Monday, April 24, 2006

When Getting Caught in the Middle Gets Interesting

Sometimes it gets interesting being caught in the middle. Readers may know that I was a public school teacher as well as adjunct faculty before I made the leap into librarianship. I thought about these experiences as I was reading a short article in The Chronicle of Higher Education for March 10, 2006 entitled "A Perception Gap Over Students' Preparation" and written by Alvin P. Sanoff. Not surprisingly, school teachers are much more optimistic than college faculty when it comes to how they see students' preparation for college. I can definitely see why: school teachers don't take lightly to being told they are not preparing students for college well. Back in my day, I may have had a similar reaction. However, since I crossed over to higher education, I can definitely say that a good share of students do come to college with poor preparation to deal with the experience. Yet, school teachers are not the easy scapegoat they seem to be. Parental involvement (or lack thereof), curriculum (i.e. tracks, which even though no one talks about them, do exist, and more recently the obsession with standardized testing at the expense of actual teaching), local conditions, income level, so on have to come into account as well. Maybe having been on both sides makes me a bit more sensitive to this.

In high school, I taught both college bound and vocationally tracked students. For the college bound, we taught writing as in college (in fact, in addition to the Advanced Composition, which I taught, there were sections that offered college credit, and those faculty were adjuncts of the local university campus as well. Had I stayed there, I likely would have gained that status as well): constant writing and reading with quantity as well as major papers. This did mean a lot of grading. I think a good number of professors have it easy with maybe a couple of sections capped at 25 students or so, if not less. Adjuncts are probably closer to high school teachers as they teach 4 to 5 sections of basic composition, often over the caps. They are the unsung workhorses of academia. The point is that some of this may account for the perception differences as well. The actual professors don't do much hand-holding as teachers and adjuncts do; they don't see it as part of their job, so they likely see things more negatively if a student is a bit more needy when he or she gets to college. I can attest to this because I have met enough professors who resent having to teach basic classes or skills. Just an observation. There are some wonderful professors who cherish teaching and go the extra mile for students, but it seems these are a bit rare.

Like the article pointed out, back in high school, we only learned of our successes or failures when students came back from college. Anecdotally, we did well overall as students often told us they felt well prepared, even if they grumbled about all the writing we had them do at the time. But that was then. These days, in my current position, I do see a good number of students with minimal preparation for college. I see it in some of the questions I get in consultations. I often have to do bits of what can be labeled as "rebuilding." Sometimes I do interpret things for students, and yes, I know that some reference experts frown on this. But when you have a teaching background, it comes naturally. In my setting, refusing to do such is just not an option. While I do send people back to their professor as needed, I often do call on my own teaching experience to help students. At times I get study skills questions or questions one would send to a writing center. If it is in my power to answer those, and more, I do. Overall, I don't mind any of this. I see it as part of my duties as the local Instruction Librarian. Yet at times I do wonder about some of their odds. That my campus needs to work more on retention is no secret. But for me, if I can be a friendly face, if I can be a person that students will see as "that guy from the library who can help me," then I hope I have made their odds of success just a little better.

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