Even in the Middle of a Cheating Scandal, Nobody is Listening to General Education Professors

I have been a general education professor for over a decade, and I never once used a test score to diagnose students’ writing ability.

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Okay, I get it. I’m a part-time English professor. I’m nobody. I’m hated. Most political and economic pundits say that my 12-year educational endeavor to obtain an English Ph.D. is absolutely the most useless thing I could have done with my 20s. Conservative political pundits say that people like me do nothing more than teach college students how to hate America and fill them with liberal biases. Even fairly liberal politicians say that a person can do more with a trade degree than with a general study in philosophy. Once a Supreme Court judge declared that if English professors are not teaching college students how to write resumes, we’re useless.

And this hatred extends to the liberal arts and humanities in general. Just yesterday, I was cruising the Internet about liberal arts and humanities, and this article was at the top of my screen!

Man. Man. Man. How many crying students have I had to console, because their parents yelled at them or even cut them off financially for choosing to major in history or dance? According to these parents, a liberal arts degree is not worth the money spent and will not guarantee their son or daughter employment after four, very expensive years of college. One poor child was suicidal. She was stuck in business school, because her father was footing the bill and said she’d better do business rather than her passion: English, particularly British literature of the Gothic era. She cried on my shoulder just as hard as Catherine cried for Heathcliff. I had to do something. So, I told her why not double major? Then she could take the knowledge from her business degree and open a book store! We spent a whole hour simply laughing about all of the Gothic literature, music, and makeup that she could carry in the store. I also told her that it is good for business majors to take humanities and learn about the cultures they will be serving. Even if she did not want to double major with us, she could do a foreign language and increase her value on the job market.

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A few cups of tea and a whole lot of giggles later, this student felt much better. And she did double major in business and a humanities. She decided to do business and French.

With this on-going FBI revelation of the vast cheating of college admissions examinations, the hatred of Humanities, particularly English professors, became suddenly clear. English/liberal arts/fine arts/humanities professors are hated, because we live in the mind. Critical thinking is our game, and unfortunately, with all of the testing, students are losing. It’s not even a hard loss: it’s a landslide. Yes, a student may be able to fake it until they make it in College Algebra, but poor reading comprehension skills, nonexistent writing skills, and lack of historical knowledge and common cultural references will show prominently in that first English class: Comp 101. In this class, students discover (sometimes very painfully) that writing is just another form of reading. And if reading skills are poor, writing skills will suffer. Further, reading — real reading and not skimming for information that will answer the test question — and writing about reading require complex critical thinking skills. Reading and writing about what is read also takes time and a longer attention span than what many students are willing to develop.

Even in the middle of this scandal, no one has asked general education or even remedial education professors anything (not to my knowledge).

I have a confession: I have been teaching higher education for over a decade, and I have NEVER USED A COLLEGE ENTRANCE EXAMINATION TO PREPARE FOR COMP 101! Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever! In fact, I have never even seen the test results of my students. The bottom line is, I don’t care about test scores. My classes are centered around my own writing assessment. On the first day of class, should I teach Comp 101, I give a prompt question that forces students to use a combination of writing, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking. So, this year, my prompt was this: “Congratulations! Congratulations! You have just won the MegaPowerball Lottery (Praise Him!). Now, the stated jackpot was $550 Million. It is taxed at 47 percent. What is your take-home amount? Would you like to receive it as one lump sum, or incremental payments over the next 20 years? How are you going to save this money? Spend it? Invest it? Donate it to charity (you must prepare a realistic budget here)? After your budget, please write a paragraph detailing your plans for the money.

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Now, I’ve gotten some interesting responses from this question. Many students struggled with calculating their take-home pay. Some of them struggled deciding whether they would like it in a lump sum or in increments. I discovered that some did not know what the word, “increments” means. Others struggled with the budget. And almost all of them struggled to write a paragraph. By far, the saddest response I have ever gotten came from a student who wrote simply, “I cannot see myself this rich.” I wrote him a note back that simply asked, “Why are you in college.”

That first composition class introduces students to prize-winning writers and journalists (Pulitzer, Nobel, and Macarthur Genius Grant recipients). They are the kind of writers who make a ton of historical references with an expectation that the reading audience knows them. Since most schools have discarded Social Studies and only teach History as it pertains to a standardized test, these students become lost and frustrated in the references, though the words are perfectly comprehensive. George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” does not hold as much power for students who are absolutely in the dark about the Victorian Era and the height of colonialism. Are students truly understanding the danger of the “thought police” in 1984? What about the political commentary in Animal Farm? Or the debate of science versus God in Shelley’s Frankenstein? Or, what about African American literature? Is that on the test? Do students have to read Douglass, still known as the world’s greatest orator, and analyze “What to the Slave is the 4th of July”?

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None of that information is on an ACT/SAT, either. This is why I could care less about those scores. These are the kinds of things that students face in routine, general education literature/humanities class, and they are totally unprepared regardless of what that bottom number says.

I have taught at the community college and four-year college levels. I have taught at Predominantly White Institutions and a Historically Black College. I have taught Black, white, African, Hispanic, and Asian students. Some of my students only spoke English as a second or foreign language — which is why I personally took about 12 hours of ESL classes in order to serve them better — I have taught students from the West Coast, middle America, the industrial North, and the South. I have taught legacy students and first generation. I have taught traditional students in dual enrollment programs and nontraditional students who had grandchildren who should have been in the dual enrollment program. I have taught inner-city students and rural students (one location was literally in the middle of a cow pasture). I have taught home-schooled students, private school graduates, and public school survivors. I have taught veterans, non-veterans, and the physically disabled. I have even taught hearing-impaired students who needed an interpreter in the class. I am not boasting here, but when professors routinely teach general education, this level of diversity is real, and we must prepare for it.

ALL OF THE STUDENTS, REGARDLESS OF ACT SCORE, GENDER, RACE or CLASS WERE ON THE SAME INTELLECTUAL LEVEL. They ALL lacked writing readiness and reading comprehension skills. They were all victims of a system in which their entire intellectual lives and their earning potentials were judged by the percentage of correct shaded in bubbles. Some of them even found that though they came from high schools that boasted of “A-Ratings” and so many dozen students with 30+ on the ACT, they knew just as much nothing as the student from the “D/F-rated” district who’d just passed basic studies.

Our reliance on standardized tests as THE measure of intelligence has also given many young people the impression that if knowledge is not on a test, it is not worth knowing. Why read the essay, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder and Didn’t Call the Police”? My students say that I assign them readings in Comp 101 just to make them feel bad about themselves. They do not see it as an opportunity to discuss measures such as the Good Samaritan Law. Such a thing was never introduced to them as test-taking material; therefore, it is not important. Further, no one is paying attention to the multi-million dollar industry that test makers have carved out for themselves since the 1970s. If they are responsible for holding teachers and terminal-degree-holding professors responsible, who is regulating them? Who regulates Educational Testing Service? Congress? State boards? Who writes state tests for schools? School officials? School teachers? I personally know of one fast-growing district in Mississippi that is cheating. Several of their faculty/former faculty members help write the state test and pass practice after practice after practice question to the district. Students do not even have textbooks! But they have an “A-rating.” Give me a break!

Now, I’m about to refresh my knowledge of the Laws of Hammurabi. I know that many of my students have never heard of them. As one student puts it almost every time that I am shocked by their lack of historical knowledge, “This stuff wasn’t on the test.” They will be overwhelmed. They will have a million questions. I have to be over-prepared, because they are all so terribly under-prepared and underexposed to just about everything.