This Professor Enrolled as an Undercover Student

May 30, 2016

Mike Dean
Mike Cross flips his tassel after earning an associate degree at Northern Essex Community College. Mr. Cross, who had taught chemistry there for six years, enrolled as a student to gain a different perspective.
After six years of teaching chemistry at Northern Essex Community College, in Massachusetts, Mike Cross wanted to get a better feel for how his students juggle classwork, kids, and jobs.

He did that by going under cover, spending nearly a year of late nights doing homework alongside his three kids to earn an associate degree in liberal arts this month. The degree, which he pursued while teaching full time, may be an unexpected complement to his Ph.D. in organic chemistry, but earning it made him a better, more empathetic professor, he says.

In a conversation with The Chronicle, Mr. Cross, 35, described what motivated him, how he occasionally got busted when students recognized him in class, and the lessons he took to heart. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q. Why not just take a course or two rather than a complete associate degree?

A. I wanted to get the full student experience, including admissions, taking the Accuplacer placement exam, and meeting all the graduation requirements. I also wanted to take a mix of online, hybrid, and face-to-face classes.

Q. How did you get started?

A. I’ve worked closely with my adviser for several years, so she knew my role at the college. When I first sat down with her, she thought I was playing a practical joke. Then she became concerned that someone from administration had sent me in as a "secret shopper" to check up on the advisers.

We discussed how many classes I thought I’d be able to realistically handle and how long it would take me to complete my degree. I quickly realized it was going to take longer than I wanted, so she came up with a plan that took advantage of summer and winter breaks. Taking two classes in winter break was brutal because the intersession semester is only 25 days long.

Q. What was your first day of class like?

A. I had an 8 a.m. class, but after dropping my daughter off at middle school, she realized that she’d forgotten her asthma inhaler and she needed it for gym. I had to run home and get it, which made me about 10 minutes late for class. As I was running across campus I thought, maybe I should just skip today’s class. I suddenly stopped and realized that this is exactly why my students skip class occasionally. I decided to attend class anyway and realized how embarrassing it is to walk into a class late (and notice how the doors are always located at the front of the class, so you can’t sneak in quietly).

Q. How did you stay on top of your schoolwork?

A. In the evenings I would sit at the table and work on my homework while my kids did theirs. If they needed help, then I had to postpone my homework to help them. It made me realize that most of my students don’t skip assignments because they’re lazy; they just have so much going on that they have to prioritize. I was a traditional undergraduate — fresh out of high school, no kids, no full-time job. That’s not the norm among my students.

I’ve been in so many meetings where we as professors gripe about students and their excuses. There’s always going to be some who are slacking, but the vast majority aren’t deciding between watching a Game of Thrones marathon and turning in a research paper. More likely, they’re choosing whether to take their mom to a doctor’s appointment, go to a kid’s play, or do this paper. Sometimes schoolwork gets the short end of the stick.

Q. Did you ever get busted, when a student recognized you as a professor?

A. I was able to remain incognito for the most part during my classes. The only major exception was in my public-speaking class this spring. I walked in and saw three of my previous students. They all started asking me what I was doing in the class. But for the most part, students didn’t know, and they told me things they never would have told me if they knew I was a professor — like about websites where I could find answers to test questions or where I could pay someone to write my essays.

Q. Anything you’re particularly proud of?

A. During an English Comp II class (which I found out I had never taken as an undergraduate) my professor nominated me for a writing award. I’ve always written because I had to, but this was the first time I was told that I was actually good at it.

Q. Any not-so-proud moments?

A. This spring I took a public-speaking course for the first time in my life, which is sad considering that my job revolves around speaking in public. At one point in the semester I was absolutely demolished by another student during an in-class debate. I think even the professor voted for the other student.

Q. Did you pick up any tips that will help your own teaching?

A. My English teacher ran an excellent discussion board. Instead of simply saying that we needed to "actively participate" in discussions, she put together a document showing what a good, bad, and mediocre post looked like. I also saw how frustrating it can be when there isn’t a clear set of due dates, and I’m more understanding of student frustrations when Blackboard doesn’t save answers to quiz questions or they’re locked out of their student email. Those things happened to me.

My first-year seminar class was interesting, because I teach a science version of that. I liked the way my professor had us do a scavenger hunt to find out when the library was open, where you can get a student ID, things like that. I thought that was so much more interesting than me just droning on.

Q. Any other insights you hadn’t expected?

A. There are silly things you wouldn’t think about. One classroom had really uncomfortable chairs. When I see my students fidgeting, I’m thinking they’re not paying attention, but maybe they’re just uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s hard to see the white board from where you’re sitting — little things you don’t think about when you’re on the other side of the desk. So now, when I’m about to teach in a new room, I try sitting in chairs or going to the back of the room.

Q. What was it like participating in commencement as a student?

A. The faculty always sit in the first two rows. A few of my colleagues looked back at me a little funny because I hadn’t told many people about it. One colleague thought I’d shown up late and had to sit in the student section.

I thought I’d get off easy and just shake the president’s hand because I hadn’t told him I was doing this, but someone tipped him off and he introduced me, which was a little embarrassing. A bunch of students introduced me to their parents and said it was inspirational that someone would care enough to try to really understand the challenges they were facing.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.