About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Scenes from a Community College Tutoring Center

Many years ago I ran the Academic Advancement Program Tutoring Center at UCLA (at UCLA the Academic Advancement Program is our Educational Opportunity Program), and years before that, I worked in a community college writing center, so tutoring/ learning/ writing centers form a significant part of my professional background, and they have contributed to the way I think about learning, teaching, and higher education. A project I have been working on has brought them strongly back into my consciousness, for a number of the people I have been interviewing talk about the crucial role these centers played in their success in college. 

These interviews make me think of the time I spent in a community college tutoring center when I was doing the research for Back to School. Put simply, I loved the place and would sometimes go there late in the day just to get a taste of its vitality…and to remember my own time working in a tutoring center. Here are a few scenes from that center. I hope they give you a sense of what drew me to it.


            “The wonder of it,” is how William explains his fascination with astrophysics. “What’s out there?” he asks softly but with emphasis. “What’s really out there?” He knows he’s got a ways to go, but he’s getting closer with every semester. He’s taking calculus now and Chemistry II, then next term it’s more calculus and a physics course on the mechanisms of solids. “This is where my heart is.” In a year, he plans to transfer to a university.    
            We’re sitting at an old table in the back of his community college’s Tutoring Center, where he works. He’s in his mid-20s, a lightweight boxer’s build, jeans, a hoodie, quietly articulate. The origins of his interest in science lie not in science but in homelessness and his mother’s desperation.
            There was a time, he explains – he was 7 or 8 – when he, his younger brother, and mother lived in their car, then in an abandoned house. His mother worked three jobs, but she still couldn’t make enough for rent. He would wake up in the middle of the night and find her crying, “turning to the sky and praying to God to ‘Help us. Help us. Help us.’ … And I would wonder ‘Why is she looking to the sky? I know she says there’s a God, but what’s really out there?’”
            He started doing well in his science courses. Middle school and high school. But, according to him, the thing “in the end that really topped it off” was the Discovery Channel. William was “amazed” to learn about “all these people looking at the stars and sending robots out into space. So I started doing research on it, and I found out that it all had to do with physics.”
            It took years of working, being dissatisfied, taking one class, then another, changing jobs, learning the ins and outs of college, trying to balance work and school, trying the graveyard shift, starting a family, taking more classes, asking more questions. William finally got all the pieces together. “I kind of had to discover everything on my own, but now I’m not gonna let anything stop me.”
            The Tutoring Center is one large room with computer stations along two walls; there are also five round tables closer to us with computers on them. Two old couches sit side by side close to the entrance, and other tables – like the one William and I share – and chairs are spread around the room, some separated from the others with movable partitions. A lot goes on here. In addition to tutoring, the Center hosts workshops on everything from using the computer to writing the college admissions essay. A sizeable number of students on this campus do not own a computer or lack Internet access, so they come here as well to do assignments. And some students have grown attached to the Center and stop in for quick advice on everything from course selection to problems with home life. There’s a homey feel to the place. While I was interviewing William, an older woman was chatting with one of the tutors, urging her to get her flu shot, and a guy from the culinary program, white coat and chef’s hat, came in bringing a tray of pastries.
            In front of us, a tutor is helping a woman narrow down her topic for a psychology paper. “I’m trying to figure out how people become more tolerant.” Over to our left, another tutor is sitting alongside a big man in a muscle T-shirt. “Give us some insight as to why you’re using this quotation,” she says, and he nods and leans into the keyboard. Alongside them, another tutor is encouraging a diminutive young woman; he cradles the side of his head in his hand, looking at her sideways: “You do have some second-language writing issues, but your vocabulary is great.” Then, “Don’t let the frustration beat you. You’ll get this.”
            I started coming to the Tutoring Center because the remedial classes I was observing required students to complete some online assignments there. I was impressed with the tutors, with their intelligence and camaraderie, and with their commitment to the work. They talked about “making a difference,” about wanting to do more, about feeling “overwhelming gratitude” for the opportunity to be so involved in other people’s lives.
            The tutors were either preparing to transfer to a university or had already done so and kept their job at the Center. I got to know them pretty well, and, once my other work was completed, would increasingly stay late and talk with them.
            Antonio did well in high school – he was the editor of his school’s newspaper – and went straight to college, but had to quit because of illness. He picked up again at a community college in another city, then came here, and transferred last year to a local private university as an English major. He loves to talk about books and writing, about the way literature becomes part of you, the characters and plots becoming “engraved in you.” He’s reading Raymond Chandler and laughs as he explains how he’ll be walking down the street and “the next thing I know I’m describing what I’m doing,” in that distinct Phillip Marlowe voice.
            Larry is the tutor who, head in hand, was encouraging the young woman who wasn’t a native speaker of English. He’s in his mid-thirties, an ex-Marine who was in and out of prison after his discharge, got his life together at this college, and is now a double-major at one of the state universities, Linguistics and Conflict Resolution. He says in amazement how much he loves what he’s doing, given that he hated, just hated high school. He’s taking an African Studies course, sociology of the family, labor studies, and a course in the psychology of peace building taught by a former United Nations negotiator. He tells me about his project: designing a charter school in the occupied territory for Arab and Israeli children.
            Many years ago, I worked in a tutoring center at another community college and later went on to direct one at UCLA, so I have a soft spot for them, for the very idea of them: a common space where students come to learn things in a more personal way, to test their own understanding of material, to try out ideas, to practice a developing skill with the guidance of more skillful others.
            There’s a lot to say about the center we’ve been visiting – the students it serves, the dedication of its tutors – but one thing that particularly strikes me is how frequently the current tutors were once receiving services here themselves. The same is true for the fellow who manages the Center. He’s now a graduate student in education at a nearby state university, but he began his post-secondary career at this campus after an injury made it impossible to continue in the meat-processing industry. He placed into low-level math (pre-algebra) and equally low in English. He had a lot of remedial course work in front of him. But he came to the Center, slowly made his way up the remedial ladder, took his general education requirements, transferred, got his B.A., entered graduate school, and came back here to tutor, and then to help run the place. Within the little institutional niche of the Tutoring Center, there is both upward mobility and reciprocity, whereby members of this miniature community over time have the possibility to sit on both sides of the table. Maybe that’s one reason they seem to have such understanding of the students they work with. “It’s a different world if you go straight from high school to college,” a tutor named Cassandra told me. “I was that student sitting across from me.”
Cassandra is in her late-20s, has a bright, round face, brown, wavy hair that fans out across her shoulders. Her eyes hold yours when she talks. Students come to the Center requesting her. She is a skillful tutor, working with a wide range of students, from those needing help developing an essay to those who are just learning English and are struggling with their textbooks. If you watched her at work or met her – she sticks her hand straight out to shake yours with a firm grip – you’d be as surprised as I was to hear her story. She moves through the Center with assurance. She’s planning to get a graduate degree in psychology. She is passionate and articulate about her work, has a sensibility forged from her own difficult experience. She lays out the problems some of her students have – poor academic preparation, little money, prison records, tumultuous personal lives – but “I would hate for them to just wither away without realizing their full potential, to know what they’re worth, how smart they really can be.”
            Like most of the tutors here, Cassandra’s path to college was neither linear nor certain. She did enter college right after high school and took a number of classes, but she felt out of place and inadequate and eventually quit. For some time, it had been hard for her to concentrate on school. Her mother was chronically ill and her father was distant and demeaning. “I was always worried.”
            I have known so many students like Cassandra; in fact, I in some ways was one myself. She never got into big trouble, but drifted through her classes, undistinguished. Things were unstable at home, and she was consumed with worry and disengaged at school – a disengagement that some teachers took to be intransigence, or worse. Several teachers did try to intervene in a way that might have been well-intentioned, telling her that she’d better get focused or she “wasn’t going to amount to anything.” But that kind of talk only wounded her all the more. The damage of tough love. She was caught in an awful spiral of insecurity and retreat, which was interpreted as disdain, which led to Cassandra’s further marginalization.
            For much of her academic life, Cassandra felt like an outcast, ignored, not very bright, going nowhere. She’s worked since she was 16, through high school and through and after her first stint at college. Those jobs were increasingly unrewarding. “I was just lost.”
            One day a few years back, a friend of hers invited her along to a basic skills math class at her college so that they could then hang out afterward – an utterly random act. Sitting in the math class, Cassandra began to think about school, how long it had been, how this didn’t feel so bad. The next term, she signed up for a speech class, “just for my own growth. I had no intention of going full-time or transferring.” Then next term, one more class, a philosophy class. Then one more term, one more class. Then one year after that serendipitous visit to math, she enrolled in an English composition class that “totally changed everything for me.”
            This professor wasn’t easy; he’d challenge students, make them defend what they wrote or said. But according to Cassandra there was something about the way he looked at you while he was challenging you. “You knew he meant well.” This professor called on the reluctant Cassandra, spoke to her in the hall about her papers, asked for her opinion about things, asked what she wanted to do with her life. “I never had a teacher talk to me like that. He was poking at my brain. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I’m not dumb!’”
            While she was taking the professor’s course, Cassandra was coming to the Tutoring Center, working regularly with two tutors. Toward the end of the term, one of them laid down his pencil, put his hands on the table and said flatly, “One of these days, you’re gonna be sitting here tutoring somebody else.” This was one more in a string of light-bulb moments Cassandra was having at the college. And she began to think, “I have to do this. I’m going to transfer.”
            One of the major goals of public and private initiatives aimed at the community college is to increase the rate of transfer to a four-year college or university. There are just over 1,200 community colleges in the United States, and depending on their location and the demographics of the high schools and neighborhoods that feed into them, they have varied levels of success in fulfilling their transfer mission. Community colleges can provide services and programs to support transfer, and one strategy that helps is to create “learning communities,” or “first-year experience programs,” or programs built around “at risk” populations – programs that create cohorts of students who take classes and receive services together.
            In an informal way, the Tutoring Center functions as such a program. The management model encourages cooperation and shared responsibility among the tutors, and I frequently saw tutors conducting workshops together, sharing students, covering for each other. The tutors use their minds collectively in the service of others, creating in the process an intellectual community among themselves. Larry told me he considers the people in the Center his family.
            There are a lot of roads leading to a college degree, from the one straight out of high school to the retiree going back to school to complete a journey that was interrupted decades before. And there are many, many roads that lead to an intellectual pursuit, to physics, or literature, or psychology, or the study of conflict and peace. The more varied the pathways to degrees and to intellectual pursuits – the more personal histories, the more points of view – the richer we are for it. Cassandra’s experience in school and her work as a tutor will shape her study of the way people learn. Larry’s life on the streets and in prison and the particular way he survived it all gives him a certain understanding of violence and reconciliation. And William’s fascination with astrophysics has a heartbeat to it. Even if they end up asking the same kinds of questions that are asked by others in their courses, they will ask them in a different way.

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