Summer session began last week, and I was immediately reminded that the nub of my job is closing gaps. For everyone, college does some bridging: from past to future; from who one was to who one wants to be; from never having had a beer to imbibing a twelve-pack every Monday (“Rock ON, dudes! Chug for Monday Madness!”).
At the community college, the bridges we build often call upon a multi-faceted team of engineers, from teachers to administration to student services to counselors to the diversity office to the learning center. The bridges we help students build can be quite complicated, spanning miles, requiring the construction of depth as much as breadth. Put another way, many students enter our college having never read a book. Many of them, even when given a layout of all the points they’ve earned against all the points that have been possible, cannot figure out the resulting percentage. Every term, when I distribute the final exam in my Novels class, half the class reads over the questions and then asks me what the word “resonate” means. I used to tell them to get a dictionary and look it up; nowadays I tell them to hit dictionary.com. Either way, their reaction is a blank, unbelieving stare. Even more tragically, I had a student my first year of teaching who had never before met a period or a comma and proved that quite stunningly in his first five-page paper. Of course, that was when I was teaching in the panhandle of Idaho, so he’d probably spent his formative years grasping a semi-automatic and firing off bullets from Ruby Ridge in lieu of grasping punctuation and firing off pithy bon mots.
Hence, while I am ostensibly passing on some content in the classroom, the truth is my job is more about looking at where a student is, looking at where a student needs to get to, and creating a catwalk between those points. That, I’m used to.
What I often forget, however, is that the bridges need to be built in a variety of directions–education does not follow a simple Point A to Point B trajectory. I’m also building bridges between where I, the teacher, am and where the students are. Sometimes that means I’m a standard-bearer who is waving a flag and asking students to run towards it. Other times that means I see my students far off in the distance, ahead of me–better read, more articulate, crazily analytical–and I realize I need to kick it up a notch if I hope to remain in the race. Sometimes, the chasm between our life experiences seems unbreachable; I have students who have served in Iraq…two times…three times, and then I have students who have never left their hometown, even to visit the state next door (a ten minute drive). In both cases, I am left gasping at how my own experience has left me ill-equipped to comprehend their world views.
Even more, in addition to the gaps between the students and myself, and the gaps between the students and the material they are expected to master, there are the peer-to-peer gaps between the students. It seems wrong, in fact, to use a collective term like “students” when there is such variety even within one class. I have had an 88-year-old minister and a 16-year-old skateboarder sitting in the same room. I have had women working their way out of domestic abuse enrolled in the same class with domestic abusers; in this case, my job is to run interference so that these individuals never intersect, even on the most innocuous of assignments. I have had meth addicts and former nuns sharing a classroom–imagine the rousing “Hail Mary” that issued forth when the frustrated addict yelled “Fuck this” and stormed from the room after glancing at the grade on a returned essay.
These discrepancies in values and experience are highlighted when the class peer reviews each others’ papers, when they swap drafts and attempt to critique the writing of their classmates. Last semester, a very dear pony-tailed, acne-ridden hardcore gamer wrote, with some excitement, an essay on e-sports (particularly the rise of Starcraft in South Korea). Throughout the process, I cautioned him to keep his audience in mind, to make sure he explained all of his terms and imagined that a 75-year-old grandmother would be reading his work. By the time he wrote his final draft, I (the 75-year-old grandma) was able to understand his topic and points, but his peer reviewers remained bewildered. Having never heard of Starcraft or e-sports or, in one case, South Korea, they could only sputter, “I didn’t really get this paper.” Poor Gamerboy had poured hours into his research and writing, only to be told, “I didn’t really get this paper.” The bridge between Gameboy and his readers was rickety, built out of rotten timbers and frayed ropes.
Based on two emails I read last week, as my online classes geared up for the summer, I foresee similar issues arising this term. Read for yourself:
Hi, Jocelyn! (What a fabulous name. I used it for a main character in one of my novels years ago.)
I’m looking so forward to starting this class with you!
My home school is Ichabod Community College, but I’ve taken online courses with host schools DCC and LSC as well. I encounter the same dilemma every semester: not getting my financial aid until after my online courses have started, ergo no books. Not to worry! I’m a dean’s list student, and I work very hard to catch up then excel! I’ve taken about eleven online courses, and I am confident with it. I just feel it’s fair to let my instructors know that I cannot get books until about a week or two into the semester.
If you would ever provide me with the ISBN for our texts, I’d be so grateful. Now, please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you! Thank you so much for your time.
Outstanding intro on our home page. I laughed out loud.
Thanks for touching base and for the kind words. I’m named after a lullabye in a French opera of the same name: “Jocelyn.” You presume correctly if you guess my parents were musicians.
I put the titles of our texts into the magic Google machine and get these ISBN numbers:
For the American 24-Carat Gold:
And for the World of Short Stories:
The good news is that our first few short stories (the ones for next week) are anthologized heavily and pretty well known, so if you just search them online, you’ll be able to read them from the Web and, thusly, not get behind (which is helpful since I don’t accept late work). Please remind me, if you haven’t gotten your texts by the end of next week, that you need the Writing Prompt for the first Reading Log, and I’ll type it into an email for you.
I am always confounded by the financial aid system that makes it so hard to get textbooks from the very start. No worries, though!
You’re going to be a terrific asset to the class; I can tell already.
That first email from Marion was followed immediately by this one, from a different student:
I just tried to send you a page with the pager but it says that it is disabled because I have not filled out a student services work study quiz because I work as a Campus Ambassador but the quiz I’m supposed to finish is not available anymore so I do not know if I will be able to send you a page… but I do know how it works!! Let me know what I can do about this!
I’m a litttttttttle bit confused. First off, here’s a copy and paste from my syllabus, which is at the top of the Content page in the class: “Also, please note that I don’t use the pager feature of the class, so don’t even try it, Mugsy.”
Clearly, knowing that information is important, as I’ll never get any pages you try to send. Email or the “Ask Jocelyn” folder in the Discussions area would be the best ways to contact me.
I don’t know what a “student services work study quiz” is–never heard of it!–so don’t worry about it. Just know that I don’t use the pager, and it’s not an issue.
So what were you trying to page me about in the first place?
After reading those two emails, back to back, I was left pondering anew how to bring together such disparate students coming from such disaparate levels of preparedness. How will they read and respond to each other’s thinking? How will Marion make sense of Madge’s spinning brain? How will Madge understand the big words Marion uses?
Fortunately, we all will unite around the material of the class: reading short stories. I leave it to Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Alice Walker, O. Henry, Kate Chopin, Juan Bosch, Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, Roch Carrier, Grace Ogot, R. Sarif Easmon, Guy de Maupassant, and Leo Tolstoy to provide all of us, from whichever direction we come, with common language, common experience. They are the finest of bridge builders.
I just hope Madge doesn’t try to page Tolstoy.
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