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Colorful Academics

Several nights ago, I completed a series of classes designed for high school students preparing to take the ACT. Over the course of the past two months, the students had periodically come in for two-hour sessions covering what they will face, subject by subject, on the exam. I also walk them through standards on how to take the exam in terms of time management, problem-solving strategies, and answer choice selection under conditions of uncertainty about which answer is correct. From previous offerings of this series, we know that the students subjected to this prep score higher. We offer seats in the program at a very low price just to level the playing field, since kids from well-to-do families are frequently attending similar seminars run by professional test preparation services.

The high school students who enroll in our ACT test preparation program are generally in their junior year, mostly 16- and 17-year-olds. They can be rambunctious, especially when there are a lot of them in one of the sessions; but in general, they get pretty serious as soon as I start speaking. For many, I’m their first experience with being taught by a college professor.

That’s unfortunate. As readers here who have watched my YouTube video lectures well know, I am most decidedly not the shy, quiet, reserved type when I’m at the lectern. I bellow, I growl, and I thunder; sparingly, I use the words “ass” and “damned”; and I conjure the occasional, very odd example to make a point. My students in regular college classes, be they held in a rough urban school or at a nice suburban college, get used to my ways pretty quickly, and although I do have the rare student who makes a meager complaint about me to someone in administration, most students enjoy and appreciate my style. It seems to me that I can make that statement with some degree of certainty considering I was just named Faculty Member of the Year.

I ought to be concerned about how my style plays with the high school students in those ACT prep classes, but I’m not, this despite the program coordinator’s rather timid mentions of a “few parents” who have called her to condemn me.

Whatever. The program coordinator cannot find many people who will blow whole evenings prepping kids for tests, and she knows very well that the overwhelming majority of the kids write post-program reviews in which they rate me highly; thus have I always been pretty sure that my over-the-top, hard-driving, arrogant style would not cause the directors of the program to tear up my $210 contract.

Until, that is, this time.

I swear, I didn’t see it during the first prep session for the science component of the exam. Only in retrospect do I vaguely recall what was going on, so I was a bit blindsided when the program coordinator mentioned (again, quite timidly) that a “group” of parents had called her to complain about me. She cited a cluster of problems, all of which had been stated by each parent. While I just smiled and laughed while she was telling me about this matter, in my head I was trying to recall if there was anything during the session under discussion that I had done differently.

Readers must understand that, although my stage behavior appears to be wholly extemporaneous, it is, in fact, a highly structured, polished act. I change the jokes, the silly references, and the allusions to pop culture, but the framework is identical from one session to the next, from one year to the next. It’s how I teach college classes, too. So what could have gone wrong in such a big way that a “group” of parents, rather than the usual one or two, had called?

The second session of the science review provided the answer, confirmed by seeing it again in the last session of the entire program, the session where I actually administer to the students a miniature version of the entire ACT and then give them some last-minute advice.

At that second session of prep for the science component of the exam, the room was not nearly as crowded: 20 students, clustered into three groups. The students wanting to show their sincere dedication were sitting at the front. Most of them were girls. Another group was scattered about the middle seating in the lecture hall. This group comprised an eclectic mix of kids, some of whom sat near the middle, others—the more reclusive—huddled against the walls. It occurred to me that some of those types of kids would be more likely to choose seats at the rear of the classroom, as far away and as symbolically detached as possible. That they were not sitting at the back of the class didn’t make sense, since only five students, all sitting in a row, were occupying rear seats.

Those five back-benchers were wearing shirts that all looked exactly the same, with the color combination of one of the local high schools. “Ah,” I thought to myself, “jocks.” It made sense that the more reclusive kids, and most certainly the others who wanted to display for me their high motivation by sitting right at the front, would want to be as far away as possible from the prized, pampered athletes.

It was only when I had been in my lecture for about 15 minutes that I noticed something wasn’t quite right about my assessment of those boys at the back of the room. I had made it to the part of my speech where I had to explain to the students that, when taking the science part of the ACT, students should not use prior knowledge or beliefs about science. While it’s important to have a solid, albeit basic, understanding of certain terms (their prep book has a glossary of terms with which they should be familiar), they must use only the information provided in a given passage for answering questions about that passage.

“For example,” I always say, “you might very well have a problem with discussing the evolution of a certain species or about the lineages that have led to the modern forms of certain animals. Now, you might believe on religious grounds that evolution is wrong, but your beliefs are irrelevant when taking the test. You are being assessed on your ability to read, understand, and then use information given to you. That’s what we at the college level need to know about you to assess whether or not you’ll be able to successfully complete dozens of college courses, where you’ll have massive waves of information poured into you from every direction.”

As I was nearing the end of that little rant, I noticed that those five young gentlemen sitting at the back were no longer leaning forward, taking notes; they were, instead, all sitting straight up in their chairs, arms folded, scowling at me.

I walked back and stood in front of what appeared to be their ringleader, and I said, “Unfold your arms, son. I want to see what your shirt says.” Some of them were visibly uncomfortable with the turn their display had taken, but they all unfolded their arms. The fellow to whom I had addressed my order proudly withdrew his arms, puffed out his chest, and pulled at the bottom of his shirt to make the graphic as legible as possible for me.

There they were: five shirts, all identical, complete with the colors of their high school, emblazoned across the front with a giant, three-dimensional, faux relief, white cross.

I just couldn’t help myself: “JESUS!” I exclaimed, and then I walked back up to the front of the classroom and finished the seminar, complete as it was with a blistering example of a problem involving the evolutionary history of a group of vertebrates falling (loosely) under the taxonomic classification Creodonta.

I have just sent my letter of resignation to the program coordinator. I figure that will save her the aggravation of having to figure out how not to offend me when she tells me about a group of parents who have called her demanding my head.

Besides, whether I’m teaching at a rough urban school or in a nice suburban college, I won’t teach gang members who wear their colors in my class.

I’m quite a bigot that way.

Dark Wraith

Dark Wraith