This idea of higher education as an exclusive club that needs a gatekeeper in order to make sure that the folks who don’t belong are not permitted access into the ranks of the elite is something that I find to be highly problematic. Not only is it exclusionary, when I believe the goal of teaching ought to be to include and inform as many folks as possible, but it is also classist, and possibly racist, as it implies that higher education is the end all be all of life and once having “achieved” higher education teachers are done; there is nothing worthwhile to be found in other perspectives, other voices are not beneficial in any way, and students only have value if they also value the exact same things as the teacher. I find this to be ridiculous, and anyone who has this perspective is ill suited to teaching, as education ought to be premised on empathy and respect, not judgment and exclusion.
Mike Rose discusses the exclusion of students and voices that can happen in higher education in his article “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University.” He focuses in on five marginalizing ideas about writing, writers, and writing instruction that are implicit in our everyday conversations. Since this article was published in 1985, when Composition was not as reputable of a department as it is now, a lot has changed since it first came out. However, the idea that I found most pervasive even today, was the “Myth of Transience” (355), or the idea that there is a temporary problem in higher education today where students are extremely under prepared by high school for the rigorous academics of college.
This comes out strong in David Gold’s “Will the Circle Be Broken: The Rhetoric of Complaint against Student Writing.” In this article (which was published in 2008, and so fairly contemporary) Gold discusses the perception that continues to prevail in composition discourse of a permanently “impending literary crisis” (84). This is basically a reformulated version of Rose’s Myth of Transience. The quality of student work is steadily declining, they come to college increasingly less prepared to engage with the the concepts than previously, and the task at hand for a composition instructor verges on impossible. Whether any of these statements are actually true or not is up for debate. Gold points out that “contemporary critics of student writing tend to locate the golden age of literacy at about the time when they were in school, before the corrupting influence of whatever feature of modern life most appalls them” (85). This is strikingly similar to the familiar image of a grouchy old man angry about “kids these days,” or the way that millennials are largely condemned in much of the media today for literally anything that anyone is upset about. Not only is this unfair, but often the problems being commented on are not the real problem that is at the heart of the matter
In this case, Gold points out that standards have changed over the years. “The tasks we give our students in freshman composition are far more complex than those given elite Harvard students a century ago” (87). We require work that is much more complex and cognitively demanding. It has been demonstrated over and over again that student error in writing often comes from a struggle with larger concepts and shows that they are doing meaningful work in their discussion. As John Bean points out in chapter five of Engaging Ideas, “grammatical competence [in a student’s text] begins to drop off as the tasks become more complex and decreases dramatically when the examinee is asked to advance arguments, hypothesize, or handle abstractions. The more cognitively difficult the task, the more an examinee’s sentence structure breaks down” (77, emphasis added). This being the case, it ought to be expected that students make mistakes in their writing, since we want to challenge them more than they previously were.
Another problem with simply condemning students for not being of a high enough caliber to satisfy our personal standards is that it might simply be that their passions do not mirror those of the instructor. Gold cites Mark Edmundson, who was extremely bitter about the fact that his students, “alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance” (qtd. 86). However, a response from one of these students complicates the picture: “Edmundson, with his obvious contempt for undergraduates, wasted my time and my money, and then used his experiences in front of the classroom as fodder for a sardonic critique of my generation’s intellectual incompetence” (qtd. 86). If students believe that the professor has no genuine desire to help them learn, if they feel marginalized and looked down on, they will respond by refusing to engage with the class. Why should they do any work to engage when they expect their responses to be shot down and mocked? This is not a fruitful learning environment. This is not how teachers should behave.
I believe that Gold hits the nail on the head when he says “instead of longing for a nonexistent past, perhaps we should simply admit that eighteen-year-olds frequently write poorly, and consider it our job to take it from there” (85-86). It does no good to lament or find out who is to blame for the “problems” that we see in our classrooms (that might not even be real problems, just evidence of a changing society), and instead we should work on finding ways to get these students to engage with the class concepts, to learn how to communicate clearly, and to adopt a “pedagogy of charity” (91) that understands that students are people with value and as such works to view them complexly as more than just a body in our classroom.