The Broad is Back!

July 13, 2016

Eternal Rest Grant to Her, Oh Lord

In September of 1983, I started graduate school at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. I was clueless as to what that meant; clueless as to what I wanted to be, other than “a writer;” and I was basically playing it by ear.

My second semester there, I had a class with Dr. April Selley. To my 22-year-old self, she was an elder, very strict, kinda scary, and frankly, sometimes odd. She was the best professor I have ever had and have ever known. She went on to be one of my dearest friends. Today she died. Demon cancer.


My beautiful friend. I barely have any pictures of her.

While April and I became close friends–she once said I was probably one of the few people on earth she could live with–to me, she was also always “my professor”. To me, teaching is a sacred bond between two people. When we’re very lucky, that bond extends beyond the classroom, but the pupil always owes the excellent teacher respect for the knowledge given. I respect and love many of my former professors, and I try hard to be the professor who honors the sacred bond with my students. I learned that from April. She complimented me on my passion and love for my students once. She cried when I said, “but that’s what you taught me. I am only trying to be like you.”

I can’t even explain to you her brilliance. She earned a PhD in literature from Brown, so that should tell you something. Her scholarly focus was on Cooper, Poe and the Transcendentalists, but her passion was Star Trek. She’s a contributor to the Star Trek Encyclopedia and has done much work on the topic. She’s lectured on it, written on it, and frankly, fangirled about it, though I doubt she ever used that term.

She was an award winning poet. Her poetry was often deeply imbued with her Catholic faith as well as her feminism. “The Three Middle Aged Women in Speed” is about the three women who die because middle aged women are expendable. She wrote about Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe talking in Heaven about the pressure of being icons,  and the murder of a great-aunt by a rival in Portugal. A poem I’ve been thinking about today is her “Cleaning Out the Refrigerators of the Dead.” That is the last service we do for our friends, and it always tells a story.

I am not there to do that for my friend. This is the down side of living in America–it’s so big. She died in Rotterdam, NY, where she lived. She taught at Union College. But she’s going home to Bristol, RI to be waked and buried. There’s no way I can be there and back next week. I have responsibilities here. April will be the first to totally understand.

After I earned my MA, I went on to a PhD program. April would write to me and give me advice.  This was before email. She’d actually handwrite a letter in her beautiful handwriting. She helped me more than any other professor I’d had. My other professors were thrilled that I was going on, but she took the time to write and encourage. That meant so much to me–the first college graduate in my family–the first to go to graduate school–the first to earn a PhD. I was a working class kid. What did I know?

A year after I moved to Taiwan, she got a Fulbright grant to teach in Japan. One of her poems about that time can be found here. Since I was so close, she came to visit me and Taiwan. We did a few things together, but I was busy with my son–it was the Chinese New Year holiday and my mom had gone to the US. But we sat up late one night singing along to the Dogstar CD I’d bought. We both loved the band–me for the music, her more because it featured Keanu Reeve, and I think she was his biggest fan.

She actually wrote an analysis of every film he ever did, rating his performance. She loved his acting and thought the man erudite and charming. She once drove hours over a mountain into Vermont during a snowstorm to hear him do a talkback after a film during a festival. She found him modest, polite and nothing like his public image. She also thought he is the most beautiful man on earth, but honestly, it wasn’t a crush. She admired him. She got me to, as well.

After the Dogstar we started rocking out to The Monkees and The Jackson 5, dancing around the room until my 5 year old came in to check on the crazy adults.

That’s when I realized April wasn’t old. I was 35, she was 41. Not a big spread.

And she was so funny. We could laugh together for hours.

So brilliant and funny and kind, but she was good. A good, good person.

When the secretary of her department had to retire due to dementia, April was the one who took over her care. Thora had no family, so April got home health care, did her shopping, made sure things were maintained. Thora has now outlived April, and I hope someone steps in in April’s name. April got nothing from Thora’s estate nor did she expect anything. That’s April.

When I had to move back to the US in 2007, April found me at least a summer job for the AOP program at her college, Union. She let me stay in her house rent free. She took me out to dinner. She let me stay the next two summers as well, so I would have summer income as I couldn’t find a full time job. That’s April.

She lit a candle for me in church every Sunday for ten years, before I even returned, so I could get a job. She said I was the hardest case she ever had, but that was April. She refused to give up. And she had total faith in God. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t nag him.

She fought leukemia a while back, but lived to tell the tale. But this time, a rarer, more virulent form of cancer attacked. She fought so hard. The last time I heard from her she told me she couldn’t die. She’d paid too much for the damn computer she’d just bought. She had to live long enough to make it worth it.

I’m not sad today. Sad isn’t my style.

I’m angry.

I’m angry that I’ll never get to read more than the first two chapters of the novel she was writing. She’d asked me to be a reader, and I loved it. Funny, poignant. Now I will never find out what happens.

I’m angry that she didn’t earn more fame for her writing. She was honestly brilliant at it.Her voice should have been heard by millions, not thousands.

I’m angry that I’ll never see that beautiful handwriting on a birthday card or the annual Christmas letter in July because she never actually had time to write them in December thanks to teaching.

I’m angry that she never got to read my paper on Louisa May Alcott that was so rudely rejected by a literary journal last winter. I was supposed to mail it to her in March, but I didn’t have time. Hers was the opinion I valued most on the topic. And she seemed interested, too.

I’m angry that she’s been so ill lately that she couldn’t talk to her friends on the phone.

I’m angry that she’ll never get to see my kid on film. She was such a booster.

I’m angriest that the last letter I sent telling her I knew I’d never see her again on this plane, but that I will love her forever, my sister of the heart, would have arrived in today’s mail. She died in the morning.

No, what I’m angriest about is that we won’t get to be crazy old women together. She was determined, stubborn, goal-oriented, brilliant. She’d have been a hoot of an old gal. She was 61. That’s not old enough, not by a long shot.

Everybody says good things about the dead, but April Rose Selley was one of the best people I’ve ever known in my life. The world has lost more than it realizes.

I know that you will be resting in peace, my darling April. If anyone deserves Heaven, it’s you. Well, for all I know, you’ll be nagging God face to face because you really are that stubborn.


August 8, 2014

The End is Near

I am writing this with something of a heavy heart: this is one of my last The Broad is Back columns. Faithful readers won’t be shocked to learn that the Broad is going to be abroad again. After seven years back in the US, I’m leaving again for a job.

My heart is heavy because I don’t really want to leave. Once again, I’m being pushed to leave my family, my friends, the familiar, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. I don’t have much of a choice, because since I’ve been back in the US, I have not been able to find full time work. I’ve been working two, three, sometimes four jobs at a time trying to make ends meet. There have been a few “flush” times, but for the most part every year I’m back in the US I fall deeper and deeper into debt.

Luckily, much of that debt is to the National Bank of Mom, so the terms are easy and it doesn’t impact my credit rating. The only other debt I have is my student loans, another debacle facing Americans. Every time I have to get a low income payment adjustment or that double edged sword, the deferment, the interest added to my debt goes up and up and up. In fact, my debt is now twice what it was when I graduated, purely on fees and interest. I paid for years, but then hit a stretch, going on 10 years now, of financial difficulties. I could pay off the principle, but the interest and fees are killing me.

Full disclosure: I have to admit that I did get two job offers, both in the NYC area, where I am from and where I’d theoretically like to stay. Both offered salaries that would have meant my rent would have been over 50% of my gross income. A doctorate and experience were required for both, but neither was going to pay a living wage. I had to turn them both down for economic reasons.

The dean at one school, a publicly funded one, mind, actually admitted in the interview that their salaries were geared for people who were in a dual-income situation—someone’s spouse or partner. I had a teenager and a husband working on getting a visa with no promise of a work permit for at least nine months. That’s just bad policy. I should be paid what I’m worth and what my job is worth. I have a doctorate; fewer than 3% of Americans have that degree. Tells you what Americans value, doesn’t it? We say we value education, but we don’t. I didn’t go into teaching to be rich, but don’t insult me. If I can’t afford to house, feed and care for my family in a reasonable commuting distance, I can’t possibly take the position. This past year, I commuted 20 hours a week, so my idea of reasonable is rather generous.

Again to be frank, if I were offered a position at that salary now, I’d take it and moonlight. But why should I have to? My doctor keeps telling me that I am destroying my health working 60-80 hours a week. And I am, so this must change. But if I worked less, I’d be homeless.

So I applied to a position in Dubai, and three days later was given an interview. A few interviews later, I was offered the position with a salary and package that blows away anything I’ve been offered in the US. I won’t be anything like “rich,” because I’m still a humanities professor, but I’ll be able to pay bills and support my son.

To be brutally frank, I feel like I’m being exiled from my country. I’ve applied for US teaching positions all over America, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I’ve sent out over 300 applications in the past seven years, and actually had a number of interviews. I’ve been a sub a few times and a visiting professor, but nothing permanent. I’m an award winning professor with 25 years of experience and a PhD from a very highly regarded school. I’ve done scholarly work, as much as I can, while teaching seven to eight courses a term, usually 11 months a year. Believe me, every term, I turn down adjuncting work because I’m that good at what I do. That’s not hubris. It’s the truth.

Am I angry that I can’t get a full time position in this country? Of course I am. On some levels, I’d even say resentful of a system that is destroying higher education and taking advantage of people who have a vocation for teaching. I am not a nun! I’m not a missionary! This is a profession, but I’m certainly not being treated like a professional. I’m not alone in this. It’s a national disaster that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s no use crying for water from the moon.

I’m off to start another adventure. I’ve never lived in the Middle East before, and now that I’m reconciled to leaving behind my family and friends, I’m looking forward to new exploits. Nothing beats living somewhere for learning about the culture. And Dubai is a very international place, I hear, so I’m sure it will be exciting and vibrant.

The Broad is Back is a reference to my original blog, A Broad Abroad. I will be starting A Broad Abroad Again in order to record my adventures overseas, and I look forward to seeing you there. I will post the link when it’s up and running!

I came back to a very different America, and sadly, more and more I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes it’s easier to feel like that when I truly am the stranger.

Thanks for your time and your faithful reading!

March 15, 2014

A Question of Ethics

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”   ~ Albert Camus


I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics this week because I had my students reading an essay that flat out said that students arrive at college these days lacking ethics, so it’s something that needs to be taught. This was in terms of the enormous plagiarism problem we face in schools these days–that students don’t have a sense that stealing, at least stealing of this sort, is wrong.  That’s true, we do have a problem, but no ethics?



I thought my students would be outraged, but this wasn’t a part of the essay they brought up in their comments. I was ready for my students to attack the author, but no one said anything.  Amazed, I pushed the question, and asked what they thought of the statement.  To my amazement, they all agreed with the author, far too nonchalantly, I thought. One young man even said, “My generation is basically screwed.  Parents aren’t doing their jobs.”  There were nods of agreement, and a number of students added stories and gave insights.  I was proud of them, because obviously they are paying attention.  And this insight and commentary tells me they absolutely do have ethics, perhaps not fully developed yet, but they clearly have a sense of right and wrong.



One student, one of my very bright ones, added that because I was older, my ethics were more firmly established, so it’s easier for me to live by them.  She’s right, of course, but I also think I had a more finely tuned sense of guilt when I transgressed at their age.  I never knowingly plagiarized when I was a student, but when I did transgress–skipping the reading, being late on a paper, skipping class–I did feel guilt. Misbehavior was always a struggle between “what will I gain vs the guilt I will feel.”



This lack of ethics obviously worries me.  I don’t mind shifting ethical standards, but missing ethical standards is a problem. I am positively irked each year when my employer has me attend a mandatory one-hour training on ethics. I am taught that I shouldn’t lie, cheat, steal or undermine people.  Um, I got that when I was 8, I think. I was telling my students about it, and the same bright one from above said, “Well, you’re obviously observant enough to know why they have to have that course, right? You can’t blame them.”  Yes, sadly, I am aware of the why.



Since I’ve come back to America almost seven years ago, I’ve seen more and more to upset and worry me.  I am very much heartened by the students I teach who have finely tuned ethics and values.  But I have to say they are in the minority.  What has happened in this country?  My students who blamed parents obviously are on the right track.  Teachers also got part of the blame, both from students and from the author of the original article. We allow poor behavior to go unchecked, so we are tacitly giving approval.  Well, not me, of course. If I suspect it, you’re going to hear about it.



But something to think about, to worry about, and hopefully to change.

March 25, 2013

Inspiring teachers

Filed under: education,New Broads,students,Uncategorized — by maggiec @ 5:24 pm
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A teacher I had in middle school, 5th grade to be precise, reached out and said hello to me on Facebook. This is why I love social media, because now I can say a proper thank you. The teacher, Mrs. Helen Willette, of George C Fisher Middle School, Carmel, New York, is one I quote every single term I teach.

She taught me, us, that if we started to read a book and didn’t like it, we should give it 50 pages. If we still weren’t caught up in it, we could honorably give up. Unless it was an assigned text, then we read it, end of story. This is something I tell my mostly non-reading students. And it’s a rule I live by. Many’s the time I’ve limped through 39 pages of text, cursing Mrs. Willette, then I look up and realize I’m on page 75 and loving the book. Then I bless her.  But there are many books that I’ve stopped reading at page 51, happy that I tried, but knowing I don’t have to finish every book I start.

She taught us how to write vocabulary lists with a hanging indent so that words could be easily found in our notebooks. This is something I do and share with students.

She taught me neatness counts!

Mrs. Willette stands out for me because, surprising disclosure from a college professor, I hated school. I out and out hated going to school, and the middle school years were the absolute worst part. I didn’t mind the social aspects some of the time, but the rest?  No.  In fact, I didn’t start to enjoy school until my junior year in college. By then, I had choice, freedom, and I could focus on things I cared about.

Years later, when my son was in school and being tested for learning disabilities, it was discovered that not only do I have ADHD, I’m also dyslexic and have mild dyscalculia, but when I was in school these were not common words. I was lazy, underachieving, distracted, not working to my full potential. Of course I wasn’t. I was bored most of the time or confused at others, but because I was “bright,” every one thought I was a slacker.  Well, in retrospect I was. I could get by with little work, so I did.

It’s not a coincidence that my favorite teachers, the ones who inspired me, were for the most part English teachers. In spite of the dyslexia I was an avid reader and a half-way decent writer.  I did well in their classes, so I was an easier student, I guess.  I remember one math teacher who really encouraged me and worked with me, Mr. Anthony Iannotta. For the rest, I suspect I was just another kid in the class.

Mrs. Willette isn’t the only teacher who inspired me, but she’s one of the first. She challenged me in a good way.

My freshman English teacher, Mrs. Zenobia Bellert and my senior English teacher, Mrs. Janet Canniff, also taught me things I use in my classroom today.  Doc Kellas, our orchestra teacher, was a cool cat I adored because he talked to us differently than most teachers. I suspect he liked me because I ended going up going to a college where his aunt had been president, but I was frankly a lousy musician.  I had biology teachers who inspired me and challenged me, as well, as I wanted to be a pediatrician when I was in high school, but it’s the English teachers I quote today.

I was thrilled when I saw the message on Facebook. I was honored to have been remembered after so many long years.

These teachers inspired me, goaded me, brought out the best in me.  If I can enrich my students’ lives as much as they did mine, I will consider myself as success as a teacher.

And these are the people who help me see my students as people, as individuals. It’s so easy to just process them in, process them out.  A new batch every 15 weeks, face after face after face. I try to resist that lack of connection. It’s a two way street, of course. Some of my students don’t want to actually engage with me, but I try to be present when I’m with them. I try to care about them as people.

But I felt like a name and a face to many of my teachers, most of whom were quite adequate.  I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. Maybe I just didn’t inspire them. I was relatively well educated for a public school in a mostly blue collar area that cared more for the football team than academics. There were a few troublemakers in my class, and they often pulled attention from the other students.  I felt sorry for a lot of my teachers even then.  Most were lovely people who were diligent at what they did, and I’m leaving out a lot of names of good teachers only because it would be a roll call. And I can’t remember how to spell some of them, I admit.

And my aim here is not to call out the less than inspiring teachers, but to praise the good ones.

Teaching is hard. Teaching is much harder than our society gives it credit for, and inspiring children who are scared, confused, bored and unhappy has got to be a minor miracle.

I’d like to say thank you to the miracle workers who got a young girl to realize that she could achieve things in life.  I haven’t done all I’ve wanted to yet, but thanks to those inspiring teachers, I’ve done a lot more than I ever expected.

January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, a childhood hero

I was brought up in a house where dad out Archie Bunkered Archie Bunker and mom and her mother were fighters for social justice. Luckily mom’s view took root in me. So in my house, Martin Luther King was a hero. I was seven when he was assassinated, and even with all the things we hear about him today, he’s still a hero to me all these years later.

Surprise, surprise! He was a human being, and humans are flawed. But the good he did far outweighs any of the bad and in my accounting, that’s what counts.

I’m a professor at a public university because education is the way to change lives and promote equality. I believe this deep in my soul. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I really do believe that love is all we need and love will light the way and all that hippie stuff of my childhood. Or more precisely, all that Transcendentalist stuff I drank in when reading Alcott as a child. And all the charismatic Catholic social justice stuff my mom taught me. I was doomed from childhood to be an idealist, and that’s all there is to it.  No wonder I have an activist Christian preacher as a hero.

But this is a rough world for idealists. Lately I find myself discouraged. I have students in the South Bronx of New York City who tell me that they never heard of Martin Luther King in school. I’m not sure whether or not to believe them, and I suspect they never heard of King because they weren’t listening, but still, this is disheartening.  I know my students overseas know King. In fact, America’s civil rights struggles are very interesting to those abroad.  They love reminding me (as if I needed it) that America has a troubling past when it comes to race. Find me a place that doesn’t, though.  Sometimes I sense a little spite in their glee.

I seem to live in a world consumed by hate, anger and nastiness. Reading the papers is a chore that I will put off for days at a time sometimes. I used to read three papers a day, but lately Twitter is about all I can handle. Actually, Twitter keeps me abreast of most things, and 140 characters on the topic is about all I can take at times.

I think that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to. I’m so overwhelmed. There is so much that needs fixing.  What would Dr. King think if he were still alive?

Things are definitely better than they were in 1968. There are President Obama, Secretaries of State Rice and Powell for starters. I know many young people who don’t even “see” race and this fills me with joy.

Statistics still stink, though. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, Blacks and Hispanics have higher poverty rates than other groups (see NPC’s Poverty facts). A lot of this ties to education. Blacks, especially Black men, are less likely to finish high school, especially here in NYC.  In 2006, two-thirds of young Black men in NYC didn’t graduate on time. These statistics chill me. We are wasting one of our most precious resources! Black men are also over represented in correctional facilities, which leads in turn to the finishing high school problem.

I teach a number of the success stories, the young men who graduated high school or earned a GED. Like their female counterparts, most have terrible academic skills, weak vocabularies and below par reading ability. They are bright, and they want to succeed, but they don’t know how. I’m told by people who study these things at my school that nationwide, 75% of those who start at community colleges in America never finish. How can they succeed when they aren’t prepared?  Of course, I have a number who do graduate. And many of them go on to four year schools, even Ivy Leagues. As I tell my students, anyone can get into CUNY, but if you get out with a diploma, you can go anywhere.

Black and Hispanic women have similar problems, of course, and they are over represented in the teenage pregnancy statistics. Too many American teens are getting pregnant, but Black and Hispanic women are three times more likely to been teen moms here in New York.  Going to school takes hard work. Going to school with a baby? Not good odds there. Not impossible, though. Some of my best students are former teen moms who have realized the importance of education in order to make their children’s lives better.

It all gets back to education with me, doesn’t it? But I think Dr. King would agree. After all, his doctorate isn’t honorary. He earned a PhD from Boston University in 1955 at the incredibly young age of 26.  He pushed through and got the degree. PhDs aren’t worth much in American society, believe me, but they represent something. They show, on some level, that education is important. It’s not the only thing, but it’s something.

So today as we remember Dr. King, I want to thank all those who still work for the dream. I’m a battered idealist, but I’m an idealist all the same. And as long as there are people out there working, the Dream stays alive.

And I can only say Amen to these famous words:

“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: / we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I Have a Dream Speech, 1963.


May 16, 2010

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Everyone doesn’t need college!

For years, I’ve been saying that college isn’t for everyone. No one should be denied a college education based on race, creed, gender, class or sexual orientation, but no one should go just “because” it’s the thing to do. When I worked for the City University of New York in the 90s, I saw many students who would have been better served somewhere else, and many who were underserved in college because I was spending a disproportionate amount of time on the others. When I talked about this with some colleagues I was called elitist.

Then I moved to countries where not everyone got to go to college. Often university educations at public schools were free, but students had to earn a place through hard work. And if they didn’t make university, there were other paths that led to good jobs and respect in society. My view that Americans vest far too much in university educations was confirmed.

And sadly, now that I’m back in the US, teaching for a community college, I am teaching skills that should have been taught in 6th grade. Our community colleges have become the high schools of my parents’ generation. And I’ve learned from talking with students that many would rather be in trade schools, but they don’t get the financial aid that they get at a “real” school.

To me, this situation wastes taxpayers’ and students’ money, students’ time and faculty patience. This year I learned the statistic that 75% of community college students who start never finish. But I don’t know which 75%, so I treat them all the same. But a lot of those students drain me. School ends next week, and not a day too soon. In fact, I shouldn’t be writing this now, but in today’s New York Times there’s was a great article by Jacques Steinberg called “Plan B: Skip College“.  Read it.  In it he says everything I would like to say.  And he has “experts.”  I really do know what I’m talking about, but I’m not important enough to be listened to.

We need a revolution in education in this country, one not started by politicians or statisticians, but by educators.  We need to stop thinking of the “ideal” and get real.  President Obama says we need more college graduates.  We don’t.  We need better quality graduates and we need jobs and training for people.  We need to say plumbers, electricians, car mechanics, and carpenters are valued and dignified positions.  An excellent IT person doesn’t need a liberal arts degree.  If the IT person wants one, but all means get one, but why do we make people?

The system is screwed up. That’s why.

April 20, 2010

It’s a Crying Shame

A week or so ago, I was discussing a piece of literature with one of my classes, and I learned something totally unexpected.  No one in the class could come up with a working definition of “shame”.  We eventually managed to cobble something together by working backward from “being ashamed of yourself,” but the fact that they couldn’t even define the word shocked me. But then it made a problem I’ve been puzzling over in my job perfectly clear.

I have written many many times about changes I’ve seen in students since I returned to the States.  Most of, no, I would say all of them, are for the worse.  Students think nothing of telling me they haven’t done the homework, of plagiarizing half of their paper from internet sources, of skipping classes with impunity, of strolling in 30 minutes late, with headphones blaring, then getting tetchy with me when I call them on such rude behavior.

I would have died a thousand deaths before I admitted to a professor I hadn’t done my homework.  Well, frankly, I would have come up with a pretty good lie before I’d admit that I hadn’t looked at the syllabus.  But as lazy a student as I was, and I was, I almost always did my class preparation.  I would have been too ashamed of myself had I not upheld my part of the classroom contract.  I might not have put it into those words back then, but I knew my responsibilities and for the most part, I fulfilled them.

Nowadays? My students feel no shame.  Now I’m definitely not saying that I want students to live in shame, or worse, to wallow in shame.  But the penny finally dropped for me.  My students feel no shame because they don’t even know what the word is.

I realize that this is probably a simplistic view.  You don’t have to know what a word for an emotion is in order to experience the emotion, but I still think there’s something valid to be taken from this lesson.  So many parents don’t want their children to experience negative emotions.  We shield children from feeling guilt, shame, anxiety.  We wrap them in emotional cotton in order to protect their self-esteem. 

Nothing wrong with a healthy self-esteem, but shouldn’t it come from knowing you did a job well? Or at least correctly?  Is a self-esteem truly healthy that hasn’t been tested a bit? Am I that hopelessly old-fashioned that I think that learning needs not just rewards, but occasional punishment, especially at the college level. And shame really isn’t that bad of an emotion. I thought I knew what it was, but just in case, I looked it  up.  According to my friends at, it means: “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety”. 

Shouldn’t we be conscious of the fact we’ve done something wrong?   Isn’t that how we learn not to do wrong? We want to avoid the painful emotion.  It brings to mind a passage from one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  In it, Elizabeth is talking with her father, Mr. Bennet.  Lydia has eloped with Wickham, and poor Mr. Bennet has realized his faults as a father and says to Elizabeth:

“Who should suffer but myself? It has been my own doing, and I ought to feel it.”
“You must not be too severe upon yourself,” replied Elizabeth.
“You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.”

Even the famously indolent Mr. Bennet realizes the importance of feeling the sting for our own mistakes.  Some of us might beat ourselves up a bit too much, but for most of us the feeling passes quickly.  I have long seen, though, that for many of my students, there is never so much as a mere prick of their conscience. And I see that as a problem.

I truly want the best for my students. I want them to succeed in life and be happy and healthy.  And a little dose of shame to keep them on the path to success–being too ashamed to skip homework, to ignore the teacher’s words, to cut class, to be consistently tardy–isn’t that a good thing?

Now many of my students do apologize for not doing the work or for these kinds of negative behaviors, but almost every one of those students are either older or an immigrant, usually from Asia, where teachers are still held in esteem, or Africa, where teachers are esteemed and education is so precious. But for too many of them, academic wrongdoing isn’t even seen as a wrong doing. 

Eventually these students do get the punishment–they earn a D or an F for a class.  These grades lead to academic probation, to  getting cut from the more competitive degree programs the college offers, to repeating a course.  This adds time and money to their academic progress.  What a waste!  Wouldn’t it be better to have the tools you need to avoid these extreme scenarios? A little shame to keep you on the straight and narrow just makes more sense to me.

Just another little topic for me to worry about when teaching. Just another little lesson to add to the syllabus.  I’m supposed to be teaching college writing, and I am.  But like almost every other college professor I know, I’m also teaching life skills, which isn’t in my job description. And the fact that we are doing what parents and lower schools should have been doing, now that’s the crying shame.

March 9, 2010

The Contemplative Broad is Edging her way Back

It’s been a long time since I’ve really written, and I surely do have wonderful reasons for that.  I work too much.  Thanks to my wonderful sense of timing, I came back to America during a time of economic downturn, shall we say.  Because I want to live in New York City, where my family has lived for four generations now, I’m reduced to teaching part time, but I can’t live on one part time job, so for the three terms since I’ve been back in New York, I had three. Or four. In order to make less money than I need to live on. Welcome back, Broad.

But the other night it hit me that there might be another reason why I’m not writing about American culture anymore.  I’m too much a part of it again, and that makes it difficult.  One of the reasons I seem to thrive as an ex-pat, not something that everyone can manage, is that I prefer living life as a tourist.  I’m there; I’m participating; but I don’t belong.  The writer in me loves to be the observer, watching from the edges, dipping my toes in a bit, but never fully committing. I realized the other night that I feel like this emotionally much of the time.  That sounds ghastly, and I don’t mean it as such. I have a full and rich emotional life with friends and family I love deeply, but everyone who knows me well knows I need large chunks of time alone, as does anyone who spends a lot of time living an alternate life in created worlds.  So sometimes I pull back and think, “what interesting creatures.”  And it’s easier to do this pulling back when one is on the other side of the ocean or the globe itself.

So I find myself wanting to leave. I want to go back to my cocoon of geographical isolation.  When I lived abroad, I used to jokingly comment that in America people saw me as an oddball, and so I was just odd.  In Europe and Asia, my oddness is chalked up to my Americaness and thus given more of a pass.  It’s easier to have a reason for one’s oddness sometimes, so I prefer living abroad.  Many’s a truth told in jest.

But my biggest problem about writing is the longer I am back in America, the more appalled I become.  The educational system was bad when I left in 1995.  Now I’m back, teaching students who mostly weren’t in even school when I left the States, and their education has deteriorated to the point of farce.  For many years they’ve been taught to useless tests. There are more and more tests and less and less gym and arts and creativity and thinking.  But the tests are full of useless information.  When I get them as college freshmen, they can’t write, most have no basic grasp of grammar, and when it comes to having an idea of their own cultural context? Well, forget it.  My friends who are public school teachers are just as frustrated as I am.  And elsewhere in this column, I’ve written about problems with our students and education, so obviously this is something I am worried about.

I do not blame the students.  They are just as bright, just as savvy, just as eager as the crop I started with in the 80s, but what have they learned?  And sure, I teach at a NYC community college for the most part, but I’ve taught at very competetive schools, and I see problems across the class lines. 

But now I’m on the inside, and I just want to fix things immediately.  Passive observational columns don’t meet that need.

Health care is a huge debate, a mess really.  My son is one of the millions of uncovered Americans.  But after seeing the state of Sweden’s national health, I am very leery of nationalizing health care.  The best system I experienced was Geneva’s.  Health care was mandatory, but there was a very affordable government option for those who had no other choice.  My son was in the local cantonal hospital, and the care was good.  They misdiagnosed my kid, but I felt like they were earnestly trying to find answers, at least.  And I’ve written about the health care mess as well, but the more I see, the more disheartened I become.

And politics in this country.  I don’t even know where to begin.  I know that there was never a “golden era” of American politics, of politics anywhere, but, well. I’m speechless.  Luckily, Kurt Andersen isn’t, and he wrote the brilliant analysis “Is Democracy Killing Democracy” in New York Magazine in February.  I encourage you to read his article, but one statistic he gave got me thinking:

So part of the problem is most likely under-representation (though how on earth could we manage with 2100 senators, I don’t know), but another part is tied in with poor schooling, a lack of civic spirit on the parts of many, and so much else.  Believe me. It’s much easier to write explanatory essays for non-Americans than to figure out what’s going on in the here and now.
No, that’s not true.  I see things. I think of solutions, none of which are very politically correct, frankly.  I have much to say, but I don’t say it because it just would take too much time now that I’m so fully invested.  And as I said in the beginning, time is what I don’t have.
But now I’m going to try to write more frequently.  I think it’s good discipline, and oddly, people have been asking me to write.  So perhaps the Broad is back yet again.

July 29, 2009

An interesting thought

Filed under: American culture,New Broads — by maggiec @ 2:13 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I was researching today and found this quote. Obviously, education problems have been around for a while. This is another problem with our system:

Modern cynics and skeptics… see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing. ~John F. Kennedy

Better pay = incentive for better teachers.

Think about it.

July 27, 2009

Unexpected Negatives from Positive Changes

Some much needed changes to American society have had unexpected consequences for education in our country.  Both feminism and educational reform opened doors and made America a stronger country, but there have definitely been negative side effects to both.

The feminist movement opened doors to women that had been closed and allowed us to enter fields that had previously been the domain of men.  And we entered those domains in droves.  But pre-feminism, one of the few career choices available to women was teaching, so the best and the brightest went into teaching as it was one of their few options for a career. There was nursing, of course, and a few hearty souls entered “male” fields, but that was statistically rare.  Since teaching had become a “woman’s field,” even then the pay was lousy and the conditions weren’t much better,  it was an enviable position for most women because it was one of the few that offered them a steady income and a modicum of respect.

When I was growing up I was taught by a number of these women—brilliant minds who held themselves and us students to the highest possible standards. Yes, a number of them were old battle axes who made me crazy, but I managed a pretty good education, though even by the late 60s, things were getting spotty.

Because in the 60s, women had more options.  By the time I entered college in the late 70s, it was much more common that the best and the brightest women students majored in pre-law, pre-med, business or accounting.  I had no intention of being a teacher when I was in school—I eventually became an English major, but I originally planned on becoming a medical doctor.  And no, I didn’t flunk out of my bio major.  Much to my mother’s dismay, I decided I didn’t want to spend so many years in school and residence programs and really wanted to be a reporter.  Or maybe go to law school, which remained an option until I finished my MA and, on the advice of lawyer colleagues, decided to go for a PhD in English instead. (On a personal note, there are days I second guess that decision, I must admit!  And the real irony is I ended up in school longer than I would have had I just gone to med school!)

Of course, some of the best and brightest were also education majors, but with so many more options that could lead to lucrative careers, it did make a change in the demographics of who went into teaching.  At my undergrad college, for many of my friends teaching was the default major.  I went to a women’s college with fantastic nursing and physical therapy programs, especially.  They were incredibly competitive programs, so many were dropped out of the program for earning grades lower than a B.  This could happen as late as junior year, so the education department to the rescue.  In fact, of my college friends who are teachers today, I think only one started out with that major, and actually, I’m not sure about her.

Many of those education majors are no longer teaching in a classroom.  Some went on to do fine in the classroom, but others got the degree and used it to get a job for which they were more suited..

But in terms of grades, things started to look bleak for teachers.  On a whole, education majors have some of the lowest SAT scores and class averages and ranks from high school, and their GPAs in college are lower than students in other professional and pre-professional majors.  I remember reading about this when it came out, so I did a quick search to find the information I wanted.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compiles loads of statistics on education. The NCES “Digest of Education Statistics” Table 136 shows average SAT scores by student characteristics for 2001. Students who select education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any major (964). Math majors have the highest (1174).

It’s the same story when education majors finish college and take tests for admission to graduate schools. In the case of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), education majors have an average score that’s the lowest (467) of all majors except for sociology majors (434). Putting this in perspective, math majors score the highest (720), followed closely by economics in third place (625). (Walter Williams, “Educational Ineptitude, Con’t” Jewish World Review, May 19 2004)

This means that weaker students become teachers with weaker abilities.  This is a recipe for disaster.  But this was only part one of the recipe.

Educational reforms have often been double-edged swords.  While reforms have made our educational system less rigid and more student orientated and created better thinkers, some have frankly backfired.  Somewhere along the line, it was decided that rote memorization was a bad thing.  We were no longer required to memorize poetry and other “useless” things for the sake of memorization, which is fine in theory, but this led to lack of practice in the skill of memorization itself.  And it’s pretty useful when learning geography, foreign languages and math.  When I moved overseas, I realized that one thing many Asians students had on their American peers was incredible memory skills.  Of course, they focused too much on memorization and not enough on thinking, and their American peers excelled at that, but there has to be a happy medium.  Somehow we managed to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Let me give you an example.  When I was in grammar school, it was decreed that grammar need no longer be taught.  Language arts would focus on allowing students to express themselves well.  Students would be able to intuit grammar naturally.  That’s all well and good for a large part of grammar, but in English, some rules just need to be learned and memorized, especially for students who want to be successful academic writers in higher education.  And knowing grammar is incredibly useful when trying to learn a foreign language in school.  How can I figure out Spanish sentence structure if I don’t know the difference between a direct object and an indirect object?

There are many theories of holistic language learning, and I’ve “picked up” languages in my time just from being in a country or being around speakers for an extended amount of time.  There’s definitely something to that.  But I also know that when I learn languages, and I have formally learned three foreign languages in my time, there comes a time when I just have to learn grammar from either a book or a knowledgeable person in order to read more complex writing or even write notes that sound like they came from an adult, not a fourth grader.

Granted, most Americans, even educated Americans, can live long and happy lives without learning grammar, but people who go on to teach really should have a clue.  And I don’t mean just English teachers.  All teachers are role models, and all teachers are responsible for students being able to communicate clearly and accurately.  And when a teacher sends a letter home to parents that is riddled with grammatical errors, there’s something wrong.  In the past, I have received those letters from my son’s teachers!

I remember in college seeing a poster made by students in the education department that contained a glaring punctuation error.  The poster read YOUR’S instead of YOURS.  I was frightened for education even then.

The person who wrote that poster has been teaching kids for over 25 years now.  I’m sure that kids she taught are now teaching kids themselves.  Hopefully somewhere down the line their students learned to use an apostrophe properly, but based on the papers I receive from college students now, too many didn’t.

I teach freshman English, but the course I teach is very different than the version I took 30 years ago.  I now teach my freshmen skills I was taught in middle school.  I teach how to outline and how to have a thesis statement and a topic sentence.  I teach how to find the subject and the verb in a sentence.  I have to teach these things because too many of my students are writing papers that are so weak that I don’t even understand what they are trying to tell me.  And they are native speakers!  Even worse, the students I teach were often A and B students in their high schools.

Entropy is more than just a theory.

And I am not just a grumpy English teacher here.  If I am teaching basic skills in Freshman English everything is being pushed along.  The skills students need to acquire in upper level classes aren’t being learned.  And being able to communicate clearly is pretty much one of the main reasons we educate people, isn’t it?

It literally scares me that my Taiwanese graduate students in English can write better papers in English than my graduate students in America, both in terms of critical thinking skills (at which we supposedly excel) and mechanical language skills.  Our democracy depends on educated thinkers to survive.

True story: a few years ago I applied for a position at a major law firm.  The firm wanted to hire an English professor full time to teach its recently hired lawyers how to write clearly and properly.  Neophyte lawyers who had gone through a four-year undergraduate course, a three-year law course, passed the Bar exam, but they still couldn’t write clear and error-free prose.  When the use of a comma can radically change the meaning of a sentence, one would hope someone in law would know how to use it correctly!

The philosopher George Santayana writes, “Grammar, rhetoric, and logic enrich enormously the phenomenon of being alive.”  The first time I read that, I thought, “That is the biggest piece of hyperbole I’ve ever read.”  Now I’m not so sure.  Grammar, rhetoric and logic are the three components of excellent communication skills.  Of the three, the only thing still taught on a regular basis is rhetoric, probably the least important of the three.  We now teach the other two skills at the college level, so no wonder students can’t get a decent job without a college diploma.

This leads me to the point I wish to discuss in my next installment: when did vocational training become bad and college become imperative?

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