The Whole Shaboom and The College Developmental Writing Course

5061210124_62bb88baac_bThere are nouns like the beach that can be touched and seen and salt on the air smelled as waves crash into sand and knock you down in the surf concrete nouns. Abstract nouns that explain love and better yet explain the hope of love when you see that someone across a crowded room—what’s that called? Butterflies. And collective nouns that gather around families and friends, a whole party of nouns drinking mai tai cocktails singing badly the Queen’s Bohemiam Rhapsody, and singing like the whole of the U.S. sings that song off-key bad. There are too one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish count and mass all the way from here to there nouns. Common nouns that work blue collar jobs deep in coal mines and proper nouns with their hats and bowties and even gerunds—the verbs that pretend to be nouns, the ones that are something they are not.

Unless you are an English instructor or a writer, you probably don’t spend time thinking about nouns. You probably spend less time worrying over verbs. They’re the action words. The words that get stuff done.

Of course, it’s more complicated. It’s always more complicated with the transitive and the intransitive, the linking and auxiliary, the modals and then the gerunds again which are really just nouns anyway.

Most people I know—those with and without degrees, some without high school diplomas— they intrinsically understand nouns and verbs, the very building blocks of speech, the Legos of our language. You may not know the terms, the lingo and jargon, the technicalities, but you can point to a noun and say, “That’s a noun.”

But what if you couldn’t?

In my late twenties, I had this crazy idea I wanted to teach at a college. It was a back of my head pipe dream, I was working so many jobs, getting fired and quitting and taking classes part-time and raising babies and moving all over the country. Then, I got into grad school and they handed me a Freshman Composition course. I’m trekking back and forth on my bicycle in the early autumn. The marching band practicing fights songs, people wearing sweaters with elbow patches and this is just exactly like my dream come true. I’m flinging topic sentences and evidence sandwiches, thesis statements and explaining away logical fallacies. This stuff is exciting to me. My passion. What gets me up in the morning. My go-go juice. Better than coffee.

Then I get my degree and I move to New Hampshire and start as an adjunct at Great Bay Community College and Developmental Writing is a very different kind of animal than Freshman Comp.

When I was told by my department head that developmental students had difficulties distinguishing between nouns and verbs, subjects and direct objects, I was incredulous. How could someone not know the difference between a noun and a verb? The line between the two grammatical concepts is clear.

Developmental writing is perhaps a misnomer. A euphemism at best. Remediation or remedial is the nonpolitically-correct term. Remediation courses get a bad rep for being useless, a kind of money-making scheme for community colleges and universities. Complete College America, an organization made up of former lawmakers and politicians, in 2012 urged states to do away with remediation in higher education (Boylan 27). Complete College America cited a National Educational Longitudinal study that stated 72% of remedial students will not graduate from college with a degree; additionally, those who do graduate take considerably longer to earn their bachelor’s—8.5 years on average, more than double the traditional four (Attewell 886–924).

Due to these low retention numbers and the increased amount of time students take to complete degrees after having come out of the remedial education experience, Complete College America urged states to join the Complete College America Alliance (Boylan 28). Since the alliance, several states have enacted legislation to remove remedial courses: Connecticut, one of my New England neighbors wrote a bill in 2012 that stated “no public institution of higher education shall offer any remedial support, including remedial courses, that is not embedded with the corresponding entry level courses” (State of Connecticut, 2012). After Connecticut, states fell like dominos: North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Texas to name a few (Boylan 28-29).

For states that have left remedial education in higher education on the books, the instructors put in place to facilitate these classes are ill-gotten, ill-paid, and woefully unprepared.

I taught five sections of Developmental Writing. My master’s in English literature was enough to qualify me to teach, a degree mind you that has nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of writing and has even less to do with the psychology and heavy pedagogical scaffolding needed to successfully work a developmental course. I came into those classrooms with zero training. I never thought I’d have to teach the difference between a noun and a verb. I didn’t even know how to teach that. You want to know about the postcolonial inclinations found within Native American literature, you want to know about how the construct of an American Main Street plays out in Sinclair Lewis’ novels, how that idea is translated onto real, geographical places, I am your man. That is what I study. Developmental writing? I was so wet behind the ears I felt like I had just gotten out of the shower.

I am, of course, typical. In the U.S. 75% of all remedial courses are taught by uncredentialed or wrongly credentialed part-time adjuncts. Often, these instructors teach across several different schools at the same time. Don’t have offices hours or even offices, and spend much of their time on the road. Daniel Fincke adjunct extraordinaire explains in his blog his reasons for leaving the academic meat grinder: “In one semester I taught 9 sections of philosophy at 5 universities (spread across three states) […]. I have had semesters where I have woken at 4:30am to commute from my Manhattan apartment to Connecticut, only to commute four hours at midday to either Long Island or New Jersey for an evening class, and not arrive home until as late as 11:30pm.”

The media paints us part-timers as uneducated, undedicated, unpassionate, frazzled and broke. Except Dr. Fincke, teaching all those classes, was dedicated, is passionate, and was lucky enough to teach what he wanted to teach and what he was qualified to teach. Frazzled and broke probably sums up our teaching experience the best, trying to explain to my daughter why we are on food stamps, and getting really quizzical looks from the Department of Family Services case worker when she says, “But you’re a professor. Why are you here? You must not be a very good teacher.” Or. When I go to the doctor and she wants to know how I’m able to scam the system.

I have cohorts that have written books on education, teach course-loads just barely under the minimum for full-time staff, and work in retail. And I did that—worked retail until I couldn’t stand the “would you like a side order of credit card with your purchase?” I’ve gotten other side jobs to keep the ends met—freelance web design, screen press printing on the weekends, making t-shirts for rock and roll bands. Forget about the health insurance and what is retirement? I’m not sure anymore. And I am lucky because some instructors are homeless and living out of their cars. Always the students keep me coming back.

The blame has also been placed upon the students themselves. They come to college underprepared, their academic strengths littered with weaknesses. Students that have earned A’s and four point o’s in high school, and they get to college, take a placement test. And BAM. Remedial math, remedial reading, developmental writing.

The actual data, the bits that don’t get reported to the public because these bits point toward a bigger epidemically proportioned problem: taking into account socio-economic factors, students enrolled in remedial college level courses do succeed and do graduate with degrees (Attewell 886-924).  The majority of students do take at least one remedial class, but not because high schools have failed.

Remedial college courses have been fashioned through the years by tradition—Ivy League schools since the colonial period offered remediation (Attewall). High schools provide learning for life. Remedial college courses provide learning for surviving college. Most semesters, in my regular Freshman Composition course, a student protests, “But that’s not what my high school English teacher said.”

Well, this is not high school.

This is different.

In my Freshman Composition course, the students know the difference between a noun and a verb. But Developmental Writing? That’s a different animal.

One student[1] habitually fell asleep in my class. He wore sunglasses that reminded me of something out of the 1980s, always wore the same shirt, the same blue jeans. He only missed one class. I often turned the lights down for him—his head crashed into his backpack like it was a pillow. When he learned his mother had switched her ADHD medication for sleeping pills, he moved out of his house into her car. My wife and I had conversations about him.

“I’m not letting some strange kid sleep in our living room.”

“He’s living in her car.”

“I don’t know him. Just some kid. You get way too attached to these strays. They’re not worth it. This is not Stand and Deliver. It’s college, and you don’t get paid enough for this kind of crap.” That makes my wife sound harsh, uncaring and uncomprising, but she only voiced the same concerns I had inside my own head.

One student wrote about how she wanted to cut himself, about how suicide would probably make everything better. Such personal stuff, and so much trust maybe too much trust in me as an instructor.

Another student worked without pay as a favor for his brother. He worked three other jobs besides, and he too fell asleep in my class—his essays a rife with plagiarism because he was an English as a Second Language learner and did not have the time to work within the language he was required to write in for college.

You cannot stop student phones from ringing in class and the person on the other end always has a dire emergency—can you bail me out of jail, the landlord is kicking us out, Mom stopped taking her meds, someone stole our car. Even more minor emergencies like, we are out of milk can you pick some up on your way home? They cannot differentiate between the “can you bail me out of jail” and the “we need more milk.”  There is no prioritizing, and these are the people in remediation that make up the 72% of students that don’t complete a degree program (Attewell, Boylan). I have had firsthand experience with students dealing with abortion, homelessness, death, hunger, jail-time, parents that believe college is a waste of time. Some have been court ordered to enroll. Some have escaped from war-torn nations—yes, all of that within only two years of teaching at a community college.

A noun is a person place or thing. A concrete noun is something that can hurt you, that which you feel when it lands on your foot. The technical difference between a noun and a verb is the least of these people’s problem.

All of the students that have enrolled in my developmental writing course, they see higher education as an escape. That’s how I viewed college for a long time—as an escape from my life, my low pay, my three part-time jobs, gas station third tricks and getting hit on while I delivered pizzas. College was all about the all-important job. A bigger paycheck, buying a house, the white picket fence and the two-car garage: the whole shaboom. And although higher education has improved my quality of life in innumerable ways, the promise of school as a path to a career has not worked exactly as I assumed in this post-recession era.

As an escape, as a path to a better life, college is not the answer. Never has been the answer. Poverty sucks at the soul and creates self-identities that do not jive with the American dream pull yourself up by your own bootstraps myth. And you can’t learn when you haven’t eaten for two days, when you can’t afford a doctor. These students miss deadlines, sleep in class; have learning disabilities; some have learning disabilities they are unaware of; they are both ESL and native speakers of the language; are easily distracted by technology, and a lot of people outside of school depend on them.

They are smart, though. They are smart and passionate, and although they cannot tell the difference between a noun and a verb they are experts of language because just like you and me they use language every day.

Once, I took my developmental writing class on a field trip to the parking lot. I opened my car’s hatchback and showed them a concrete block. “That’s a noun,” I said. “A concrete noun. Who would like, as a classroom example, have that concrete noun dropped on their foot?” Without a lost beat, this guy raises his hand and says, “Okay. I’ll do it. Drop the concrete noun on my foot.” He wasn’t kidding, because that’s what he thought would get him the A-plus. Another student, late for a conference, shoved her breasts into my face, asks if there is any way to pass the class, not even wanting the A-plus but a D. She’d take a D.

Despite their personal issues, all of their schlecht, whether they are dealing with a learning disability or not, whether they are suffering from severe clinical depression or not, whether or not they are drugged by their parents, the one piece of all this that disturbs me the most is that the students I have ran into in developmental writing have all been told by someone in their past that they cannot write. Some of them have been told they aren’t college material. Overall, these students lack academic confidence because of the messages they have heard all their lives, repeated and reiterated in so many different ways.

My developmental courses have been small—an average of seven students a semester. Approximately five of those seven will not matriculate. Out of those five, two disappear midway through the semester. So going into the game realizing developmental students need maybe something different from me than topic sentences and paragraph structure, something different than them finally knowing the difference between a noun and a verb, I have to ask a question. As an instructor of remedial writing, what are my desired goals and outcomes? Am I teaching for the academic machine, pulling students up by their bootstraps so they can go into their next class ready to whip off an academically acceptable essay? Or should my teaching goals be more holistic, somehow addressing the socio-economic factors, actually providing that living room couch to sleep on? And how do I do that, let them sleep on the couch when my wife is every bit right. Every bit of it is frightening, all these remedial students caught in a landslide with no escape from reality.

A noun is a person place or thing. A concrete noun is something that can hurt you. Better yet, an abstract noun names a complicated idea, like hope.

Last year November, National Write A Novel Month, I challenged my students. I said if they wrote a novel, hit that 50,000 word limit, even if the novel was gibberish, littered with vague pronouns, passive voice, jumping-head POVs, and bad grammar in general, if they wrote that novel, I’d just give them an A. One student, thinking this was a short cut, gave up at 20k. He told me he thought the fifty-thousand words would have been easy, a way around the homework I was assigning. I laughed. “You learned a lot, writing all of that.” And that is really all I can give them, and I hope it is enough.

SOURCES CITED WITHOUT IN-TEXT LINKS

Attewell, Paul, et al. “New Evidence on College Remediation.” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 77, no. 5, 2006, pp. 886–924. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3838791.

Boylan, Hunter R., and Amy R. Trawick. “Contemporary Developmental Education: Maybe it’s Not as Bad as it Looks.” Research & Teaching in Developmental Education 31.2 (2015): 26-37. ProQuest. Web. 13 July 2017.

Photo Credit

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[1] Though the students I discuss here are by necessity composites, the situations are specific and real.

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