Ivy bye

Erin O’Connor of Critical Mass is leaving Penn to teach English to high school students at a boarding school.

I’ve been teaching college since 1991. Along the line, I’ve stopped feeling that I can do the sort of teaching I want to do in a university setting. Too many people arrive at college — even a place like Penn — without solid reading and writing skills. And once they are there, it’s almost guaranteed that they won’t acquire them. Their educations are too unstructured, there is too little continuity with individual professors and too little coordination among professors, there are too few professors who will take the time to work closely with students to help them develop and improve their skills. I noticed that the best students were ones who brought their skills with them to college, while the weaker ones were those who had been done a disservice in K-12. I noticed, too, that most people turned a blind eye on this realization, and taught their classes as if their students were far more prepared than they were. I noticed that they inflated grades to cover this up, and that they groused among one another — utterly unselfconscious about the fact that as teachers they have a responsibility to, you know, teach — about how students these days just aren’t very smart. I realized that there was not much I could do in such a setting to change things, and that if I wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives, I needed to encounter them when they were younger. My leaving academe is certainly in part a gesture of disgust at the corruption I’ve documented endlessly on Critical Mass. But, far more elementally, it is an attempt to put myself in an educational setting where I can actually do some solid, lasting good.

O’Connor has quite a bit more on secondary vs. college teaching, plus links to comments by other academics.

About Joanne


  1. Chris Haynes says:

    Mom sent me to speed reading during the summers of my 2nd and 3rd grade years.
    At the time they used book holding machines that moved a bar down the page. Hated missing my summer fun. I do not believe that doing this in my high school years would have made much impact, however it did get me through grades 3-12 with no trouble. If you wait till high school to learn good reading skills it is to late. Life long aversions to reading were apparent when I taught young men in the service.

  2. Robert says:

    Is anyone interested in my early education in Sydney Catholic schools in the fifties? Let me tell you how I was deceived and brutalised.

    First, I was taught by a certain Miss Gidley to approach English as a strictly phonetic language. By the time I realised it wasn’t, it was too late. I’d already read my first novel at age six as a result of this trickery.

    Next I was taught to regard a sentence as a mechanism that could be pulled apart like any mechanism. Nouns, noun clauses were subjects and objects of verbs; adverbs, adverbial clauses, adverbial phrases modified those verbs, and the phrases and clauses could be described as being of various sorts (manner, time, place etc)…more trickery! The aim of this cold and artificial approach (“parsing” they called it) was no doubt to prepare me for the Latin and Greek that was to come. Now I’m comfortable reading a dozen or so languages…but is that a compensation for the mental brutality of compulsory grammar?

    To make it worse we were given regular elocution lessons, which have made it impossible for me to mumble and look at the floor while addressing my fellow humans. Think what that’s done to my Cool Factor all these years.

  3. My kid brother used to hate reading, and he wasn’t particularly good at it, either. Then, in seventh grade he took a Journalism class. One of the main things the teacher did was to teach th class speed reading. As Chris mentioned, it involved using a book-holding machine; it also used an overhead projector for group training. At the end of the year, he could not only read fast, but his comprehension was up to college level (this was the 70’s, so that was a GOOD thing then). He actually began to enjoy reading for the first time in his life.

    Now his idea of ‘light, fun reading’ is to read the technical manual for a new model of computer server, or the technical specs for a new piece of lab equipment. Oh, well, there’s no accounting for taste.

    For me, it was incomprehensible to NOT read. My mother knew that the worst punishment she could dish out to me was to forbid me to read, which usually involved sitting me on the closed seat of the toilet – it was totally out of reach of any books. I was so desperate that I started reading the labels on cans and bottles. I blame this for getting me hooked on chemistry – I HAD to find out what all those long, mysterious words under ‘Ingredients’ meant.

  4. obviousman says:

    Ohhhh, a boarding school! Only an elitist academic could call that ‘making a difference’ Want to make a difference Ivy, try an inner city school…or would you feel to uncomfortable being so exposed to the lower classes?

  5. Or maybe she could pursue the highest calling of all. She could troll comment sections criticizing others.

    Of course, then she would have to give up having an actual life and she would have to just be a total parasite whose only joy in life comes from trying to tear down others. But hey, sometimes people have to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.