Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Community College Blues. Stanley on Standards.

I do not have a tremendous amount of experience in the community college system. I only have 2 years at a state university.

But when I was forced to pick up a handful of adjunct classes at a large community college system last August, I did not know what I was in for.

I love the students, a rich mix of traditional aged students and returning adult students. I find them interesting; many of them are fascinating and engaged.

But most are not. Most won't work. Don't work.

All of my classes are intro levels. I get a sheet each semester that shows me between 30-40% of my students have already taken and failed my class, some as many as 3-4 times.

Their reading abilities are nothing at all approaching my "regular" college students. Their writing abilities are abysmal. Their critical thinking is non-existent. Yet, my class is a fully transferable class to the across-town university where I also teach.

I even use the same textbook in the two institutions. But the classes could not be much more different.

In my first semester at the community college, only 45% of my students finished the semester. Some dropped, but most just stopped coming when I told them they weren't going to have enough points to pass. I got called in to the chairperson's office in early January and was shown that of all the departmental teaching cohort I had the fewest passing students. In the same course, the average pass rate was 88%. Three instructors passed everybody in their classes. The chair said something like, "Maybe you just got a bad class. But keep your pass rate in line with the rest of us."

When Spring came I got 2 classes. I'm in the midst of them now, and my pass rate will be the same this term. I've had some senior instructors come around offering help, asking me what the "problem" is.

"They don't pass tests," I say. "They don't write at a college level."

They look at my tests, shake their heads. One woman said to me last month, "I like to give them free points for finishing the test on time, or for correctly identifying the author of the textbook. It helps their scores."

Another instructor said, "I give them 5 extra points if they staple their essays before turning them in, and 5 extra points for remembering to put their name and page number on each sheet. It sounds like just a little, but those points really add up."

I know what I should do. I've had enough pressure exerted (including a follow up with the chairperson who said - while looking at a sample student test - "Sure, she got the answer wrong, but you can give some partial credit for some of the things that she did understand") to know that I need to pass more students.

I go back to the state school and teach the same class. Students there now seem like geniuses to me. They do the work; they don't bitch. I can cover a chapter a day without someone saying, "What's a Thailand?"

I don't know what I'm supposed to do at the community college, make up for what my students didn't get in high school? But these are not even the remedial courses I'm teaching. I have another chart that shows which of my students (33-40%) have already taken 098 and 099 remedial courses that lead up to mine.

They passed those. They've been told they're ready for college level work. But they aren't.

Am I supposed to stand up to this? Am I supposed to remain the only instructor who doesn't pass the majority of my students? I've not received one encouraging comment about maintaining my standards. All the comments have been about cutting the students more breaks, increasing the number of people who pass.

In January, on the first day of class, one student I'd never seen before walked in, saw me, audibly groaned, and walked out. Do the students already know who I am? My student evaluations from the Fall term were horrible, roughly 50% lower in numericals from my evals over at the state college. The comment sections were littered with, "He's too hard." "He thinks he's teaching a senior class." "My roommate takes this same class with someone much better, and he passes all his tests easily."

I don't have a wealth of experience, so I come to your readership hat in hand. What do I do? I need these few adjunct courses a term to pay my bills. I hope to one day get a tenure-track gig, but until that, I want to keep this job. But I don't want to sell my soul for it.

Stanley from San Fran


  1. Higher education needs more professors like you who uphold standards. Allowing students who don't understand material to pass courses is doing a disservice to them and to everyone else who holds a similar degree.

    If someone can "earn" a BA without really being able to think critically or read difficult texts, employers who used to ask that new hires have a BA will now start asking for a MA. Credential inflation strikes again! (Once upon a time, a mere high school diploma meant something to employers. No more! Everyone must have a BA!)

    Keep up the good work!

  2. There is no risk of being fired should you keep up your standards. Risk implies some manner of chance, or probability. This is certain.

    You will lose these gigs.

    Or, you will sell your soul.

    Your choice.

  3. Keep your standards high, but fair. I teach at a CC, and I regularly berate those faculty members who "teach" the way your senior instructors do. A CC education should not mean inferior.

    Fail the lazy fuckers. I do.

  4. I'm sorry you got into a crappy CC without standards. It's schools like those that make people from out of this area look at me like I'm a traitor to the profession when I tell them where I teach. Interestingly, people who live here know that of all the CCs in the area, mine is the "elitist" one that makes students work for the most part. That's not to say I don't have some Dr. Feelgood colleagues who give points for being nice and trying hard, but most of us actually care about whether the students have the skills for the next course or to transfer.

    You have a choice to make. If this is your only option outside of your other gig, you have to decide whether the money and experience outweigh your devotion to your discipline and your profession. The admins at Vegetative State CC have made their choice clear. It's the numbers game for them. I know I couldn't sleep at night if I had to play that game. It's not why I went into this, and if it ever came down to that, I would be looking for another job.

  5. I feel your pain so acutely that some days I have to stop grading and go for a walk.

    I need my job. I need my paycheck. But every passing student, every final grade, is both a lie and a nail in the coffin.

    I try so hard to be honest. This isn't B work. Just submitting something does not mean you get 100 points. The lack of basic writing standards means you get a C at most.

    But if I give 80% of my students Cs and Ds, the Dean will contact me. He doesn't respond to any of my emails or say a word unless it's to encourage me -- without saying so explicitly -- to start bumping grades up by 10 points each.

    It makes my heart lurch. It makes me dizzy. It makes me look for new jobs.

    But no one is hiring.

  6. Stanley, get your pass rate in line or you won't get additional classes. I can tell you that I'm 100% certain of that because I've seen it happen.

    Like other folks, I need my job. I need a paycheck. Because I was a bit of a fuckup in my 20s, I ended up at an end of the world CC with a barely-legible Masters in History.

    I don't deserve a tenure track job at a good university. I understand that. But I am pretty good at teaching 100-200 level courses of a very general nature. (I've made myself better through practice, god forgive those early classes.)

    But I've had pals bounced from my department when they held to standards that seemed pretty reasonable, and when they used the exact rationale you use above.

    I got scared after my first chairperson meeting, and I read the writing on the faculty wall. I give more Cs and Ds than anyone in the department, but my pass rate is steady, and I'm friendly enough in class that my student evals - though well in the bottom half - don't stand out.

    It's a trade-off. I know I'm teaching grade 11 history. There's NO question about that. But I didn't build this terrible place, and my skill set prepares me to do only a couple of things.

    I hate it. I hate myself at times, but rationalize that I'm getting from a number of folks each semester some really good work, college level at times.

    I wish the system was different. I wish we could have the standards of the SLAC down the road. I wish I could flunk these C and D students who are so speshul, such bitchin' rock star snowflakes.

    But I get 5 classes a term and a TINY bit of insurance in a depressed job market in a cheap town with mountains for boarding nearby.

    I live with that.

  7. I think we work at the same CC. Either that or all CC's are becoming degree mills.

    I'm sorry to say that you are screwed either way. If you hold up to your standards, your boss will know it. If you don't pass enough students, they won't fire you. They'll just not rehire you next semester. Don't believe me? I've seen it happen too many times. The other choice is to sell out and give the students better grades. It's up to you what you choose but neither is a very positive option in my book.

  8. This solution won't work for everybody, but if the CC classes are for extra money, I'd look for something else. For instance, I've written questions for standardized tests on a freelance basis. It's exacting work, and one could, of course, debate the value of standardized tests as well, but I was happy with the purpose and quality of what I produced (reading comprehension questions for a graduate-level entrance exam for a profession whose members really do need to be able to read accurately so they don't accidentally kill someone). The pay was pretty good, too.

    If/when you do find alternative work, write an open resignation letter to your chair, cc: it to the college president, the governor, and every remotely relevant legislator in the state, and see if you can get it published in a local newspaper. You might use a pseudonym, or a slightly different version of your name than you use on applications, but I don't think an honest, thoughtful letter that says what you've said here in just slightly more diplomatic language could hurt your chances with any school you'd want to work for.

    Or just quit and wait tables or something (it probably pays better). Even if you're not up to publicly protesting at this point in your career, it doesn't sound like you can or should keep this up.

  9. If Leslie K changes the font one more time, then I'm going to complain to the Dean of Students and the Disabled Students Office. I can't read this font. I'm fucking disabled. This is discrimination.

    And now Stanley wants to raise the standards? Stanley, don't you know how hard I work to read this font and show up to CM? I deserve a passing grade in "Intro to Cosmetology." If you don't give it to me, then I'll get it from some other desperate adjunct moron.

  10. @honest: Sorry, I guess my irony's not as good as Beaker Ben's (or AdjunctSlave's). I'll work on being more obvious (or less obvious?).

    @Leslie K: I love you. I love the way you moderate. I love your porn-star avatar.

  11. Welcome to my world. I have, however, also taught at a better institution and the students there were just as bad and the pressure to dumb things down and boost grades was just as intense. If I felt free to grade properly, about 80% of my students would fail. I do fail some students and I give a lot of Ds and C-s. I've simply had to come to the conclusion that a post secondary education no longer means anything. I hate it.

    I always have a few students who've got what it takes and I give them the best education I can. The rest? I just pray they drop out before they get a meaningless degree. I hear that many of them do indeed do just that after the first few semesters.

  12. @Bubba

    The avatar business came up at another time, I think. Compound Cal (who is - among other things - an old friend and cad!) made my current avatar, and we once had a lively discussion of other porn star avatars on RYS. I know Angry Archie had one, as did Dana from Decatur. There may be others, but you'd have to query the source to know for sure.

    I thought Kalamazoo Katie's was based on a porn star, too, but it turned out to be Amanda Bynes...I was never more shocked.

  13. Angry Archie's avatar seems to have been taken from a pic of that horrible unkempt porn guy with the beer belly and the dirty moustache. I can't remember his name but I saw a video with him in it once and it scarred me for life and almost turned me into a lesbian.

    As for holding students to standards, my classes are littered with irate "graduates" from the ass-fuck standardless community colleges around here, students that insist I must be the meanest asshole on earth to actually expect them to write coherently.

    Their former profs got the nicey-nice evals, and got to keep their jobs, and I end up having to clean up after them and do their work for them.

    Yeah, I have tenure. Yeah, I have a health plan (such as it is). I don't make very much but I realize I do speak from a "privileged" position. But that doesn't mean that people who let their students off easy get to be let off easy themselves.

    Make students work or get the fuck out of academia. Make students work or you are part of the fucking problem.

    This isn't to say that administrators shouldn't be beaten to a bloody pulp for their role in this bullshit. It just means that professors throwing their hands up in the air and saying "WAAAAH! THEY'RE FORCING ME TO LOWER MY STANDARDS!" doesn't cut it.

  14. Of course Stella is right, but what happens to me when I get non-rehired for holding standards and they replace me with someone too frightened to flunk them and risk their own job?

    You'll get the same students.

    It has to be an institutional change, right? Well how does that happen?

    Cue Union people.

  15. @ StellafromSparksburg

    That actor's name is Ron Jeremy, and he has kept his job because he is one of the great "woodsmen" of American porn.

  16. When TPTB decide that student satisfaction is more important than demonstrated proficiency, and when they refuse to allow instructors to firmly enforce standards and, god forbid, pre-requisites, instructors are basically screwed. And so are their students - slacking/flaking on standards damages them, whether they realize it or not.

  17. CC Cyril, honest_prof, and cerberus: Unions aren't the answer. If you want administration to change, become "one of them." Move to the "dark side." Then put in place the standards that have slipped by the wayside.

    Sit in the big chair and rule for a while.

    Believe me, I'm all for setting standards and upholding them. As I've said here before, I'm the office (practically campus) bad guy because I don't take any crap.

    There's a lot of talk about the generation that was raised under the shadow of "Baby on Board." The generation that put those signs in their cars is the generation that is in administration now, still watching out for the babies.

  18. The typical dilemma. Doesn't your state insist on accreditation for CCs? You could sweetly ask if there is a target for the number of people who must pass a course, or if the number passing should be dependent on the learning outcome.

    I would continue to speak with the colleagues on the parallel courses, but then I'm outspoken and mean and crazy and part of the administration now, trying to keep this leaky boat afloat.

  19. As an adjunct who teaches at two CCs and one state four year school, I am fortunate that my chairs at all three locations do not monitor the pass rates. I had a one-year temp position at a nearby private school, and, what a disaster that was! I found out after the school year that I would have gotten a permanent posting (big deal-2 courses per semester, the pay was less than the CCs and no benefits), however, I was "too hard" on the students.
    My brother in law teaches at a CC as well-he's feeling the heat about retention rates and gets complaints about being too tough on the students.

  20. As a student at a University that has only left it's community college title behind for 8 years now, I understand exactly what you're saying. I'm the "uptight student" who won't put up with other student's saying an instructor is "too hard" or "expects to much."I speak up whether students or instructors say such things simply because it is ridiculous. Students expect the same thing they get in high school-- instructors to wipe their collective nose. In the words of a very smart man in the math department here at my university, "If the selection of instructor determines whether you pass or fail a course, you've failed the course already." Simply stated, if the student will be able to pass the course at all, it's not going to matter who is teaching it. I don't understand why the vast majority of students, who have instructors who are more than willing to help them understand the concepts from class, will do just about anything with their time other than speak to their professors when needed and then sit down and actually figure something out. It makes me sick.

    From a student to ANY professor who refuses to pass a student who fails to show a mastery of a course: THANK YOU!

  21. What someone posted early on here is the best advice. The D is your friend. Everyone at the four years knows what it means. And yet it will get the more troublesome snowflakes off your back. A C- works too, in a pinch. I try really hard not to give anyone a C who has not demonstrated basic proficiency.

    And a D counts as passing! In spite of this, my classes still average only a 50% pass rate most semesters.


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