Two summers ago I was working in my office, when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. My door was closed and so I thought that the movement behind me deserved at least a cursory investigation. When I whirled around in my swivel chair I was met by the coiled gaze of a snake. Really, truly. A snake was in my office. That might not have been such a novelty if my office were Rich Leclaire’s, who opens his office door into the Wild Wild West, but my office is located smack dab in the middle of an urban academic bauhaus wasteland, also known as the labyrinth of building three level two. You know what I’m talking about (even the math/science guys come over once a semester to use the Scantron machine, so I’m sure that everyone knows what I’m talking about), so it seems somewhat crazy that a snake would be found in my office.
After corralling the snake into my recycle bin and ushering it outside, I was met with an ethical dilemma, am I obligated to tell my colleagues that I found a real live snake in my office? On the one hand, this might freak them out and make them paranoid, on the other hand, maybe they’d like to know so that they might prepare themselves against such a calamity; I hear rattle snake anti-venom can be purchased from some clandestine online retailers, for the right price of course (don’t ask me why I know that).
This harrowing experience made me think of our students. Many want to go on in pursuit of a course of action in complete blissful ignorance, even if said course is damaging to them, and they don’t want any outside intervention standing in their way. This puts the instructor in a likewise ethically difficult situation. If a student wants to be a writer, and I teach creative writing, and the student is horrible, and is never likely to markedly improve, what do I do? Is it my obligation to have that tough chat with the student and say, “You know, maybe this is not for you”. Or, do I let them go on taking class after class in pursuit of their goal, yes improving a little, but never reaching a level of excellence which would allow him to obtain gainful employment through his craft. As instructors and program gatekeepers, we have a doubly daunting moral dilemma, because their continuance in our programs helps our enrollment, even if, in the end, it will never help them toward a career. As an instructor of creative writing, what do you do? (Maybe we can get Laraine to respond here . . .?)
I have taught Spanish long enough to recognize when someone is going to be successful in my discipline, but many folks will painfully never reach Spanish excellence. I had a student who had tons of desire, but she just had almost no aptitude for the language. She wanted to be bilingual, but even though her learning goals were in-sync with her interests and her values, they were unfortunately very out-of-sync with her aptitudes and abilities. In the FYE 103 course, we try to encourage students to align their interests, values and aptitudes around a (hopefully lucrative) major. If you only have two out of three, you probably won’t succeed, at least not very long, in a chosen field. But my student tried hard. Even after living in a Spanish speaking country for over a year, she still really struggles with Spanish and is not understood by many native speakers. Have I been derelict in my duty toward this student by not telling her that Spanish is not for her?
What should our obligations be toward the blissfully ignorant student? I find that nearly every student comes into my class with gloriously unfounded optimism. I think we should blame it on Mr. Rogers, (some have labelled this the “Mr. Rogers generation”). He was the first one, after all, to tell all children that they really matter and are important, when he should have been telling them, as my colleague once pointed out, that “Psych majors are a dime a dozen, life is hard, and humans are hard-wired for failure”. Do we do our psych majors a disservice by not telling them that we have a stack of resumes for psych majors who want to teach with us, none of whom ever will. Do we do them a disservice by not telling them that psychologists and FBI profilers (the two things they want to be because they’ve seen them on NETFLIX) have their Ph.Ds and go to school for 10 solid years? The masses of students at YC love a few things, usually psych, some art and some music. At YC, this fall term, there are 37 sections of psych. The AGEC requires three credits of psych and three credits of sociology so you’d think that the sectional offerings would be fairly commensurate across these disciplines, yet we offer only 14 sections of SOC, because NETFLIX doesn’t have any sociologists, to my knowledge. Music? There are 113 sections. Art? There are 82 sections. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to hate on ANY discipline. Every area of inquiry is valuable in my mind (remember, I’m a Spanish instructor, who am I to cast the first stone), but what I do try to point out to students is that vocal performance majors who “make it” are very rare. The same is true of art students who are able to survive through their art alone. Psychologists, even for those who actually become card carrying doctoral psychologists, are many, and jobs are scarce for people who want to hear about problems from the couch—not to mention the mere handful of positions left open for profilers in Quantico (despite what Criminal Minds leads you to believe). Yet, today’s student is sure, sure against sure, that he will be one of the chosen few, because, as all of their Facebook friends know, they are very special indeed.
I had to laugh as I interacted with one of my teen students who was sure that just after Yavapai College she was headed to Julliard to play the violin.
“How long have you been playing the violin?” I asked, trying to stay optimistic.
“About two years now. Yeah, I’ve just recently picked it up, but I’m taking to it like a fish to water”.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she started playing the violin about 12 years too late if she wants to be accepted at Julliard. What I did tell her was that getting a transcript forwarded from Yavapai College in Prescott Arizona that shows a “C” in SPA 101, is not a good way to get in either (she turned in a few more assignments after that).
Mark Shelley once encouraged me to ask my students how much income they expected to make in their first career job out of college. So, I took him up on the challenge and I had my students simply write their name and a dollar amount on a piece of paper. They then passed it up to the front and the comedy began. One of my students who had complained all semester about his hatred for math and his math teacher, was the most vocal. He ridiculed everyone. He said, “Hi Wendy, I want to shake the hand of the first 6 figure philosophy graduate the U.S. has ever seen”. In his defense, there were many six figure salaries in there. One high school football coach figured he’d make $120,000, another student planning to go into our viticulture program was sure to make $80,000 right off the bat and our digital film making bound were making well into the $90,000 salary range. When I got to the vocipherous math hater, his card read, “$100,000, and I know that it’s correct because I’ve researched this”. I asked, “What field are you going into?” He promptly proclaimed “Engineering” to a class that only saw me laughing about the ironies in his career choice.
I know that you’re wondering, so I thought I’d report. Number of sections of accounting: 12. What we need are more shows about accountants on NETFLIX . . . maybe ones that fight crime!?
Now, after much deliberation, I’ve decided to tell my students straight up. Heaven knows that their parents won’t do it, Mr. Rogers won’t do it and I wonder if university recruiters will do it on transfer day, so the buck stops at me.
“What are you going into?” I’ll ask.
“I’m a psychology major. I want to be an FBI profiler.”
“Ahh, I see. Do you have a back-up plan. I hear FBI jobs are hard to get”.
They look befuddled for a minute, as if they never considered not getting into the FBI, I mean, they are them after all, with nearly 350 Facebook sycophants reminding them, on the daily, that they’d “be like a totally awesome profiler, because you like always know what I’m thinking and stuff”. Then, they come up with a contrived plan “B” on the fly: “Or maybe a veterinarian, I’m not really sure yet”. Then I try to encourage the plan “B” with all I’m worth. Better to end up a marginally successful veterinarian than an out of work profiler, that’s what I always say.
So, with the office snake invasion, after great deliberation I decided to tell my colleagues about my brush with death. Jenny was angry; she wanted to live on in blissful ignorance and avoid the paranoia of imagined future snake attacks, but Debbie thanked me. She wanted to plan against the day of her own office serpentine invasion. Wise girl! Better to have bought anti-venom and not needed it than to have never bought anti-venom at all—another thing that I always say.