Back to the Beginning

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I received an email from a student who could not attend class yesterday.  In the email, she noted that she was having trouble with her glasses and had decided to get contact lenses.  Her lenses arrived the day before she sent the email, and she got them in, but after working several hours, she found she couldn’t get them out.  She had to return to the eye doctor during class time to have the lenses removed. She was told not to drive, even with her glasses.  She ended the note by saying she was looking for a ride for the next day, because she wasn’t sure she could get the contacts back in on her own.


Just last week, this same student expressed fear that members of her family, who are waiting to immigrate to the United States as she has, will face tougher restrictions and delays or rejection in their efforts to come here; she wonders if she and her family will be welcome, if they can be accepted members of the college and the community.  In the wake of that fear, she had not finished the essay assignment I gave last week.


It would be easy to condemn her.  Excuses, excuses.


Ten minutes after our 8:00 class began this morning, she slipped in quietly, exhausted after working the night shift yesterday.  In our ESL grammar class, we were working on the punctuation of essential and non-essential adjective clauses.  I watched this young woman during class as she peered at the screen where I was projecting examples:  she wrote diligently, stopping every so often and wrinkling her head in thought.   Towards the end of the class, I gave the students ten sentences and asked if commas were needed.   On sentence #3, she responded incorrectly; hearing me say “No, that’s not it,” she sighed and shook her head.   Another student pointed out why the commas were not needed, and in turn, I paraphrased explanation, using the grammar terminology I had introduced in class: “Yes, the information in this adjective clause is essential; the readers need it in order to identify which particular group of people the sentence describes.”  After a quizzical glance from the student, I repeated myself, slowly.  I could see her parsing my words, and then she nodded.  She answered all the remaining questions correctly.


This student reminds me of what my community college students—immigrant and non-immigrant alike—are facing.  They want to see, and they know that they need tools and experience to do so.  But some days, the contacts just won’t go in, and the world is blurry and muddled.  As teachers, we can be tough on them (and rightly so, much of the time).  But I also need to remember what it was like to be at the beginning, learning to put my contacts in as a middle-schooler, learning to write and diagram sentences (yes, I did diagramming) in the 8th and 9th grades.  I need to remember a time when I couldn’t make sense of all the pieces, but I had to move forward anyway.  I need to remember a time when I put my work in front of a professor, completely uncertain as to whether or not I had met the standards of the academy – standards I could not begin to articulate.  I need to remember standing outside the English building at Baylor University, drawn by the tall windows, the smell of wood and old books, and the conversations within.  But I was nervous:  at some point, I might be exposed as an imposter.  In my classes, I planned my words and parroted my instructors cautiously; I never had confidence that I could contribute much of substance, even though my mind delighted in the novels and poems we were reading, in the language we were using.


And I was a student from a background of privilege. 


In their work on threshold concepts, Meyer and Land suggest that students are in a liminal state, crossing a threshold and shifting their understanding of the world around them as they acquire disciplinary knowledge.   Some days, the contacts slip in, and the concepts fit together easily.  On other days, the contacts are left at home, and nothing quite makes sense.  In her overview of threshold concepts, Glynis Cousins notes, “Because it is difficult for teachers to gaze backwards across thresholds, they need to hear what the students’ misunderstandings and uncertainties are in order to sympathetically engage with them,” and “there is no simple passage in learning from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’; mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back, forth and across conceptual terrain.”  She counsels teachers to “demonstrate that they can tolerate learner confusion and can ‘hold’ their students through liminal states.”


This young woman got adjective clauses today, but she may not get conditionals next week.  I need to stick with her regardless, not blaming her for confusion and not condemning her attempts, however clumsy and uncertain, to make sense of it all.  And when, in the writing class she is also taking with me, she does not apply these grammar concepts with mastery in her essay, I must remember what she has in fact mastered, and how her writing has progressed. 


I need to take myself back to the beginning.  Then I can stand at the threshold and keep the door open.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.