What We Talk About When We Talk About Students
“Certainly anybody who has taught at the postsecondary level has had students who regard school as an inconvenience and lead soap-opera lives, but fortunately those students are not the norm. However, for Mr. Wahl they are the norm. How he could even try to teach so many academic bottom feeders is beyond me.” ~ Frank P. Vazzano
When we talk about students in public venues, anywhere from crowded rooms to publications to Twitter, what we say can have a deep affect on how our students see themselves. Linda Adler-Kassner discusses a concept called ‘framing’ in her 2000 book The Activist WPA. (‘Framing’ is arguably inspired from Kenneth Burke’s development of framing and language-use.) The basic idea is that we frame concepts. Frames are like picture frames which give our concepts boundaries and discrete confines. There have been several language, education and rhetorical scholars that use the concept of framing, but despite numerous documents arguing for conscious language use as it involves student-teacher interaction, many scholars are still missing the boat when it comes to the importance of the connection between language and engagement.
Despite recent advances in diversifying the institution of higher education in terms of gender, race, and class, the problem stands: How do we talk about, and engage such a diverse population of students? In their article, “The Second-Chance Club”, Eric Hoover and Sara Lipka describe the inner workings of Greg Wahl’s English 002 class at Montgomery College in Maryland. These students have arrived in the second-chance club because they are unsatisfied with their current situations. The purpose for their 002 English course is to ready them for academic life, as it is for any student in entry-level higher education. Developmental courses exist to train students to move within a system for which they are under-prepared, and if we are to believe Vazzano’s letter to the Editor of The Chronicle, unwelcome:
Academics, and really Americans in general, have to recognize that it’s not heartless to believe that higher education isn’t for everyone. It’s bad enough that recent studies consistently show how ill-prepared and unfit modern students are for college, but Mr. Wahl’s “enrollees” have to be among the worst. It’s pathetic when he wishes some of his ringleaders’ misdeeds were sufficient to justify kicking them out of class. What’s he waiting for, a classroom murder?
I currently teach English Composition I & II at an urban state school that is neither open-enrollment, nor a private religious institution and have the privilege of working with a diverse population of students, some of whom are college-ready, and some of whom are not. I have seen both sides of this fence represented in the same classroom. Vazzano’s letter to the editor concerns me because how we engage with and speak about students matters not only to the students, but affects the everyday behaviors that occur in the classroom, how the institution values its students, and how culture values the institution.
In their 2011 article, “Defining Student Engagement,” Rick D. Axelson and Arend Flick describe engagement in terms of “how involved or interested students appear to be in their learning and how connected they are to their classes, their institutions, and each other.” “Connection” is the key word here. According to Axelson and Flick, engagement involves everyone, from the teacher, to the politician -- all parties are implicated in the deep and tangled institution of education. The language we use to engage or to suppress our students matters. Language, depending on how we wield it, creates a particular subject position for both student and instructor. It can solidify the old ‘sage on the stage model,’ or it can create a more student-centered space where students take ownership of their own learning and its environment.
Engaging students to take ownership of their own learning can be difficult. Many beginning students come to class not to learn, but to make the grade. Greg Wahl’s English 002 classroom is not ideal according to some standards. Wahl must welcome students who are overworked, underpaid, and searching for something outside their comfort zones. Not much has changed in Basic Writing since Mina Shaughnessy published the often cited book about basic writing, Errors and Expectations. Basic writers still struggle with essential grammatical concepts they are supposed to have mastered by the time they reach the higher-ed classroom. “Remedial” writing students suffer from many of the same material concerns as well, such as funding and family obligations. But this does not mean that these 2013 community college students, most equipped with text-ready phones and computer labs, are ready for the same traditional classroom in which Shaughnessy taught in the 70’s. One in which Wahl is apparently still teaching.
Overall, Greg Wahl’s pedagogical decisions are difficult to discern. Is he using his computer lab days for anything other than student productions which will be evaluated on our already arbitrary grading scale? Does he ask his students to put away their phones, or does he simply tolerate texting and web-surfing during his arguably outdated grammar drills? Kenneth Okorafor, a featured student, expresses his frustration with the course when he says, “I tried as hard as I could... even though I didn’t understand half of the stuff [Wahl] said. But I tried.”
Vazzano points out that the students are inclined to “play solitaire in class, text and talk on their phones, and even do each other’s hair,” which some of us have seen our students do. But where is the talk here about constructive ways to engage students using the tools they already carry with them? Could we engage students by asking them to look up grammar rules on their smart phones? Could we find an app that students can download and play to help them understand concepts that tend to be less interesting? Or, perhaps, the teaching of grammar conventions could happen within the context of more engaging assignments?
Or is it simply easier to criticize these students and allow ourselves to believe that they’re just not suited for higher education?
Whether the student behaviors occurring in Wahl’s English 002 class are a product of pedagogical technique or not, it is never appropriate to apply terms such as Vazzano’s use of the term “academic bottom feeders” to any student, regardless of the circumstances. Such a phrase conjures images of whiskered fish waiting around to suck up the droppings of their more aggressive, dominant water-dwelling neighbors. The academic system, despite its increasing commodification (Montgomery College students are referred to as “Student Consumers”), is not built like a collector’s aquarium. While he makes a valuable point in claiming that “Higher Education Isn’t for Everyone,” Vazzano’s use of terms like “classroom barbarism” and his slippery-slope logical fallacy that takes students from doing each other’s hair to “classroom murder,” is unwarranted.
Vazzano is not alone in this kind of language use. I could target many other other scholars -- public scholars like Stanley Fish, for example. But it is not my purpose here to point the finger at any one or two people. We are all guilty of poor language choice regarding our students. Sometimes this occurs on the airplane talking to strangers, and sometimes it occurs in our classrooms -- when addressing the very students we are trying to encourage. The point is, our own language can serve to oppress or empower the public discourse, and influence the allocation of funding for education. Vazzano and those like him are perpetuating an idea that the students who belong the least are other than the predominantly white, privileged traditional students that attend this private Roman Catholic institution. This is a belief that we cannot afford to perpetuate.
Bruce Horner claims that writing teachers often address students by pointing out what they lack, removing them from the actual conditions in which they compose. “The Second-Chance Club” does not address head-on the topics of engagement to which Vazzano’s letter to the editor seeks to unmask. It does not tell us enough about how Wahl chooses to engage his students or how his classroom is managed. We have a responsibility to engage our students in a learning environment where they feel they can use their voices to affect change, and not continue this old, destructive dialogue. It is crucial that we as pedagogues, take responsibility for the way we speak about (and to) our students, whatever their situation, or we could lose the investment we ask them to make in themselves.
[Photo by Alyssa L. Miller]