The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."....  ... Mahatma Gandhi.

Commentary of the Day - July 12, 2006: You Probably Don't Remember Me, But....  Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

I'm not quite sure when I first began receiving letters from former students beginning , "Dear Professor Pinsker, You probably don't remember me but...."  In most cases they would tell me how things didn't quite work out in their less than high paying post-college job and how they hoped to enroll in a graduate program in English -- probably for an M.A. but who knows?   That's where I came in.  Would I be willing to write a dozen or so letters of recommendation to graduate programs ranging from Harvard and Yale to a handful at the bottom of U.S. & World Report's heap? And, sorry about this, but could I please have the letters sent off in 4-day's time?"

Other letters were, let us say, more welcome -- the sort that filled me in on a marriage, the birth of a son or daughter, etc.  I admit that when  letters began to arrive that  talked  about a son or daughter who was  thinking seriously about applying to  the same college as mom or dad, reckoning up the years gave me night sweats.  Had I really grown that old?

Other letters, however, were the sort that I really should have filed in a large manila envelope marked "Publish Later!"  I am referring to the letters penned by folks in their ninth step of recovery and that were intended to make amends to people their various addictions had harmed. If memory serves, I got the first one in the summer of l968, from a student who confessed that he was on LSD when he took the mid-term exam and that's why he made a large, looping circle on the cover of his bluebook and kept retracing his steps until he went through each page beneath it.  I remember when he came into my office and explained that he had had a bout of vertigo during the exam and probably should have gone to the infirmary but didn't.  He then went on to wonder how I could possibly grade such a mess of a bluebook.  "Easy," I replied, bringing my thumb and forefinger into the shape of a circle, or in his case, the zero he received on his mid-term.

Other student letters detailed how they missed class, not because a grandmother had died, but because they had been on a bender, while others confided about nodding off in class while the rest of the class debated the pros-and-cons of Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance," because they had smoked some weed earlier that morning.  Over the years I began to feel I had heard it all -- not only about alcohol and drug addiction, but also from the sex addict who later told me that he just couldn't keep his eyes off the fetching young woman four rows away.

Taken together, the letters struck me as heartfelt and true.  That's why I hasten to add that I I do not mean to disparage, much less to make fun of, twelve-step recovery programs.  Modeled on the highly successful program initiated by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), such twelve-step programs have helped many thousands of people get their lives back on track.  AA programs and their cousins understand how important it is for people to admit the harm they've done to loved ones, co-workers and, yes, even teachers, and to made amends.  In my religious tradition, people do this on a yearly basis during the holiday called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It is not sufficient that one ask God to forgive sins committed against other people until one has asked those people to forgive you -- by asking for their forgiveness and by making amends.  People in the ninth step of recovery do this as soon as they are able -- without the need to consult a calendar or make their way to a house of worship.

Again, recovery programs have important work to do.  I share some of the letters I received over the years -- and, alas, did not keep -- because they are one of the few instances where the gap between large public institutions and small private colleges shrinks.  I would be surprised, very surprised, if somebody teaching at a large public university has not received a letter from a ninth stepper admitting that he or she peeked at the answer sheet of a neighbor during a multi-sectioned bio exam, just as I cannot imagine that I'm the only college professor who gets letters from the repentant outlining how they once gave me a rotten evaluation on a teaching effectiveness survey -- not because my teaching was "inefficient" or "inept", but because they were angry that I had given them C's.

Apparently those with "anger issues" can also find a twelve-step program designed to help them.
My point is simply this neither chairpersons nor deans give a fig about what students write on evaluation forms.  But what students write five or ten years after taking a course is a horse of another color.  Add the fact that ninth steppers are committed to telling the whole unvarnished truth and you'll begin to understand why the letters that I didn't save tell us more about real student life than any report issued by any Dean of Students or any chapter in Tom Wolf's woefully bloated college novel, My Name is Charlotte Simmons.  And if you understand that, you'll understand why I regret not keeping that folder of letters.  I could have sent them to a mainstream publisher and had my manuscript accepted in a heartbeat.  All I'd have to do would be to write a short introduction and then I could have looked forward to a life of rolling in clover.  It's enough to drive a guy to drink.  I don't think I'll actually become a lush because of this but if I do I know the people to contact.  I betcha I'll write my first letter to the Irascible Professor.

© 2006. Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College.  He is a frequent contributor to The Irascible Professor.

The IP responds:  One of Sanford's key points is that it may take years for a student to fully appreciate the quality of his or her education.  What might have seemed tedious, dull, or unimportant at the time may, in the long run, turn out to be more valuable to a person's life than that which seemed immediate and exciting in the classroom.  Unfortunately, as Sanford notes, that long-term value often is not captured in the immediacy of student evaluations of instruction.  Wise department chairs and deans take that into account when reviewing those evaluations.  But, here at Krispy Kreme U. not all department chairs and deans are wise.


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© 2006 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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