We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

College life (?) often a fraud · 1 November 06

Dear Marianne,

I thought I’d mention I came down with the worst case of hives I’ve had in 20 years on Friday. Partly the condition may have been brought on by stress over giving a paper, and that paper very frank about the woman writer. I have a hard time leading up to socializing, even with a group of people so cordial and respectful of one another as the EC branch of ASECS. I am not sure, and I felt no stress while giving the paper, and people liked it. Four people beyond Edward were there, and two friends tried to make it. They came just as I finished. When I arrived and began to socialize, as usual I felt foolish for having worried about how people would treat me. I was treated as a friend, one of them. But I was stressed going there and the hives came out about 2 hours after I gave my paper, and kept getting worse.

Partly the condition may have arisen as the result of some stress I had online: what happened forced me to face how deleterious it can be for many (perhaps most) relationships for people to communicate any truths or depend on each other. Over the past three years I’ve revised totally my idea of what most people mean by friendship even with those they consider themselves intimate with: in most cases it seems to be a way of passing time with someone you keep at a distance, partly for networking and pragmatic uses, partly entertainment, mild company. (With such a definition I could more than triple my estimate of how many friends I’ve had in my life; I counted something like near 20 when Jennica asked me how many friends I’d have in my life.) I keep experiencing shock nonetheless. I was shocked this past week, actually shaking when I went to bed one night and then when I got up I had to ask Edward to help me bring closure to the incident. He gave me words to write.

However, the third and definite real cause has been my experience of teaching this term. On the Thursday night before I left I had difficulties with recalcitrant, disrespectful students who openly do not want to do the work and will not behave courteously face-to-face.

So this letter to you is about what passes for college life in a large state-supported university which has become a vocational school for people working in jobs while they go to school, who do not live on campus, and have no understanding of what college life is supposed ideally to be like. This from the standpoint of a humanities adjunct lecturer.

It’s come to the point for English teachers that students literally grow indignant at having to read a number of solid sound books. They grow sullen at any book over 200 pages. I know I have colleagues who assign at most 3 to 4 books a term, all shortish, easy reading (little hard information). The students are assigned 1 to 2 papers for the course. These are not directed or controlled and many students apparently will hand in forms of gossip when it comes to a literary paper. They are given work which they can accomplish once or twice a week in twenty minutes before going to bed or at some convenient moment in the day. I’ve seen assignments given by colleagues that would be easy for junior high level students.

This term in the opening session I did not come across as hard as I usually do, and discover many students took my cordiality as a sign I didn’t mean to assign the work I had on the syllabus. It was a case of pretense. So I have in one section a bunch of male jocks at the back of the room (who leave half-way through when they do come); in that class someone stole one of my books; I have a young woman who is incensed because she is doing badly: she keeps saying she works full-time and has no time for this. So why did she take the course? because she wants to have gone to college, not to go for real. She is unwilling to take fewer courses or work less hours. I have a black young woman who sits all the way in the last room at the back of the room, and have discovered she takes all I say as probably untrue and absurd; she appears to have this response to all her teachers, a dry scepticism and startling alienation which she doesn’t hide from me, and is probably partly a result of her racial cultural background and experience. Last night hardly anyone in the class would stay for the movie, so I dismissed the group at 8:45 pm.

In the other two classes I have similar problems. Students visit me with the aim of somehow pressuring me to give them higher grades on tests they took late; one girl had the nerve last night to ask me not to demand she give a talk; this is the same girl who one week before the midterm announced in class she had not bought any of the books and looked indignant publicly at the demand she read 8 books over the course of a term. In the 4:30 class I have a young man who is openly sarcastic: I counter him with blunt frankness, but he is not bothered, and last week when he gave his talk he was mocking and openly gave a bad one, saying he had just started to do it about 2 hours before the class started. I asked him to sit down when he’d done. I have a black young man who persists in keeping his cell phone on and when he gets a call (hideous rap music and lyrics filled with hate begin to be heard) will ostentatiously saunter out to take his call in the hall, and then actually come back into the room and sit down again. In the 7:20 class there is a young woman who is continually on the edge of a seething open fit at the work she has been asked to do.

They loathe buying books. They resent it. They will spend oodles of money on CDs, cars, clothes, and make it plain that college is a low priority when it comes to what they shall spend their time doing. They may not go to decent films (they seem unaware of any good movie playing most of the time), but they certainly watch the idiotic TV. Ten years ago there were no cell phones; now they seem all to have the latest model and spend a lot of time on their phones. The bill for a cell phone is high. They don’t mind spending money to groom and be groomed by others.

I have increasingly been badgered by students to give them an incomplete when they have not handed in any work at all, or at most one piece. I have yielded to this partly because many produce the same story: they have been in a car accident, are getting a divorce (wife left last night), have spent time in a hospital, are having a nervous breakdown ("deeply depressed"), some crisis no humane person would ignore. (The lie about having to hold dying grandparents’ hands in hospital and then having to go to the funeral is used mostly for avoiding midterms and not getting papers in on time.) They are like house contractors who feel the story for today gets them by today, no matter how egregiously they are shown to have lied the next day. The student may dream he or she may do the work next month or some time in the vague future. I remember how my father’s friend, Sherman P (my lawyer too for my first divorce) used to say prisons are filled with people who have done no crime, much less the one they are accused of.

I realize in each class I have a few good students who are really appreciating what we are doing and enjoying the course. They tell me so. When I leave the room, I will often discover I have a student by my side who is walking me somewhere and wanting to talk about the work or his or her life. Over the course of the term quite a number have done excellent talks (said better things than I have prepared for the books, more individual and earnest). The grades of some (most even) are high (well I give too high grades), and I actually enjoyed reading some of their papers last time and probably will again.

But there are enough rotten and lying students, enough who do not want to be or go to college for any learning, but there for a certificate which they imagine will give them a job afterwards. (I’ll write about that aspect of the fraud another time.) They want to work full-time so they can have cars and go out with friends or keep up payments or simply because it’s the done thing. It is the done thing to go to work full-time and expect to "do" college in your offhours.

Just about all the literature courses I used to teach have been abolished on the general education level. What I am trained to do is not wanted even on the graduate student level by most students. Very few major in literature, and of those who do there is no requirement that they actually have a broad knowledge of English literature starting at Anglo-Saxon and moving across the centuries. The entry level course for a major is a "theory" one where they are asked to read critics and a very few works. The professor can assign short and favorite ones, and I’ve seen that done—in one term I was assigning more reading and work to a student than she had in her "grounding" major course. Many are there for degrees in Composition, Education, and Creative Writing. As far as I can tell the one disciplined writing major, Journalism (in the way it used to be taught) does not exist.

The official attitude of the tenured people towards adjuncts has become worse too. Observations are conducted in an adversarial way. The adjunct cannot ask someone to come observe him or her; the person is appointed by the committee so you can have no say in who will observe you. A rigamorale of documents is asked for in the folder: rather like a chickenshit drill in the military. what’s happening is enough people inside the department are glad to reflect the ugly suspicious and nickel-and-dimed or bait-and-switch attitude of workplaces outside colleges. All I’m told by my older daughter and friends confirms that for jobs where the people are working as physical laborers (working class), they are regularly treated disrespectfully, sometimes berated; for middle class white collar type jobs, people are brought together in groups to be treated in non-cordial unfriendly ways which puts the onus of working the person as much as the employer dares with as little compensation or security as he or she can get away with. Several people have told me about someone who was unceremoniously fired on a Friday and told to get out of the building in 20 minutes and someone is assigned to guard them lest they hurt a computer or some software the company is using.

In the lecturers’ office for the last three years, the atmosphere among people has become what you might expect of a stranger you see on a train and ride next to for 20 minutes. A few years ago people were helpful to one another, and occasionally friends. I have a few friends (using my revised definition of what is a friend) left over from then, the people who have stayed on because they have analogous reasons to mine which keeps them working at this place. The full-time adjunct by-the-way has to teach 4 sections, often all composition, apparently has to accept 3 day weeks, go to committees, and they have but one year contracts and many make $28,000 (with some health insurance they pay for out of their salary and a small pension if they can last).

What pleasure or self-respect can one have in this atmosphere? The few good and hard-working students who have a genuine desire to learn have to hide it from the others. I carry on scholarship at home for fulfillment and am in contact with some decent intelligent people on lists for friendship and support.

At this point I’d like to quit but cannot afford to. I need to teach at this rate (3/3/2) for 3 more years. Then I would not want to quit altogether as I need the library and online access to carry on scholarship. It would simply have been impossible for me or very difficult to have done the work I have over the past 15 years without interlibrary loan, xeroxes of articles sent to me by mail, access to the Folger, and recently online databases filled with good information and texts. I know too I would feel worse about myself if I were not affiliated with an institution and might find it impossible to go to conferences as an "independent" scholar. I also can enjoy teaching and think to myself if I can last I will in 3 years go down to one section of one course, on the first day show that I mean really to do this work with the students who stay, and hope to chase away all but the good students—which is what happened this past summer and used regularly to happen in unpredictable patterns. In some classes students still do stay despite the opening session where I show my syllabus and what would be expected (I had enough good and well-meaning students to keep a larger class in these instances).

All this is what really has given me hives. When Edward got up this morning, I was in an excited state because I had a disdainful nagging email from a student asking why I was not willing to extend his incomplete. The only work he did for the class was one mid-term which I allowed him to do at home (I should not have), but I felt helpless against his stories of recent surgery and deep depression. Edward helped me find words that fairly described what had happened: "The purpose of an incomplete is to allow time for a student to submit the work that you had not done. You have submitted none of it. You have had three months to submit it, and you have not done so."

I know I have a student who genuinely did not finish and when he didn’t hand in the work due by the date he had to he wrote a gracious letter saying he was sorry he’d let me and himself down and hoped to retake my course. I have an email in my box right now from a pregnant student who is intensely anxious I will not let her do all the work outside class when she has to give birth two days before term ends and then is determined to breastfeed this infant (according to her that means she is on call every two hours—is she mad, or what?). She is a very good student; really wants to learn and a joy to help. What drives her frantic is previous experience with teachers where they have not flexed, and have treated her as badly as some of my students this term have attempted to and treated me. This kind of student is not confrontational and is rarer than ever.

In large state-supported universities teaching humanities on the general education level is to be in a hell of hypocrisy and fraud. Only those setting up courses which amount to what Feynman would call cargo cult learning aren’t bothered. I don’t know how to fill class hours or teach students without content and honest work assigned. When I try to dumb down and offer movies as a substitute, many will only stay if I were to give a quiz afterwards.

How perverse and anti-learning or intellectual pleasure are many many people. I remember one tenured colleague on a committee I was on some years ago who reacted to students by giving them quizzes 10 minutes before a three-hour class ended; who refused to read any emails from them; and who played as rough as these people who want to pretend they are going to college whom I have described. She made school hateful and I suppose would not be bothered by stupidity & utter alienation in her classroom. She’d expect it. She was a re-inforcer of the class system, and seemed openly amused by me, looked at me as a dupe or simpleton for having been kind to someone we were interviewing for an adjunct position during the interview. No wonder she’s an adjunct this person must’ve thought.

I am glad I do not resemble this colleague. Imagine what her mind is like, her experience of the world. Fielding said Blifil’s punishment was to be Blifil. When the day comes that I realize I am finally not rehired, I will try to remember and reread this letter and sigh with relief, and then attempt to live without spending money as I once did. I do have enough in my house to keep me happily occupied until I die as long as I have Edward by my side.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Dear Ellen,

    Sorry about the stress and the hives. Yes, teaching can be very frustrating. I remember reading students’ journals with fascination and learning about their relationships, daytime TV-watching, and bands I didn’t know (like Phish), but I hesitated to assign too many books. We spent a lot of time on Howards End, because I thought the business majors would be interested in the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels. No, they weren’t particularly: they preferred murder and computer games. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and a small-press novel about a girl lost in a computer world (I’ll look it up: the name escapes me) were their favorites. Most of the students were quite pleasant, but a few, the ones who didn’t work at all , of course, complained about Cs to the department chair. I had the sense that giving Cs wasn’t done. And that puts pressure on the teacher. Does it mean that, as in high school, the adjunct must give the students opportunities to succeed (extra credit, etc.?). Does the responsibility not fall on the students?

    I hope your hives are better.
    Kathy    Nov 1, 12:20pm    #
  2. The book whose title I couldn’t remember is Leo@fergusrules.com by Arne Tangherlini.
    Kathy    Nov 1, 12:25pm    #
  3. Dear Kathy,

    I probably am too generous with grades, but I have had the experience of students threatening to accuse me of ethnic and other prejudice when I graded more severely. In general, across the English and other humanities departments, grade inflation has occurred because students won’t take or major in their courses if they had really to work hard for grades. The higher grades make the courses easier and compensate for the lack of jobs in these disciplines. Yes students are allowed to re-do papers, given all sorts of flexibility and leeway. And of course no one need take the harder survey courses.

    I tried journals one term. At the half-way mark I had piles of endless scribbles. It seemed to me it had no usefulness and was a form of make-work for them and for me, so I never repeated it.

    I assume the girls favored Alias Grace. We read it on WWTTA; I like E. M. Forster very much too. One novel I've found really goes over very well with many students is Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. It is a kind of gift -- if you've not read it, I recommend it heartily. It will cheer you partly because its underlying subject matter is actually dreadful.

    My hives are going down very slowly. I became aware it really had been the teaching when I went in yesterday and found myself feeling excited and seeing the hives become red and itchy again. But I am better today.

    Thank you for responding.


    PS. This morning it's very bad. The hives are still here and itchy and I am groggy from the medicine, shaking from this experience.
    Elinor    Nov 1, 7:22pm    #
  4. I have never had hives. You said you didn’t feel nervous. Things like that are interesting, not feeling an emotion that you are experiencing. I auditioned for a Sweet Briar production (and didn’t get put on the cast list) and when I was auditioning I didn’t feel nervous, but I was acting nervous, so I thought that meant I was nervous. I’m still not sure whether I was nervous, because I didn’t feel nervous, but why would I have been acting nervous? And there have been times that I didn’t think I was sad until I cried. Instead of being sad and then crying, I cried and then figured out that I was sad.

    Speaking of friends, this is the second day in a row that I’ve been feeling lonely.

    It is true that college students don’t like reading anything more than 200 pages. Probably because my generation has short attention spans. People say it’s because of TV, but TV was around before my generation. I don’t know whether talking on Instant Messanger would cause lack of attention span. I know that people do other things while talking on IM; they don’t give IM their full attention; IM seems to be secondary to whatever else they are doing. People don’t seem to use telephones in my generation, but one of my friends said she doesn’t think that most people are as opposed to phones as she is, and you don’t like phones, so that means it’s not just my generation. It seems like everyone in my generation prefers e-mail or IM. There have been times that I asked someone a question in person, and they said "I’ll answer on IM."

    Sounds like Sweet Briar is a good school. I’ve never encountered students like that at this school. I don’t know why students have such aversion to school work. Why are they in college if they don’t want to do work? There are ppl who don’t do the reading at Sweet Briar too, and people seem to complain about work, but it seems that people do school work at this school. It seems like people here aren’t actually serious about not wanting to do work. They say they wish they didn’t have to do it, but then they go do it. It’s not like they refuse to do it or continue to complain about it. Different people have different levels of interest in doing work, also.

    I don’t spend money on cell phones, because I always manage to stay within the number of free minutes. I have two friends I call regularly and I call my family, and then I call a few other people occasionally but rarely. I don’t take my cell phone to class.

    It could be that people do what everyone else is doing. If the people around them are academic, they will be more academic. If people around them don’t care about academics, they won’t care either. I’m not usually around the people who care the least about academics, but the people at this school who care the least still have some level of caring. I’m around the people in the middle level of caring the most, and occassionally I’m around the people who care the most. Do you think there is a larger number of the middle level of caring than other levels? At my school, I mean.

    I guess that means you’d like me in your classes, because I’d do the work, and I’d care about it, and I’d talk to you about the work.
    Jennica    Nov 1, 11:20pm    #
  5. Dear Jennica,

    Thank you for your reply. I think your first paragraph shows real insight and comes out of an understanding of the paradox of human awareness or consciousness. We often are unaware of the deepest feelings we act out.

    The problem at GMU is the atmosphere among the younger or traditional as well as working students (who want to have a degree, not go through what it asks to get one). By contrast to Sweet Briar, at GMU the supposition is the student is not working. It's like the 9th grade: those who want to learn genuinely are embarrassed to show it. What happens then is the person who has done good work cannot be openly proud. This then discourages work because people want to be respected. Also there's not a high standard of work. You can get a higher grade without pushing yourself to do better. So people learn much less, do much less. This can be seen especially in the area of writing.

    Yes people are sheep and in a social circle the worst types somehow emerge as leaders. We see this in politics. Somehow everyone is afraid that what is most common will be used against those who are unusual. So it's less common to be smart and hard-working, and all you need is a few implicit bullies to use this to silence or shame them. This fear lies behind the frequent self-deprecating apologies on listservs.

    Good news tonight though. In the 7:20 class we had remarkably insightful and thought talks. Both students had read the book and a number in the class had, and others read parts of it. All enjoyed the movie. We talked of Africa, of colonialism, of how big pharma makes profits from medicine, and also the characters in an insightful way. In the 4:30 class (a much younger group) the talks were not as good: the students had not read as much or thoroughly, and not as many in the class had understood what they were reading, but we had enough from the movie, shooting script and talks to get us into some more common gossip about the characters and story.

    I feel vindicated. Some genuine learning was happening through conversation and discussion and through taking in sheer information. It does remind me of the last time I did a full Trollope novel with a class. The complaints were bitter the week before we started; but when we did, those who really read the book liked it immensely and the course was lifted up to a better level through the discussions of the book.

    A memory from age 17: Tuesday after Tuesday I'd make it my business to be at the Metropolitan Musuem art's guided tour and then go the Thalia to see a great art film (it was on 96th Street just off the upper East side). The group was small: it could be that those who don't come are another type of person who leads to the stupider being in charge: many people are intimidated and fearful that they will lose their imagined class status or reveal vulnerability if they stand up to be counted as trying hard and wanting to learn. They will be laughed at partly because they are not that able. In classrooms (and lists too) some of those who don't write are hesitant to show they care.

    Yes you and many students at Sweet Briar seem the students a teacher prepares for class for.

    Elinor    Nov 2, 11:48pm    #
  6. This is good news. I’m glad for you. Sorry for my last note. Sometimes it pays to think of the groundlings, but not always.
    Laurie    Nov 3, 9:59pm    #
  7. Dear Laurie,

    Thank you for your good wishes. Maybe in my original posting I didn’t provide sufficient perspective. I was speaking out of my own pain; Jennica’s reply led me to try to give a reasoned perspective about how the dismissal of the worth of academic learning is pernicious for a college education. I also didn’t talk of how group dynamics works in a large commuter public state-supported college.

    I’m still shaking today; the medicine I’ve been taking is strong, and now it may have pushed my blood sugar over the top, and I have to return to the doctor on Monday to make sure either the stress or medicine is not bringing diabetes on.

    My doctor who knows me since Yvette’s birth, thought the reading of the paper at the conference brought this on. For myself I think it was all three incidents in one week on top of being tired. I've read again and again having a low status job like mine (adjunct) is bad for the health, and it is. So there's a fourth and fifth cause. Dr Villafuerte (my doctor’s name) gave me the best advice possible: "You need to relax." Two years from now I'll go down to one section a term, and (as I can't afford to do more anyway) I'll cut down on this conference-going.

    Elinor    Nov 4, 9:21am    #
  8. Jennica wrote:

    "I told my friend who goes to George Mason what you said about George Mason in your reply to my comment. I told him about it because I was interested in knowing whether he agrees. I didn’t tell him who the comment was from or what connection you have to the school. He told me that I should tell you what he said, and then you and he can trade verbal quips. If you are curious, he is a senior biology major, and he spent his first two years at William and Mary. So I’m guessing
    this would be his 2nd year at GMU. Here’s what he said:

    ‘This has come from a person who clearly knows little about the school and I would guess is making an opinion from hearsay and conjecture. Students I have found recognize and are proud of good work. The society is nonconformist and very diverse in nature … in fact it is statistically the most diverse campus in the nation. The students represent the gamut of high-achieving to not-caring. Many are bright and hard working, many are…well not so bright. The rigors of the curriculum I have found tend to be less than what I experienced at William and Mary, but are based on the individual classes and the professors not the University itself’."
    Elinor    Nov 9, 6:50am    #
  9. The statement is by a student, not a professor, and he speaks from the point of view of someone who sees people like himself interested in his major, biology. Many students in GMU do end in tiny niches and some are academically-inclined and the students genuinely engaged by their work. The non-conformity is real, but it’s cultural and has little to do with what happens in a classroom, especially a general eduation class. Required courses are being abolished because students don’t want them. Recently the one course in American history that was required was abolished. Right now only one dumbed-down course in literature is required; when I came to GMU two good courses were required beyond the junior level composition course.

    I’ve been at GMU since 1989, teaching for the most part 3/3/2 a year, and for 4 years I was active in committees in the department and outside.

    Last night I came to class and found that the 4 jocks of the class had not showed. I suppose they will watch the film by themselves. Of those there half had read the book, and that half were deeply engaged. So I was vindicated that they learned about the world and read a good book. All three talks were excellent.

    But the first talker had the gall to leave immediately after she talked. She has left the class before immediately after the assignment is given. She took 2 weeks off for a holiday at the opening of class. At the break all but 8 people left. If there were no English requirement, none would ever take an English course. During the discussion of the book, much of the class was restless. They have no concern for any subject outside what they take for their major, and for most of them they are doing what they are to make money.

    Yes to talk with the 8 was delightful and we had real conversation about the books, its characters, themes, art, issues. This is the size class I end up with when I come on strongly the first day of class. Two told me they are telling friends to take my course. One told me her mother is reading the book and can scarcely believe this is the way medical experimental works. All satisfying and gratifying.

    But they are in the minority and are influenced by the majority who appear not to identify in the way this young man does. With reason, the place is not run as a student-friendly school at all. The attitude of the administration is if this student doesn't like the mostly indifferent treatment (just try to find a faculty tenured advisor in most departments), someone will take his or her place. All three times my books have been stolen it has happened at GMU. The last and third time was in my 7:10 class on Tuesdays.

    Elinor    Nov 9, 6:58am    #

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