School Daze: Notes to a Grumpy Old Man

After reading St. Petersburg Times columnist, Bill Maxwell’s recent overwrought three-part diatribe about his two-year tenure as a scholar-in-residence at Stillman College , I realized that the generation gap between the black old heads (as they are called) and the hip hop generation is an Grand Canyon-sized chasm.

Not only was Mr. Bill out of touch, socially and culturally, with his students,  he was also was out of step with the changes in his area of expertise, journalism.

From the moment, he drove onto the Tuscaloosa, Alabama campus of the historically black college in the fall of 2004, problems ensued.  Mr. Bill  had already judged the young men he saw hanging out in front of King Hall to be mere street thugs, ex-cons with prison tattoos dressed like “extras in a gangsta rap video.”  He would soon discover that these same men were his students.

Once Mr. Bill entered the classroom, he was met the usual apathy that anyone who has taught in higher education in the past ten years has experienced.   I will concede that Mr. Bill’s students were more challenging that most, lacking the basic competencies because of  Alabama’s poorly-funded educational system.  (Many of the school’s 1,000 students come from the state.)  But I have to ask, what did you expect?  

Instead of adapting and attempting to meet the challenge, Mr. Bill proceeded to whine – blaming hip hop, the rude women who worked in the administrative offices and the students themselves for his troubles.  

If he should decide to return to the classroom, here are a few words of advice:

The First Day of Class:  No pencils.  No Books.  Just Giving the Teacher Dirty Looks

If you are a new teacher, be prepared to be ripped a new one by your students.  I remember my first day teaching at a university.   It was all laughs and smiles until I happened to tell them that I was a newbie.  Then, all hell broke loose and they challenged everything I said.  I didn’t yell (like you did)  or throw hissy fits (like you did);  I stayed the course, maintained my dignity and met my goals.  By the end of semester, calm was restored.  And even they had to admit I was a good teacher. 

The Syllabus:  The Road Map

Mr. Bill, you mentioned that you did not hand out a syllabus the first day of class.  A big no no.  The syllabus is like a legal document – a contract between you and the student outlining, in detail, course goals and objectives, as well as assignments and due dates.   If there is a grade dispute, one can always refer to the syllabus as a defense.   Syllabi should never be abandoned (like you proceeded to do) just revised with the students being notified of the changes. 

Nobody’s  Punk:   “The Flexible Professor”

When you saw what worked  — professors  “connecting with their students” — you chose to diss your colleagues calling them “flexible professor(s)” while  “grudgingly” adopting their style of teaching.   

“The flexible professor encouraged lively exchanges of subject matter, ideas, beliefs and opinions during class discussions.  The flexible professor often did not require written responses or exams.   The flexible professors lets students keep pace by retaking exams, completing take-home exams or giving classroom presentations.”

Mr. Bill what is wrong with lively exchangess?  Having taught in Alabama universities/colleges for four years, these students  need to learn how to think  and to have their ideas challenged by the professor and one another.   These lively discussions provide the perfect opportunity to talk about the realities and requirements of the profession and to incorporate and analyze course material.   

Great thinkers will always be in demand.  And Alabama desperately needs great thinkers. 

By the way, take home exams can be more difficult than those given in class.  And classroom presentations are vitally important for the development oral communication skills.    

For the record, I don’t allow students to re-take exams, nor do I give extra credit.   My reasoning:  I want them to devote their efforts to getting the job done the first time.   Sometimes, you only get one chance. 

Mr Bill, lecturing is the least effective method to produce true learning.   I highly recommend that read the book, Teachng with Your Mouth Shut  by Donald Finkel 

It’s Not About You:  Creating the Right and Relevant Program for the Students

Mr. Bill, at the request of Stillman’s president, Ernest McNealy, you were instructed to restablish a journalism program which had been discountinued since 1997.  McNealy, wanted a “strong journalism program”  because “he knew that newsrooms around the nation look for competent black reporters and editors.”    

What were the two of you thinking?  Newsrooms are laying off people — black, white and otherwise — left and right.  

According to the  article,  “As Jobs Fade and Demands Grow — What Gets Lost?” (Editor and Publisher 6/3/07),  there have been 1000s of cuts in newsroom jobs and the remaining employees are faced with  “ever escalating demands of the web” and “are forced to do more with less.”

How did you hope to prepare them for today’s newsroom or the newsroom of the very near future?

Oh yeah, you wanted the students to learn the difference between “historic” and “historical”.

Mr.  Bill you made no mention of introducing your students podcasting,  blogging,videography and writing for the web — all of which they will have to know if they are to work in today’s newsrooms.

You should teach a course in ethics, also.  The last thing that Stillman needs is to produce another Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair.

Finally, the $100,000 donation the school received for the journalism program could have been put to much better use.  Why spend so much money on just a handful of students?    Why not create a writing center and/or develop a writing across the disciplines program?  Even a future doctor majoring in chemistry needs to be able to write competently. 

There Are No Heroes Here

“My professors were intellectuals and I wanted to be just like them.  Our professors  — whether we liked them or hated them — were gods and we were to learn all we could from them.”  

Mr. Bill, if you haven’t noticed, times have changed.   You attended college during the ’60s before Watergate and Enron.   Before we discovered that there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction.   Your students may have watched their grandparents and parents receive pink slips after years of devotion to their emplyers.   They look at the present condition of their communities– generational poverty,  failing school systems, and rampant crime —  and think that Dr. King was just a dreamer.  

These students have come to believe that it’s not about working hard but working smart.  And their definition of smart is hustling and/or selling drugs.   There are no wise men or women in their world. 

You had the  perfect opportunity to become a wise man for a hurting and lost generation like the professors you so admired and thought yourself to be.  What a shame.


One thought on “School Daze: Notes to a Grumpy Old Man

  1. Oh Carla, what a great post. I have been thinking about these things ever since I started teaching…and I must say that I too decided that I would emulate the great profs that I had as an undergraduate when I started teaching…who were a lot different from Mr. Man’s here. I decided to emulate Chella, Greg, Dr. Deal and others who helped to mold me along the way. I must also say that I took initiative from you as well. Athough, I never took your class, my friend Clay took your class and he told me how you geared your class towards trying to instill a value for diversity in your classroom–and I have soo done the same thing with mine. I too value conversation in my classes and encourage it–but I dontk now if this is peculiar to the midwest or what–but how do you make them talk? I spend most of my time talking to them–it is a vare and precious moment when we have a great discussion in my class…which does make it all worth it. Nany of them appreciate it…many of them dont. I get good vibes mostly though.

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