Sunday, January 21, 2018

Everybody's a Critic

by Jean Roberta

Please forgive the lateness of this post. I've been working my way through piles of student assignments.

I tell myself that other people’s opinions of me can’t pierce my armour. Not any more. Who am I fooling?

I recently got three sets of anonymous student evaluations from my Fall (September-December) classes. The questionnaire asks a lot of questions, to be answered on a scale of 1-5. (Example: How heavy is the workload in this class? How knowledgeable is the instructor? How fair are the grading standards?) Then there is space for written comments.

In all fairness to the hordes of random students who are herded into my mandatory first-year English classes, I get consistently high scores in certain areas. Most of them think I know my subject quite well, and most of them admit that I rarely cancel classes. Many of them say I’m friendly and approachable. This year, a few said they found me funny and entertaining.

Then there are the haters.

The most common complaint was that I’m completely disorganized, and I ramble on about irrelevant topics.

According to current rules, I have to plan out my whole semester in advance, and get my course outlines approved by a committee. (Ironically, I now belong to that committee because the English Department has shrunk so much due to government cutbacks that “conflict of interest” seems like an outdated principle.)

At the beginning of a semester, I explain to my classes that first-year English used to be divided into three parts, like ancient Gaul: one-third fiction or drama, one-third poetry, and one-third grammar/composition. By popular demand, non-fiction was added about ten years ago, but composition is still supposed to take up one-third of class time. So if I’m teaching three days per week, I do fiction/non-fiction on Mondays, composition on Wednesdays, and poetry on Fridays. Most students seem to understand this when I explain it aloud after handing out copies of the syllabus.

I try to find the best ways to explain literary and grammatical concepts to students who are unfamiliar with them. So I use metaphors, tell anecdotes, and draw cartoons on the blackboard, all with the goal of enabling students to understand what they read, and express ideas accurately in standard English.

Apparently, this is not what some students see or hear when they sit in the back of my classes, daydreaming, doodling, or sending text-messages on their phones.

One student complained that I spend too much time writing on the blackboard instead of teaching.

Several pointed out bitterly that I cancelled ONE class in the Fall semester, probably because I didn’t want to teach. (Actually, some workmen had to fix my furnace to satisfy the requirements of the government power company, and my spouse said she didn’t want strange men to be in and out of our house all day, possibly letting our confused pets run out to the street. No one else could be found to house-sit, so I explained my need for a day off to the department head, who told me it wouldn’t be a problem.)

Several students complained that I always started the class late. Actually, I was always there on time, according to my watch, but when the class was scheduled to begin, there was always a late student (or 3, or 6) wandering in, so I would start lecturing when I hoped there would be no more distracting arrivals.

Many students complained on the questionnaire that I didn’t spend enough time teaching grammar, which is a hard subject, and then I gave low marks for bad grammar on assignments. Other students complained that I spent too much time teaching grammar in a class that was supposed to be more fun and interesting.

Several students pointed out that I lacked the power to “engage” them, to keep them focused. One critic said he/she would have learned more if I had used Powerpoint instead of writing on slate with chalk or on vinyl with felt marker, as in Days of Yore.

In effect, an alarming number of students seemed to think I’m a boring old woman who has nothing to teach that they want to learn. And I’m a snob, if not a downright bigot, because I give low marks to students who are not fluent in written English. And I never explain what I want!!

Maybe I was especially shaken by these barbs because I had spent the last year (mid-summer 2016 to September 2017) on sabbatical, away from the daily grind of the classroom.

For years, I’ve been alarmed by the unpreparedness of first-year students who didn’t do much writing—or learn any grammar--in local secondary schools, or who were recruited in other countries, and came to Canada with a sketchy knowledge of English. For years, most of my students have asked that their shortcomings be overlooked because they need to get passing grades in mandatory classes. For years, spokespeople for the English Department (usually the department head) have begged the university administration for more resources to cope with the great unwashed horde that needs to learn comprehension and composition skills in a university where English is the default language.

Last year, the English Department voted overwhelmingly to impose a prerequisite (a certain grade point in an English-speaking secondary school, or a remedial class) on students who register for a first-year English class. The administration shot this down on grounds that it would limit students’ “freedom of choice.” Why shouldn’t they pay full tuition to take a course they can’t pass? And then pay again, as many times as it takes?

The push for more remedial composition classes needs to come from the students. I said this in an editorial that ran in the student newspaper in 2015 (which might have been read by five people), and I’ve said this directly to students in my classes. A preparatory class that would increase student literacy and fluency would be easier to pass than a first-year literature-and-composition class, and it would increase students’ chances of passing everything they would take after that. A petition, signed by many students, would probably move the administration more than the usual recommendations from the English Department.

It seems I’m screeching into the wind. The last thing most of my students want is to take another English class. They don’t see the power of the administration, and they probably wouldn’t recognize an administrator if they saw one, even though the expensive suit might be a clue.

To too many students, English instructors who use words that sound like Greek, or Klingon, then hand out failing grades like the Red Queen beheading peasants, are the monsters who prevent students from going home to Timbuktu (or the family farm near Outlook, Saskatchewan) with a university degree. We are the gatekeepers that the students need to get past, and they resent us accordingly.

It hurts, I’ll admit, but for some reason, I still feel called to this work. And I don’t have many years left before I retire, probably when I’m seventy. I have freedom of choice too.

If and when I reach my limit, I could put in my notice immediately. I could be replaced. This knowledge is both comforting and depressing.

For the meanwhile, I’ll soldier on, not expecting any miraculous changes.


  1. This is happening in many places. A friend who teaches Medical Terminology in a community college, both in person and online, is appalled at how poorly incoming students are prepared. Even those who claim to know all about computers don't know how to format a document, or, for that matter, how to send it, never mind writing a cogent paper or doing research. This is a course of great importance to anyone wanting to find jobs in the medical field, where there are indeed jobs like transcription and billing as well as nursing, but they'll also need real computer skills and writing ability.

  2. I think these problems begin in the lower grades in local schools not putting much emphasis on English. I've been something less than circumspect in my opinion of Catholic schools, but those nuns did prepare us with a good sense of the English language. Of course, unlike many of my fellow students, I enjoyed English class. It's tough to fight city hall when the youngsters being taught don't care much themselves.

  3. Sigh. Something needs to be done, but I wouldn’t be in favour of kicking out vast numbers of students who are barely literate, and turning all post-secondary schools into very exclusive Ivory Towers. As long as hordes of ill-prepared students are flooding (I imagine first-year students in their first week as Dothraki raiders from Game of Thrones), they need to be educated. Most of university revenues need to go into that, IMO, rather than fancy new buildings or administrators’ salaries. I hope someone will take up the fight when I’m no longer there.

  4. Daddy X, I think you’re right about where the problems start. Even public schools in dusty rural regions (Idaho, where I spent my childhood) used to do an adequate job of teaching basic skills. Something has changed.

  5. Oh, Jean... I've been dealing with exactly the same sort of issues. And I teach engineering, not English.

    Last term students complained to the department head that my class "didn't have a syllabus". When this claim was voiced in the department meeting, I brought up the course website and showed everyone the (very detailed) syllabus right at the top of the page.

    This course is a core course. Students must pass in order to get their degree in our program. Many fail. What happens? They take it again, as second year students, or God forbid, as fourth year students! How have these students passed other courses that depend on the foundational knowledge in this one, over their later years???

    This term I'm teaching the follow-on core course. I state that the first term course is a pre-requisite. Students who fail the first term course may not take the second term course.

    In addition to the 90+ first year students, the department wanted me to teach the 12 fourth year students who failed the first time (or the second time).

    I refused. I told them there was no room in the classroom and not enough computers in the lab (all true). But in addition--these students should have been flunked out of our program years ago.

    (I guess you can sense my frustration here... ;^) - Thank heavens I can leave all this behind when I slip into my Lisabet personna!)

  6. I think you're right that the students have to lead the charge to get that sort of prerequisite course in place. I hope they do someday! It sounds really tough to deal with all those evaluations, Jean. I hope the overall sense that you know your stuff is the one that wins the day--it's so obvious that you care about what you do!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.