Thursday, September 9, 2010

Basic Comp: a somewhat uncharitable rant

So I seem to have become the Basic Comp person in my department, at least for the immediate future. I'm in two minds about this. In the spring semester it is not too burdensome, since the classes are tiny; it is actually more pleasant than teaching regular comp in the spring, when you get all the students who started off in Basic and all the ones who flunked last semester. So spring semester, OK. And I got lucky last semester, because one of my students (which is to say, 25% of the class) was really pretty awesome and a pleasure to have in class, and he was the sort of person who could actually benefit from Basic Comp, since he had simply been out of school for twenty years and needed a refresher. Returning students, fine. International students, probably fine, although I haven't had a chance to put this to the test, since they all seem to get placed in regular English 101.

But if English is your native language and you've just spent twelve years in school in the United States, and you still can't read, can't write, can't think, and don't have any real desire to acquire these skills, is one semester going to make a difference? Really?

I am trying not to think this way. I started off this semester resolved to treat my Basic students the way I wish my gym teachers had treated me (because I am SO not an athlete, and I was never able to pick up on the rules of games when the other kids seemed to absorb them by osmosis, so I do know what it's like to be forced to take a class where I felt hopelessly inept. And I can imagine how badly screwed I'd be in a society where all the good jobs were reserved for people with athletic ability.)

But, y'know, if I had to take a gym class, and I knew my ability to get a university degree was riding on whether I passed this class, and the teacher said, "Read this article on the Internet and print it off" several times, and the syllabus said the same thing, I think I would show up for class with a copy of the freakin' article. Which was more than FIFTEEN OUT OF EIGHTEEN students managed to do today.

I also think I would try not to FALL ASLEEP IN CLASS. (Here is where I wish I had the nerve to channel my long-tenured, Brooklyn-born, take-no-shit-from-anybody freshman Shakespeare prof, who once kicked a student out of class rather spectacularly for doing just that.) I mean, dude. That's just basic self-preservation, right there.

Twelve more weeks...


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Uh, yep. I totally sympathize with you. Wouldn't it be great if we all really lived in the Matrix, and we could plug people into a machine and they'd suddenly understand the rules of composition? Just like how Neo's like, "dude, now I know karate" in ten minutes? Yeah, I wish. But then none of us would have jobs, eh? Sigh. Can't win for losing.

Fretful Porpentine said...

True. And being the Basic Comp person probably does confer some immunity against having one's position cut. So I shouldn't complain, really.

Anonymous said...

I'm the basic comp person at my school also. Except I'm just a second year MA student. Even the composition director has taught basic comp (here or elsewhere) before.

There's been all kinds of task forces, committees, reading groups, but no one knows what's going on. I pretty much just wing it at this point.

Last semester I had 8 students. Lots of individual attention. That worked okay.

This semester I have 20 students with serious problems in reading comprehension (after reading a biographical paragraph about Malcolm X, they did not realize he was an actual real person and kept talking about "the story" he wrote. ?).

I hope all this basic comp teaching helps me stand out a little when applying to ph.d programs, but I worry I will be stuck teaching basic comp only at a new program as well.

Anonymous said...

I meant to say that even the composition director has *NOT* taught basic comp.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yeah, the class size really makes all the difference, doesn't it? And it is infuriating that most schools seem to want to run these courses but not invest in them, in terms of having a workable class size and an instructor who's actually trained to teach them.

Bardiac said...

I think your last comment is absolutely on the mark and important. Most schools don't want to put the resources into these classes that it really takes to make them work.

But, I have to say, doesn't it seem like having a big, honking airhorn would be really fun when the student falls asleep?

heu mihi said...

We don't have Basic Comp, but we need it. Except that your post makes me think that it wouldn't do much good. And then, I guess that I already think that, yeah, if you've had 12 years of schooling and don't get basic grammar and reading comprehension, an extra semester isn't going to do it.

What bugs me, though, is that we're admitting students who are not at all prepared enough to succeed, and then we aren't providing the courses/services/support that they need to get caught up. How does one resolve this?

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heu Mihi -- I don't know. For what it's worth, I have seen Basic done well, but that was when I was a grad student. The University of Basketball had the resources to field an intensive residential summer program for students from under-resourced high schools, complete with set study hours, tutoring, class sizes no larger than twelve, and RAs who were mostly alumni of the program and could sort of socialize the students into college life. Misnomer U. doesn't have the budget for that sort of thing (and if many of your freshmen live off campus, and some of them already have children, there are other practical impediments).

We do have a summer developmental program of sorts, but it's tiny and under-resourced, and the classes are a level below Basic -- which means the students end up taking basic comp, reading, and math in the fall, and then regular intro-level classes in the spring. So they're always off in their separate cohort with other underprepared and often resentful students, instead of being in an environment where they can start soaking up university norms.