outside of the classroom the moment I see their faces. They also know that I will remember those details for a long, long time. Names are only one small way we can know someone, really.

Knowing their name is important, no doubt, but it’s only one small way to know my students. I learn everything else instead. Doesn’t mean I don’t still try; just means that I make sure that my strengths far outweigh one of my more glaring weaknesses.