Most obviously, I ask it as an instructor. In fact, at the beginning of every semester I design a syllabus with that question literally in my mind. Then, at the end of each semester, I hold borderline grades up and ask it again. There they are: bookends of questions that sound the same "What does it mean to be successful in this class?" But they feel different.
It's easy enough to take a look at the lists of requirements for the course (lists created through course design committees on which I've also served; the question feels different there, too) and design a course with those goals in mind. It is very different to take an actual student, a real live individual, and hold their performance up to that yardstick.
By necessity, there's an almost clinical element to measuring student success. Out of fairness, professional ethics, and preservation of our own sanity, grading measures need to be objective, sometimes even cold.
|from Scott Akerman|
Then there's the more global way to frame the question. What does it mean for a student to be successful? Culturally, we've created diplomas, certifications, and degrees as the benchmark. You're successful when you've completed it, whatever your "it" is.
In my field (developmental writing, "remedial" courses for students who test in as unprepared for college), this particular benchmark has proven to be a challenge. Very few developmental students go on to graduate with degrees, and it is the measure of completion that leads to such dismal conclusions that developmental education is not working.
I'm not throwing completion out the window because I know that degrees matter. As an ABD student who is hopefully just a few months away from defending a dissertation, I know all too well that progress and acquiring knowledge do not necessarily add up to crossing the finish line. And the finish line matters in very concrete ways. Completion is the gateway to jobs, to promotions, to bigger paychecks and less poverty. I care deeply whether or not my students pass my class, pass out of developmental education entirely, earn associate degrees, transfer to four-year colleges, and earn bachelor's degrees. But it's not the only thing I care about.
In the most recent issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, editor Jeff Sommers starts the introduction with this question and notes that college success researchers Michael McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro say "Students in American higher education start from very different points and seek very different destinations. But the ultimate aim of any educational encounter is to transform in some way, be it to enhance earning potential or to instill a love of learning--or very likely somewhere in between."
That line really struck me because I've been writing so much about agonistic rhetoric and the underlying understanding of transformation that underpinned ancient Greek notions of education. As Debra Hawhee puts it, "both athletic and sophistic pedagogy depend on a contractual philia, a tacit agreement to transform."
This image of schools as factories, though, is pervasive. As Larry Cuban writes:
In the midst of the progressive-inspired school efficiency movement, sparked by “scientific management,” Cubberley captured the prevailing beliefs of most school reformers then. Critics of the day, such as John Dewey, did question this efficiency-driven mindset that dominated schools then arguing that the purpose of public schooling in a democracy goes beyond preparation for the workplace. But their voices were drowned out by champions of uniformity, productivity, and more bang for each dollar spent in every aspect of schooling.
Within a half-century, however, the affection for the metaphor of school-as-factory shifted 180 degrees and reformers of a later generation turned the image into an indictment. Standardization, efficiency, and up-close connections to the economy–the values earlier reformers applauded–became epithets hurled by self-styled progressive school reformers of a subsequent generation. So recent images represent students and teachers as cogs in a constantly whirring machine.
I don't believe that American education as a whole aims to squeeze all of the individuality out of students to make them carbon copies of one another (copies ultimately modeled off of a hegemonic status quo that's likely white, rich, and male). And I know that many of the educators within this system don't have that aim, (but if we are reduced to mere cogs in the machine, I suppose our motivations are of little concern). However, using only the measure of completion to gauge student success makes this model a little more accurate. It is only when we craft a more nuanced view of educational transformation that the elements of diversity and individuality can be retained.
But transformation is still transformation, and transformation is often painful.
Even if we recognize that education allows for many different transformations, we still have to account for the fact that not all students are going to be approaching the promise of transformation in the same way.
In particular, students who are new to college landscapes might see that promise as a bit of a threat.
I say this as a first-generation college student and as an educator who primarily teaches other first-generation college students at an open access community college. I also say it as someone who has taught students in a prestigious private four-year college who come from long line of college graduates. These experiences have taught me that, yes, transformation is a part of the educational process for everyone. The promise of transformation underpins the entire endeavor in everything from syllabi promising learning outcomes to recruitment advertisements. And once you've attained a degree, adding those letters to the back of your name stands as a marker of that transformation.
But students who come from a family lineage of such transformations often approach college as a means to inevitable maturation. College success often brings them closer to members of their family that they love and respect who have already made this change and modeled its results their whole lives.
This isn’t to say that white upper class males don’t feel self-doubt; rather, it’s easy to imagine how people from underrepresented backgrounds (women, people of color, first-generation grad students, etc.) might be more susceptible to feeling like an imposter, especially if you literally don’t see others like you in your academic surroundings.I've felt my education distance me from people I love, and it hurts. But my pains are subtle compared to some of my students. They've told me tales of intentional sabotage by family members who felt threatened by their educational goals. Sisters have taken cars for joy rides at the very moment a student needed to leave to get to class. Partners have ended relationships that no longer fit. Parents have demanded their children quit coursework to stay home. Those are extreme cases, but I often hear about friends who first call to offer nights out instead of homework and, when those don't work, calls that never come again. I know a lot about family who still offer love but who hold you at arm's length, an odd specimen regarded with caution.
The transformation comes with great benefit, but in a way unique to students who are shape shifting instead of maturing, it also comes with incredible sacrifice. We should be up front about both if we expect students to successfully undergo the change.