Heeding My Own Advice


A potentially life-threatening condition, five days of excruciating pain, and emergency surgery bring a sharp new focus to life. From a hospital bed at the Mayo, I emailed the new chair that I will not be back after this summer session.

Actually, the message wasn’t quite that blunt and did leave some wriggle room to come back in the spring. But realistically, it ain’t gonna happen.

Online courses tend to insulate you from student insolence and nerviness, but that hasn’t happened this summer. A week or so into the summer’s seven-week course, along comes a message from a student:


What is the book that will need for this course because i am planing to rent to save some money

Code for “I have no intention of getting the book if I can possibly avoid it.”

You understand, what the kid is saying is that he hasn’t read the course’s introductory announcement — which was posted and made available five days before the course’s start date! — nor, of course has he read the syllabus, over which they have taken a quiz. How does he expect to go through a 100% online course without reading the regularly posted announcements and instructions? By mental telepathy?

May 25, 2015 at 6:00am

It’s listed in the syllabus, with the ISBN, near the top of page 1. Please download the syllabus to get that information. Find the syllabus in Files (in the list on the left-hand side of the Canvas pages). I think you can rent it through the bookstore and also through various other vendors.

Note that the first announcement of the semester told them how to find the syllabus and said a) they need to download it to get the information about the course and b) they would take a quiz over the syllabus to be sure they read it. For good measure, that announcement noted that the syllabus was also attached to the announcement itself. So evidently the fellow hasn’t even bothered to read the online course’s FIRST announcement!!!!!!

A student turns in a 750-word research paper. The assignment states clearly that three sources are required, at least two of which must come from one of the college’s databases of scholarly  journals or academic books. Sources must be cited in-text and documented following MLA style. Her paper, evidently recycled from a high-school English class, contains one reference: to a post from the online incarnation of Glamour Magazine.

She is infuriated when she flat-out flunks the paper.

I know writing essays is definitely not one of my greatest strengths but if I can receive some feedback about my grade, that would be great.:

Uh huh. It would be great if you could learn to punctuate a sentence, too. This remark comes after an insulting rant, by the way. The paper was returned to her laden with (time-sucking!) comments, corrections, and advice installed using Word’s “Track Changes” function. Evidently she hasn’t even looked at it.

To see feedback about your paper’s issues, try opening the attachment in the returned assignment and reading what I had to say about it.


Now she begins to sound like one of those animated cartoons people put on YouTube (for example, this classic), detailing the joys of teaching lower-divisiion students:

I don’t understand how a few mistakes on using sources and MLA format results in a loss of 120 points? That is so extreme.

As I lay in a hospital bed doped to the teeth on morphine, this message floats over the ether that is the Internet…

While MLA formatting was an issue, it was not the sole or most significant issue. As stated in the grading rubric and my comments, the key issue is a lack of support from credible sources in your essay. On the one hand, you make claims in the essay and do not include support for them. I have noted such places in the detailed feedback that I provided. On the other hand, when you do include support, it is from a magazine, which is not considered credible for academic research.

The kid capitulates. But I’m sure that’s temporary: two more sets of papers are due in the next couple of weeks. So no doubt it’s not the last we’ll hear from that one.

BTW, lest the observations in that last missive seem out of the blue, the class has now done EIGHT QUIZZES over reading material designed to teach them what a “credible” source is and why Glamour doesn’t make it as a scholarly source, over rudimentary research methods, over citation and documentation, over how to approach and organize a scholarly writing project, and over how to do the specific assignment, a causal analysis.

Averaged over 12 months, my net pay when I’m carrying the maximum load the district allows is a grandiose $1,120 a month. Do I really need to put up with this kind of guff for that kind of pay?

Well. No.

Literally no. A survey of my credit-union checking and savings accounts shows I have enough to provide me with over $2,000 a month before Social Security payments from now until the end of the year. It is in fact objectively true that I do not need to put up with this kind of guff.

In 2015, I will be required to take my first RMD from my IRA, so that the government can shear me for taxes on retirement savings. Thus it will be to my advantage to forego pay on two sections (which is all I was assigned in the fall). I don’t actually earn enough from teaching to pay taxes, but a $45,000 RMD will jack up the apparent income, even though most if it will simply be rolled over into taxable investment instruments. If push comes to shove, I can always take a few thousand dollars from that RMD to live on.

The amount the college pays me comes to about 2 percent of my total retirement savings.

Do I want to live on savings when there’s some chance I could last another 20 years?

Of course not.

On the other hand, at the rate I’m going, it’s beginning to look like “another 20  years” is not in the cards. One would certainly hope not, anyway…

I now have had six surgeries over the course of a year, one of them for a life-threatening condition. Whatever time is left to me, I do not want to spend on a minimum-wage activity that makes me crazy.

For years, I’ve been advising adjuncts to QUIT DOING THIS. Finally I’m taking my own advice.

So how do I propose to supplement Social Security with enough cash to put food on the table?

I’ll tellya how I’m going to supplement Social Security: by writing pornography.

A long-time friend of mine recently learned that a friend of her son’s is cranking $30,000 a month by churning out 5,000-word novelettes and posting them on Amazon. He aims to publish one a day — some of these he writes himself, some he farms out to freelances for — yes! — sub-minimum wages. He’s been at it for about a year, With 256 tomes online, that is what he’s earning.

Well. I certainly don’t need to earn 30 grand a month. Thirty grand a year would more than suffice. And after looking into it, I see that many people are doing this and reporting revenues that amount to a living wage, once a certain “critical mass” of published drivel is reached. Most of them are publishing several 5,000- to 10,000-word pieces of erotica a month and finding that after about six months they begin to see money in the bank. I’ve read the stuff — most of it is execrably written, some of it exactly at the level of a freshman comp student. I’ve written a 7,200-word story and sent it off to a couple of writing friends to review. It was easy to scribble and even kind of fun.

Even if you think you enjoy teaching intransigent, bored freshmen who resent taking your course on general principle,* it remains foolish and self-destructive to do it for starvation wages. When you let yourself be exploited, you are exploited. It comes under the heading of “lying down like a doormat.” This kind of treatment would not happen if the hobbyists and the forlorn of hope would stand up and refuse to be walked on.

If you’d like to see how this new enterprise turns out, my S-corp will spin off a new imprint, Camptown Races Press. It will have a blog, Camptown Ladies Talk, which will announce new bookoids with links to their Amazon pages. As soon as I get time and physical strength to put those names online, I will do so. Watch this space for the links.

And so, my friends, away!

* Nothing personal: they just don’t see why they should be made to take yet another year of English comp skills. And they’re right. If they haven’t got it yet, they’re not going to get it.

Why Can’t All Classes Be Summer Sessions?

Exceptionally good group of students in this summer’s seven-week section. Nary a one of them is giving off any “loser” sparks, and most of them not only are pretty articulate but also appear to be interesting, alert, and lively characters. And one person has already done ALL THE READING(!) and passed all 11 quizzes on the chapters with scores of 100%. Wow!

Several people filed last week’s two assignments early. That’s always nice, because it means I can read things at a relatively leisurely pace, rather than having to turn around a whole section’s worth of papers in two days. Only three papers were turned in after I read the ones on the server yesterday evening. That would mean three of them were working very late at night.

If this continues, all or almost all of them will have a good shot at completing the course. In the community college context, that’s some kind of miracle.

Really, presenting these de rigueur lower-division gen-ed courses in short form makes a great deal more sense than forcing students to sit through sixteen weeks of boredom in classes that they think they don’t need and shouldn’t have to take. Because they have to focus to pass the thing, you get a lot better attention from them, and a lot fewer personal and work catastrophes are likely to happen to any given student in seven weeks than will befall the typical person in sixteen.

In fact, the District has a “college” that’s mostly online. It deploys a University of Phoenix-like schedule in which online courses are quite short and students proceed through them at their own pace. Don’t know whether this allows a student to get through two years of lower-division coursework any faster than sitting through four sixteen-week semesters, but it stands to reason that, at least for the ambitious types, it could speed things along.

If I could teach nothing but seven and eight-week sections, I’d do it.

Every now and again…

Every now and again you get a student, even in a  junior-college class, who is SO good and SUCH a type-A doobie that you want to fall to your knees and kiss the ground beneath the desk on which the kid does homework.

I suppose it’s those classmates who keep you going.

The other day, a straight-A student from the online 102 section emailed me, having worked herself up to a fine frenzy. Some unnamed family problems have distracted her from working on the final, giant research paper, and now she knew she wouldn’t be able to do her best on it. In fact, she was afraid it would be pretty half-baked. Would I please bear in mind that she didn’t MEAN to turn in a half-baked paper?

So I wrote back: Don’t worry about it, kid.

The subtext, never articulated of course, was Kid! You write circles around even the best of your colleagues in this course. Enter your name at the top of the file and turn in the rest of it blank, and you’ll still pass.

She’s not assuaged. Shortly comes another worried message: Would I try to estimate what her final score would be if she flunks the paper?

This is easy enough: there’s only one more graded paper due, plus an extra-credit exercise.

I toss 60 points into the column for the final nightmare paper, figuring a D is about as low as this one is capable of going. This puts her final score in the mid-C range.

Then I remember that it’s a 200-point assignment. So I double the ordinary D to the D on steroids, 120 points. Now she comes out with a semester grade of around 85%.

Got that? This kid could fail the final paper ABYSMALLY and still score a firm C in the course. A D-minus on the main product would give her a solid B for the semester.

That’s because she’s turned in every assignment; she’s done every busywork project conscientiously enough to get full credit; and she’s managed high A’s for the two required 750-word research papers.

If you’re reasonably verbal, scoring a high A on one of these little projects is not very hard. Though I have a pretty thorough-going set of rubrics that cover all the District’s desired skill sets and then some, I keep the points-off values pretty low for fine details like spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Otherwise, half the class would fail.

The community colleges are awash in students from low-SES K-12 schools and native speakers of languages other than English. Many of them have never written a researched document (or, as far as one can tell, many documents of any kind) and can barely eke out a coherent paragraph. My job is not to flunk these people. My job is to foster success, and so I lay more emphasis, by far, on organization, logical thinking, and research skills than on stylistic details. You can get a B on a paper that is adequately researched, correctly cited and documented, structured logically and convincingly, and free of fallacies, factual errors, plagiarism, and general stupidity — and never mind whether you can make your verbs agree with your subjects.

Still, as easy as it seems for those of us who are reasonably verbal (the types who spend their spare time writing blog posts, for example…), a good third to half of these students have a difficult time cranking out a halfway decent paper. Most of them fail to turn in a fair number of the small assignments whose unannounced purpose is to provide them with enough points to pass the course even if they CAN’T spell their own names.

You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’ve seen this semester:

750 words presented in one paragraph (hey! one paper, one paragraph, eh?)
Papers that don’t even come close to fitting the assignment, transparent reboots of essays turned in for other courses
A paper copied and pasted, whole cloth, from an open-source textbook
Another paper from the same student, who is one who can barely spell her own name, evidently written by a hired term-paper hack
Content so illiterate you can’t figure out what its author meant to say
Reading reviews that show no indication that the author even looked at the passages under review
Paper after paper that does not address the assignment at all, but rather reviews a different chapter from the one specified (if it’s “reading review #4,” it MUST be about chapter 4, right?)

And on and on.

And there you have it: the reason an adjunct flies into an orgasmic flight when one student shows she can write all of 2½ double-spaced pages coherently and with stylistic accuracy and, of all things, even manages to address all (not some) of the assignments competently.

Every now and again, you get one of those.


Online Progress, Online Updates

We’re about two-thirds of the way through this semester’s online Eng. 102 course and a week or so into the online magazine writing course, Eng. 235.

Feeling pretty pleased with the 235s. One of them is exceptionally talented, a clear writer, thorough, and well organized. The rest are doing OK. Judging by the first three scores, several of them surely will ace the course and the rest will score decent grades, assuming they turn in all the papers.

Of course, therein lies the problem with community college courses, especially those presented online: typically a third to half of them will drop before the term ends. Many who drop would do all right if they could hang in there, but for one reason or another they either have to drop (economic or family pressures) or choose to do so (discouragement, distraction, changes of plan).

One of the 235s has failed to submit any of the three assignments. Three refrained from sending in the first significant assignment, thereby dropping 100 points. That’s four of the twelve enrolled students: a third of them in danger of failing or withdrawing.

Of the 102s, nineteen of the original twenty-one are still on the roll. One has turned in three of the thirteen assignments due so far; one is missing five of the assignments; one is missing four. Still, only one is actually flunking, because the course has so many assignments, most of which are low-value scores. If eighteen of twenty-one students are still  hanging in there, with only one major assignment and three busyworks (out of 12) coming due, that is not bad at all.

Another challenge, of course, arises from our students’ often weak academic skills. Some show up in the second-semester freshman comp course with reading skills so weak they don’t seem to be able to parse out the instructions for how to do an assignment, and you wonder how on earth they managed to get through the first semester. One suspects, especially in the cases of those who’ve tried several times, that they retake the course until they encounter some instructor who takes pity on them.

Two of the 102s’ three essays have come in. One student demonstrated remedial-level skills on the first assignment and then submitted an example of perfectly idiomatic and smoothly edited prose: copied and pasted straight from the Internet. Presumably that also is a way some of them get through 101. 😀

Some of them simply don’t read. Whether it’s because they can’t read is unclear. They must be able to limp through the required assessment tests and remedial courses, so evidently they can comprehend written language at some level. In some cases, I’ve observed, the person shows that she or he understands the meaning of a word in isolation, but when the term is placed in context can’t figure out how it relates to the other words or statements around it.

How exactly that happens is a mystery to me. Possibly the present generation of students is being taught to parse meaning first by memorizing a word’s definition and then by deducing the the rest of the sentence’s sense. That’s how they’re behaving. If it’s so, then it’s exactly the opposite of the way we were taught to interpret meaning, back in the Dark Ages when most kids came out of grammar school with a fair degree of literacy. We learned to guess meaning by context. Sometimes we got it wrong, and if we didn’t come from a higher-SES family we often got the pronunciation wrong (you don’t even want to know how I thought “Beethoven” was pronounced!). But most of the time we figured it out.

Too many of the classmates who come my way can’t figure it out on their own. And that’s worrisome.

Oh well. I can’t solve the problems of the world. The best I can do is try to help the present flock make its way through the courses and hope they somehow manage once they get out into the world.

Some of these students should be in face-to-face sections. But from my own point of view, I can’t see ever teaching in the classroom again, unless it’s for a very short-form summer session. With all the surgery I’ve had — four since the end of last June — if I’d had to show up on the campus this semester, I would  have lost my job.

Such as it is.

The online format has made it possible for me to run two sections in spite of repeated surgeries that have disrupted my business and my daily life. The piddling pay for the courses has kept the Mayo Clinic from completely draining my checking account.

Next semester the journalism program’s director wants to drop the magazine writing course’s textbook, which is like all textbooks absurdly overpriced, and replace its content with readings on the Internet.

That will pose a problem, because it’s going to involve a lot of work. And if I end up undergoing more surgery during the winter break, a distinct possibility, I can’t even begin to imagine how I’m going to find the time and energy to rewrite the entire course using a scattering of websites to undergird the content. It’s going to be a real bitch.

Another semester, another 30 challenges

Just got the assessment scores for this fall’s online Eng. 102 section. These tell you how your new students did on the various reading, writing, and math tests they’re subjected to, and also what remedial and regular courses they’ve taken and their grades in those courses. When you see these things, you realize why so many community college students never make it even to the AA, and what an unholy challenge it is to bring a large body of low-SES students up to par.

I forget where I read it — saw it just recently — but studies show the single most accurate predictor of academic success (or lack of it) is socioeconomic status. Poverty breeds failure in school. For a variety of reasons, of course: broken families, parents who themselves are uneducated and so have no academic cultural capital to pass to their kids, hungry children, abused children, children growing up inundated in violence, poor medical care, substandard ghetto schools, kids having to work to support themselves or to help support their families, unwed mothers, and on and on.

Heavenly Gardens Community College is far from the lowest-SES school where I’ve taught. But it has its share of classmates who come from working-class or true poverty-level backgrounds. Most of these are bright young men and women: they’re smart, they’re usually hard-working, and they would not be here if they didn’t want to get ahead.

At this age, of course, the “hard-working” part works against them: many have to work so hard at surviving, there’s no time or energy left to succeed in college courses. Some are very smart, but not sophisticated in an academic way and so are stymied by the cultural barriers we erect around higher education.

And I’m afraid that often our well-intentioned efforts to break down those barriers and help them get ahead just make things harder for them. Here’s some poor soul who has taken a barrage of fifteen assessment tests in math, writing and language! Imagine the stress and frustration…heaven help us.

 Of thirty classmates, five have taken one remedial course; three have taken two remedial courses, one has assayed five remedial courses. That’s almost a third of the students.

Understand that each of these things delays the student by a semester, or at least by a summer session. Think of the sheer persistence entailed in sitting through five of them!

Not to be outdone in the persistence department, four people enrolled in Eng. 101 twice, one person enrolled three times before passing, and another four times. Three people have tried twice before this semester to pass Eng. 102, and one rugged soul has made five runs at this course.

So, a fifth of the classmates had to make more than one try to pass first-semester composition, a course that requires nothing more than four short essays. And more than a tenth have tried to pass the present course more than once.

I’ve said before that attrition rates in a typical Heavenly Gardens course can run as high as 30% to 50%.  If half of these folks drop — which I sincerely hope they do not — only fifteen of them will make it through their two required freshman comp courses. Little wonder that so few of our students, especially those who need remediation, ever make it all the way to a diploma.

Pre-reading a Student’s Papers?

So, how do you feel about agreeing to critique a student paper, at the student’s special request, a day or two before the paper is due? In other words, you’re asked to perform extra work, unpaid, for one student who is eager to maximize a grade but insecure about his or her ability to do the assignment as requested?

Here’s what I have: a very bright and eager student, one who calls herself a “visual learner.” She’s not a kid; this is a woman in her late 20s who undoubtedly feels all those worries and doubts that plague a returning student. But trust me: she’s very smart and once she finds her footing will do well.

My current pedagogical craze is the “reading response”: to get students to go so far as to read the textbook, I ask them to synopsize the chapter and then to apply some of the knowledge or principles the text presents to one of the chapter’s readings. To do so, they have to pull specific examples out of the reading selections to illustrate the chapter’s high points. This works well to demonstrate a) whether the classmate has read the material at all and b) how well he or she has understood it.

These are very short exercises worth 15 points apiece, and there are plenty of them.

Some classmates don’t quite get the idea of applying their understanding of the textbook lesson to the content of the reading selection, and so they’ll speak in generalities: “Ah, yes, in this essay Mencken demonstrates the uses of ethos, pathos, and logos.” Period. No clue to exactly where these astonishing phenomena occur.

Before I could even return the most recent pile of papers, Ms. Promising (as we’ll call her, because she surely is promising) spotted her score of 10 out of 15 on two of them in the e-gradebook. Alarmed, she e-mailed to ask what on earth she’d done wrong. So I had to dig out her papers (three of them), reread them, reread my comments, and type detailed explanations into a return e-mail.

This, you understand, is time-consuming, and for me, time is money. When I’m not using my time to earn a living, I’m trying to use it to enjoy living. Perhaps I’m unduly jealous of those uses of my time….

Next thing I know, she’s e-mailed back saying she didn’t do a very good job, it was all her fault (awww…), and on Monday would I please read her next set of reading responses and tell her what she needs to do to get As on them.

In class? before class? after class? FOR FREE?

Because that’s what it is: unpaid, FREE extra work.

More to the point, it’s unfair to the other students. If I’m going to give her special one-on-one tutoring, then I have to offer special one-on-one tutoring to ALL the students.

Isn’t that what the writing center’s for?

Well, okay, chances are the writing center is closed over the summer. But peer review would do the job, too.

Am I unreasonable for feeling that critiquing a single student’s paper in advance of the due date, so that she can maximize her scores by five points here and five points there, is a) unfair to the other classmates and b) unfair to me?

Into the Breach…Again: I must have lost my mind

“Never say never,” eh? It is true, I did say I would never set foot in another face-to-face classroom again. Ever. Never.

But tomorrow I ride into the mouth of Hell once more.

In a weak moment, I told my delightful chair and his redoubtable admin that I’d take on a four-week section of freshman comp this summer. It starts tomorrow.

As a practical matter, an extremely compressed section like this is a whole ’nother critter from the last gawdawful section I taught, which was offered over a standard sixteen-week semester. Students who sign up to do a semester’s work in four weeks tend to self-select into a fairly elite group, even in the community college. By and large they’re ambitious types, and justifiably confident of their skills and abilities.

It meets four days a week between June 2 and July 2. I managed to wangle generous amounts of library time and computer commons time, and so they’ll have opportunities to do much of the course’s work during class meetings, which will be helpful for those who can write their names without too much difficulty. With any luck, those who need remedial work will have enough sense to sign up for a 16-week-long section in the fall.

Twenty-four students are enrolled, one short of the max. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one more won’t show up in the next few days. We’ll see how many last. At the normal attrition rate, we should end up with eight to twelve on the final day. But given the type of student likely to sign up, it’s within reason to hope that most of them will hang in there.

I also hope no nut cases surface this time.

Yes, I know: mentally ill folks deserve a college education, too. But I am a writer and an editor; I am not a psychiatrist, a therapist, or a social worker. If our colleges and universities are to train the out-of-control mentally ill, then colleges and universities should hire psychiatric and social workers to teach — and pay commensurately.

MIA: Students Who Never Show

I’m about to drop six students of the eleven who remain in the magazine-writing course.

Fifteen signed up. Of those, four have already left. These six are people who aren’t turning in assignments but haven’t bothered to drop the course. That’s a total attrition rate of 66.7%.

Only three classmates turned in the most recent assignment, so I’m afraid two more may be on their way out.

This is not atypical. One interesting (but very small) study showed that on the MBA level some 42 percent of online students dropped. The New York Times puts attrition rates as high as 90 percent in some large online courses. More credibly, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “countless” studies show success rates of around 50% in online courses, as opposed to 70% to 75% in F2F sections.

Nor is it surprising, especially in the community colleges where large numbers of students hold down full-time jobs and care for families while they try to struggle through their coursework. As the Chron‘s author pointed out three years ago, some subjects shouldn’t be presented online at all, and many students aren’t well suited for independent online study. I think it might also be said that the online environment itself is not well suited for certain kinds of study: people who use the Internet all the time quickly come to expect short bursts of information requiring brief, gestalt bursts of attention. The environment itself invites distraction. That’s inimical to sustained concentration, study, and effort.

On the one hand, for me it means almost no grading. But on the other, it would be bizarre for the college to continue offering this course, when maybe three of fifteen students make it through to the end of the semester.

And that would be too bad (for me…). I don’t make much on these little courses, but it’s a little bit. And every little bit helps.

Hope the “indie” book-publishing scheme works. It may be needed to replace the so-called income from teaching…fortunately, so little money comes from teaching that I won’t have to earn much from the books.

As we speak, a conversion dude is working on making Kindleizing a book spun off this site: Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education.

As soon as he finishes that, he’ll move on to the diet/cookbook: How I Lost 30 Pounds in Four Months. Then to the first of what I expect to be a series of speculative fiction novels, Fire-Rider.

Those three books are in the can. I’ve got material residing on Funny about Money to spin off at least one book, maybe more. The puppy is a gold mine of schmaltzy stories of the sort that sell. I have two more plotlines for the Fire-Rider series and a decent idea for an entirely different series of sci-fi novels.

Additionally, I have CDs on how to improve your writing skills — things I used to sell to my upper-division students at the Great Desert University. Should be able to crank at least one e-book from that; another on how to edit your own work; and one or two more from various presentations I’ve given over the years. They say eight is the magic number for writers who want to earn a noticeable income from e-books. I expect to have that many on Amazon and waypoints by the end of 2015.

It has to be said that any day I’d rather poke along writing fun little books than spend hours laboring over student papers and other people’s Ph.D. dissertations.

Meanwhile, there’s the great mystery of why people pay good money to attend a college course and then never bother to show or even to drop.

Good Li’l Students!

So here we are, a few weeks into the semester, and the Magazine Writing Crew at Heavenly Gardens Community College has turned in its first real article, after an interminable number of preparatory exercises and real-world projects. Amazingly, quite a few of their efforts are very good. One — actually, maybe two are writing at the publishable level. Several are doing creditable jobs for student efforts, and several are well above creditable.

Sounds just awesome, doesn’t it?

Well, of course, it is awesome. Happy indeed is what we should be if even one of our students, especially one on the 200 level, is already reaching something like a professional stage. Pleased, if several of them are earning genuine A’s, not the kind generated by busywork calculated to inflate grades with the purpose of inflating our student evaluations.


But the fact is that these excellent students self-select in the MagaWriting course simply by staying enrolled. Of the twenty who enrolled in this course, eight survive. Seven of those turned in the recently due article; eight turned in the query (a type of real-world proposal) for the next article.

Fewer than half the original bunch are still with us, and they’re the ones who are earning A’s and B’s. One or two of them are functioning at such a high level that one might reasonably ask why they’re in the class at all, since they could be selling freelance articles right now, today.

Soooo… The people who could actually benefit from the class, the ones who could actually learn something new: they’ve absented themselves.

There must be a way, somehow, to keep those students in the class.

I just wish I knew what it is.

Countdown to Freedom: 12/11/2012

One more class meeting to go.

The 102s’ Phaque Phinals are graded; for that section, final grades have now made themselves evident, and I have instilled the same in the District’s official grading system. All that remains now is to administer the extra-credit Phaque Phinal to the 101 class, score it, let Excel tote up the final grades, and report them online to the District.

Hum. I forgot that the odd 9:30 final exam meeting time will conflict with my networking group’s Thursday morning breakfast meeting. Damn. That means I’ll have to keep an eye on the time and leave by about 10 to 9. Nuisance: I’m cooking up an enterprise with one of the guys in that group, and I need to meet with him after the chatfest.

The final exam period for that class runs until 11:30, but I have a BNI meeting at noon in Scottsdale and will need more than half an hour to fly across town to that.

Understand: the Phaque Phinal consists of ten, count’em (10) rather MickeyMouse questions.

What is wrong with this sentence? If you can’t articulate the problem, just show how you would fix it.

The cat ate it’s food.

Here is an example of a fallacy:

The dog grabbed my steak off the kitchen counter and gobbled it down. Two hours later she barfed. So, the steak must have made her sick.

What type of fallacy is this? Why?

Not a single one of the 102s scored 50 points on the Phaque Phinal. The highest score was 40, and that was with me fudging the answers to give them a break.

Nothing on the PP was new. None of it covered anything we had not discussed in class. All of it was addressed in class, covered in the textbook or handouts, posted on our website, and explained on Internet sites to which I provided links. If you couldn’t follow my explanation, or you couldn’t keep your eyes open through the class discussions, then you could figure it out by reading the textbook or else go to some other expert’s interpretation and hope for words of fewer syllables.

So, it’s dismaying when even the best of them fall short of 100% (two A students showed up to take the Phinal, even though they were home free without the extra credit). Especially so, because last semester several classmates nailed 50 points, and the “exam” has not changed.

Whence the abysmal performance on what is essentially grade-school material? How is it possible that second-semester college freshmen can’t recognize when proximity is confused with causality? How can they not know what it’s means?

Part of the problem — in my opinion the largest part of the problem — is poor academic preparation. Large numbers of bright and theoretically competent young people leave high school utterly unprepared for college-level work. Or, come to think of it, for any kind of white-collar work. I don’t know what’s going on in the lower grades, but whatever it is, it ain’t workin’ for enough of our children.

Another issue, which probably is part of the same problem, is poor study skills.

Despite my taking them by the hand and begging them to start working on their papers early — particularly on the difficult 2,500-word paper, a project all the more difficult for students who have never written a sourced paper in 13 years of K-12 schooling — a week before that paper was due, student after student would admit to not even having framed a topic, much less started research and drafting.

Several students came up to me a few days before the major research paper was due and asked me what date it was due and what they were supposed to be writing about — this, after having taken a quiz on the syllabus early in the semester, which asked them to state when the papers were due and what their topics were to be. And after a prewriting assignment was due. And after an oral report on their topic was due.

Some classmates never purchased the textbook.

Knowing that they would not, I offered a workaround: links to websites providing the same information as the material in the assigned textbook readings. In spite of my regularly having pointed these out in class, many students evinced no awareness that any such things existed.

Do remedial courses  help? I don’t know. I do know that many graduates of Heavenly Gardens remedial English and writing courses arrive in my English 101 and 102 courses  utterly unprepared to perform at the college level. For those students, at least, remedial classes clearly didn’t do much. But how many students experience success in their college courses after remediation?

Some figures say as many as 60 percent of incoming college students need remedial training. Peter Bahr studied the results of math remediation and concluded that those students who experienced success in remedial math courses functioned about the same in later college work as did students who didn’t need remediation. However, a majority of remedial math students do not succeed in such training, and for those students, outcomes are less than positive. Typical community college students who need but do not complete remediation have only a 21% chance of transferring, and they face a 73% chance of neither completing a course of studies nor transferring to a four-year school.

Little is known about the effectiveness of remedial training for college students. Some studies have indicated that remediation may be helpful in math but has little effect on reading deficiencies. In any event, results are consistently mixed. No one really knows whether these programs do anything for students.

But anyone with any common sense should be able to guess that it would be a great deal cheaper for the taxpayer, a great deal more effective for our young people, and a great deal more sane for colleges if students showed up at the door with ordinary study skills and reasonable proficiency in reading, composition, and math.

Is that impossible?

I doubt it.

Back in the Dark Ages when I went to school, few first-semester freshmen were relegated to what was then unkindly called “dumbbell English.” I went to a public university with average rankings in most programs other than the top-rated astrophysics and cultural anthropology. Few of us were products of elite homes or private schools: I was a first-generation college student, and so were almost all my friends and acquaintances. Having skipped my senior year in high school — my father contrived to get me admitted early so he could quit his job and retire to Sun City, whose rules required that one’s youngest child had to be over 18 or enrolled in college — I started my freshman year shortly after turning 17.

I had no problem keeping up with the coursework. Neither did any of my dorm-mates or my classmates or my boyfriends or my cronies. We arrived on the campus understanding that we needed to buy the required textbooks, read the assignments, and submit written work on time. We knew how to prepare research papers and lab reports, because they were not very different from the kind of work we’d been doing in high school and junior high school.

Today I meet college students who have never written a sourced paper of any kind. High-school graduates tell me their English courses required them to write poems, essays, journals, and short stories, but never a research paper. Some students tell me they didn’t even take an English course in senior year. A few have said they hadn’t been in a library since middle school. Colleagues who require students to read more than a few anthology entries report that students go to their dean to complain about the unreasonable reading load — on some occasions arguing that if a course is not listed as fulfilling a literacy requirement, no substantial reading assignments should be expected.

Bright students tell me they’ve earned A’s and B’s in K-12 courses without studying and in some instances after cutting a large number of class meetings. They don’t see why that shouldn’t apply in college, too.

Having led many a horse to the Pyrrhean Spring without much luck at getting them to drink, I can’t bring myself to blame K-12 teachers for the present state of affairs. I do blame educational theorists who pushed through wacky ideas to the effect that formal training in usage, grammar, and style does nothing to build and polish language skills. And I do blame trends that have changed our schools from academies of learning into institutions of social work. We need to change our thinking about what ought to be taught in American schools, and how. Ideas that have become politically incorrect in our brave new world need to be revisited, and parents and taxpayers need to ask why strategies that worked to train our grandparents effectively were relegated to the dustbin.

I’m not suggesting that we go back to the Dark Ages. I ask only that we figure out what worked during the Dark Ages and consider whether those approaches should be revived and adapted to our kids’ present circumstances.

We know that most high-school graduates once were prepared for college-level work. Why are 60 percent of them underprepared now?