Finding My Patronus: Warding Off Dementors Threatening Two-Year College
by Cheryl Hogue Smith
I want to say upfront that I hope this article opens a discussion about how the state of teaching in two-year colleges is, for some two-year college teachers, sucking out their teaching souls. I know because I am one of them.
Anyone who teaches in a two-year college knows that administrators, legislators, and other policymakers often believe they understand what is best for community college students, even though many have never taught them. Just today, as I write this, my own institution announced that “CUNY Ends Traditional Remedial Courses,” boasting that the “university finishes 7-year phaseout of the outdated credit bearing remedial courses” and “now offers targeted students corequisite support in first-year math and English courses.” In this article, Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez talks about “replacing the outdated remedial approach with a more effective, equitable and evidence-based system” of accelerated learning, as though no effective “evidence-based systems” previously existed for developmental education (e.g., Boylan and Boylan and Saxon). In relation to accelerated learning, however, CUNY admits that “although it is too soon to measure the impact of full implementation of corequisite courses at CUNY, early signs are promising.” Those “early signs” consist of preliminary data that show 50% of students earned math credit in 2020 compared to 36% in 2016. These data are the only “evidence-based” results CUNY provides for math and English, yet they proudly announce the effectiveness of the program.
Unsurprisingly, the above CUNY report cites the “What We Know About Developmental Education Outcomes” report from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College Columbia. But CUNY is not alone in its reliance on CCRC findings; two-year colleges across the nation make decisions based upon the findings of this organization that helped Redesign America’s Community Colleges, even though, after a glance at their website, only 3.7% (2 people) of their Leadership, Senior, and Research Staff have actually taught the students they are “redesigning” for. (That number is 11.3% [6 people total] if you include the three who attended some community college and the one who worked in Student Affairs of three different community colleges.) Many have never taught in any capacity, and several hold degrees in economics and/or have worked at financial institutions. But what should we expect from this community college research body whose businesslike policy and program guidance has contributed to the corporatization of two-year colleges?
As teacher-scholar-activist (and my Kingsborough colleague) Emily Schnee points out,
Neoliberal policies have resulted in a dramatic decrease in public funding for higher education; an increased reliance on tuition dollars to cover college budgets; a conceptualization of students as consumers and education as a commodity; the subjugation of faculty governance to centralized administrative decision-making; a loss of academic freedom; a diminished role for the liberal arts; and an overall restructuring of colleges and universities, in the image of corporations, to emphasize the efficient achievement of measurable outcomes.
Schnee adds that “neoliberalism is nowhere more prevalent than the 21st century community college.” If it’s true that higher ed now functions on a business model—and all of the above points to the fact that it does—we should probably ask ourselves in what successful business are crucial decisions made by those who can only understand their customers in abstract ways since they’ve no direct knowledge of them.
Unfortunately, most of the above is nothing new for two-year college teachers. But we’re scrappy. You want to “redesign” our institutions? Fine, we’ll redesign our curriculum so students can succeed within the context of our own classes—despite however difficult the new policy or programmatic change makes it for us to do so. You want to “eliminate” developmental English? Okay, but I can’t be the only one to see that this is advertising at its finest: dual enrollment programs, stretch classes, accelerated learning programs, etc. are developmental classes. As the many discussions/presentations at conferences and TYCA white papers show, we fight to take back control from those who determine what is ”best” for our classes, and we do it both individually and collectively as we’ve taught ourselves to do—even when that fight is difficult and disheartening.
I must confess, however, that I’ve recently been wondering whether becoming a Starbuck’s barista or a Walmart greeter would be a preferable career choice to that of a two-year college English teacher. I know, instinctively, that questioning my career has to do with my students’ inability (or unwillingness) to read and write about the texts of my course, yet this is nothing new to me. In fact, in 2020, I analyzed six years’ worth of student data to understand how students several years prior seemed to have no difficulty reading a required course book, while my current students struggled (or downright refused) to read that same book. I noticed a sea change, even beyond those in my study: students in my first-year composition class very much resembled students from my developmental class from 5-7 years before. It’s difficult to ignore the timing of this sea change in relation to developmental education policies, like CUNY’s mandate to begin the “7-year phaseout of the outdated credit bearing remedial courses” to be replaced with acceleration models.
For clarity, I am not disparaging acceleration programs or disputing that developmental courses can disadvantage already disadvantaged students. We’ve understood for years that developmental education needed some kind of reform. In 2012, Mike Rose talked about strengthening basic skills instruction in order to “liberate it from the academic snobbery and bankrupt assumptions about teaching and learning that profoundly limit its effectiveness” (186). Rose knew that “changing both beliefs and practices in remedial education” through “substantial professional development” and “creating good technology and meaningfully integrating it into curriculum” were two “efforts . . . necessary to realizing this recasting of basic-skills instruction” (186-187). So even one of developmental education’s greatest advocates recognized the need for change, but he also recognized that the changes should be determined and controlled by those who understood the students who needed the instruction, not by those who simply studied statistics about those students.
It’s no secret that, even before COVID, entering students demonstrated little understanding of their responsibility in their own learning process. Their indifference towards learning was hardly surprising, however, since so many of them had spent their entire educational lives under the ineffectual educational policies of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Common Core (Klein), resulting, perhaps, in a facile ability to take standardized tests, but with little understanding of their responsibility to negotiate meaning when reading texts—including texts of their own making. Emily Isaacs claims that, since COVID, students “have become accustomed to thinking that learning happens by showing up”; I would note that this condition describes many students in pre-pandemic years as well. Nevertheless, Isaac’s point applies more widely because, since the pandemic, an increasing number of students have demonstrated an unusually high level of disengagement (Malesic; McMurtrie), and their disengagement feels different—so much so that I would argue that our students are in the midst of a second, post-COVID sea change.
Let me explain, first, with this picture of how my video screen looks as I have been teaching my classes on Zoom over the last three semesters:
This screenshot was taken of those students who attended the class on the last day of fall 2022 (and I have changed the names of the students, but not the four icons), and since fall 2021, it’s a view of what I typically see as I teach. (Prior to fall 2021, at least several students had their cameras on in every class.) By CUNY policy, I cannot force my students to turn on their cameras, and the students know it. But I actually support the right of students to hide. For one thing, I don’t know what their living quarters look like; I don’t know if they have family members in the same room; I don’t know if they can afford WIFI or the streaming service that having a camera on will cost them; and I don’t know if they’re at or traveling to work. Over the semesters, I learned to teach by looking into my own eyes and laughing at my own jokes. (For this particular class, I taught to the upside-down Spidey.) Some days, the students made great use of the chat, but most days, it was as mute as they were, a testament, most likely, to their under-preparedness for the day’s lesson or to their more general disengagement from the class. Teaching this way felt so isolating and ineffectual and demoralizing that I could feel the dementors sucking out my soul. Every. Single. Time. Teaching was becoming as alienating for me as learning was for them.
I am not the first to discuss students’ disengagement since COVID. Beth McMurtrie describes the anxiety students now feel, not only because of COVID but because they are so removed from what school should be and look like that they choose to remain disconnected.
Jonathan Malesic implies that students are disengaged, in part, because professors during COVID relaxed standards and policies so much so that we perpetuated students’ belief that they bear no responsibility for their own learning. Thus, the result of deep and pervasive student disengagement is, not surprisingly, teacher burnout—a burnout so severe that many are leaving the profession (Camera; Dill; Flaherty; Klein and Lang; Myskow). Granted, much of the national attention on teacher burnout applies to K-12 education and the Great Resignation of teachers, where “some 300,000 public-school teachers and other staff left the field between February 2020 and May 2022” (Dill). Yet 35% of “workers” surveyed in college and university “say they ‘always’ or ‘very often’ feel burned out at work” (Camera); I imagine the two-year college numbers for teachers would be higher, especially given the pre-pandemic workload issues TYCA studied (which are now surely worse). Karen Kelsky, creator of the Facebook group “The Professor Is Out,” a group that helps professors leave academia, nicely sums up the burnout issue in higher ed: “[D]efunding, exploitation, systems of overwork, loss of faculty governance, activist right-wing boards of trustees that are interfering, activist state legislatures that are interfering, the attacks on ‘critical race theory’ . . . people working 60 to 70 hours a week for inadequate compensation. That’s the cause” (as qtd. in Myskow). In other words, a day in the life of a two-year college teacher. Yes, these are real issues, but these issues have always been a part of the fight.
What I am experiencing now, why the dementors are threatening my teaching soul, is because this post-COVID sea change students are undergoing threatens a plague on all our houses. During the pre-COVID sea change, I still felt I could help students understand that learning requires their active participation, that confusion is part of the learning process, and that questions lead to illumination. During this post-COVID sea change, however, I feel like students are in an academic version of The Matrix, not knowing a world of learning exists outside of their passive realities, not even knowing there’s a red or blue pill to choose from. And it’s this fight I don’t know how to win.
Malesic argues that the solution to students’ disengagement is in-person learning. Yet he also claims that once students “go through a year or more of remote classes . . . [they] develop habits that harm their ability to learn offline too,” like acting as though they are “still on Zoom with their cameras off, as if they had muted themselves.” Malesic’s observations echo a senior advisor for one of Kingsborough’s student programs who explained that students who are struggling in online classes are also struggling in in-person classes, just like students who are faring well in online classes are also doing well in their in-person classes. So, as far as the students are concerned, their success is not necessarily dependent upon the modality of the instruction. Instead, their success is dependent upon their attitudes towards learning and academic tasks. And therein lies the rub.
But let’s be fair. As McMurtrie says, “In addition to two years of shifting among online, hybrid, and in-person classes, many students have suffered deaths in their families, financial insecurity, or other pandemic-related trauma. That adds up to a lot of stress or exhaustion.” At Kingsborough, as at many other two-year colleges, my students are taking first-year composition in their first semester and are full-time students, while many are also working full-time or at least several hours part-time each week, typically traveling on public transportation to and from school for one-to-two hours each way when they go to campus. Many also have extensive family obligations, are food and/or housing insecure, and often deal with life circumstances that understandably interfere with or take precedence over their learning. Add to this that, in New York City (NYC) public schools, students can submit missing work on the last day of any grading period, and the teachers must accept and grade it. (And, from what I was told confidentially, they can’t give it lower than a 55.) This unwritten pre-COVID policy certainly contributed to the pre-COVID student sea change. It’s now a written Department of Education (DOE) rule since 2020 (and NYC can’t possibly stand alone here), and this policy has imprinted itself into the minds of students who believe, when they reach me, that the same policies apply. For example, in early January, a student who had disappeared from an accelerated first-year composition class in early November and had not turned in any work asked if he could submit extra credit so he could pass the class.
But policies like those of the NYC DOE might not be the only factors at play here. Schools like Kingsborough have a “15 to Finish” initiative that pushes students to take 15 credits per semester (or 15 credits within the fall A semester and fall B intersession) in order to graduate within two years. While an admirable initiative undoubtedly generated by Pathways (another national CCRC-generated movement community colleges are saddled with), it’s also an unreasonable one for many of Kingsborough’s students who also work and have family obligations. (And, as Schnee adds, “time-to-degree” programs also “reinforce and deepen long-standing educational disparities.”) How many students who participate in this initiative now have to learn to balance several full-time obligations into a single day? I can just picture my student who asked for extra credit trying to balance his life obligations and putting off the work for my class until the end, hoping I, like his DOE teachers before me, would accept all his work. Of course, I am making this scenario up in my head, but, sadly it’s not an unreasonable one, and it’s not one isolated to NYC.
The truth is that student under-preparedness and disengagement are nothing new, as the pre-COVID sea change can attest to. It’s just now more dire. Rebecca A. Glaser believes student attendance issues can be linked to “the pandemic” that “taught students that they can get most of the course content by reading the textbook or watching a recorded lecture.” I’m not sure what students she’s teaching, but most of my students have learned how not to read for my course. Since COVID, almost all of my students don’t read for class, which leaves little in-class time for analyzing texts since students barely have time to get through a first read. I know the answer to student success lies in their ability to read effectively, and I’m struggling as a teacher to help them. Most are perpetually unprepared and disengaged and are experiencing a convergence of exigencies—all of which result in a perfect academic storm.
However, I find I, too, am experiencing my own perfect storm: I struggle to keep outside forces like administrators and legislators from interfering with my classes, and I struggle to find ways to help students experience learning instead of settling for their passivity. I struggle with work-life balance because of how student disengagement affects my time. I struggle to avoid the temptation of discovering what “The Professor Is Out” has to offer. But, however much I’m tempted, I will never look. Because, even though I’m struggling, I’ll be back. I need only chant my patronus charm—which, unsurprisingly, resembles a group of students—to protect me against the dementors that haunt me.
Cheryl Hogue-Smith is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College. She is the past chair of the Two-Year College English Association (TYCA). Her scholarship has appeared in many journals, including Teaching English in the Two-Year College (TETYC) and the Journal of Writing Program Administration.