Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

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Student debt

Something occurs to me about the rhetoric regarding American student debt, and the question about whether college is worth the price. Not to oversimplify, but there seem to be two general sides to the argument. One suggests students should have to pay a high price for a good education; if not, they might become irresponsible and take opportunities for granted. The other suggests college should be cheaper than it is, an opportunity expanded to more people. Both sides, however, repeat some variation of this phrase over and again: “saddling our children with debt”.

The assumption behind this rhetoric is curious. It seems we’ve finally gotten to the point (perhaps we’ve been at this point for so long that it’s become standard fare) where we expect our children, having attained adult age, to raise themselves. Because the phrase people are throwing around is not “saddling the parents of college students with debt.” That phrase just doesn’t come up. Am I sure that parents across the country are paying their kids’ debts? Without question. But what does this rhetoric reveal about us? How many of us expect a young person in her 20’s to navigate this (asinine, confusing and downright idiotic) labyrinth we’ve constructed between high school and a professional career? Start saving for college, kid. Because it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

I wish there were a way to figure out how many American parents fit which category. Their child comes to them with news. “Dad, mom! I can’t believe it! I got into Yale!” Their possible responses:

1.) That’s wonderful. What an opportunity. Register and focus on your studies. Your mother and I will find a way to pay.
2.) Well, sonny, we just can’t afford it. If you want to go, it’s on you. We’ll have to sit down now and show you how much you’ll have to borrow to go there. Here are the numbers, and here’s how long it’ll take you to pay back this debt for your education. Don’t expect us to do it.
3.) Yale? Are you nuts? There’s a community college down the street where you can pay for classes by driving pizzas on the weekend. Get a job, and get these delusions out of your head.

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Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

This poem is by Portia Nelson. I got it from my Zen teacher’s blog.


I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost . . . I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in . . . . it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

by Portia Nelson


Blaming teachers

Now that the Chicago teacher strike is over, I thought I’d add my two cents. Community college teaching, in Illinois or elsewhere, is quite different from the business of elementary or high schools. Even so, teachers understand each other and I followed the story closely.

I was very disturbed by the amount of animosity I encountered on Facebook regarding the teacher strike. Yes, there was quite a bit of support from some populations, especially from parents of CPS kids. Yes, the teachers are professionals and must be open to criticism. But many of the views people have are simply unfair, even outright mean.

This should not be news: teachers in the United States do not receive the same level of respect as teachers enjoy in other parts of the world. Having taught in Europe, I can speak to this directly. Tell people in Europe you’re a teacher and find yourself in a perfectly sensible conversation, often with someone who’s delighted. The most common response you get from an average American is, of course, quite different. It can range from pity to derision, sadness to annoyance. I have actually been laughed at and asked if I don’t regret studying something “more serious”. (Than what? I studied literature and writing. Is that more or less serious than education?)

I want to avoid the cliches of this conversation. It certainly annoys me to listen to people who believe teachers should be selfless and timid zealots. They should “think of students first”, a notion that amounts to some kind of fetishization of innocence, a weird sentimentalization of the learning process. Children do not learn because a teacher is a masochist. Nuns are not “good teachers” because they are poorly compensated and working in the name of Christ. I had plenty of nuns in grammar school and most of them were (pun intended) god awful. They were not, at least from my perspective, masochists. I found them quite sadistic.

I don’t understand the argument that says teachers should be evaluated primarily on the performance of their students (measured by, note, terribly flawed standardized tests, many of them designed for profit). It seems, at first glance, to make sense, especially if you consider that plumbers and brain surgeons are evaluated based on how pipes and brains perform after they fix them. We must admit, however, that brains and pipes are very different from children, and that both the plumber and the surgeon have an enormous amount of control that a teacher does not.

I’ll give you an example from a pair of classes I’m teaching this semester. I handed out a syllabus at the beginning of the term. It contained a week-to-week schedule of due assignments, including readings. On a day when a reading was due, I gave an assessment to see how many students had read and what the rest had gathered from the materials. The results were abysmal. Only seven of forty students passed the assessment. Seventeen of forty had failed to read the whole assignment: only 30% of those who read the book could pass a ridiculously simple test. More than a whopping 60% of students who actually read misunderstood the essential purpose of the material. The lectures and exercises I had planned were useless, as they depended on things the students did not have the skills to figure out.

I have no control over who prepared these students. I have no way of convincing fellow professors to stop passing people who cannot read. I cannot control one young man’s insomnia or another lady’s attention deficit. There is no way I can keep the drunk father student #5 lives with from beating him, just as I cannot help student #23 raise the two kids she had as a teen. I have no way of feeding my classes well, keeping them from sugar and fats, putting them to bed on time, finding them jobs close to home, managing their money, setting their alarm clocks. Yet all of these things affect their performance, first in my class and later on other assessments they’ll face when applying to the nursing school or transfer. I can actually tell you now, having taught this kind of class in the past, that a large percentage of them are in danger of failure. The majority fit a cohort we community college teachers call “at risk“.

CPS teachers face even more variables than these. My students are adults who do not necessarily depend on parents (anymore). The building I work in is, generally speaking, secure, its facilities functional. But CPS teachers say, time and again, that their facilities are less than ideal, in some cases downright awful.

But still, we return to the topic of performance and assessment. Teachers should be held accountable. I agree with this wholeheartedly. As should plumbers and brain doctors. If a plumber is bad–if he cannot ever fix the leak or find the clog–the market should eventually decide not to hire him anymore. And if the brain doctor is bad–if the brains he scrambles come out worse than they were before he stuck his whisk in a skull–no one should go back to him again (especially when he will not return what money an insurance company sent him). And if a teacher is bad–that is, if s/he cannot take the mess we’ve made of our society and turn it into a palace of sharp minds and fingers skilled at filling out the bubbles of a standardized test–s/he should be punished. When students fail, when they come to take these tests strung out or nursing sores, send their teachers to the unemployment lines. That will finally show people how serious we are about student achievement. And the teachers can finally get serious themselves, work in a field where accountability is standard fare. Like banking. Or government. Or, yes, test design.