Thursday, March 1, 2012

When They Don't Stand a Snowflake's Chance in Hell

We spend a lot of time commiserating over the entitled snowflakes, the ones who give us angry misery. But for those of us at open-admission institutions, there's another kind of snowflake, one who inspires more pity than anger. My current incarnation of this is a young lady we'll call Naive Nancy.

Nancy began her studies at another CC in our region, one which has considerably lower standards than my school. Her grades weren't stellar even at Easier CC. She transferred because we're known by our local unis for having good success with our graduates in her major. Nancy is the sweetest, most polite young person you'd ever want to meet. She attends every class and hands in every assignment. She comes to see me during office hour and takes notes when I tell her what she needs to do to improve. Unfortunately, Nancy is also as dumb as the proverbial stump. Compounding this is the fact that she has the typical CC tragic trifecta: single mom in her early 20s (with a special needs child as a bonus hardship), working 40+ hours a week at Big Box, and taking 15 credit hours.

She has dreams. Big Box has told her she can get a management position if she earns a bachelor's degree. She wants to be college educated so she can set an example for her kid. Her parents didn't make it past 8th grade. She wants them to be proud of her. She is so earnest. I can see she's doing the best she can given her enormous time constraints. But her work is so superficial and riddled with errors that I put her just on the right side of literate. I would say I don't understand how she got out of high school, but when I look at her transcript and see where she went, I realize what a ridiculous statement that is. No Child Is Left Behind at Inner City High. The behaviors I see in my class are more than enough to have gotten her through.

Each week, Nancy and I go through the motions. I suggest tutoring. She smiles and nods and then tells me they have no slots available other than when she has to be at work or in class, which is true. I tell her which errors to work on and show her how to correct them. She makes cosmetic improvements, not enough to move the grade needle more than 1-2%. She knows better than to think she'll make an A, but she truly thinks a C is viable. Mathematically it still is at this point in the term, but cognitively it's not going to happen. She wants to take another 15 hours this summer so she can graduate with her associate's degree. She thinks she's transferring to Regional State U this fall. She doesn't understand that since RSU has aspirations of becoming a premier research uni, its standards are going to weed her out instantly. Her GPA is just barely high enough now to keep her off academic probation, and she's been on probation three times since she transferred here. Unless she goes somewhere that hands out passing grades like candy on Halloween, she is doomed.

I finally told Nancy this week that she needs to visit our transfer counseling center to get some advice about what to do. I hope she gets someone with a clue there who will tell her to slow down and set her transfer goals on a more realistic school. I feel bad for her. Other than yours truly, I don't think anyone has told her that very few people have the intelligence and time management skills to keep the kind of schedule she does. She knows college is supposed to give her something important, but she doesn't really understand what that something is. So she just keeps muddling on, thinking somehow it will all work out. It won't. The system has failed all the way around.


  1. How good is that graphic?!

    What to do with students like Nancy?
    Their numbers seems to be increasing, and not only at open-admission places.

    Honesty would seem to be the best (only?) policy, but as EnglishDoc points out, students like Nancy claim everything will be OK.

  2. I get this most with international ESL students. They are supposed to have a certain level of English proficiency to make it into the program, but many of them don't, and hearing "my english is not so good" becomes a broken record.

    Trouble is, it's true - they don't have the necessary english skills. They're obviously bright and hard-working. But they're trying to master hamster husbandry in a second language, something I certainly couldn't do myself.

    International students pay big bucks to be here, and the uni wants those bucks. It's only when they're sitting in my office that they realize they've failed the course and have to take it again - at the cost of more big bucks.

    1. We had this problem. International students would "pass" English classes at the local "easy grade CC" and then transfer. I kept wondering how they possibly thought they'd be able to take a college class in English with so little knowledge of the language! My school closed that loophole and the situation improved.

    2. We *have* this problem. Many -- not all -- of our international students (primarily Chinese) manage to get to third and fourth year by studying areas that are number-centered. When they come into my class -- language-centered -- in their senior years, their language skills are no better than when they took (or "took") the TOEFL. (Why, oh WHY, do we still accept the TOEFL standard -- given its widely acknowledged reputation for corruption -- especially in China?)

      My school is the kind that devotes all kinds of money to recruiting international students, but almost nothing to supporting them once they're here. As a result, the Chinese students tend to isolate themselves from the general population, which does nothing for their language development much less their experience of an international education.

      Sadly, most of the plagiarism cases I've dealt with in recent years come from this very group. I've made the argument to the various poobahs that we need to do more to help these students make the cultural leap -- in language, in learning styles -- than just throw them a party when they arrive and shake a finger at them when they fail.

    3. Stick to your guns with those international students. No one will be served if they became faculty who don't have the necessary English skills. Chances are good that their money comes from their governments, anyway. Universities in China are getting better all the time, too.

      As for Nancy, let's hope she can at least do C or even D work, which is still passing. Let's also hope she can get a similar management job somewhere more thoughtful than Big Box, with just an associate's. Maybe she should be reminded of that, gently. Maybe she should also be reminded that it might help to lighten her load, even if it does take more time.

      Some people do learn, even under difficult circumstances. I did. It's important not to judge them too soon. It's easy to say that letting her slide by does her no favors, but a case like this is sad. She has dreams.

      On the other hand, I once had a student so clueless, he repeatedly asked me why it's difficult to become an astronaut. He really didn't know. He was obviously socially maladjusted, but still, that caught me off guard. I might have taken it in stride if he was brilliant, but he wasn't.

      I currently have an unproductive, tattooed dummy who either doesn't do the readings I give him, or doesn't remember or understand doodley-squat about the science in them. He wants to be an astronomer. I've given him his fair share of chances, but stringing him along further will do him no favors. It would quite possibly encourage him to incur lots of debt. He's paid up until the end of the semester, but if I allow him to continue further, no one will be served, especially not him.

  3. ...and what's sadder yet is that Nancy, with all her limitations, could probably do the manager job at Big Box passing fair WITHOUT the piece of freaking paper. It has all gotten so completely out of control!

    1. That's a problem with high schools. Anyone can get a high school diploma as long as they don't have a current death certificate. So, since they're not allowed to use standardized tests to sort their applicants, businesses have decided that a college degree is necessary to prove that people have the brains that God gave a rock.

      If a high school diploma meant anything any more, employers wouldn't have to insist on a college degree. And the way grade inflation is going, pretty soon the minimum requirement will be a Master's.

    2. By the way, I understand the problems with standardized tests. But short of requiring letters of recommendation for stockboys ("Little Johnny walks three feet above the water!" -- I saw how that went in the Army; before I finished my hitch, the Pentagon started requiring that every evaluation have something negative in it), they're the best we have.

      And not all standardized tests are bad. For example, the DLAB is a damned good test, that is interesting to take and seams to really measure both smarts and linguistic talent.

  4. It sounds like Nancy may really be stretched beyond her intellectual limits by college work (after all, she *is* doing the work, and it's apparently not showing even flashes of comprehension, ability, etc.), but I've seen many others with the schedule/life situation problem who probably *can* do the work, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, but simply don't have the time to do it well enough to get something real out of the experience. That's the other, also discouraging, side of the coin -- and that one, too, might well be solved if they could get some sort of decent-paying job while working their way through college at a realistic pace (say 3-6 credit hours/term, which isn't as slow as it sounds when you start including summer terms). What does *not* work is going to school full time, working full time, *and* trying to have some sort of personal life (whether that life is devoted to children, elderly parents, or drinking/socializing/sports).

  5. I don’t know Nancy, but I’ve met her. She was in my class a year or so ago and she couldn’t write a fucking sentence. I tutored her in 2007 and she couldn’t convert 1/4 into decimal and believed that the grape picture on her flavored-water bottle meant that she was getting a serving of fruit before lunch. This semester, she might be in one of my classes, and she can’t decode that “this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated” means that the previous sentence does not reflect reality. There must have been others, but either I forgot them or they didn’t really exist. I hate sometimes the lie we sell, this idea that everybody has a fair shot. These are the same people that beam at me, early in the semester, and say things like, “I know I can do this if I really believe in myself.” Then I smile back and return their work, quietly.


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