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The Question(s) Of Non-Traditional Students: An Instructor Mulls Over Multicultural Rhetoric
Madolyn Nichols, University of New Mexico

Like many of my colleagues, my career as a composition instructor began at Western Washington University which, due perhaps to its proximity to big Seattle business, had a student population that consisted mainly of traditional (that is, upper-middle class white) students. Though I taught there for two years, I honestly believe that I can count the number of nontraditional students in those classrooms on one, maybe two, hands. So, at that point, questions associated with non-traditional students never crossed my mind. By the time I finished my Master’s, I felt confident with my pedagogical approaches and the guidance I had given my students; they were, by and large, like me: second or third generation college kids who navigated the university system fairly easily.

When I arrived at the University of New Mexico to begin PhD work, my new colleagues informed me about the New Mexico lottery scholarship. The profits from lottery ticket sales in New Mexico contributed to a statewide fund that helped non-traditional students enter state universities; the only requirement for this scholarship was the retention of a 2.5 grade point average. The introduction of this scholarship, of course, allowed a vast number of students into the university system who otherwise would be financially prohibited. For this reason, as well as New Mexico’s demographic, I began teaching a great many nontraditional, and in some cases, ESL students. By the end of my first semester, however, in a class of 23 students, I lost six––a full quarter––to dropping or failing. A few students even failed the class while still attending, ignoring my pleas to come meet me in my office hours to discuss their situation. Naturally, I became worried about the number of non–traditional students dropping and approached some of my colleagues. They, by and large, had had the same problems, though many of the more experienced grad students and part–timers began to view this high failure rate as de rigeur––that it had just become to way of the academic world.

There are currently upwards of 3500 students admitted to 101 and 102 classes each semester at UNM, as estimated quarter of which will not make it past their second semester. The administration has seen the retention problem and has established offices for student support, often organized along racial or ethnic lines. But the students I’ve spoken with haven’t gone to these offices––they either don’t know how to avail themselves to these offices or they retain a distrust of a system that has, historically, excluded them. So, despite the continued multicultural rhetoric coming from the administrative offices, 101 students are still not excelling in freshmen English classes.

A few months ago, I was discussing this problem with a tenured faculty member who was very sympathetic to my plight. She seemed shocked by my figures and the stories I recounted of individual students. We ascertained that the crux of the dilemma was that these issues were being handled almost exclusively by graduate students and part–time faculty, because the majority of non–traditional students didn’t make it to upper–division classes. At that point I began to mull over the question of responsibility. On the one hand, I feel as though I am, in some ways, perpetuating the hegemony of the system by not intentionally modifying my classroom to become a ground for experimentation to honestly include the voices of marginalized students. For, if I don’t make the effort to help non–traditional students navigate through the system on their own terms, the chances are that I will continue to see only students like me in upper–level lit courses. On the other hand, I feel trapped in a position that has no real authority within the department hierarchy. So what do I (or other grad students and part–timers caught in a similar position) do? It is certainly no secret that non–traditional students have a low retention rate at four–year universities, and it is also no secret that this issue has frequently been handled at an administrative level, without input from those instructors that deal with those students on a day–to–day basis.

I will illustrate my dilemma with an example: last semester I had a student who was clearly non–traditional. Her sentence–level errors indicated that she came from a non–English speaking background. During the course of the semester, she failed every paper, by a slim margin. I urged her repeatedly to come to my office or to go to the tutoring center for assistance, but she never came. At the end of the semester, when the class was working on portfolios, she finally came to me. I looked at her essay and back to her. "So what, specifically, did you want to work on today?" I asked her. She shrugged and stared at me silently. At that point I realized that she didn’t even know what question to ask about her essay. It wasn’t that she needed help, she needed guidance. She needed guidance about navigating through the system of academic discourse. She needed more guidance than I, in my small position within the academic hierarchy, could give her.

Lisa Delpit explores some of the ways that instructors who come from a mainstream background fail to communicate effectively with non–traditional students. In not paying attention to what she refers to as "the culture of power," and the ways in which that culture directly affects our students, we as instructors are doing students a disservice. However, she also states that, "if we are truly to effect societal change, we…must push and agitate form the top down." So where, exactly, does that leave me (a well–intentioned upper–middle–class instructor who is not in a position of curricular power), and, more importantly, where does this leave my students?

To Bernhagen

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA