The Pursuit of Higher Education: ‘Lives on the Boundary’

Mike Rose gets it.  He’s a guy from the working class who struggled with access to higher education.  It’s no surprise that this is an issue close to his heart.  He’s well-known for his contributions to our understanding of working class life in The Mind at Work.   Here is a review of the book.  Rose understands the gap between the rich and poor, the educational privileges of the rich, the elitism of our finest educational institutions, and he understands the struggles of earning an education.  He speaks for the voiceless.  He speaks for those who dream of a better life.  He speaks for those who believe that they don’t belong in the rarefied world of academia.  And he speaks to those of us in academia who need to pay attention to our students and heed the call of future generations.  Rose reminds us that our teaching is valuable only to the extent that we reach those students, and potential students, who have been marginalized, alienated, and ignored by an impersonal, bureaucratic educational system.  So many students fall through the cracks.

Rose provides testimony and case studies on the unprepared and underprepared–those students who once populated the periphery of academia.  The issue is whether what has been evolving at the periphery is now the norm.  Are minority cases now fairly common?  That is, how many students fall by the wayside, as Rose nearly did, or fall through the cracks?  Rose suggests that the issue is not so much where we have been, but where we shall go in the future.  How can we improve transfer rates, learning outcomes, program completion, and degree fulfillment for students who are not prepared for college-level reading and writing requirements?  How long will we use terms such as “remedial” for the vast number of students who need to develop basic skills?  We cannot dismiss the brutal facts, nor can we adopt blatantly misleading rhetoric on how education transforms everyone’s lives.  According to Rose, we must seriously consider the democratic promise (and policies) underlying our teaching philosophies.  Implicitly, at all levels in education we desperately need to address lingering  socioeconomic and political issues on access to the poor, disabled, and disenfranchised.  And a great way to begin is by examining our course materials, lesson plans, and teaching effectiveness.

For example, have you researched freshman composition textbooks lately?  The rhetorics, readers, and handbooks.  How many of them focus on the needs of underprepared students?  How many of them are designed strictly for students at four-year colleges?  How many of them are too overwhelming with their color pages, spiral bindings, diagrams, glossy pages, and USA Today pie-charts?  How many of them overwhelm students with “multimodal” writing occasions?  How many students care about these things?

Another question is whether we’re on top of our game.  Society changes.  Students change.  Composition changes.  Rhetorical requirements change.  Transfer requirements change.  Standards change.  Technologies change.  Things are not like how they used to be when we were in school.  As teachers, we have to be model students.  We should find room to model research behavior, stay on top of our craft, and remain current in our field.

As educators, we often forget the plight of our students–their complicated lives.  Their getting to the classroom, understanding assignments, understanding our language and expectations, and we too often take these things for granted or don’t consider them.  How often do we consider students lives and schedules when we design course syllabi?  How often do we consider student needs when we select course textbooks?  Do we teach what we want to teach or what will actually help students succeed in college?

The problem is: students don’t know what lies ahead of them, academically or vocationally.  They can’t always visualize the road ahead: the smooth pavement or the twists and turns.  Of course, when we were in their place we didn’t either.  In fact, today’s students seem less wide-eyed than my social cohort was on the benefits of school.  When I was in community college, I believed that school would literally save me.  I held up my chin in sunny optimism.  The sky was the limit.  Well, most of the time, aside from occasional worries about nuclear holocaust, and, of course, the pathos of the Joy Division albums.

Today, many students are a lot more practical and career-minded.  As teachers, we’re no longer in their place.  There is a world of difference between us and them, regardless of our attempts at bridging gaps.  We have been on the road.  We know what it’s all about.  We know about the bumpy patches, the detours, the hard knocks.  We know what it’s like at four-year colleges; we know the requirements, expectations, and the language of academic discourse.  We’ve read the textbooks, taken the exams, and written the papers.  We have, as David Bartholomae says, “invented the university” over and again.  We’ve been through the rituals of baccalaureate discipline, and we had to negotiate obedience and submission.  These are the facts students aren’t always acquainted with, nor can they foresee them, and yet their not knowing the terrain can lead them to various forms of resistance.  (See Peter Elbow’s “Illiteracy” and “Pedagogy of the Bamboozled”).  They are a lot less inclined to “try, try again.”  The good ol’ Protestant work ethic isn’t what it used to be.  But for some students, like those Rose talks about in Lives on the Boundary, a solid work ethic is almost all they have.

What about our role as representatives of the academic community blinkers students?  Do we truly attempt to comprehend where they’re coming from or what they want from the classroom experience?  Not all of them expect XBox entertainment.  Few of them attend college for a dog and pony show.  Even less of them are interested in our showboating pretensions or insecurities as academics.  Sure, some of them don’t know what they want and show up only for the financial aid.  But is that their problem or ours?

We forget to consider that, for them, education is about lacking power and submitting to authority.  We believe that education is transformative and benefits the quality of people’s lives.  Sure, but do most people think this way?  What about our students?  For many, education is a brick wall obstacle.  It is a hazard.  A gauntlet.  A lion’s den.  It’s another alienating feature in many of their already dislocated, dispossessed lives.  That’s right, the struggle of higher education can actually produce or effect complicated dysfunctions.  It is not always perceived as a highway to socioeconomic mobility or about achieving the American dream.  We often forget that the premises of higher education are based on aristocratic, meritocratic ideologies.  As educators, we have become corporate-suited agents in a compulsory system, and few of us consider our role in the institutions we represent.

I was like Mike.  I was a kid who was never meant to attend college.  I came from a working class background.  Like him, I grew up and worked in a Los Angeles suburb.  I worked 40-hours a week while I completed my senior year in high school and community college.  I worked retail.  I roofed houses.  I loaded shipping trucks.  I dug ditches.  I waited tables.  I worked to pay for tuition.  I found time to study and read.  Lunch breaks.  Early mornings.  Late nights.  Weekends.  I made sacrifices.  I set priorities.  I was always playing catch-up with class assignments.  I was always gasping for air.  I often felt like I’d never be good enough.  I often felt like quitting school.  I almost entered the military.  I went to the army recruiter’s office five times.  I failed, faltered, worried about money and paying for college.  I took out loans.  I dug, scratched, and wanted to be someone who I wasn’t.  Anyone else but who I was.  So I kind of get it too.

Mike Rose is an important figure in composition studies and education.  Check him out.  You need to read his Lives on the Boundary.  Here is a chapter from the book.  Here is a Bill Moyers interview with Rose about the book.  An interesting paper discusses the impact of the book in a composition classroom.

Gerald Graff writes an excellent review.  And here is a review by Donald McQuade.  For compositionists, John Trimbur discusses the book in a composition class.

Rose has also written a lot about writer’s block.   Here is his discussion of writer’s block and the writing process.  Here’s a good review of his work on writer’s block.

These are the sorts of things that we need to talk about.  There are plenty of discrepancies and gaps in the social order.  We can begin to address gaps by means of honest and open communication, and by making explicit the biases of the system–the dogmas of our teaching–the myopia of our vision.  Institutional critique can greatly benefit from the student perspectives and stories Rose tells.

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