Caught in a Community College Stereotype

I am a ravenous Pac-Man when it comes to education. Instead of gobbling up arcade dots, I devour community college (CC) credits and spit them into some anonymous education database, never to make their way into a transcript. This is because I have no need for records; I earned my college degrees years ago.

Although community colleges benefit society with their low cost learning and convenient locations, my experiences with them punctuate a less-than-flattering stereotype. For example, CC teachers often have a “no goof-off left behind” philosophy in which they treat pupils like mental deadbeats regardless of their aptitude or commitment to college.

There is also a tendency among CC teachers to focus on grades and classroom conduct and to put forth rules that encourage uniformity. These practices bruise efforts to master the subject matter, and hamper creativity and personal responsibility. They groom students to be obedient workers and followers rather than executives and leaders in society.

No doubt there exist maverick CC instructors who operate outside of this paradigm, but unfortunately my educational path has not yet zigged or zagged with theirs.

I feel qualified to analyze these issues due to my surfeit of school experiences. I studied at six four-year universities, including the University of Southern California (USC) and Oxford University in England, and I have taken dozens of courses at three Los Angeles area community colleges in statistics, real estate, screenwriting, typing, philosophy and physical education, to name a few.

This semester I am enrolled in a community college film production class, and the teacher has informed the camera savvy students that they should lose some of their savvy in order to make it fair for the less advanced. This blatant example of lowest common denominator learning reminds me of an article by Andy Monfried about showerheads at his gym. Monfried told management how one showerhead in the men’s dressing room was superior to the others; he requested the water flow of the inferior ones be improved. Rather than bring the deficient ones up to a higher standard, management disabled the one with the good flow.

The high-flow students in my class have been asked to disable themselves. Those who own quality cameras must toss them aside in favor of substandard ones, and lighting equipment is forbidden because it is not clear all students have access to it. Our final project—a one-minute movie—should not be too professional, according to the instructor.

Another point; there is a tendency for CC teachers to be obsessed with grades, tests and attendance rather than course content. My film teacher is such a repeat offender in this area that I have devised my own version of hangman to track the extent of her neurosis. Every time she mentions grades or exams, I add a body part to a pen-drawn hangman in my notebook. By my calculation, she has been noosed 42 times.

Class attendance is an integral part of my film teacher’s obsession. All students are required to sign in twice: once at the start of her class and again at the end, and two absences means a failing grade for the semester. I suppose members of the proletariat need to learn how to comply with a time clock, to practice being tame and mindless workers, to experience what it feels like to receive a demerit or get fired. My teacher’s message is clear whether she realizes it or not: we can’t have CC students thinking they can be executives or controlling their own schedule.

Last semester, I took a tennis class and encountered another attendance-related absurdity. My teacher said all students must sit quietly in the gym for two hours on rainy days or suffer a lower grade. My classmates did not seem too bothered; I flat-out refused.

In addition to lowest common denominator learning and the flawed tendency to focus on grades, tests and attendance, there is one final trend I find at community colleges. Teachers often go overboard in an effort to control students’ behavior in the classroom. I call this the “nun with the ruler” syndrome.

He didn’t look like a nun, but my basic computer skills teacher would reprimand students who touched their computer keyboard before they were told to do so. If he’d owned a ruler, he’d surely be a serial whacker. He also exhibited paranoia about cheating. He thought every student was itching to glance at someone else’s paper, so he’d pace the room with an eagle eye.

Five years ago, I convinced my 62-year-old husband Charles to take this computer class with me. We sat side-by-side, and the “nun” got the impression Charles was cheating. Charles resented being treated like a child, so he defiantly refused to study and received low marks on tests. Whenever he got an answer right, the teacher assumed he’d stolen it from my paper. In addition, Charles kept touching his keyboard during class and getting admonished for it. This made him seem like a troublemaker.

What the instructor didn’t know was that Charles had a law degree from Oxford University and was an English Barrister, California attorney and Judge Pro Tem. He had no reason to cheat in an entry-level computer class.

One day, Charles said, “I need to leave class early. I have to be in court.”

The teacher shook his head in a condescending manner--assuming Charles to be a criminal in addition to an underperforming bum—and asked, “Now, what did you do, Charles?”

We told him he was sitting as a judge. It was hilarious, but at the same time, disturbing to know that a brilliant man who had excelled at Oxford—where showing up for class was never required--could barely survive the oppressive regime of a community college despot.

Research shows that community college students are as much as 31% more likely than similar four-year college students to drop plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree after two years of higher education. The CC students in the study initially had the same grades, abilities and academic motivation as the four-year students. They were similar with respect to race, class, gender and age, and did not have greater responsibilities at work or home. The findings suggest that there is something inherent about community college that makes students lose interest in education.

Although CC campuses have a less collegiate feel—a factor that surely disadvantages students—treatment in the classroom is also a likely factor.

Teachers should not coddle students, drown them in rules or stifle creativity. They should not obsess over grades and attendance, but rather encourage initiative, trust, freedom and personal responsibility. They should replace true-false tests with essays, and focus on big picture learning with the assumption that their students will become managers, business owners, industry leaders and high earners.

Forty-six percent of all undergraduates are enrolled in the 1200 community colleges in the United States, so there’s a lot at stake. I suggest we relegate the community college stereotype to the same fate as the stick figured man in my film production notebook.

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Stephen Colbert Smokes Out Political Ickiness

I’m no slacker when it comes to politics, but I almost fell off my balance ball when I saw Carol Fowler, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic party, tell Stephen Colbert that her little committee of 16 didn’t think he was “quite ready to be president.” I hate to be the Col-bearer of bad news, but in case you haven’t heard, they voted to keep him off the ballot.

The funnyman had failed the party’s “viable candidate” test despite the fact that one poll showed him statistically tied with Joe Biden and ahead of Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson and Mike Gravel; and another gave him 13% of the vote in a three-way race with Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

Until that moment, I had no idea that a few political party elites could decide subjectively who was viable and vote to scrap the others before America could have its say. Could a not-so-sweet 16 reject Hillary Clinton willy-nilly if they believed a female had no chance? Is this a backstage glimpse of democracy in action? Shouldn’t legitimacy require objective standards?

Fowler’s words felt like fowl play (that’s southern for chicken ordure) and no doubt ticked off millions of young people who had crept out from behind “down with politics” placards to vote for the first time. The sentiment is expressed best on Youtube with the lyrics: “Get even, vote Stephen… Show them you’re disgusted…. The system’s busted….Stick it to the man.”

In the end, did “the man” (aka the establishment) stick it to Colbert and his fans, or did “the man” puncture its own fantastically undemocratic balloon? I say the balloon has lost its air; there will be backlash for refusing to lend Mr. Popularity a “members only” jacket. For example, there are those who have now vowed to deep six both parties, grinning, “Take that closed-door Dems. And take that backroom Republicans, who treated John McCain in a similarly unacceptable fashion during the 2000 New York presidential primary.”

By shutting the door on Colbert’s candidacy, some argue the political establishment has revealed its true colors are not red, white and blue. Instead, they secretly salute the flag of monopoly, manipulation, disenfranchisement and hypocrisy.

Ralph Nader would agree. He has no love for the Republican or Democratic Party. In fact, the consumer advocate has recently filed a lawsuit against the Dems for conspiring to intimidate and use other underhanded tactics to prevent him from the 2004 presidency. Nader’s attorney says it was a “shameful anti-democratic process by a party that claims to be a democratic party.”

The two parties are private organizations with the legal right to choose their candidates however they wish. They can evaluate party loyalty, use ideological litmus tests, weigh campaign nest eggs, cave to daddy’s political connections or allow a committee of 16 to call shots “out” even when the masses would rule them in bounds.

Muckraker Colbert has shed a light on this irksome game. It is particularly unappetizing because the two parties have a quasi-public reality to them. They are like public utility companies in that they get all the business all the time: a candidate has little chance of winning--especially the presidency--unless he or she is affiliated with one of the two giants. In addition, the parties simulate nonprofits, saying they exist to benefit the public good. Have you ever heard a Democrat or Republican admit it’s all about increasing party power and achieving a monopoly; and well, curses to the little people?

The South Carolina Democrats blundered big time. The assured media coverage of the state and of their party—not to mention the voters who would have been brought into the system--would have made it all worthwhile in the end.

Plus there is the education factor. 1.3 million Colbert Report viewers got an entertaining dose of Civics 101 night after night, including information on campaign finance laws, political action committees and Democratic Party “hoop jumping.” It is conceivable they were shedding a few layers of a well-entrenched apathy at each sitting.

As a native-born Georgia girl, I once dreamt of crushing the triangular state to the north. But I completely lost the urge because Colbert made South Carolina seem downright warm and fuzzy. Now that Colbert’s been rejected, I associate the state with a bunch of Old Guard fuddy duddies. Is that really the reputation South Carolina wants, in addition, of course, to its inferior peach status?

Colbert’s fake campaign was arguably less phony than those of competitors because the comedian was honest about the politics-as-usual hustle. Plus the entertaining Everyman offered Independents a place to hang their hats with hope that a mountain of headgear could eventually transform the two parties into relatively harmless molehills.

According to the book Independent Nation, 40 percent of American voters (and 44 percent of those between ages 18 and 29) in 2000 called themselves Independents, and the number has been growing steadily for some time. How has the two-party grip become an immovable object when so many people have jumped overboard or never climbed onto the boat?

Maybe Colbert and his campaign soldiers should seize the helm, starting The-Party’s-Over Party and giving it one platform: to end the two-party stranglehold. It might be the only way to foist the “good ole boys” from their threadbare captain’s chair.

The time has come to end political ickiness, folks.