When the Red Ink Stops Flowing

A few weeks ago, I lamented that academia has turned out not to be what I expected. Since I posted that blog, many of my colleagues have approached me about their own experiences in academia, I’ve been inundated with emails from folks sending stories similar to the one I wrote about, and even sat down with my college dean recently to discuss the state of lecturers in our university. A few days ago, I came across an op-ed piece by Carmen Maria Machado that helped me clarify the difference between what I expected, and what is, in academia today. At least, my academia today.

Machado was the student of an adjunct lecturer during her undergraduate education, and the lecturer, Harvey Grossinger, expected greatness from his students, and in turn, he invested his life in his work. He filled student papers with constructive feedback, followed the progress of students after they left his class, and offered guidance for students long after the semester grades had been posted. As I read the commitment that Mr. Grossinger had, I was reminded of my early days in academia, almost 15 years ago.

There was a time in my career when I graded student work as Mr. Grossinger did; I carried stacks of written work home with me every night, kept my red pen handy, and read every word that every student wrote. I corrected grammar, spelling, typos, mistaken homophones, run on sentences, crossed out sections of unnecessary rambling, and offered suggestions for alternate words when sentences were awkward. It was laborious, and sometimes tearful, but when I first began teaching, I saw it as my duty, my calling, my job.

As I read Machado’s essay, I began to remember what I’ve lost over the past few years in academia. I believe that teaching, learning, and growing is a give and take process that goes something like this: I give you information, we chat about it in class, you read more about the topic, then write about it, and give it back to me. From there, I guide and correct not only your sociological understanding of concepts, but also, all of the mechanical errors mentioned above. We complete that exchange several times throughout a semester, and hopefully by the end, you’ve learned the difference between there/their/they’re. If the role of academia in America is largely to prepare individuals for the working world, then I’m not doing my job by ignoring errors that could make you unemployable to the average employer.

But somewhere along the way, I started skipping words in student essays, reading for content only, and mostly ignoring mechanical errors. I no longer use a pen to circle errors, and instead of paper, my students submit all work in files through their computers. I rarely correct run on sentences, and never insert commas for them, where commas should be.

As I read Machado’s essay, I mentally kicked myself and asked myself if I wasn’t doing enough in my classes anymore, if I wasn’t doing everything I could to read student work and give them feedback that helps them grow their writing skills. t wondered when the change happened. I wondered when I stopped being the teacher I expected myself to be.

So I began assessing my work over the past ten years or so. I knew I was grading the way Mr. Grossinger did when I came to Chico; I still have one or two students from those early years who remind me of just how rigorous my classes used to be. They send emails to me saying, “thank you for teaching me how to write an essay!” and I know they truly mean it.

So when did I change?

I started looking back at my classes, and realized, it was a gradual change. At the beginning, I taught only 2 or 3 classes a semester, and most of those classes only had 25 or 30 students in them. At most, I had 80 or 90 students each semester. As the years wore on, I regularly taught 4 classes a semester, which was considered full time at Chico for a lecturer in my department, and with more classes, I assigned a bit less writing. I averaged about 40 students in each class.

In 2007, I entered a full time contract as a lecturer, and was assigned 4 classes each semester, with a total of about 160 students each semester. As the Great Recession approached, class sizes across the university swelled as we cut back on the number of faculty in order to save money while trying to serve the same number of students. What started out as class capacities of 35 or 40 in 2005, rose to class caps of 46 in 2010, then 49 a year later, and 60 by Fall of 2011. At the same time of these incremental class size increases, the number of classes considered “full time” changed for both adjunct and tenure-track faculty. Today, adjunct faculty must teach 5 classes to be considered full time, and tenure-track must teach 4 classes each semester.

With each increase in the number of students in my classes, my writing expectations decreased more, and the feedback I could provide declined radically.

As sociologists, our central question is always this: how do the structures of the institutions around the individual affect the individual’s behavior? In this instance, we see that as the institution’s expectations changed, and demanded more classes and more students each semester, the constructive feedback declined.

Where does this leave my academia today? My teaching? I teach 4-5 classes each semester, depending on class availability, with each class averaging about 50 people. Full time, I teach, on average, 240-250 students each semester, every semester; that’s 500 students a year. I used to assign a total of 10-15 pages of typed original writing to each student. Do the math: that’s at least 5,000 pages a year at about 250 words on each page, or just about 1.25 million words. I miss a lot of those words these days. And students miss a lot of chances to learn to write well, and spell words correctly, and discuss concepts beyond what class time offers.

Maybe one day, when we’ve fully recovered from the economic disaster that was America in 2007-2010, we’ll be able to bring back those lecturers and teachers we lost during that time. Maybe we’ll see that education does really matter, when teachers are given the support they need to succeed. And maybe I’ll bring the red pen back, and the ink will flow across the pages, and I’ll teach like I expected to again.

6 thoughts on “When the Red Ink Stops Flowing

  1. I think what you are saying is that the proper workload for good writing feedback is on the order of 400,000-500,000 words per semester, across 80-90 students? That’s still a lot. A typical 200+ page book is about 80,000-100,000 words. In effect, you are editing five of these each semester–that’s a lot of circling, diagramming, etc., on top of the day-to-day teaching!

  2. Tony, “proper” workload varies for every instructor. I’m fortunate to be able to create assignments for my students that are interesting for me to read, but still, it’s a lot of reading and editing.

  3. Fair enough. But the amount of work which goes into grading writing well is indeed a major part of “workload.” I know of no one who says students shouldn’t write and get feedback as you describe. But the fact of the matter is that, as you point out, class size and number of students matter in our capacity to do this type of work. There are major differences between a class with 60 students, and one with 15 or 20. Maybe this is why the expensive liberal arts colleges keep their class sizes down in that range. For me the question is why don’t the large public universities where the vast majority of Americans are educated have similar policies?

  4. I think grading is one of the most significant, if not the most significant aspect of teaching and workload. I believe there are two problems that might explain why the administrators of large, public universities don’t understand the “writing” and “grading” problem: 1) they’ve been out of the classroom too long, or at least been out of the lower division classes too long. Think about the last time a university president was likely in the classroom faced with 40 first year students. Was it 10 years ago? Maybe 20? Maybe never. If they were in the classroom recently, it was likely for an upper division or graduate level course of 15 or 20 students who already had several years of guidance from the lecturers and lower-level tenure-track faculty who teach the general education, lower level courses. When are our Deans and Provosts in the classroom? How long has it been? When was the last time YOU were in a class of first semester, first year students in a class of 40 or 50? If you don’t see the extent of the writing problem in U.S. institutions, you won’t make policies that address it, and you might make policies that actually make the problem worse.

    And 2, who are the people who likely become college professors? they aren’t the people who struggled with writing and lacked attention to detail in their education. They may have low GPAs due to boredom, but the people who likely become professors, and then Chairs of departments, and then Deans, and then Presidents, in other words, the Decision Makers, were likely the ones who writing came fairly easy to. They make policies, again, from their own perspective, and their perspective is that college writing, especially for a 100 level course, isn’t hard to write, so it shouldn’t require a lot to grade.

  5. In response to your rhetorical question…last time I faced first year students in numbers above twenty was…well I guess I never have. The biggest lump of first year students I’ve ever had is about 21. I’ve been lucky. Or, rather, I’ve been on the tenure track. As you know, the lower division classes in Sociology tend to be taught by lecturers here at Chico State and elsewhere. What this means is those of us who do teach upper division get the benefits of the work that the lecturers do.

  6. Tony- so let’s play, “if I were King/Queen for the day”. Given the financial and classroom resources available right now (so you can’t suddenly make education free for everyone or build more colleges), what would you do to make higher education in the large, public colleges more closely resemble what you would consider ideal conditions?

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