One dark December afternoon several years ago, while others were hanging mistletoe and holly and buying last minute gifts, Prof. Josephine K. was meeting with students. The very last student to arrive was Brett, a white athlete from a comfortable suburb.
“This is not a research paper.”
“You told us to write a research paper.”
“Yes, yes I did. And I told you what a research paper is – ”
“This is my research paper!”
“Please allow me to continue. We’ve been going through the process in class for the past two months. How to develop a thesis statement. How to research what previous scholars have said about your topic, in peer-reviewed publications. How to conduct and document research. How to format a bibliography.
“I’ve been here in this office for extra help after every class. Your fellow students have come by to get help with their work. You never came for extra help. During class, you were absent or you sat in the back and tried to hide the fact that you were sleeping, texting on your phone, or trying to lure more attentive students into goofing off.
“And now you hand in this. With this document, you insult me as a professor and you also insult your fellow students who produced work far superior to yours. Those students are not smarter than you. They’re not richer. They chose to do the necessary work. You did not.”
“It’s my research paper.”
“Brett, this is two pages of incoherent jottings about Kobe Bryant. I understand that Bryant is your hero. But Bryant has nothing to do with the topic of our class in K-12 education. You’ve said that you want to be a physical education teacher. How do your sloppy, boring ramblings about Bryant prepare you for a career that will require you to be a responsible mentor for children in their physical fitness goals?”
Brett did not answer.
Brett’s work was garbage because he had been trained by previous teachers to produce garbage and to escape frank assessment. Too many of Brett’s previous teachers had shrugged and nudged him along, when they should have erected a STOP sign, and when they should have given him the tools he needed to perform up to standard.
Prof. K. never asked students to do something that they could not do. She’d been teaching for a long time and she spent a great deal of energy reading student work and listening to students in class. The first day of the semester, students hand-wrote an essay. Prof. K. diagnosed each student’s level and best trajectory. She matched student capacity to the demands she made on students. Brett could have written an A paper.
Brett was an athlete. His coach told him when he failed. The fans in the bleachers didn’t hold back from assessing Brett’s performance frankly when he scored a touchdown or when he fumbled the ball. He could take frank assessment when it came to his handling of a ball. He could spend hours perfecting his performance.
Not telling students that their work did not measure up to an objective standard was not kindness. It was sabotage. Informing students, “This is where the line is. Drive over this line, and you risk having points added to your license. You risk getting into an accident,” prepared students for the real world, a real world that isn’t afraid to communicate assessment of performance in brutal ways.
Prof. K. continued. “Brett, I want you to understand why you will receive the grade you will receive. Cathy has granted me permission to use her paper as a benchmark so students can better understand their own grade. Cathy sits three seats in front of you.
“For the past two months she’s been studying toddlers in the childcare center where she works. She observes interactions between the toddlers and their mothers or other caretakers who come to pick them up. She then compares those interactions with the child’s behavior. She developed a code for documenting those interactions, and she plotted her data on a spreadsheet, as you can see. She put hours of work into her paper. That work has helped her to better understand the children she’ll be teaching someday. If I had a child I’d want that child to be taken care of by someone who has demonstrated that kind of care for children.
“You were in the same class as Cathy, at the same time, when you bothered to come. Compare your output to those of your peers. There are other benchmark papers here. What grade do you think you should get?”
“I worked hard on that.”
“More’s the pity.”
“Brett, you might have children someday. Your children might someday take a physical education course. Would you want your children to be taught potentially fun, potentially health-enhancing, potentially dangerous sports by someone who was once a student who attended classes in pedagogy, and did A-level work, who gave hours of her life to better understanding children and their needs, or would you want your children to be taught by someone who showed no interest in learning about how to teach children when he was in college and was supposedly devoting his time to that task?”
“I worked really hard on this paper. You don’t follow sports so you don’t understand how important Kobe Bryant is.”
“I can’t accept this. Take it. You will not receive any credit for this.”
“You’re not allowed to say that! You’re not allowed to talk to me like this! You’re a teacher! I pay for this class! It’s your job to take what I give you!”
“Feh,” she interjected emphatically. She was glad she had picked up some Yiddish from her mother, who used to clean house for a Jewish family.
Brett was voicing a feeling shared by many students. Teachers were interchangeable with drive-through-window fast-food dispensers. The customer was always right. The teacher was there merely to extrude product, the product being, in this case, not a Big Mac, but an A grade. The teacher could no more acknowledge how trash-tastic a student’s work was, any more than a mannequin could debate physics.
Teachers had trained Brett to think about teachers this way. Education had veered leftward. Teachers were supposed to be fun. Supposed to be friends. Supposed to go by first names only. Supposed to wear jeans and sneakers. Supposed to be students’ co-conspirators in resisting society. Hierarchies were bad. Teachers should not act as if they knew more than students. Judgment, values, honesty, shame, praise, evaluation, responsibility, objective reality, objective standards, were all taboo, all antique, all qualities from the wicked, retrograde past that had been defeated.
Prof. K. did not agree.
She tossed Brett’s paper into his lap.
Brett muttered the standard threats. He’d report her. He’d say mean things about her online. He’d key her car.
Prof. K. could report Brett’s threats to her superior. Yeah, right. When an enraged student literally threatened to kill her unless she changed his grade, with another student right there witnessing the threat, her boss did nothing. Adjunct professors are a cheap lifeform, easier to replace than the bacteria used in science class experiments.
Before heading home, Prof. K. checked her email. In her inbox she found yet another warning from the university president. She already knew what it would say. She had received many such messages.
“Dear Colleagues, as you know college enrollment is plummeting nationwide. Financially vulnerable institutions of higher education are closing. Our campus depends on student enrollment for our financial survival. As the semester winds down and you assign final grades, please remember that we need students to keep the lights on. If we assign F grades to students, they will not return, we will lose their tuition dollars, and we will not be able to meet our budgetary demands.”
If Prof. K. assigned to Brett a well-deserved F grade, chances are he would not return to campus next semester, and the university would find it that much harder to meet its budgetary demands. Prof. K. was an adjunct, with no job security. She was hired semester to semester. If she failed too many students, if she lost that much money for the school’s coffers, she’d be fired.
And there was more. She, Prof K., would be partially responsible for one more American institution of higher education sinking beneath the surface of larger societal trends. She loved education. She didn’t want a dying university’s blood on her hands.
Prof. K. acknowledged academia’s flaws. Academia was far to the left of mainstream American society, and, in spite of its Marxist pretensions, the professors and administrators were an elite that cultivated contempt for the masses and their values.
Prof. K. believed that academia’s flaws were transitory. Universities were not always Marxist enclaves. Catholicism developed the university in Europe. American higher education was established by Christians. “Everyone shall consider as the main end of his life and studies, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life. John 17:3.” That was not the founding goal of some radical, fringe, fundamentalist school. That was the founding goal of the Puritans who, back in 1636, established Harvard. “Almost all Ivy League institutions … were established” by Christians, for example, “Connecticut Congregationalists (Yale), pro-Awakening New Jersey Presbyterians (Princeton), devout Rhode Island Baptists (Brown), and mission-minded New Hampshire evangelicals (Dartmouth).”
With time, Prof. K. believed, higher education would course correct. Meanwhile, she strove to be the best teacher she could be, and to emphasize objective truth and time-tested standards. Her students often didn’t know that arriving on time, being courteous, networking with peers, and making eye contact were key skills that could take one far in life. She worked to pass on those skills, skills students could benefit from in the future, whether they completed their degrees and got white-collar jobs or not. A new skill was more vital than all the rest: dealing with the internet.
Modern young people were often accused of narcissism. In fact, though, students often seemed lost in a dissociative haze. Their own physical reality was alien to them. To too many of her students, the social media influencers they followed on their phones were more real than their own corporeal selves. Flat screens were more compelling than the three-dimensional space in which they moved; anonymous strangers more authoritative than the flesh and blood who loved them. It no longer surprised Prof. K. that students plunged into despair or even committed suicide because of flickering, transitory pixels. The internet was real; they were expendable. A parasitic zombie possessed them. They gave themselves away. To say to students, “When you said that in class the other day, other students looked inspired,” or angry or sad, would shock them.
“I exist?” They seemed to ask. “I have a three-dimensional reality and my choices have an impact in the real world?”
“Yes,” it was her job as a teacher to communicate to them. “You exist. Your choices have an impact in the real world. You are more real than an internet image of Kim Kardashian or Beyonce or some product endorsed by LeBron James.”
Internet-induced ADHD eroded students’ ability to follow a thought. Students could barely read printed documents. Their illiteracy was not caused by an inability to decode letters or words. Rather, illiteracy was caused by the excruciating anxiety students experienced after reading more than a page. The internet had trained their minds. After reading just a paragraph, they craved a payoff, and they felt the need to turn their attention to something else. They would never know the soul-deepening that could come from reading an entire novel, whether one agreed with the author’s worldview or not. Books that Prof. K. and her baby boomer age-peers had read, easily, in high school, university students could no longer decipher.
Students panted after the money shot, the quick take, the soundbite, the one-sentence answer. “Immigration is bad” or “Immigration is good.” Not “Immigration is a complex phenomenon and you will have to read this entire book to get the entire picture, and even then you will not have a final answer.” Anything that complex, anything that made you wait that long to reach the point of the piece, made students want to jump out of their skins. Like trained seals, they wanted the fish tossed down their gullets immediately after the performance of an isolated task. I clapped my flippers; feed me a fish; I read a sentence; reward me. Having to wait for that fish was more than they could bear.
What students didn’t realize is that their surrender to the fish, the payoff, the drug kick the internet delivered to them at quick intervals, was rendering their souls more and more shallow. They were trading quick hits of soundbites for maturity, depth, wisdom.
“Your attention is the most precious gift at your command,” Prof. K. told her students. “People who want your money first demand your attention. Social media is manipulating you, just like drug dealers on a street corner. You need to walk past that street corner without buying drugs. You need to learn how to put your phone down.
“If your phone is visible during class, whether you are using it or not, you will forfeit credit for that day. I may take your phone from you and require you to perform tasks before I give it back.
“Why? Because once your phone disappears from sight, you are exercising skills you need to learn. You need to learn how to interact with other human beings in face-to-face encounters. You need to learn to listen. You need to learn to master when to speak and when to be silent. You need to learn to pay more attention to your own body than to the internet jolting stimuli into your limbic system. You need to learn to follow a long train of thought. You will never be able to do any of those things as long as even a fraction of your attention is on your phone.”
Prof. K. saw videos on the web of students violently assaulting teachers who took away their devices (here, here, here). She realized that risking physical assault was part of the job. The administration would not support her. The union might not, either; she was just an adjunct, not “real” faculty. The real professors, the ones with tenure, too often ignored cell phone use in class. Prof. K. was on her own. She assumed, like too many of her Polish ancestors, that her determination, her don’t-mess-with-me attitude, and the rosary in her pocket were her best armor.
“Gentlemen remove their hats when speaking to a lady. Take that baseball cap off and look me in the eyes when you talk to me. Extend to me the same courtesy I extend to you.” She said stuff like that to students. “Don’t refer to your fellow student as ‘she.’ Refer to her as ‘Jane.’ That is her name.” She said stuff like that, too. She had students work together on projects. Some said it was the first time a teacher encouraged them to interact with others in class.
She knew that there were other professors out there like her, other professors who had standards and made demands, and that those professors, as she did, did all they could to operate beneath the radar. If administrators knew how much they demanded of students, and how “old school” their teaching styles were, they would meet with flak.
Yes, academia had lurched too far to the left, too far towards relativism and nihilism. But academia still fostered a lighthouse on a dark and stormy night: the library. Thanks to the library’s expensive subscriptions to electronic databases, students could access research on virtually any topic, from any scholar in the world. If a student needed an article from an obscure journal, like The International Journal of Fuzzy Systems, or Weed Abstracts, or the IEEE Transactions on Advanced Packaging, they could access that article at the campus library. Marxist politics and the lowering of standards need not interfere with library research. If her students wanted to find a cure for cancer, or a six-figure job, or advice on soothing a colicky baby to sleep, the library was there, just waiting. The seventh-century BC library of Ashurbanipal, containing the Epic of Gilgamesh; the library of Alexandria, burned to heat bath water in the seventh century AD by Caliph Omar; the libraries established, filled, and protected by monks, monks who labored over the illuminated manuscripts that brightened the wrongly-dubbed “dark ages”: the library on her modest campus was a descendant of all of these libraries. Her library sat, quiet, patient, housing knowledge that was above politics, above the winds of change, waiting, not so much for new books, as for new minds, new eyes, driven by curiosity, emboldened by a commitment to truth. “When the student is ready the teacher appears,” goes the old saying. When the reader arrives, the pages are there, patiently waiting.
After completing her PhD, Prof. K. applied for 500 tenure-track jobs. “We have received 100 or 200 or 300 applicants for this position,” the inevitable rejection letters would begin. She knew the market was crowded. She knew potential employers assessed her as “too right-wing” or her published work “too controversial” for her to be considered. She’d been told, to her face, that she was the wrong skin color. “The wrong minority.” Poor and white, not poor and non-white. Academia had nothing on its menu for poor whites. Prof. K. knew she’d never get a tenure-track job. This adjunct job was the best she’d ever do. She didn’t want to lose this job.
Adjunct professors have no job security. They are hired on a semester-by-semester basis. Along with hundreds of other adjuncts, Prof. K. went through anxiety every semester. Would she have a job next semester, or would the university toss her and hire someone younger, with less seniority, and thus even cheaper to pay than she was? Her immediate superior, the department chair, might just ax her because she made too many demands on students. She’d been told to let students use their phones in class, sleep in class, or simply not to come to class at all. She refused to do any of these. She’d been warned plenty of times. And yet she insisted on going against the grain. The determination, the “Don’t mess with me” attitude, the rosary in her pocket, would protect her, until they would not.
Participating in education, the life of the mind, was very important to Prof. K. Even though, like many adjuncts, she made less than minimum wage for the hours that she worked, she’d rather do her part to continue the struggle of light, of truth and knowledge, against ever rising darkness than earn more money doing work that kept her from the frontlines of the battlefield that meant the most to her.
To remain on the frontlines, to continue increasing the amount of truth and light in the world, meant participating in darkness. It meant not failing, but rather assigning a C to Brett. With grade inflation, a final grade of C no longer meant “average.” It meant, “I had to pass this student.” Brett would know that. Future employers would know that.
One day in late May, some years ago, while thousands of others were planning their Memorial Day family trip to the Jersey Shore, Prof. Josephine K. was in an empty office, noticing that the days were getting much longer. She’d be able to walk the three miles back to her apartment in daylight, something she hadn’t been able to do for the previous months.
Angela, an Italian-American student from a wealthy suburb, was here for tutoring. Angela did the necessary and she would certainly pass. Her writing, though, contained predictable, easily fixable errors.
“None a my otha teachas eva had any problem wit my writin.”
English was Angela’s first, and only, language. The way she spoke English would pigeonhole her. Prof. K. realized that addressing Angela’s accent and pronunciation would be touchy, so, instead, she focused on Angela’s written work.
“Angela, a few little fixes might increase your attractiveness as a job candidate. I know you want to apply for positions in elementary ed and those jobs are in less demand than some others. We recommend that future teachers looking for those jobs pick up supplemental certifications in high-demand areas in order to increase the attractiveness of your application, and you don’t plan on doing that. You won’t be getting supplemental certification in math or science, for example, and you tell me that you can’t coach a sport. I want you to get the best job you can after you graduate and increasing your writing skills will help.”
Angela just repeated, “None a my otha teachas eva had any problem wit my writin.”
Angela glared at Prof. K. She was clearly angry and feeling persecuted. Angela’s sense of personal victimization was, again, a fruit of modern education. Students were encouraged to view themselves as victims. Being a victim came with perks. Victims were excused from all personal responsibility. Everything was someone else’s fault. Victims were free from any judgment. You couldn’t say to a victim, “You’re wrong.”
Prof. K. pivoted to a less direct approach.
“Angela,” Prof. K. said. “I had a summer job once working for a very demanding woman. She was fierce and everyone in the office was afraid of her. She was petite and good looking. She wore designer clothes, and I’m sure her wardrobe choices contributed to her power.
“One day she came into the office very excited. She was about to leave for a meeting with a powerful person in her field. That meeting might result in more money and more power. She was wearing a tight, short, white miniskirt.
“As she turned to leave our office, we could see a menstrual stain on the back of her skirt. What do you think happened next?”
“Nobody did anything. I was the lowest-level employee, with the least to lose. I jumped up and ran out the door and stopped my boss in the hallway. She told me where I could find a change of clothes in her office and had me bring it to her in the restroom. She changed and went to her meeting looking fresh as a daisy. Who cared more about my boss? The employees who said nothing to her about the stain on her skirt, or the employee who did warn her?”
Angela stuck her ballpoint pen in her open mouth and began to tap it against her teeth. She was bored.
“Look, Angela. You’ve handed in every assignment, and never given me a hard time. I can work with you here and now to polish up your writing. Twenty minutes, pain free. But this is not required. Right now you’re headed toward a B grade.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna take off.”
Prof. K. sighed and began to pack up. She had a meeting to get to. At the end of the semester, the university offered a professional development workshop. Prof. K. would attend, mostly for the free food. You could get adjunct professors to jump through almost any hoop if you offered free food.
The university had begun a new program. The goal was to improve student writing, even in classes not dedicated to writing. Prof. K. raised her hand and spoke to the group of her fellow teachers. She mentioned a few of the things she did to improve student writing. They were all techniques that had prompted positive feedback from students. Most of her extra help sessions were much more successful than the one with Angela.
“Do I hear what I think I’m hearing? I can’t believe what you are saying,” an angry looking, overweight, black professor was staring at Prof. K.
Prof. K. was confused. What had she said that had caused this angry outburst?
The overweight woman continued. “Grammar? You talking about grammar?”
“Yes,” Prof. K. said.
“Nouns, verbs, alla dat shit?”
“We’re steering away from talking about grammar,” said a white, male, tenured department chair.
“I’ve had great success, seen real improvement – ”
“You bean serious?” demanded the round woman, with real rage, overwhelming rage. “You bean serious?”
“Yes,” said Prof. K.
“She bean serious. She bean serious,” the woman said, nodding and making eye contact with other professors in the room. “She bean serious.” She turned to Prof. K. “You teach here?”
“Yes I do.”
“She teach here. She teach here,” the ball-shaped woman said, glaring at others, demanding that they rage as she was raging. “She teach here.”
Prof. K. wanted to respond to the explosive volleyball’s arguments, point by point, but she didn’t know how to debate “You bean serious?”
Prof. K. considered responding with, “I bean serious. You bean serious?” She weighed the ramifications of her saying that and she remained silent. Prof. K. wondered what had caused Prof. Spherical’s intense rage. Grammar? No, not grammar. Prof. K. was white. Grammar was part of “whiteness,” like “being on time” and “objective truth.” Grammar, Prof. K.’s white skin, were identical to whips and chains and must be raged against.
And the meeting continued. Professors talked about how stupid, how ill-prepared, how hopeless their students were. The department chair compared his students to cuts of meat wrapped in Styrofoam trays at the supermarket. Others blamed the internet.
Prof. K. watched comfortable professors with tenure insist that it would be impossible to teach grammar to students because it was the 21st century and grammar no longer mattered.
Of course grammar no longer mattered to them. They had jobs for life. Their students, on the other hand, would soon enter the job market. Prof. K. thought of late night comics. When Bill Maher or Jimmy Kimmel or Jon Stewart wanted to imitate the speech of a stupid, worthless human being, they said things like “I seen somethin,” rather than “I saw something.” Bad grammar was associated with a low social status. Teachers who refused to improve poor and working class student’s grammar sabotaged those students.
“Our students are not mentally retarded,” Prof. K. blurted out. “We can improve their writing.” Again, her colleagues stared angrily at her.
“You say we’re not allowed to talk about grammar. That’s like asking someone to fix a car and refusing to use words like ‘carburetor’ and ‘engine.'”
Everyone was ignoring her now.
The sandwiches were good.
Another late December day. Prof. K. was listening to Christmas carols on her headphones. Amina was due. Prof. K. was happy.
“Good afternoon, professor.”
Prof. K. removed her headphones and smiled broadly. Fair teachers don’t have favorites during the semester, but when the semester ends, all bets are off. Amina was Prof. K.’s dessert, the cherry on top of the long, long day.
Amina was a hijabi from Paterson’s Muslim community. She was the most dynamic student in class. Her contributions were worthy of a PBS commentator. Like many gifted people, Amina was abundantly gracious to lesser mortals. She learned the first name of every student in class and she referenced them generously in her comments. She’d relate something that Juan or Debbie said to a peer-reviewed scholarly article. She was inviting everyone into her yeasty life of the mind. “See?” she said with each such reference, “all this scholarly stuff that might intimidate you, it’s really all about our lives, our classrooms, our little brothers and sisters. All the big words, the charts and the footnotes, should not prevent us from diving into the scholarship. We can participate in this, because it matters to us.” Amina made everyone around her better. Her final paper was superb.
“Amina,” Prof. K. said, her hands in her lap. There wasn’t much more to say. Amina knew she was going to get an A grade, and she knew that Prof. K. would be a reliable source of letters of rec whenever Amina came calling for one.
They chatted. As the moments ticked by, the sky grew darker, and Amina didn’t rise to leave, Prof. K. began to worry. Something was going unsaid.
“I want to invite you to my wedding.”
“My gosh! You’re getting married? Congratulations!”
Soon it became clear. This wedding was as much an end as a beginning.
“Amina, don’t say this to me. You can’t quit school now.”
“I have to. My family … ”
“Amina, I will talk to them. Let me come to your house.”
“It won’t do any good.”
“How do we know until we try?”
“I think God does not want me to become a doctor now.”
“Amina, I saw you work very hard all semester. All with the idea that you were going to become a doctor someday, or a teacher. You hadn’t decided yet. How can it be that God wanted you to finish your degree yesterday but not today?”
“It’s fate,” Amina said.
“Amina, if it’s a question of money, there are things that can be done. Listen, we can make the rounds of campus. There are resources…”
“Amina, listen to me. Some people have blue eyes. Some people have one leg shorter than the other. You are an intellectual. You were born this way. You’ll die an intellectual. You can’t change it. If you live your life without an intellectual outlet, one equal to your very considerable capacity, you will rot. You will be miserable. I know. I come from a working class, immigrant, Polish family. I was prepped to be a house cleaner. A factory worker. And I wanted to kill myself every day I cleaned houses. It wasn’t till I was a grad student at Berkeley, too, too late in my life, that I realized that there wasn’t something wrong with me. There was something wrong with the world that told me that I didn’t belong there, that thinking was somehow a disgraceful way to spend my life.
“Amina, if I were still cleaning houses, I’d be making two, three times what I make here. I’m here because I need this. You need it as much as I do. You need the smelly, old books on the library shelves that nobody’s checked out since 1995. You need the debates, debates that might appear to be over trivialities to outside observers, debates that get so heated that they threaten friendships. You need the research chasing down one tiny little fact that nobody but you will ever care about. You need the difference between MLA and Chicago Manual – that’s your porn. Don’t go down this road, Amina. Don’t.”
They talked for a long time. Amina left. Prof. K. went to the ladies room to cry. And then she began the walk home in the dark. Something might change, she told herself. She’d watch for an email from Amina, she told herself. Someday Amina would change her mind, she told herself.
A year later, it was another late December day. Prof. K. was inspecting the cubby hole into which her mail was placed. Nothing there. That was the last task. She ran into a student in the hall. “What are you teaching next semester? I want to take a class with you.”
“Email me,” was all she could bring herself to say.
Prof. K. had been waiting all fall semester for that precious email that would inform her of her spring semester assignments. That email never came. Rather, the communication said, “We regret to inform you…” Enrollments had dropped so low that they had no classes to offer her. Prof. K. had already lined up another job. She didn’t know this on this late December day, but she would receive an email in January from this very university asking her to return, to teach a spring semester class. Enough students had signed up at the last minute to make it possible to hire her one more time. That email would agonize her. She couldn’t accept. She was already committed elsewhere.
She wouldn’t miss the politics. She wouldn’t miss the tension. She wouldn’t miss the low pay. She wouldn’t miss the tenured professors’ condescension. She wouldn’t miss needing to hide what she was doing, for example, daring to teach her students grammar.
The teaching. She would miss that as if it were a lost limb.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery