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Monday November 24th 2014

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New Year’s Resolution: Start Beef With PhDs

One of the cool things about being a teacher who has been around for awhile is just before Winter Break, all your former students who are now in college stop by and pay you a visit. It is always amazing how grown up they seem and they strut in with the confidence only a kid in college carries—they are living the life, on top of the world, young, smart, and becoming successful. One of these visits threw me for a surprise, and I have been mulling over the conversation for the last two weeks of break. It is now time to get it off my chest.

Two college freshmen, both former students of mine, walked into my room a day before we started break. One goes to UCLA and the other one goes to UC Berkeley. The two girls, we’ll call them Sue and Suri were ranked numbers one and two at our high school, graduated with distinction, and got into two of the finest universities in the world. One would expect them to be learning from the finest and most knowledgeable people on earth. Whether professor, lecturer, grad-student TA or Phd, anyone who can say they teach at Cal or UCLA is saying they are an expert, and someone with some real knowledge. What my two former students said goes against that very notion.

One thing I always like asking visiting college students is, “What English class are you taking, and how did it go?” The answer both girls gave me was surprising. “Horribly,” they responded.

Both of them.

Of course, we’ve all been trained to think the same thing. They must be a couple of the 50% of college students who need remediation in English, and must not have learned enough reading and writing in high school. They went to a poor urban public school where expectations were low, rigor was non-existent, and they were passed along with As because they were quiet and did their homework. Some would even go further and complain how these kinds of students are taking the places of some really great students at more competitive high schools who might not have been valedictorian, but would have done better had those coveted spots at Cal and UCLA been given to them.

But that wasn’t the problem. The girls found the classes simple, trite, boring, and unfair.

I must also elaborate to tell you both of these girls, when they were in high school, passed the AP test in English Literature, and therefore had already fulfilled their first English class requirement. Yes, they had college units before they started college. These two girls were in neither the remedial class almost half of college freshmen must take for zero college units, nor the very first English class offered. They both took the next level, and amazingly, they both found the same thing. They had to dumb-down their writing.

Suri and Sue said they read simple articles and a few non-fiction books, and were asked to write—they weren’t sure how to describe their papers other than—Book Reports. Sue brought her first paper to her professor’s office hours and was told it was great. When she got the paper back it was a B-. It was clear the Professor had forgotten their conversation, sighed and told her she couldn’t tell her everything on earth that needed help (basically a college professor cop-out). One specific piece of advice she had taken was to change the word “melancholy” to “sad.” “Why use melancholy,” the professor said, “It’s so long. Just use ‘sad’, it is easier, don’t you think?” When I heard this priceless anecdote both of my hands went to my cheeks and I started shaking. Starting in Freshman year of high school we try and get kids away from that kind of writing. It is called diction. Hearing a teacher of writing say those words is like hearing a math professor say, I don’t know, that three angles in a triangle add up to 5 degrees.

Suri, not to be shown up, had this little story to tell. “My roommate read over my paper and said she had never read a better paper for an English class. She couldn’t believe it and asked me which private high school I had gone to in the greater Los Angeles area. When we got our papers back, I got a B and that girl got an A. When I asked her how she did it, she said it was easy. ‘She wants the writing to be simple,’ she told me about our professor. ‘You know, like a book report. I just started every sentence with ‘He’. You know, ‘He went to the beach’, then ‘he got back in the car’. ‘He found a lamp in the sand and when he rubbed it she came out’. ‘He couldn’t believe it.’ I couldn’t believe it,” Suri said.

Had this been one student I might not be writing this article. But the fact that two girls who go to two of the finest universities in the world had almost the same exact experience is amazing. It is also selfishly validating.

Before I begin to rant, let me now give you my impetus for starting beef with PhDs. It is this: I hate, hate, hate, hearing in college English classes that the first thing the professor tells them is to forget everything they learned in high school. Suri and Sue admitted both instructors said those very same words. Where I’m from, them is fightin’ words.

As if! As if kids in college magically start speaking a different kind of English the moment they set foot on a college campus. As if reading and writing aren’t cumulative skills that build on each other from pretty much the moment you enter school—even before. As if EVERY single English teacher they had was an incompetent buffoon abusing tenure and counting the days until they get to retire with a pension. As if ANYONE ON EARTH says that about ANY other subject. Can you imagine math teachers saying, “Forget about Calculus and Trigonometry,” here at University the laws of mathematics are different, and superior. Is American History wrong if taught at the high school level? It makes my neck purple when I hear this, that is why it is with great pleasure I write the following:

I am a better teacher of reading and writing than people at UCLA and Cal.

And this:

A half dozen of my colleagues at my—yes—poor urban public school, are better at teaching reading and writing than professors at UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Brown, Harvard, Yale, and NYU.

Of course this isn’t anything new. We all know professors aren’t teachers. Professors are academics with PhDs immersed in theory and not always the practical aspects of their chosen field. Professors get to class, talk for an hour, and leave. Some do a bit more. For many teaching is a requirement that comes with the title and the access to money for their research. Office hours are a tiresome mandate. You may say I’m being unfair, but I would remind you it is kind of like saying to forget everything your high school teachers ever taught you—you see what happens when you paint with broad brushes?

What it sounds like to me is that Sue and Suri’s professors, or lecturers, or grad students, or whoever they were, are just learning how to teach Language Arts. They were confronted, perhaps for the first time, with issues around how to pair essays with reading selections, how to write a good prompt, how to give authentic feedback, how to make your instructions clear, which part of the writing process to focus on (because it can’t be all of it), how to grade papers, which hat do you wear to grade (is it the grammar hat, the scope hat, the structure hat, the content hat, the diction hat, the syntax hat), what grammar structures are you focusing on for 12 weeks (passive voice, using conjunctions, you only have time for a couple), how do you incorporate vocabulary, do you have time to do all of this, is anyone watching, and lastly, how am I going to make these kids better writers in such a short time?

These are things we all have to figure out at every step of the process of writing. Whether you get them in college or middle school, we all have the exact same problems and we all have to come up with strategies on the fly to effectively make human beings better at reading, writing, and speaking. A PhD who has never taught in the classroom is going to struggle at this just like any first year teacher.

And veteran teachers are going to be better at it than almost anyone.

I want to just remind everyone that there is FINE teaching going on in our urban public schools. We are teaching literature, non-fiction, plays, poetry, EVERYTHING. And we are doing it well. I have tenth grade English students writing a 20 page paper on marginalized communities in the 20th century, specifically focusing on Latinos in the 1940s, Jews during the Holocaust, and LGBT people in the 90s spanning three longer works of Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez, Night by Elie Wiesel, and The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman, as well as ancilliary readings, including excerpts from Mein Kampf, and Actos by Luis Valdez. As if they should forget all this when they turn 18.

So I want to give props out there to high school teachers. Because I just had some students come back from UCLA and Cal who were TOO prepared for college. And they went to the ghettoest, poorest, ratchetest, stankest public school in California.

I say that with love, because I went there too, and that’s where I teach still.

Reader Feedback

3 Responses to “New Year’s Resolution: Start Beef With PhDs”

  1. Catherine Klasek says:

    As a PhD who teaches at a local community college and high school/middle college, I take offense at the idea that “We all know professors aren’t teachers. Professors are academics with PhDs immersed in theory and not always the practical aspects of their chosen field. Professors get to class, talk for an hour, and leave. Some do a bit more.” While that may be true of some professors, that is simply not true of all professors. If a student of mine included a statement like that in a paper, I would mark it “logical fallacy – Non Sequitur”. Just because I’m a professor with a seriously deep background in theory ranging from reader response to writing to teaching, does not mean that I am not every inch the teacher you and your readers are.

    • Catherine,
      You are exactly correct. Hopefully if your student wrote this you would be able to see their main point is not that PhDs aren’t good at what they do, it is that high school teachers do actually produce good writers and that when we generalize we are always wrong. This blog, and this post in particular, is a celebration of the work public school teachers do but don’t get credit for. I don’t think at all that you are not teachers, my point in that excerpt in particular is that I am tired of being painted in such a light just as I am sure you would be by anyone who truly believed what I said about professors. Teaching at a community college, you and I have very similar jobs. One thing this piece points out is that it all depends on who the teacher is in the room, and at any level, whether high school or university, some are good and some are not.

  2. Judy Austin says:

    I think I know how you feel, Matt. Last night I attended a Dual Enrollment meeting hosted by a local college. One speaker is a professor who teaches English 1101 and 1102. I knew the meeting was over for me and for my junior daughter when this professor said, “You know we have to teach the freshmen how to write a paragraph.” Really? What about my seniors who have become accomplished writers this year? Why the assumption that the incoming students know nothing? Perhaps there are those students out there, but the vast majority of our seniors who take either Advanced Composition or AP Lit/Comp continue to report back that English 1101 and 1102 are “dumbed down” courses compared to what they have done in high school. (And, yes, I am a high school English teacher.)

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