Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I, Student

For three years--ending with my graduation from the master's program last May--I was a night student on the same campus where I taught during the day. Going back to school wasn't easy. But my department chair said I had to finish my master's ASAP to be eligible for a full-time position.

As an adjunct without benefits, I had to pay my own way, full freight, for the 36 hours I needed for the degree. That meant almost every penny I earned as an adjunct prof, I paid right back to the school for tuition. I gag a little just remembering that.

The program I was in caters to the working adult. In classes, I met lawyers and doctors and other professionals (including a lot of public school teachers, whose tuition was partially subsidized). Why the lawyers and docs wanted another degree... well, they said they liked the liberal arts courses and enjoyed getting to know people outside their professions. I went out a few times with one of the MD's I met in a class. I think he was just there to meet women, but it seems like an expensive and time-consuming way to do it. I mean, there were an awful lot of research papers.

Among my classmates were lots of assistant coaches from the university who were required to be pursuing their master's degrees as conditions of employment. Typically, they'd show up for class the first week and we'd never see them again until the last two or three weeks of the course. They never did the work or turned in papers or took exams. Guess they weren't required to pass the courses, just be enrolled.

More than a few grown-up students were in the night program as a way to qualify for cheap health coverage. For about $700 a semester, you could be covered as a student and get access to the campus health center. One guy told me he got a $40,000 gall bladder operation covered, which is why he was taking only one course per term (most students took two or three)--to stretch out his student coverage as long as possible.

Another guy, kind of a weird dude who seemed to haunt the student center, eked out a living on Pell Grants and other student aid. He claimed already to have a master's degree in theology, but he didn't seem to have a job anywhere and he'd been lurking around the night program for a few years, flunking course after course.

Ah, the lurkers. They're there at all levels of college life. There used to be one in the building where I taught--a sweaty, stuttering man with thick glasses and a heavy sheaf of papers spilling out of a worn-out briefcase. The first year I saw him bustling up and down the halls, I thought he was a teaching assistant. By the fourth year, I tried to avoid eye contact. Say hello to the guy and you would find yourself trapped in circular conversations that could go on for hours. Several departments had banned the guy from signing up for their classes. Which meant he ended up in our division--the bottom of the net for students who'd failed to be accepted in other majors. For all I know, he's still on campus, sleeping on the benches at the end of the hallways and going from office to office looking for someone to latch onto. Poor guy. You just knew he lived in some tiny cat-filled apartment with his mother and got around the city with a permanent bus pass.

But back to my nights as a student.

I lucked into some great profs: the human rights teacher who required us each to volunteer 20 hours for an organization helping Somalian refugees gain citizenship (an experience that real quick will make you stop complaining about stuff that really doesn't matter), the poetry teacher who could zero in like a laser beam on the weak spots in student work and help fix it in a flash, the Freud expert who led us in five weeks of seminar discussions on the "Introductory Lectures." Fascinating.

There was also the lame-o drama prof who skipped three weeks of classes to direct a show in London. And his equally lame-o theater department colleague who misspelled Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams on his syllabus. Instead of a lecture or discussion of "American Drama of the 1950s-60s," he'd just plug in the movie of a play and then go off for a smoke. What a waste of time and tuition money.

I often was amazed to watch my classmates offer the same idiotic excuses that the undergrads tried when they hadn't done their homework. And I became convinced that the program was letting in everyone who filled out the application when I was assigned to do one of those dreaded "group project" things with a woman who turned out to be illiterate. Couldn't read a simple sentence off a page, much less limn the symbolism in "The Yellow Wallpaper." It wasn't dyslexia or vision problems either. She flat couldn't read or write. I watched in two different classes as she feigned pregnancies that would come to abrupt ends the exact weeks the term papers were due. The teachers were both fooled. They treated her "miscarriages" with great sympathy and let her off the hook on assignments. But she was never pregnant to begin with. I compared notes with another student who was hip to her act and it turns out the little mama had done the same thing every semester with every prof she'd had. She should have switched her major to acting.

But my favorite moment happened in that human rights class. Besides the volunteering and the 20 short papers and two research papers and the 23 books and the 15 films we had to see on our own time, we also had to produce an "art project." It could be any medium, depicting any aspect of the human rights struggle. On the last night of class, we unveiled our creations. There were lots of collages. One man baked cookies in the shape of Stars of David. Somebody wrote an original folk song about forced migration of Native Americans. And then a woman who actually identified herself as "a happy homemaker" (just like Sue Ann Nivens) held up her project. It was a beautifully sewn quilt about the size of a baby blanket. On bright cotton fabric in colors of lavender and blue, she had meticulously stitched her tribute to a painful chapter in the history of the Old South. There in the middle of the little quilt, outlined in shiny black thread, was the silhouette of a black man, his head drooped forward, his feet not touching the ground, his limp body dangling from the perfectly quilted tree limb from which he'd been hanged. It was the prettiest, coziest depiction of a lynching I'd ever seen.


Blogger echovillegirl said...

wow. i mean, reading it all, at the end you just stop for a second. what a sentence. pp, what did you do for your project? also, were there any objections from other people on what she depicted in her project? just wondering...

5:43 PM  
Blogger Phoebe said...

So, in your experienced opinion, do you think that "older" students are all looked upon with suspicion both by students and faculty alike?

What are the attributes of an older student who seems to fit well into a traditional college setting? Is there such a thing?

10:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The purpose of art is to evoke emotion. Either this "happy homemaker" was really intelligent and played on the emotions of others and the juxtaposition of the quilt to the image it depicted. I think it is genius, whether she knows it or not.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Eddo said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Eddo said...

"It was the prettiest, coziest depiction of a lynching I'd ever seen."


Great story.

I graduated from Texas Women's University in Denton. There was this octegenarian who became a permanent fixture in all of my business classes. After class she would sit by the window and wait for her son to come and pick her up. I think her son figured that sending her to college was much cheaper than putting her in a nursing home or paying someone to take care of her during the day.

9:52 AM

9:53 AM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

that's a good one!

and about older students: i loved having them in my classes when i was teaching. they KNOW stuff. being an older student myself, it required a lot of patience not call some profs on their b.s.--and not to correct their mistakes, as when one declared in a lecture that the country of Jordan was a "friendly democracy." i'd just watched a film in the human rights class of a woman being jailed in Jordan for being raped. being raped means you've shamed your family and are better off locked up in that "friendly" country. the place is a horror where human rights are concerned...yadda, yadda, i talked to the prof about it after class.

and as for the "genius" of the quilt-maker, the african american students in that class didn't seem to think so. after class, one of them said to me that making a quilt of a lynching was rather "like making sugar cookies in the shape of burning KKK crosses."

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Leslie in CA said...

At a former campus of mine, I was a tutor, and many of the students I encountered were functionally or actually illiterate. One student, asked to write a critical essay for a children's lit class, began with "Pinocchio was a big lie boy." Things went downhill from there.

And mind you, these were students who were in the top 30% of their graduating high school classes. It made me really angry to realize that our public educational system had failed them so completely.

8:14 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

Oh, forgot to answer: My project was a huge painting/assemblage thing covered with plastic cowboys and indians and the giant eyes of George W. Bush staring out over the reservation. Hard to describe. I loved that class. By far, the best prof in the master's program.

10:53 PM  
Anonymous itsjames2u said...

Ahh... Dr. Halperin, I presume? I took that human rights class as an undergrad. It was the hardest, most grueling, most disturbing and most wonderful class I took in all the time I attended SMU. I was working two jobs at the time. That, along with being a full-time student, precluded me from doing the volunteering. So instead I wrote what must have been a 50-page research paper on the death penalty for juveniles... complete with charts and graphs. Not bad for a journalism student!

My favorite memory of that course, though, had to be the final exam. It was open-book... if you cared to take all 23 books into the room with you!

11:12 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

Imagine an Iraqi mom taking the class.

She'd sew a quilt with a beheading on it. In fact, I envision a tapestry.

Zarqawi would be raising the bloody scalp in one hand, his body arched in triump. His other arm pumping up the crowd in the stadium like some football star basking in adulation.

Then the next panel would show him tossing the head into the crowd and the crowd fighting over it like a football.

But the faces would be blurred. TV cameras would be pointed to get every detail. TV producers would be smiling big.

The next to last panel would resolve the faces for us. They would have hoisted the head for us. Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi would beam triumphantly upon us. The severed head faintly looking like Bush's.

But off the the side we'd see a huddled figure, crying, chiseld features mostly hidden, smothered in purdah. And further away, more similar figures in the shadows - forgotten - no one looking their way. All crying, lamenting.

And then we'd see the millions of heads on which the preening fans stand on - those of the Iraqi sons and daughters who wanted to be free and who were Lynched for it.

Some would be headless. Some would be in little bits. Some would raped. Some would be horribly tortured.

Blood would pool around every flat surface and lap down over the chairs.

Behind it all would be the faintest outlines of Picasso's Guernica.

And in a corner would be a figurine from Hieronymus Bosch sucking the blood up.

The blood would be very red. And oozing out from the bodies, looked at one way, it would be a hammer and sickle, from another, a swastika, and from a third - a red crescent. Wrapped all around the triptych would be Arabic Calligraphy stitching hinting at the words God is Great.

12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow...that quilt....just...wow....My reaction to it was akin to the students who said it was like sugar cookies in the shape of burning crosses.....It's just sooo wrong.

BTW, thank you for your writing course...I'm not generally posting my answers/responses, but am doing it on my own and appreciating your blog.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They let you teach at SMU without an MA?? In ANYTHING?????????

Granted, what they probably pay adjuncts isn't exactly worthy of an MA... but the rest of us did our grad work so that we could teach college -- It seems to me that you are a bit shocked and bitter that they suggested you complete a minimal MA in order to keep your job. You wouldn't have been considered for a job at my CC without an MA in something... hmmm

I do enjoy your blog... but, don't complain too much about having to get an MA to keep any college teaching gig... hiring you in the first place without one was pretty generous and a leap of faith on behalf of the department.

5:19 AM  
Blogger milowent said...

i thought colleges got around any MA or similar requirement by simply using grad students to teach most of the courses. and they don't have to be good teachers (or speak cognizable english) to do it!

i mostly agree with anon's post above me, but the artificial requirement of an advanced degree should not apply in all cases. you have to be a writer to write. period. many of the best writers, and the best writers who can actually teach, will not fulfill that artificial requirement.

8:15 AM  
Anonymous watercat said...

You don't necessarily have to have an MA to teach college level courses. And simply having a degree does not automatically make someone a good teacher. Anon 2 posts back, you should be happy for a fellow human being who got a job doing what she loved and sympathetic about that same person losing a job she enjoyed....if you are that woked up over someone complaining, you might want to look into you own life to see why you are so unhappy.....

9:02 PM  

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