I am a ravenous Pac-Man when it comes to education. Instead of gobbling up arcade dots, I devour community college (CC) credits even though they never make their way onto a transcript. I have no need for records. I earned my college degrees years ago.
Although community colleges benefit society with their low cost learning and convenient locations, my experiences with them punctuate a less-than-flattering stereotype. For example, CC teachers often have a “no goof-off left behind” philosophy in which they treat pupils like mental deadbeats regardless of their aptitude or commitment to college.
There is also a tendency among CC teachers to focus on grades and classroom conduct and to put forth rules that encourage uniformity. These practices hurt efforts to master the subject matter, and hamper creativity and personal responsibility. They groom students to be obedient workers and followers rather than executives and leaders in society.
No doubt there exist maverick CC instructors who operate outside of this paradigm, but unfortunately my educational path has not yet zigged or zagged with theirs.
I feel qualified to analyze these issues due to my surfeit of school experiences. I studied at six four-year universities, including the University of Southern California (USC) and Oxford University in England, and I have taken dozens of courses at three Los Angeles area community colleges in statistics, real estate, screenwriting, typing, philosophy and physical education, to name a few.
This semester I am enrolled in a community college film production class, and the teacher has informed the camera savvy students that they should lose some of their savvy in order to make it fair for the less advanced. This blatant example of lowest common denominator learning reminds me of an article by Andy Monfried about showerheads at his gym. Monfried told management how one showerhead in the men’s dressing room was superior to the others> He requested the water flow of the inferior ones be improved. Rather than bring the deficient ones up to a higher standard, management disabled the one with the good flow.
The high-flow students in my class have been asked to disable themselves. Those who own quality cameras must toss them aside in favor of substandard ones, and lighting equipment is forbidden because it is not clear all students have access to it. Our final project—a one-minute movie—should not be too professional, according to the instructor.
Another point. There is a tendency for CC teachers to be obsessed with grades, tests, and attendance rather than course content. My film teacher is such a repeat offender in this area that I have devised my own version of hangman to track the extent of her neurosis. Every time she mentions grades or exams, I add a body part to a pen-drawn hangman in my notebook. By my calculation, she has been noosed 42 times.
Class attendance is an integral part of my film teacher’s obsession. All students are required to sign in twice: once at the start of her class and again at the end, and two absences means a failing grade for the semester. I suppose members of the proletariat need to learn how to comply with a time clock, to practice being tame and mindless workers, to experience what it feels like to receive a demerit or get fired. My teacher’s message is clear whether she realizes it or not: we can’t have CC students thinking they can be executives or controlling their own schedule.
Last semester, I took a tennis class and encountered another attendance-related absurdity. My teacher said all students must sit quietly in the gym for two hours on rainy days or suffer a lower grade. My classmates did not seem too bothered. I flat-out refused.
In addition to lowest common denominator learning and the flawed tendency to focus on grades, tests, and attendance, there is one final trend I find at community colleges. Teachers often go overboard in an effort to control students’ behavior in the classroom. I call this the “nun with the ruler” syndrome.
He didn’t look like a nun, but my basic computer skills teacher would reprimand students who touched their computer keyboard before they were told to do so. If he’d owned a ruler, he’d surely be a serial whacker. He also exhibited paranoia about cheating. He thought every student was itching to glance at someone else’s paper, so he’d pace the room with an eagle eye.
Five years ago, I convinced my 62-year-old husband Charles to take this computer class with me. We sat side-by-side, and the “nun” got the impression that Charles was cheating. Charles resented being treated like a child, so he defiantly refused to study and received low marks on tests. Whenever he got an answer right, the teacher assumed he’d stolen it from my paper. In addition, Charles kept touching his keyboard during class and getting admonished for it. This made him seem like a troublemaker.
What the instructor didn’t know was that Charles had a law degree from Oxford University and was an English Barrister, California attorney, and Judge Pro Tem. He had no reason to cheat in an entry-level computer class.
One day, Charles said, “I need to leave class early. I have to be in court.”
The teacher shook his head in a condescending manner—assuming Charles to be a criminal in addition to an underperforming bum—and asked, “Now, what did you do, Charles?”
I told him that he was sitting as a judge. It was hilarious, but at the same time, disturbing to know that a brilliant man who had excelled at Oxford—where showing up for class was never required—could barely survive the oppressive regime of a community college despot.
Research shows that community college students are as much as 31% more likely than similar four-year college students to drop plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree after two years of higher education. The CC students in the study initially had the same grades, abilities, and academic motivation as the four-year students. They were similar with respect to race, class, gender and age, and did not have greater responsibilities at work or home. The findings suggest that there is something inherent about community college that makes students lose interest in education.
Although CC campuses have a less collegiate feel—a factor that surely disadvantages students—treatment in the classroom is also a likely factor.
Teachers should not coddle students, drown them in rules, or stifle creativity. They should not obsess over grades and attendance, but rather encourage initiative, trust, freedom, and personal responsibility. They should replace true-false tests with essays, and focus on big picture learning with the assumption that their students will become managers, business owners, industry leaders, and high earners.
Forty-six percent of all undergraduates are enrolled in the 1200 community colleges in the United States, so there’s a lot at stake. I suggest we relegate the community college stereotype to the same fate as the stick figured man in my film production notebook.
Published in Chronicle of Higher Education on October 24, 2007 and in The Simon magazine on November 27, 2007 and in the Tolucan Times on November 28, 2007.