Photo credit: Kevin Abourezk

 

Phip Ross

It’s graduation time for many students. Not for most, of course. Many are turning full attention to making money between terms. Or taking stock of where they are and what they will have to do next. Or questioning themselves.

I haven’t been to many SCC graduations, but I have made a point to show up the last several years. When I started attending, I couldn’t help but feel the joy and relief saturate the arena. Many faculty members share in that joy more than others. Some cheer, embrace, or are embraced by students.

I’ve experienced this joy, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in it.

But I can’t help but sense, if not observe, that developmental faculty are several steps removed from that culmination. Participating in the first steps of the post-secondary journey puts years of space between our classes and our students’ eventual graduations. Take Seth Marshall (pictured) who spoke publicly and gave permission to share his start at SCC in developmental math and English. It began with a D and C+, respectively, in 2011 at SCC’s downtown campus. Five years and nine terms later, he transferred to the university, and now six years later he graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. That’s 11 years for researchers who would count this as a failure in studies that examine retention and completion. At most, studies like this look at six years.

Seth’s journey through college is unique, and like all students’ paths, marked by a historical, economic, and socio-political context whose rich and difficult landscape would fill books.

In a feather ceremony at the pow-wow grounds at the Indian Center on a chilly April dusk this spring in Lincoln, Seth spoke proudly to graduating LPS high school seniors of diverse Native tribal affiliations who circled the interior of the dance grounds. Feathers were blessed by sage. Elders spoke. Drummers sat under a tree and sang. I stood outside the circle and felt in my chest emotions tensing. So many journeys fraught and failed, and yet the story continues in beautiful ways.

Seth’s college experience, I imagine, would be counted many times as a failure in studies where students start classes, and then pause to make money to pay for the next term. As I’ve watched these students’ interruptions, I have felt a sense of failure too, which is why I am writing this to faculty across Nebraska who have a hand in these journeys: we can do little to smooth, control, or straighten these students’ experiences happening outside of our classes that often challenge college advancement. We endure at our jobs to learn about these stories and bear what we can, teaching “content” that is more like co-creating a way together with our students; this is a process of responding to one another, adjusting each day to the written, the spoken, the embodied curriculum. This is a framework that emphasizes the centrality of the student, where curriculum does not exist without the student (Bovill, 2013). It is demanding. There is the self-imposed pressure to get our students to academic benchmarks, and there is also the external pressure, intensified in 2021, happening throughout Nebraska and the country. This will likely only get more intense on developmental education and its educators.

Those of us who stay in this niche of post-secondary education have to take care not just of our students, but of one another. Appreciate one another’s steps forward to our next term. We are, in fact, lucky to have this opportunity and fortunate to be in this together.  Worthy, even, of traditions we may make to hold one another up. And celebrate.

 

An English teacher at Southeast Community College, Phip Ross is a teacher, writer, activist, and musician. To contact Phip, please email pross@southeast.edu