Writing in The New York Times today, Vicki Madden, who works for the New York City Department of Education as an instructional coach, asks,
How can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?
She is addressing those who work with students from the lower side of the economic divide as they try to prepare for college, but her question applies to college teachers and staff, too.
When I returned to teaching in 2001, I was shocked by the assumptions on an entrance exam evaluating students’ ability to write. It asked students “to write a letter,” often to a dean, a provost, a president, or a board of trustees. Not only had my students (they were the ones who had failed the exam and who were forced into “remedial” classes) no knowledge of college and its hierarchies but their entire concept of “dean” (for example) was tied up with their high-school experiences, where a dean was the arbiter of student behavior–the person who could kick you out of school. What went on in college was beyond their ken. After all, few people they knew had ever graduated from college and their parents, generally, had not attended at all.
Madden writes of her own experience:
I remember struggling with references to things I’d never heard of, from Homer to the Social Register. I couldn’t read The New York Times — not because the words were too hard, but because I didn’t have enough knowledge of the world to follow the articles. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class: No one at Barnard ate Velveeta or had ever butchered a deer.
The details may be different, but my urban students face the same transition, and too few of us who teach or work in colleges recognize (or remember) just how difficult it can be. Unfortunately, courses for entering students that attempt to acclimate them to college are generally not acceptable as credit-bearing by accrediting agencies and, therefore, by financial aid offices. So, even if offered, they are rarely taken. Students are left to make the transition on their own–and many find, for whatever reasons, that they cannot. Some of our best and brightest end up leaving us–not because they can’t do the work but because they feel perpetually outside of the mainstream of even our urban campus where most of the students do, indeed, come from backgrounds similar to their own.
Unlike Madden’s Barnard, we don’t have a central cadre of well-prepared students who can, at least, provide examples and goals (sometimes not in good ways, admittedly) for the incoming outsider. We on the faculty cannot assume any knowledge on the part of our students aside from rudimentary and (supposedly) quantifiable Math and English skills. If I talk of Homer, I have to stop and take the time to not only explain who he might have been but to provide context. It is quite easy to forget to do this, to assume sets of knowledge that do not exist. Most of us on the faculty sometimes leave our students flailing through no fault, really, of our own–or theirs. After all, most of us come from backgrounds where a high level of education and extensive exposure to Western “culture” is taken for granted. It is difficult to constantly examine our every statement for assumptions about student knowledge without falling into the trap of believing those students to be completely ignorant–which they are not. They are simply, as Madden implies, differently knowledgeable–and it takes a great deal of work to comprehend (and speak to) that difference.
If we are ever to take economic and class differences into effective consideration as aspects of student learning, we faculty and administrators are going to have to do quite a bit more learning ourselves, learning about the lives of those students who come from backgrounds divergent from our own. Ultimately, the only way we can help students prepare for Madden’s ‘tug of war in their souls’ is to be continually striving to learn about those souls and about the backgrounds that nurtured them.