Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Dean and I

So, an interesting question was posed by Dani from The Yellow Wallpaper:

What's a moment that lead to great personal growth?

It was my second-to-last semester in college. After six years of truly just mucking about, I hit my last year with a vengeance. Due to carelessness and irresponsibility on my part, I had dropped out and not done very well at most of my general education requirements.

Finally, though, I was taking classes that were composed of my major, English Literature. My GPA was vastly improved, but I still had one of those pesky electives to finish. A direction I had at one point considered pursuing was linguistics, and I decided to see if I had any aptitude in the subject.

I was shocked to see my normally very small class experience blown up to almost 80 students for this particular course. Mind you, typically we had no more than 25 or so in a normal sized class. The two professors crowed to us on the first day that this was the first time this class was being taught with so many people, and they had obtained a grant to carry out what turned out to be their nefarious plan for us. Basically, we were guinea pigs.

The first half hour of the class was taught by them, then we were broken up into smaller groups of about ten. Two groups got to be led by the professors, the rest of us got TA's. Well, they called them TA's but really they were just students like us who had gotten an A in the subject previously.

Our particular TA was fond of answering our questions with a question of her own which never really answered our original question, and our disdain for her grew after only a few sessions. A band of us from this group formed a study group, and we would literally study for hours and hours and hours at the library, only to be frustrated and convinced that we were idiots. We were all getting A's and B's in our other classes, so we knew this wasn't true, but we were having a very difficult time grasping the material on our own, and with the class being so large, time with the professors was almost impossible to obtain.

A few tests later, most people in the class were doing poorly. We all disliked the teachers and the way the class was taught, but many of us were stuck. Grumbling occurred on a daily basis, and as the semester wore on, our scores got lower and lower.

After getting yet another barely mediocre grade on one of the last tests before the final, I had had enough. I felt I wasn't getting anything but the most basic of explanations from the professors, and the "Question Lady" who was our TA was horrible beyond belief. Most of my classmates with the TA's also didn't feel they were being particularly educated about anything, and the only people that did well on the tests were (surprise) the people whose groups were led by the professors. Not that we liked the professors much better, but at least they knew, ostensibly, what they were doing.

I needed to do something.

I began a petition. I asked everyone who had a TA to sign it. I told them that all they had to do was provide their signatures, and I would be the one to take it to the Dean of the English department.

I got over 40 signatures, over half the class.

I made my appointment with the Dean a week or so before the final. He was an affable and easygoing man who welcomed me into his office with a bit of puzzlement over what exacty I was doing there. I explained to him that we as students did not appreciate being "experimented" on to the sacrifice of both our GPA's and educations. I expressed the desire that the professors would have at least rotated around the groups, so that not only a select few were being taught by professionals. I told him of the hours and hours of study that got most of us absolutely nowhere but C's and D's on tests, despite having excellent grades in other classes. I was impassioned, but also clear and concise. I was no drama queen, but someone who was convinced of every word I was saying and concerned that the department should know the students' side of the story rather than that of the professors, who would no doubt congratulate themselves on a job well done.

To my utter and complete surprise, the Dean agreed with almost everything. He was overwhelmed by the number of signatures I had managed to collect, and that we would risk going over the teacher's heads. He promised me that he would speak to the profesors.

As I walked out of his office, I was changed in a way that is hard for me to explain. I had this feeling of complete and utter confidence. I had a feeling that one person could change something that seemed inevitable. I felt proud that I had stood up for myself and my classmates. Never a shrinking flower to begin with, I was emboldened, I was no longer someone just content to sit on the sidelines and watch things happen.

I will never forget the professors standing in front of the class, fuming that someone had spoken to the Dean. They made some sarcastic remarks about how easy they had made the final, and that hardly anyone would be in danger of not passing the class.

They had made the final an open book test.

After I had finished, I stood outside the classroom, waiting for a friend of mine so that we could have a celebratory lunch. Some girls were talking about how they had heard someone had gone to the Dean, and I immediately realized them to be of the professors ilk, since they didn't realize that person was three feet away from them. They snarked about how horrible it was that people had complained, and why had they done that, blah, blah, blah?

I just sat with my backpack and smiled a not-so-secret smile.


Suzanne said...

Go, Gina! Interesting, although not surprising, that the professors ignored the systemic issue and just gave you an easy final.

Liz said...

Congrats! I've never been a part of a petition that actually accomplished anything.

Heather said...

OMG - I did almost the exact same thing in one of my University English classes. Our complaint was that the professor was belittling toward his students and extremely sexist toward women. Unfortunately, ours backfired, because on the last day of class, he humiliated us all by reading the letter out loud to the class (the Dean had given him a copy!) and making snarky comments about it.