Advice

The Petition

December 19, 2007

I was three weeks into my new teaching job at a community college in Ohio, when I found a note on my office door from Mickey, the chairman of liberal arts on the campus. It was a Friday and he needed to speak with me before I took off for the weekend.

I walked down the hall, expecting to fill out yet another form for new employees, but when I entered the room and he closed his door, I knew it was serious. Several students from my composition class had signed a petition against me and had passed it on to the dean of arts and sciences.

When I first landed the job, I felt as if I had just won the lottery. I had been teaching at the university where I earned my Ph.D. for more than eight years. I began as a teaching assistant, moved on to a postdoctoral fellowship, which morphed into a three-year gig, and then returned to the status of adjunct for several quarters. To help make ends meet, I also taught for an online institution. It paid well but was time-consuming, and I was little more than a glorified grader (and a not-so-glorified one at that).

I remember receiving an e-mail message about the community-college job during spring break: I had interviewed there the previous summer but had come up short. Now the college had lost its new hire and was in need of a replacement before the start of the quarter.

I would be able to quit teaching online and abandon the instability of adjunct life. I had also recently separated from my husband, and we shared custody of our only child. The area in which I live is not exactly rife with opportunities for Ph.D.'s in English, so the community-college job meant I could stay in town and see my daughter on a regular basis. I couldn't possibly get any luckier.

What I had failed to consider, however, was how different community-college students are from the undergraduates I was used to teaching at the university. As I stood in Mickey's office that morning, I began to wonder if my new job was a blessing after all.

A copy of the petition wasn't available for me to read -- the dean felt I shouldn't see the students' names -- but Mickey assured me I shouldn't worry. He said the students complained about having to write in class, and were bothered when I covered a concept -- such as a thesis statement -- and then immediately expected them to use it in a graded assignment in class.

In other words, they were railing against sins of which most composition instructors were guilty.

I felt frustrated and betrayed.

I mean, a petition? After only three weeks?

I pride myself on being accessible and couldn't believe that none of the students felt comfortable enough to discuss their concerns with me before heading to the dean. I was also worried about how this would reflect on me as a new employee. Would my superiors second-guess their decision to hire me?

Even though Mickey continued to assure me that he and the dean were on my side, he also reminded me that they needed to take the students' concerns seriously. I couldn't help but feel nervous that I would lose my newly acquired (and deeply appreciated) position on the faculty.

On Monday morning, I arrived in class with a plan. We were in the computer classroom, so I asked them to spend the first 20 minutes writing anonymous evaluations of the course. I let them know I had heard about their discontent and said I thought maybe they would feel more comfortable airing their grievances on paper. Since they were all using Word documents, I wouldn't be able to decipher their handwriting and determine who had been angry enough to sign a petition. I left the room and for 20 minutes sat in the lobby, pretending to read the newspaper.

After class, I took the sheaf of approximately 15 pages to my chairman's office. I knew this was a big gamble. If my students' remarks were as scathing as I had feared, then what?

Together, Mickey and I pored over their comments, looking for something that would justify all the outrage. None of the critiques were all that bad. In fact, most of the remarks were positive, which made me feel vindicated, but all the more confused.

Then I came across a telling comment. A student wrote that I went over concepts too quickly and didn't seem to realize that I was at a community college and no longer teaching at a university. Maybe that student was on to something.

At our next class, I opened up the floor for discussion. I had a fairly even distribution of traditional- and nontraditional-age students and, as it turned out, it was the nontraditional ones who were most unhappy with my classroom style. Many of them had been out of school for 10 or more years and honestly struggled with concepts that I (and most of the 18-year-olds in the room) perceived as basic.

I was definitely used to skimming over topics like how to write a thesis statement, for example, because at the university, the students saw that as a review. If any students had trouble writing thesis statements, I would discuss it with them one-on-one instead of using class time to cover information that most of them already grasped.

Although that approach had served me well at the university, it wasn't flying here at the community college. The students who complained weren't just a bunch of whiners; they had real concerns about their education. The concepts were new to them, and I needed to slow down and work harder to ensure that everyone understood what I was trying to teach.

It wasn't a matter of watering down the curriculum. In fact, I told the students that I had no plans to change my classroom practices. I was confident that they were more than capable of facing whatever I threw at them academically. What I discovered, however, was that many of them shared a profound insecurity about taking English classes.

Many of the nontraditional students claimed they never could "do" English when they were in high school, so they were entering my course with negative preconceptions, not only about the difficulty of the class but also about their own ability to succeed. My job was to help them see their potential and overcome their fear of failure.

Eventually, we did talk in class about the petition and how the appropriate course of action would have been to approach me first. A few students who had joined the list of the disgruntled came forward to apologize, saying they had been upset and gotten carried away.

Even though the petition was an alarming problem to face in the first few weeks of a new job, I look back on the incident with gratitude. I am grateful for the college's support, and I'm proud of the way I handled the situation.

I know I have more to learn about the ins and outs of community-college life. But things are looking up: It's been eight months since I've seen a petition.

Christina Veladota is an assistant professor of English at Washington State Community College in Marietta, Ohio.