The Truth about Community College




I have been teaching at a community college since the mid-1980’s, and I have watched a lot of students come and go, graduate and drop out; however, community colleges have become a major focus of education discussions since the advent of the “Complete College America” campaign. While I certainly agree that students are better off if they finish college rather than starting and not finishing, but it’s critical to think about why students come to college and why they should.

Community colleges are, generally, hybrid institutions, providing both the first two years of a four-year education and skill -based, technical certificates and degrees, including but not limited to welding, nursing, dental hygiene or culinary arts. This dual role often creates a certain kind of tension in these colleges, a tension that is often healthy, but also sometimes difficult.

Many of the students coming to community college are first generation college students. They come from families where their parents have encouraged them to go to college, but who have little idea what that means except that their children will get better jobs with a degree, and it is statistically true that those with degrees do better than those that do not .

However, the picture is more complicated than that and we are doing our students a disservice if we do not squarely face the truth that for many fields a two-year degree is worthless. A two-year degree in English, Psychology, History or Economics, for example, will not get someone a job in those fields. These fields require not only a BA but more than likely a Ph.D. Our students, in general, are naïve about how much education they will need to succeed in these fields. In general, this kind of education is out of reach for our students because of cost, but also because they have no experience making long term plans that this kind of education requires. I talked with a student recently who wanted to complete a two-year degree in English. She works as a cake decorator at Wal-Mart. A two-year degree in English will insure that she continues to be a cake decorator. If she wants the two year degree because she enjoys English classes, that is fine, but she should be under no illusion that she will get an English job. Her degree will be for her own pleasure, but that really is all.

On the other hand, if a student thinks that she will get a useful degree in two years, she needs to think about a technical degree. Even here, however, it may well take more than two years. For example, an Associate Degree in Nursing usually requires two years of prerequisites before beginning the two-year nursing degree.

A few days ago, I asked some of my students why they were in college. One of them said that her parents had told her and her sister to go to college because the parents had not done so. I asked her if she had a goal for her education. She told me she did not. I told her that she might as well be working at McDonalds if she had no idea why she was in school. (This is a student who has missed more than two weeks of class. She is clearly not invested in education.) Coming to college without any sense of why one is there is a waste of the student’s time and money and a waste of teachers’ time.

Community college is not a magic ticket to success. All degrees are not created equal. We need to stop pushing college to all students. We need to demonstrate to prospective college students that they need to plan beyond the abstraction of “I am going to college”. Parents with no college education need to be helped to understand that their children will not do well in college unless they have some understanding of what college means and doesn’t mean.   There may well be students for whom working at McDonalds is a better choice.




Spring Fever

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Melting snow in the Big Horns

It’s spring, and despite the snow and cold wind, I can taste summer. I can hear the birds’ arrival, and I can see signs of spring in the baby bunnies outside my office window, fawns grazing at the side of the road, and green-tinged tree buds scratching at the glass as the wind blows. I feel a deep restlessness in me as well. I don’t want to wear my jacket or long sleeve shirts. I’m tired of wearing tights and thick pants. I want to go play. I want to be outside hiking, biking, breathing the mountain air. I don’t want to grade papers or discussion posts. I don’t want to answer student emails. I want to be done with the semester already. But despite these feelings, a sense of duty drags me out of bed, gets me to work, and helps me complete my to do list.

On top of having spring fever, next semester I will be on sabbatical working on a writing project, so I’m having an extra hard time getting anything done. I describe it to my colleagues as having senoritis: that feeling of new adventures beginning and old ones ending and the feeling that “now” doesn’t matter much. My fingers itch to write, and my brain is consumed by other projects unrelated to grading and teaching English.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling. It’s this time in the semester when my students stop turning in work, or they turn in sloppy work. It’s also that time of year when we’re all weary…weary of winter and weary of routine. Often, some students will disappear. They may resurface at the end of April suddenly aware that they have to pass the class. Hopefully it won’t be too many, and hopefully it won’t be too late. I remember having these feelings as a college student. I would resist them when I could, but sometimes I skipped class to spend time outside or to simply sleep.

As an instructor, it’s more difficult to skip class. I could take a personal day here and there, but often, they’re accompanied with guilt, and there are still emails to answer and grading nagging in the back of my mind. That carefree irresponsibility I felt as a student no longer exists. Perhaps I’ll experience some of that on sabbatical, but I really don’t know.

I’m not sure what to expect on sabbatical. I’ll have a project to complete, so I’ll keep a schedule, but there won’t be anyone around to make sure I’m producing my self-assigned number of pages. It will be a different type of work…a different focus for me, and I’m excited. I’m also a little bit worried–especially with how I feel right now. What if I just don’t do it? What if I can’t do it? What if all this time I have been working hard to convince others to pay me to write, and then I just can’t produce?

Are these fears that my students experience? Is this perhaps why they don’t do the work or the reason they procrastinate? I suspect this is part of it. I also suspect there are other mitigating circumstances that I’ll never know or perhaps understand. This is why I get so upset with Complete College America. I want my students to succeed, but I also want them to work hard at it. A degree should be earned, not given. I want students to complete college, and I believe our society is better off if our citizens have an education. But what bothers me most is that legislators wants to tie our funding to how many students finish a degree. This puts the responsibility of learning squarely on teachers’ shoulders, not on the students’. This is the problem.

I can give my students every opportunity to learn: provide them resources, spend hours responding to their essays, spend time talking them through the assignments, and provide feedback on every missed quiz question or misleading discussion post. However, if the students do not do the reading, don’t show up for class, don’t access the resources, or don’t do the work, they will never learn. And this is what the completion agenda does not address.

I can only do so much to motivate my students. In the end, they have to drag themselves out of bed when they have spring fever. They have to talk themselves into doing the work even when they don’t feel like it. They have to decide to make education a priority in their lives, and they have to decide to stick to it and to do everything they can to learn. I can’t do it for them.

So, dear students, I know how you feel, but together, we need to hang on and get it done because come summer, we can either have a sense of accomplishment or disappointment. The choice is yours.

~ K

Re-reading: Back Into the Wild


The Stampede Trail circa 1993
Photo: Diana Saverin, Outside Magazine

Recommended reading: The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem

Like Jane, I spent much of my Spring Break with my nose buried in a book.  I was lucky: my reading was interrupted by Costa Rican waves and cappuccino monkeys.  By March, my students and I always need some sunshine and some time away from the classroom, so I rarely assign significant course work over Spring Break.  But this year, I asked my Outdoor Lit students to read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

I was surprised that more of my students hadn’t already read Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction account of 24 year-old Chris McCandless’ Alaskan odyssey.  I read Into the Wild for the first time while I was working for an outfitting company in Florida in the late 90s.  My twenty-something male colleagues were rock climbers and beach bums obsessed with the free spirited and careless character portrayed by Krakauer as a sort of latter day beatnik.  I shrugged off work and hunkered down in the back of the store to read about McCandless’ mysterious life and eventual death.  The story haunted me.  The rock-wall boys welcomed me to their speculative discussions fueled by Krakauer’s masterful storytelling.  We talked about McCandless incessantly.

Outside Magazine calls McCandless “Alaska’s most famous adventure casualty.” Chris’ story is compelling: after earning a degree at Emory University in 1990, Chris McCandless donated his life savings to OXFAM and set out to tramp around the US.  In April of 1992, McCandless, now calling himself Alexander Supertramp, walked into the Alaska backcountry via the Stampede Trail.  After 113 days of living on squirrels, porcupine, and edible plants, Chris climbed into the hollow city bus that was his basecamp and succumbed to starvation.  His misadventure quickly became misunderstood legend.  The New York Times and People magazine reported the story and then Outside published Krakauer’s lengthy investigation.  In letters to Krakauer, Alaskans castigated McCandless immediately: many had “no sympathy for him. Such willful ignorance . . . amounts to disrespect for the land…just another case of [an] underprepared, overconfident [man] bumbling around out there and screwing up because [he] lacked the requisite humility.” But disenchanted, young people the world over found a hero in Chris McCandless.

Many are still obsessed.  Bus 142, the retired city bus that McCandless died in, still sits along the Stampede Trail.  It still contains some of Chris’ belongings and countless “McCandless pilgrims” contribute items to the growing shrine.  And people are still dying along the Stampede Trail.  Alaska troopers report rescuing pilgrims on regular basis.  Over the years since Chris’ death, they have also recovered the bodies of many pilgrims.  Some are experienced mountaineers; others want to emulate McCandless’ purposeful under-preparedness.

And I am again talking incessantly about Chris McCandless.  My students seem to have visceral and immediate reactions to the book.  They either hate Chris for his recklessness or are inspired by his ability make life happen.  But in both cases they are compelled by his story.  They began our discussion yesterday with the same verve I remember from the back of the outdoor store 15 years ago.  I wonder what makes McCandless so hard to forget.  Do we identify with his need to throw off all convention and live by chance?  Did he do what scares us most?  Are we struck by the mystery of his death (Krakauer is still writing about the actual cause some twenty years later)?  Or do we take strange comfort in knowing we’d never take such risks, be so unprepared?

Something is stilling driving people in to the wild near Fairbanks.  Something is still driving Karkauer’s need for understanding.  And something keeps driving me back to this book.  It seems possible that it is the conversation that the McCandless story demands.  Krakauer says that book forced him to tackle bigger issues: the American obsession with wilderness, the seemingly inherent risk-taking behavior of young men, and even the volatile relationships present in many families.  I think it is these big ideas that keep bringing me back to this wild story.


Learning Experiences



The last time I posted something it was early morning Christmas Eve, and now, it’s almost a month later and the semester is about to start. The last several semesters I have said something like, “I have never begun a semester less prepared,” and that may well be true again. What I have learned in over 40 years of teaching is that all one needs is to be one class ahead of one’s students. This doesn’t mean that I am frivolous about teaching; far from it, I  take teaching very seriously, but I do believe that what happens in the classroom is often far more important than what is on the syllabus or on the class schedule.  I do not believe, contrary to many who are not educators, that education is a lock-step of learning skills and moving on to the next set.

Education is a messy process. It should be a process of making connections between one’s own life and the world, between one’s own life and the subject matter at hand and connections with teachers and fellow classmates.

When I think of the critical “educational” moments in my life, only a few of them were actually in a classroom.  I had kind of drifted through school, hating high school for being boring and unchallenging and wanting and not wanting to leave home. At one point in that process, when I was a senior in high school and desperately afraid that I was too stupid to get into college, I said something to a slightly older girl who was living with my family at that time about how I could just choose not to go to college. She answered me by saying , “but what would you do instead? Would you get a job?” This was a profound realization for me.  The idea that I would have to have an alternative plan was shocking. I have no idea why I had kind of assumed I could go on living with my family and not do anything else, but clearly I had made that assumption. Her question brought me up short and made me think about what I actually would do. I chose to go to college.

Another critical moment in my education occurred when I had to make a decision about what to major in at the end of my sophomore year in college. I thought I wanted to be a dance major, but I really, in my heart of hearts, knew I was not a good enough dancer to be accepted into the dance department as a major. I had a long conversation with the head of dance department in which I spelled out my plan to study dance for a year in New York City and then return to college as a dance major. He told me it was a good plan and then said, very sweetly, “ but it is Ok to change your mind.” He went on to talk about someone who had wanted to be a dance major but had gone off to study in New York and had come back to college as an English major. While I scoffed at his advice at the time, it was one of the most valuable pieces of advice I have ever gotten. “It is Ok to change your mind.”   I did change my mind.

One more critical moment occurred after I had returned to college. (Not the same school where I wanted to be a dance major, but several years later, after I was married and returning as a twenty-two –year –old undergrad.) I got my grades in the mail for the first quarter in this new school and I had an A for a course. I had never had an A for a college course before. I looked at the grade and then I thought about what I had done. I had gone to class every day. I had not missed one class. I had done all the work and had been engaged in the material. A light bulb went on in my head, and I                 realized that doing well only took a few things; going to class and doing the work and being engaged in the subject matter. After that I got a lot of A’s in my last two years of college.

So, as a teacher, I am prepared enough. I know my material. I know how to present literature to a group of undergrads, but I also know that what I do on any given day in the classroom will be less important than those conversations they will have in my office, or with their fellow classmates. It is not a lock-step, “learn the right answer” process, it is a messy, often murky affair that will take trial and error and steps forward and back for our students. I will possibly help some students flick the necessary switches and I may see the lights come on for some, but I also know that I will not be the right person at the right time for others.  I plan on having some very interesting classroom discussions this semester, but I do not assume that those discussions will necessarily make a huge difference in any one student’s life. Teaching can be humbling that way.


It Makes My Ears Happy

This semester, I have taught a Creative Writing: Poetry class to undergraduates for the first time in decades.  It has been easy enough to avoid because we always need to cover many sections of English Comp, and then someone has to teach the required literature classes for our few English majors.   But finally, last fall when we were constructing the schedule for this fall, I decided that it might be fun to do again.

For many years, I worked with high school aged writers, which was, in general, a joy, but I found that after all those years, I had lost interest in working with beginning poets. I was tired of poems about unrequited love and tired of poems that relied on abstractions and clichés.

So, it was with a little trepidation that I jumped back into a Creative Writing class. I had nine students enrolled, six women and three men, of various ages and backgrounds.   We began working in small forms, paying attention first of all to image.  As we worked on filling our poems with sights, sounds, tastes, and textures, each poem became richer.  The students moved from image alone to using image as metaphor, doing that powerful poetic trick where a poet shows a reader two ideas and says, “Look, this is like that” and a reader feels the unexpected connection.  It was during one of these classes when Ernest said that he liked a particular line. When I asked him why, he replied, “It makes my ears happy.”

Often after that, when someone wrote a satisfying line or a whole satisfying poem, one of us would repeat Ernest’s words.

Although it’s a seemingly simple statement, it says a lot about what we want from and what we should expect from poetry. Before anything else, poetry should delight the ear.  Beginning poets often say that poetry is about “emotion” or about “love,” but that is because they have been exposed too much Hallmark verse and not enough real poetry.   When I read Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” out loud to the class, I didn’t ask them what the poem was about because that is not a particularly interesting question, nor is it one we can really answer, but I asked them how it sounded and what pictures it created in their minds. One of the students observed that it was “trippy,” which it is, indeed, if the stories about that poem are true, but  if we read it, or listen to it paying attention to image and sound, it becomes an experience like looking at a piece of interesting surreal art or listening to  Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”  We don’t especially care what it is about, but listening to provides a real, sensual and visual experience.

The best poetry stretches our senses.  We feel the best poetry in our bodies and skins. It is the combination of image and sound that makes the best poetry work the way it does.

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise

And so, I want to thank all the students in this fall’s poetry class for providing me with many moments that made my ears happy.