THE BLOG
03/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

College to Go

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.

Students were assumed to be independently motivated enough to do their homework without questioning its value or the teacher's qualifications to assign it.

Grades were significant because they were, in the lamentable reductionist end, the point. The relationship between studentship and grade was, most of the time, a reliable measurement of effort and achievement.

Even though I have never left the world of the college campus, I am hard pressed to identify the expectations students bring to school today. Semester after semester during the thirty-five years of my tenure, the student body has managed a sneaky change-up. The common denominators underlying the college contract, the who-what-why of the collegiate endeavor, mysteriously shifted when I wasn't paying attention.

Instructor and learner roles are often confused. Curriculum is endlessly revised only to remain essentially the same. Outcomes are disappointing at worst, elusively individualistic at best.

It's tough for teachers to inspire dramatic policy change in our challenged higher education system because, often rightly so, they are accused of being motivated by self-interest. However, the president's reliance on the critical role of community colleges in a bleak economy makes disentangling the interests of a professional group from institutional definition imperative.

College can't be everything to everybody, especially those everybodies who aren't interested in being college students. Deciders with more power than a mere classroom teacher should be drawing the inferences about how much of our time and energy is being expended on attendees in name only.

The following evidence, anecdotal in nature but repeated on my campus and others, suggests that our one-size-fits-all approach to community college enrollment requires reexamination, especially as community colleges are being called upon to play a role in rejuvenating our economy.

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.

Another young man felt it incumbent to record upon his course evaluation, following a long semester studying American literature, that the mean teacher made him read a bunch of boring, stupid stories. Sometimes the stories of Frank Norris and Gertrude Stein aren't exactly my cup of tea, either, but the student might have detected a clue in the course title -- and thereby steeled himself for the semester of boring stupidity in which he'd chosen to enroll.

"Now when I am old my teachers are the young," Robert Frost wrote in a self-pitying poem the ill-treated American lit student no doubt studied.

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.