I teach English composition at a community college. For many of my students, English is not their first language. For others, they have not been in a classroom in twenty plus years. Some finally concluded that they should have learned something in high school. The commonality among them is they all want a better life.
Generally, people don’t attend a community college because they want to explore the metaphysics of pottery. I’m not denigrating the metaphysics of pottery. I have degrees in English Lit and Creative writing. I’m not the poster child for career advancement through education. I could hold up my resume and write forty thousand plus words on the value of so called “useless” degrees in the workforce. I could write another forty thousand plus on the value of education for its own sake. That is not what I’m talking about. My students want a point A to point B advance of their positions in life. They’re willing to work hard, but education is a means to an end for them. It isn’t just exploration and intellectual stimulus. It is career planning, and that is a worthwhile endeavor.
I’m teaching them composition. None of them want to take composition. It is required. I’m supposed to teach them the skills to succeed in the courses they want to take. I love that. On day one I ask what they want to be. I’ve never had a student say they want to be a professional essay writer. I frame the entire course around critical thinking, effective communication, and the awareness that rhetoric is all around them. Along the way, they learn to write a good college essay. That is nearly irrelevant to me. I care that they learn to see the rhetorical manipulation of political campaigns, news broadcasts, or advertising. I care that they learn how to formulate an assertion and defend it. I care that they learn to assess their views and biases and understand opposing views and biases. I care that they can defend their positions with reasoned, rational, and effective evidence.
I think it is important and valuable to understand the proper use of there, their, and they’re; or why the passivity of an inverted sentence undermines an assertion. I’ve had Wharton MBA’s work for me who had no mastery of those concepts. When a community college student who still struggles with too and to can easily identify a post hoc or ad hominem fallacy, I think I’m doing a good job. It is the give a man a fish or teach him how to fish parable. I’ll get them to then and than, too, to, and two, your and you’re, and where the page number goes in an MLA citation.
When I embarked on this new career, I had goals. Teaching community college comp was only a step along the way. I would still like to teach creative writing in an MFA program, but I love what I’m currently doing, and I love what I’m teaching. I think it is fair to generalize that none of my students have a silver spoon. They are parents, spouses, or caregivers. They have fulltime jobs and mortgages. Even the young ones just out of high school have strategically planned that community college is a viable means to a university education or career, or their grades didn’t get them into a university. They have obligations or challenges that make their educational pursuits more concrete, more “I’m taking English Comp this semester so buying groceries is going to be a challenge,” difficult than a typical college freshman.
These are worthy students. Composition is a worthy subject for them, even if they don’t know it yet. In my prior career there was a point when I was responsible for two billion dollars worth of assets. I think my responsibility is more substantial now, and I love that.