Obama on community colleges — & one teacher's response

Some of us, still believers, admit our expectations of Barack Obama might have been too high. And it may go both ways. Anna Tuttle Villegas, a teacher at San Joachim Delta College for 35 years, wonders if expectations of what community colleges can deliver are a little muddy themselves. Villegas, whose literary distinction — award-winning poetry, fiction, essays — would have supported a far more prestigious career choice had she not been dedicated to those community college students he has in mind, ventured a response to the President’s address:

Nobody, absolutely nobody, appreciates better than a community college teacher the transformative effect education can have on the quality of life of her students. As our president explained last night in the preface to his promise to revitalize the nation’s community colleges, “the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.”

Amen.

The president’s enlistment of me in the federal plan to make college accessible to more students inspired my own new year thought.

College students agelessly enter and depart classrooms year after year, never growing older. Sure, their hair color changes from day-glo green to hi lites and low lites, their musical tastes boomerang from reggae to screamo, and their pants grow shorter and tighter and then longer and looser and sometimes fall off. Beneath superficial alterations in fashion, college students remain forever youthful, making their teachers, witnesses to an endless parade of youth, especially vulnerable to the conclusion that it is our outlook — and not that of our charges — which has been fundamentally corrupted by the passage of time.

When I went to college almost forty years ago, the expectations of academic culture were fairly clear. Instructors and professors were generally assumed to have, if not greater innate intelligence at the moment of instruction, then at least greater skill and knowledge than their wards.

Times have changed. Villegas (herself educated at U.C. Santa Barbara and Stanford)  suggests that expectations brought by students themselves are murky, and roles of instructors and learners often confused. She gives some anecdotal evidence of how and why the “one-size-fits-all approach to community college enrollment” may call for re-examination of expectations laid on colleges and teachers both:

Years ago, a student encounter introduced me to what is now commonly recognized as the Joe Wilson school of public discourse. Upon being informed that spotty attendance may have played a pivotal role in the student’s bewilderment (Was it really Wednesday? There was a paper due? And who was I, anyway, expecting him to be in possession of a course syllabus?), this particular student threw down his weighty backpack and proclaimed me an “f-ing bitch.” Several times.

That school marms sometimes do turn into f-ing bitches shouldn’t surprise anyone. But the frequency with which contemporary students feel the need to remind us of the fact, colloquial dialect and all, should.

Back in the day when one-on-one conferencing was hip, I recall explaining to a bright and sassy young woman how sentence fragments, not advisable in college essays, were marring her otherwise insightful writing.

She didn’t buy it. Hand on cocked hip, very Mae West, she growled at me: “What if I don’t think it’s a sentence fragment?”

Indeed.

Villegas concludes her essay with a quote from Robert Frost: “Now when I am old my teachers are the young.”

Now I am old. What the young teach me is that many students fail to approach their college studies with the respect for learning essential to our college model.At the risk of being an f-ing bitch yet again, I want President Obama to consider that before we commit to sending even more students to community colleges, we should decide what exactly it is we expect of them.

Anna Tuttle Villegas: College to Go.

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