Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Disappointing results teaching at an African-American college

Bill Maxwell:

My colleagues and I were witnessing the result of low admission standards. Were we expecting too much of young people who scored poorly on the SAT, who were rarely challenged to excel in high school, who were not motivated to take advantage of opportunities to learn, who could not imagine where a sound education could take them?

An unfortunate truth was that most of my colleagues and I never got an opportunity to teach the breadth of our knowledge. I had great difficulty, for example, teaching something as simple as the distinction between "historic" and "historical" or between "infer" and "imply, " distinctions that careful writers, especially journalists, want to know.

I wasn't the only one. A white professor labored to get her students to critically read the assignments. She could not discuss the major themes and literary conventions when her students did not read. When she got nowhere with Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, she asked me to speak to the class. Perhaps a black professor would have more success talking about one of the best-known black authors.

A few minutes into my exchange with the class, I realized the white professor was not the problem. The students simply did not - or could not - read closely. My colleagues and I could not teach what we had been trained to teach.

"My students don't use me, " an English professor said. "At most, I may run into two or three a year who make me work. Talking over your students' heads is a waste of everybody's time."

Many of the students had criminal backgrounds:

A colleague who had taught at Stillman for more than 10 years confirmed my observations. "Our kids haven't had many good things in their lives, " she said. "Many of them are angry and negative and rude. They've had hard lives. Some of them don't belong here."

She was right. A number of students had criminal records, and others were awaiting trial on criminal charges. Stillman accepted them because they could not attend college anywhere else.

Terry Lee Brock, a 41-year-old freshman, was shot several times by a woman around 2 one morning in early February in front of the Night Stalker's Lounge. He died a short time later at the hospital. His trial for rape had been scheduled to begin the following week.

I did not learn until after his death that many of our female students were afraid of Terry. At least two told me they had complained to college officials that an alleged rapist was allowed on campus.

Eventually even the most dedicated give up:

By the end of the spring semester, I knew that I could not remain at Stillman another year. I had a few good students, but a few were not enough. One morning as I dressed for work, I accepted the reality that too much of my time was being wasted on students who did not care. I felt guilty about wanting to leave. But enough was enough.

A week before I left Stillman as a professor, I drove through the main gate en route to a final exam. As always, I saw a group of male students hanging out in front of King Hall.

The same four I had seen when I drove onto campus nearly two years earlier were milling about on the lawn. I parked my car and walked over to the group.

"Why don't you all hang out somewhere else?" I asked.

"Who you talking to, old nigger?" one said.

"You give the school a bad image out here, " I said.

They laughed.

"Hang out somewhere else or at least go to the library and read a book, " I said.

They laughed and dismissed me with stylized waves of the arm.

I walked back to my old Chevy Blazer, sad but relieved that I would be leaving.

In my office, I sat at my desk staring at a stack of papers to be graded. I'm wasting my time, I thought. I've wasted two years of my professional life. I don't belong here.

I put the papers in a drawer. I did not read them. Why read them?

I had a dream

Wallowing in the N-Word at Stillman College

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