The First Assignment Reality Check

I start out optimistically each semester in my senior capstone. Then I get the first round of papers and some of the air goes out of my balloon. Inevitably there are a disconcerting number of students for whom the readings are as much a stretch as constructing a single grammatical sentence. Here’s a mock version of the quality of writing I receive (all of the errors are modeled on actual student work):
He thinks intellectual elite should rule, he thinks the intellectual should have complete say on what people the people should think and do, that’s defiantly not democratic.
Setting aside the problems with grammar and correctness, the author the student is referring to is a woman, and she “defiantly” does not believe Socratic inquiry is elitist or anti-democratic. I read a paper like this and I just want to weep. The teacher part of me wants to help students. It wants to help this student. But where do I begin? Here is a senior in college who can neither write nor read critically. How did it come to this? And what do I do now that it has?

Oh yes, yes, yes, I should take the student under my wing, schedule long appointments, show him the power of a well-wrought sentence, become that one teacher who makes a profound difference in his life. The inspirational Hollywood screenplay writes itself, but the reality is that he’s one of many weak writers in my senior seminars (I teach two sections). If this were my freshmen humanities section, I would simply stop and back up, but we are at the end of the process in senior seminar. There is no way to close a skill gap of 16 years in 16 weeks and still teach the course.

So am I going to stand like Horatio on the bridge and stop this student from passing my class? I could, but it wouldn't change much. He has made it this far without being able to string together a simple English sentence. Besides, He would only drop my course and find an alternative wormhole through the system. And why wouldn't he? That strategy has been successful for him. So instead I will fudge. I will send him off to the writing lab, write encouragements on his papers to tackle his problems and look vainly for any signs of improvement. In the end he will do just enough to pass with the minimum score and then walk across the stage next spring.

And me? Well, despite the occasional success in the classroom, despite how much I want to help my students, I know it's a little late for Hollywood endings. The dirty little secret of teaching a senior seminar is that you unavoidably become the last teacher to make the compromises you despise.


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