Reflections of a Community College Professor

John C. Chalberg

Editor’s note: Last summer, we began an occasional series on community colleges, where a significant number of NAS members are teachers.  Ever larger numbers of students have been opting to attend community colleges for at least part of their baccalaureate education, and President Barack Obama indicated that community colleges would constitute a key component in his economic recovery strategies.  In this light, we asked our members to share their thoughts and experiences as community college faculty members.  Today, we present the reflections of John C. “Chuck” Chalberg, professor of American history for more than thirty years at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota.  (We overhear him addressing his colleagues.)  Professor Chalberg has written widely in periodicals such as National Review, Crisis, The American Scholar, Commentary, Academic Questions, The Journal of Sports History and The Weekly Standard.  He has also published a biography of the anarchist Emma Goldman, a dual biography of Dodgers owner Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, and edited a documentary history of American isolationism.  He is a professional actor and has offered one-man presentations of Teddy Roosevelt, George Orwell, Huey Long, Patrick Henry, and H.L. Mencken.  He is currently portraying G.K. Chesterton.

Thoughts for Your Consideration

In recent years I’ve now and again thought of sending out a campus-wide email of this sort, but I’ve never done so.  At least not until now.  So why now?  Maybe it’s because I’m nearing the end of my time here.  Maybe it’s because the results of my efforts this term have been worse than is usually the case.  Why is that, I keep asking myself?  Am I finally at long last losing it?  After all, when you get to be my age you do begin to wonder if it’s you or the world—or both—that are going to hell in that proverbial hand basket.

So what’s up?  Or down—besides me?  Numbers, for starters.  I’m about to finish this semester with just over half of the students I had at the outset.  That’s never happened before.  My unofficial “guesstimate” is that I usually lose somewhere around a fourth of my students between Day One and The End.  And my unofficial response to such an attrition rate has generally been along these lines: such is the teaching life at the community college level.  Many of our students come to us less than fully prepared for college work.  Many have less than enough time for their school work.  Many have sets of priorities in which school work may rank no higher than third.  And many of our students are dabblers.

Dabblers?  I don’t mean to be critical or demeaning.  Actually, I think dabbling is a good thing.  It certainly is an important thing.  Students are trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.  They’re trying to determine what they’re interested in and good at.  (Apologies for those prepositions at the end, but they do seem to work here.  I suppose I could also say that they’re trying to get an idea as to which end is up.)  In any case, all of these dabbling activities are, in my mind, good things.

I also don’t mean to be critical of community colleges.  These are good institutions.  They are also important institutions.  And they are surely very American institutions—in the best sense of that term.

But in my mind some things in this institution aren’t as good as they could be.  And in my mind they’re not as good as they used to be.  Or maybe I’m not as good as I used to be.  That’s certainly, and perhaps increasingly (!), a possibility.

Please understand, what follows is not meant to be an opening shot at another campus-wide discussion/debate/battle over grade inflation.  I’m too old for that.  I’m also too tired.  Besides, I have other things I’d rather be doing.  I suppose all of that amounts to a copout of sorts, because I remain convinced that grade inflation is both very real and a very real problem.  To be sure, it’s not just a Normandale problem; it’s a national problem.

But there are other problems as well.  If grades are up, so is the level of indifference on the part of too many students.  At the same time, the level of hostility on the part of others is up as well.  How to account for such trends?  That’s what I’d like to know.  Speaking of like, I’d like to think that I’m not losing students because I’m losing IT.  And we all know what that means.  But who can know for sure.

Here’s what I do know.  I know that I’m not the tough teacher that I used to be.  At least I’m not nearly as tough—or as demanding as I once was.  I assign less reading.  I now permit what I once dismissed as an unfortunate carryover from high school: extra credit.  I give free points for simply turning in work, not all work, mind you, but a not insignificant chunk of work (and, therefore, points).  And yet, when all is said and graded, I have the aforementioned drop rate.  And I’ll likely wind up with nothing smaller than the usual small handful of A’s and a somewhat larger handful of B’s.  In other words, I know I have gotten easier in recent years and yet the percentage of A’s and B’s has stayed about the same.

But something else has dramatically changed.  There has been a marked decline in the percentage of C’s.  One other thing that I have noticed (as opposed to that which I know) is that many students do not want C’s on their transcripts.  C’s!!  There once was a time when only D’s and F’s were frowned upon (as they should be).  But C’s??  This shift has been and remains stunning to me.  I thought a C was supposed to mean satisfactory work, or certainly average work.  The last time I checked it still officially does mean that right here at NCC.

So what else do I know?  I know that I still give tough exams.  Or at least I know that some students think that I give tough exams.  One of the reasons I know this is because students have told me as much.  Others tell me this less directly by writing me notes at the end of exams.  In fact, sometimes their notes are a good deal longer than their essays.  I won’t go so far as to state that I have experienced an epidemic of such communications, but there certainly has been a trend.  Sometimes these notes are actually apologizes for their poor performance.  More often than not, they are not so veiled attacks on yours truly.

I’m not mentioning this, because I’m searching for sympathy.  Not at all.  I’m a big boy.  I’m simply mentioning this as part of my larger search for answers.  I’ve always thought that exams were supposed to test a student’s mastery of a body of material.  I still think that way.  And I still give exams that try to determine this.  I also still believe that such exams should not be preceded by another practice that I think should have ended sometime in high school: study guides.  Sample questions?  Of course.  Topics to focus on?  To be sure.  Key terms?  Yes.  But none of those seem to have been enough—or close to enough.

Yes, I still do have students who will do very well on my exams.  But in recent years I have had far too many who do—let’s be honest—abysmally.  They simply don’t have a clue.  And there are many more in this category than in my A category.  What’s almost worse is that I also don’t have what was once that critical mass of average students, those good old-fashioned C students, those decent, if less than fully committed/engaged students who did a middling amount of work, maybe even a less than average amount of work, and who nonetheless got that average (but now disdained) “C” grade.

When I came here, a bare eon or two ago, I asked a veteran teacher to assess the students.  I’ll never forget his response.  The good ones, he told me, are as good as you’ll find anywhere; the bad ones, he went on, are as bad as anywhere else, but the bag kind of sags in the middle.  Well, I fear that the bottom has fallen out of the bag.  At least it has for me.

Believe me, I’ve tried to adjust to this new reality.  OK, I’ve said to myself, I’ll give weekly writing assignments.  More than that, I’ll give full credit if students simply follow through with the assignment.  That means handing the piece in on time, wrestling with the question that has been asked, and coming at least close to the required word limit.  The same thing for discussions (both online and on-campus).  Do what’s asked and the points are yours.

So what’s happened?  When all is said and graded, the good ones do even better, and too many of the rest do even worse.  Why?  They simply refuse, for whatever reason, to do the work—even though they know that they will be rewarded with free points.  Either way, I’m effectively being told that too much work is involved.  Either it’s too much work to bother mastering the material in order to do well on the exams or it’s too much work to bother submitting writing assignments or contribute to discussions (on-campus or online), thereby earning those “free” points that can help counteract poor exam performances.

What to do?  One of my heroes, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once mused that every society, no matter when and no matter where, has to be “mostly organized around the problem of how to get people from 14 to 24.”  Well, we Americans have decided that the best way to accomplish this is get as many of these folks as we can into schools not unlike this one and then do our level best to keep them there.  I wonder.  I really do wonder.

So what to do?  In my case, I think it comes down to three options.  I can persist with the classic definition of insanity by continuing to do what I’ve been doing, or a variation thereof, while continuing to expect a different result.  Or I could follow the Harvey Mansfield model.  (If Moynihan is one of my political heroes, Mansfield is one of my scholarly heroes.)  OK, he teaches at Harvard.  Let me be clear.  I’ve never aspired to teach at such a place, or any place close to such a place, and I certainly don’t now.  For that matter, I’ll take Normandale over any other Minnesota college.

I’ve liked it here for a long while.  And there’s still much to like.  More than that, I believe in community colleges.  But back to Prof. Mansfield.  Admittedly a grade inflation hawk, he finally decided to surrender.  He now tells his students at the start of the term that his grade distribution will be as close to the campus average as possible.  BUT at the end of the semester he will hand each of his students a slip of paper.  On it will be the grade that, in his estimation, they actually earned and deserve.  Such a solution is tempting.  But I don’t think I’ll opt for it.

That’s two solutions.  What’s the third?  I could simply cash in my chips.  That’s tempting as well.  I ain’t young, and there are still other things I’d like to do.  But insane fellow that I am, I still like doing this.  I just don’t like the results, and not just the results of this fall, but the results of far too many recent semesters.

So, colleagues, which option might you recommend?  Are any of you, whether new to this college or not so new, whether you’re older, old, or young, experiencing thinks differently or similarly?  If your results are better, what am I doing wrong?  I’m always open to a fourth option or even a fifth.  Or maybe it’s time to kick back, open a different sort of fifth, and cheer from the sidelines.

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