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Teaching in the World That Is (Instead of the World That Should Be)

Teaching in the World That Is  (Instead of the World That Should Be)

In this rapidly changing technological world, many of us educators are still hanging on to a 20th century ideal image of what college should be like.  Students should be happy to expand their personal and professional horizons. They should be prepared to put in the time. And they should recognize how a particular subject really does relate to their world. 
OK, OK. Then we stop dreaming and settle for having students who somewhat meet the skill level required for the coursework and who won’t miss the first two weeks of class because of transportation problems, a job conflict, or a caesarean section.
I find that our tendency is to look at students in terms of what they lack rather than what they have. We then spend each semester trying to fill this educational gap. But in thinking about how to save my career and sanity, it occurs to me that we need an attitude adjustment. We have these classes; we have these students.  How can we, as instructors, let go of our old ideas and teach in the world that is, instead of the world that should be?
We need to give up on the idea of what students should be like and focus on assessing and meeting the needs of our students in the 21st century. This means that we need to teach everything — what a computer is for, where the library is, how to get a tutor — regardless of the purported focus of the class.
In the ideal world, this would be the job of orientation classes, word-processing classes or writing classes. But in reality, many students are concurrently enrolled in or have not yet taken the courses that teach these skills. Often, students need two  semesters of developmental writing just to get to the freshman composition class. But these same students are enrolled in transferable freshman and sophomore courses where research papers are expected.
I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know it is not to allow students to turn in formal papers and essays that are handwritten. Grammar and spelling must count. Anything less is shortchanging our students. We do them a serious disservice if we allow them to pass college-level classes without requiring college-level skills.
Solving this problem might require teachers taking their classes to a computer lab and showing them how to type up a research paper. Any of us should escort someone who isn’t adequately prepared to the tutoring center. It is not enough to just say, “You need to go see a tutor,” because we will lose students along the way.
I know the arguments: We don’t have time to cover all of our own course material. Besides, this is not our job! Adding to this frustration is the awareness that many of these problems could be solved by administrative mandates requiring that students who are not prepared for freshman and sophomore level coursework pass all their developmental classes before being allowed into college-level courses.  But these problems are out of faculty hands. Right now, in the real world, these are our students and things are not changing fast enough to wait for someone else to solve these problems. 
It is reasonable to expect that we will see more underprepared students in our classrooms, and we must be ready. We can choose to be victims burdened to do more and more, or we can see the opportunities and envision ourselves as teachers of the 21st century. I admit that I did not always see this as an “opportunity.” But I have found that changing my teaching methods has had some surprising benefits.
First, in working with students in the computer labs and the library, I was shocked to find out how students interpreted the material we covered and the assignments they were asked to do. Recognizing this discrepancy allows me to see weaknesses in the way I present information and ways to strengthen these areas. A second benefit is that students ask much better and more specific questions when we are one-on-one in the lab rather than when we are in the classroom.
It is true that in teaching these additional skills, we lose class time, but this does not mean that students are learning less. They are learning differently. As teachers, we can learn right along with them. Yes, we think we know how the world should be. But when we let go of our old ideas about how it “used to be” and start looking at what we can do for the students we have, maybe we will find that today’s world isn’t all that bad.       
— Sarah O’Hara is a writing professor at Pima Community College-East Campus in Tucson, Ariz.

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