Tuesday, June 14, 2011

At the Intersection of Teaching and Parenting: It's Not About Us

I am currently reading Professor X’s In The Basement of the Ivory Tower. I plan to write a full review when I’ve finished it, but he touches upon an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about lately that I want to examine first.
My reaction to Professor X (who authored a series of articles about adjunct teaching and the sorry state of higher education in America for the Atlantic Monthly) is very similar to Mike Rose’s. Rose’s full response can be seen on his blog.

Professor X pulls out a specific part of this criticism in the book and responds to it. 

Rose said:
 “And because many of our students . . . did display in their writing all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we did spend a good deal of time on error—in class, in conference, on comments on their papers—but in the context of their academic writing. This is a huge point and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: that writing filled with grammatical errors does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material.”
To which Professor X responded:
“Remediation is what he wants me to do, but he seems to forget that I do not teach remedial or developmental classes, and cannot transform my bona fied honest-to-God fully accredited college class into one.”
Professor X has a point in that there needs to be more avenues for helping under-prepared students succeed in college. We can do all the hand-wringing we want about what these students should be able to do when they graduate high school, but the fact of the matter is that many of them aren’t able to do it. We cannot simply cast out whole segments of the American population and tell them they are now unable to attend college because they are deficient and missed the chance to learn it.

Furthermore, what Rose is calling for is not going backwards and teaching these students like they are second graders. They’re not second graders. Many of them are adults with careers, families, and lives that have multiple measures of success. Some of them were incredibly successful high school students in incredibly deficient school systems. They didn’t even know they were deficient until they took a college placement test. But all of these people have experiences and strengths that make them capable of performing, as Rose says, with “academic writing.” Maybe that writing is rife with grammatical errors and unclear language. Maybe we have to discuss those things more than we would like, but if that’s where our students are, then that’s what we have to do. It is our job to teach the students we have—not the ones we imagined we’d have. 

That brings me to the intersection of parenting and teaching. I recently saw this video in which an anonymous mother (“Jennifer”) discusses how “repelled” she was by her first child.

The thing that I found most disturbing was that “Jennifer” had so many expectations for her child (before she was even born) that the realities of her child’s personalities and abilities were too much for her to handle. She says of her child’s abilities and her own expectations that “I don’t think it’s too high of an expectation to expect your child to meet her milestones . . . to expect her to sleep, to expect her to eat, to expect her to interact.” 

Eventually, her child was diagnosed with a growth deficiency. Jennifer says that it “made me feel like instead of me against her it was us against this diagnosis.” 

I’m not going to rehash all that is wrong with this disturbing confession, but you can check out some commentary on it here

I want to look at some of the similarities between Professor X and Jennifer. Both are writing under aliases to protect their anonymity. I suspect they both do this for the same reason. They are saying something that they are not supposed to say as representatives of the roles they fill.

What they are saying is eerily similar. Professor X’s students didn’t live up to his preconceived ideas. Neither did Jennifer’s daughter. They were both first-timers. Professor X admits to knowing nothing about teaching composition before taking the position as an adjunct. Jennifer’s daughter was her first child. That means that neither one of them based their expectations off of experiences. Instead, they were basing them off of what they had imagined and what they had read or seen. Jennifer admits to reading about developmental milestones her daughter wasn’t reaching. Professor X wants to see his students light up like those in Dead Poet’s Society

Both allow their unfounded expectations to so cloud their views that neither is capable of fully participating in the role of teacher or parent, respectively. 

It is not my job as a teacher to imagine my students’ abilities and teach as if they have them. It is my job to prepare my students for their future writing endeavors, assess their current writing ability, and design my course in a way that gets them to those goals. That might mean doing more developmental work (yes, Professor X, even if I am teaching a “bona fide” course—the disdain for developmental writing (and, essentially, the developing writers that take the courses) is dripping from your words). 

Likewise, it is my job as a parent to love and respect my child for who she is, without letting my expectations for who she will be get in the way. 

Do I have hopes for who my students might be? Of course I do. I hope that they are all smart, intellectually driven students who have read extensively. But when a student comes in who has never written anything longer than a page or who got through high school by writing reports based on SparkNotes, I do not cast them aside. I meet with them individually, give them supplemental assignments, teach them.

Do I have hopes for who my daughter will become? Of course. I want  her to be successful, confident, and outgoing. I hope that she enjoys the music and movies I like and loves to read. I hope that she learns to walk, talk, and do calculus at the appropriate times. But if she comes down the stairs blaring her generation’s version of Britney Spears and fails calculus, I will love her. Just as now, even though she does not sleep through the night despite the books telling me that she should, I love her, care for her, support her, parent her.

In both my roles as teacher and parent, I have to keep it in perspective: this is not about me. We've heard before phrases like "anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a daddy." The point of these is that though you may be a parent, you can't really parent (as a verb) unless you are meeting the needs of a specific child in that relationship. Likewise, though the adjunct contract you signed may denote you as the teacher of a course, you are not actually teaching unless those students have learned something. You cannot be a teacher without a student. You cannot be a parent without a child. The mere presence of another human being with all the complexities that entails ensures any expectations you have will undoubtedly fall short sometimes. But if you can set them aside, if you can focus on the real people you have in front of you, then maybe those expectations will be blown away.


  1. I saw this Today piece on the anonymous "Jennifer," and I had mixed feelings. I don't have children, but honestly one of the things that terrifies me most about it is that I won't be able to emulate that head- over-heals-for-my-baby euphoria that the world seems to expect from mothers. I felt a similar frustration when Ayelet Waldman was crucified by the media a few years ago for admitting that she loves her husband more than her children, which doesn't sound at all outrageous in my opinion. Maybe there's something wrong with me... Or maybe I'll "get it" once I join the sacred union of mommyhood for myself.

    Either way, I think that there's room for more grace and patience on both sides. That is, parents and teachers should probably extend more grace to those in their care, but perhaps society should also have a little more grace for the parents and teachers themselves. They're real and fallible people, too.

  2. You're right. Especially to point out that teachers and parents are "real and fallible people, too." And I felt a small part of me agreeing with comments defending Jennifer for her honesty. But, in the end, I think that being "repelled" by an infant for not reaching developmental milestones is too much. Asking people to extend acceptance to difference is a key component of common decency that we expect of human beings. That's true even for a stranger, let alone someone's mother.

    I do think we need to take the mask off of motherhood as an immediate head-over-heels-in-love relationship because it's not like that all the time, and for some people it's not like that at all. But I think that's a more nuanced emotional response than simply rejecting your child because she doesn't fit the picture you had in mind.