Fun fact: My wife and I both attended all-women’s colleges

Elysha attended Smith College in North Hampton, MA from 1993-1997.

I attended St. Joseph's University in West Hartford, CT from 1996-1999.   

Both of these institutions of higher learning are women's colleges, though St. Joseph's recently decided to admit males beginning next year. 

Elysha attended Smith because she is a woman. 

I managed to attend St. Joseph's University thanks to the exploitation of a loophole.

I was a student at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, but Trinity is a member of the Hartford Consortium for Higher Learning, a college consortium that allowed students at any consortium school to take classes at any other consortium school.

Included in that consortium was St. Jospeh's University.

What normally happened was a Trinity student would discover that he or she needed a specific class that wasn't available during a particular semester. Rather than waiting to take the class or overloading their schedule in a coming semester, the student would find an equivalent class at one of the five consortium schools and take the class there.

When I was in school, the average Trinity College student would never take a class at a consortium school. Most would remain at their home school for the duration of their college career. But occasionally a student would take advantage of the consortium in order to fill a need.   

I merely took advantage of this consortium arrangement to a degree never before seen. While earning an English degree at Trinity, I also enrolled in a full degree program at St. Joesph's University simultaneously, earning an education degree as well. 

Thus I earned my education degree from an all women's college, where I sat in undergraduate classes every day as the only man. 

It wasn't easy. I was also enrolled in an English degree program at Trinity, so I was taking a lot of classes in two different schools while also managing a McDonald's restaurant full time and tutoring students in the Trinity College Writing Center part time. But if you've dreamed of college for all of your life, and you've overcome homelessness and an arrest and trial for a crime you didn't commit, you feel fortunate to be able to work so damn hard. 

My presence in those St. Joseph's classes didn't sit well with everyone. You presumably attend an all-woman's college to avoid having men in your classes. To find me sitting in the back of every one of your classes was frustrating to some, but I made some great friends, too. 

It was quite an experience, and it proved very helpful when I became an elementary school teacher and had to work almost exclusively with women. I learned to operate productively in an all-female environment as one of handful of men. I learned to keep my mouth shut more often than it was open. I learned to collaborate. Listen. I discovered ways to forge positive working relationships with people who were not overly enamored with me.  

I also used my degree from an all-women's college when trying to impress Elysha as we began dating. Knowing how much she adored her experience at Smith, I hoped that this commonality in our educational background might appeal to her. 

I needed all the help I could get. 

I went to the movies and met an amazing young woman and a loud-mouthed racist.

I went to a late showing of Interstellar last night. I’m in Indiana and alone, so I figured, “Why not?”

It was a good movie


The cashier who handed me a Diet Coke and a box of Junior Mints was a young, black woman. As she poured the soda, I asked her if she had seen the movie yet, hoping for an informed opinion.

“No, not yet,” she said.

“But you get to see the movies for free,” I said. “Right?”

“Yeah,” she said. “But I have four jobs, and I’m a fulltime student at Purdue. So when I come here, I do my job, and get back to my homework or one of my other jobs. No time for movies. Or anything else other than work and school. At least not yet.”

I told her that if I lived in the area and owned a business, I would hire her on the spot. As someone who worked 50-60 hours a week while double majoring at Trinity College and Saint Joseph’s University, I know the amount of effort, tenacity, and determination required to put yourself through college all too well.

I wished her luck with her studies and headed to my movie with a bounce in my step. I felt like I had spoken to someone special. Someone who would do great things with her life.  

I sat down in front and to the left of two middle aged, white couples. The trailers for upcoming movies came on. We watched the trailer for Selma, a Martin Luther King, Jr. docudrama about the civil right’s marches in Alabama.

One of the men to my left scoffed and said, “Another damn nigger movie.”

“Jim!” the woman (presumably his wife) sitting beside him whisper-yelled.  “Don’t talk like that in public.”

I wanted to tell Jim and his wife that if I owned a business where they worked, I would fire them immediately.

Frankly, I wanted to drag Jim out of the theater by the scruff of his red neck and introduce him to the cashier who was working four jobs and attending school fulltime. Tell him that she was already more than he would ever be.

I didn’t say anything. I wanted to so badly, but the voice of my wife spoke to me, reminding me that my repeated confrontations with strangers will one day land me in a lot of trouble.

If I’m going to end up in trouble, at least let it be in my home state.

But my respect and admiration for the cashier whose name I wish I knew grew tenfold. While she and I both fought our way through college by working like dogs, I didn’t also have to deal with the Jims of the world.

Racism was not an obstacle for me.

The five years that I spent in college, two at Manchester Community College and three at Trinity College and Saint Joseph’s University, were hard enough without racists and bigots blocking my path and clouding my world.

I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must be on someone like that cashier.

I can only hope that when that young woman graduates from college and is ready to shed her four low paying jobs for one good one, there are fewer Jims in the world than there are today.

And for the Jims who are still standing when that day comes, I hope that they at least listen to their racist wives and keep their hateful remarks at home where they belong.


The tyranny of the syllabus

I know a handful of college professors personally. I know a handful more via Facebook and Twitter. I have known many, many more throughout the years. Right around this time of the year, the discussions about their fabled syllabi begin to appear, both in real life and on social media.

Their comments can usually be boiled down into the following statements:

  • I am working on my syllabus.
  • I feel angst about my syllabus.
  • The work that I’m doing on my syllabus is complex and time consuming.
  • I am proud of the work that I have done on my syllabus.

As a teacher, I find this never-ending conversation about syllabi both amusing and disturbing.


Let’s start off with the dirty little secret of higher education:

Professors are not teachers. The great majority of them have almost no formal training and have never studied the art and science of teaching. They are experts in their specific fields of study, and if their students are lucky, they have received a modicum of training from the college or university where they teach (usually a week or two before the semester begins), but for the most part, they do not have any actual teaching certification, scholarship, or meaningful training.

This is not to say that their instruction is ineffective.

However, in many cases, it is highly ineffective. I have attended classes at six different institutions of higher learning, and I have met many professors who are experts in their field of study and utterly inept in the classroom.

Thankfully, I have also been taught by professors who are incredible teachers, too. For the most part, I suspect that these people possessed many of the innate qualities of an excellent teachers long before they entered the classroom. I also suspect that these professors have chosen to study the art and science of teaching with the same vigilance and rigor as they study in their field of expertise.

These people are teachers disguised as professors. They are highly effective, oftentimes inspiring, and sometimes life changing.

Unfortunately, they are too few in number.

Which bring me back to the syllabus:

The carefully designed plan for the entire semester. The source of both angst and pride of so many professors and students.

Also one of the most disastrous and ridiculous documents in the field of education.

The syllabus represents a professors plan for instruction for the course of approximately four months. It is disseminated to students at the beginning of the semester, and in most cases, it is adhered with rigor and fidelity. Due dates are predetermined and enforced. Readings are assigned and expected to be completed by the date indicated. Lectures and coursework is paced in accordance with the schedule set forth. Everything that students will be doing over the course of the semester is listed in clear, explicit language.

Ask a teacher to teach using a similar plan and he or she would laugh you right out of the classroom.

At its most fundamental level, teaching is a process that requires engaging instruction, ongoing assessment, constant differentiation, and relentless adjustment.

A syllabus is the antithesis of this. It represents uniformity. It dictates a predetermined pathway for instruction. It sets expectations that apply to all students, regardless of talent or ability. It predetermines precisely how long a group of learners will pursue a particular topic.

This is, of course, ludicrous. This is not teaching.

An example:    

My hope may be to finish reading Macbeth with my fifth grade students by September 28. That is my plan, and I have communicated it to them (though being fifth graders, I’m sure that most don’t remember this). But if my students don’t understand certain concepts in the play or are incredibly enthusiastic about the text or ask unexpected and surprising questions or despise Lady Macbeth with every fiber of their being, that September 28 deadline could easily drift forward or backward.

I will assess understanding and enthusiasm and adjust accordingly.

This is the essence of good teaching.

I will also adjust my instruction based upon my students’ individual needs. I will seek to understand those differing levels of ability and differentiate instruction based upon my students’ specific skill levels.

Nothing is static. There is no four month plan, because there can be no four month plan. I work with human beings. Not widgets. 

My plan is to study four Shakespearean plays before our winter break. That number may increase or decrease based upon any number of factors.

My students may be so thoroughly enthralled with tragedies that I decide to skip the comedies entirely. Or at least delay them until the spring. 

A graphic novel of Macbeth may be released that I decide to add to our study. Or a film. Or a play at a local theater. Or a student-created puppet show.

Any number of factors will alter content.

This is what teaching is all about. Engaging instruction and relentless adjustment.

But this is how many, and perhaps most, college classes are typically taught. The syllabus determines the what and when.

In a college classroom, assessment rarely drives instruction. The syllabus drives instruction. Assessment is used for determining grades. It does not determine which students require additional instruction. It does not signal to professors that their students require additional time or increased levels of challenge in order to achieve their greatest academic potential. 

“Greatest academic potential” is a state that all teachers seek for their students. But in order to achieve this state (or even strive towards it), a teacher must constantly monitor, assess, adjust, and differentiate.

I have almost never seen this process take place in a college classroom. 

Rarely is work at a college level differentiated. Despite obvious differences in the backgrounds and abilities of students, instruction is delivered to all students at the same time in the same way.

In college, differentiation is not done in the classroom. It is not handled through instruction. It is parceled out in 15-30 minute chunks known as office hours.

To an actual teacher, this is insanity.

I believe that it’s this relentless march though the syllabus that has led to the rise of online learning and MOOCs. Rather than acting as teachers, professors have presented themselves as content delivery systems. They set forth a plan and adhere to it, lecturing, assigning grades, and marching through their semester regardless of circumstance. 

You will read about Subject X before Monday. I will lecture about Subject X on Monday. We will engage in a class discussion. You will write a paper on Subject X, which is due the following Monday. I will assign you a numerical score based upon your adherence to a rubric that I have determined.

What about the student who struggled with the reading?

What about the student who was not challenged by the reading?

What about the class who does not find Subject X nearly as engrossing as you do?

What about the class that wants to spend another week discussing Subject X?

As a teacher and a former college student, I would like to see the college syllabus become more of an approximate plan for the semester, with fairly rigid timelines in place only in two week increments.

“Here is what we will be doing this week and next. It includes the readings and assignments. We’ll see how it goes. Then we’ll figure out the next two weeks. Because we are learners. Not robots.”

Teachers do not speak of their curriculum or lesson plans with nearly the same consternation or affection as a college professor does his or her syllabus because the teacher knows that curriculum and lesson plans are great until class begins. Then the real teaching starts.

As German general Helmuth Von Moltke said:

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”


A majority of college professors do not subscribe to this belief. They encounter the enemy (their students) and march forward, regardless of obstacle or resistance. 

Follow the syllabus. Administer the tests. Finish the semester. Ignore the wounded who litter the battlefield.

This is not teaching. It’s content delivery.

It’s a damn shame.

Cost effective way of attending college

The New York Times recently ran a piece on the soaring cost of college:

For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports. Average debt for bachelor degree graduates who took out loans ranges from under $10,000 at elite schools like Princeton and Williams College, which have plenty of wealthy students and enormous endowments, to nearly $50,000 at some private colleges with less affluent students and less financial aid.

NPR offered this visual of the increasing costs of higher education:


With justifiable concern over the high cost of a college degree, I find myself constantly reminding people that there are alternatives to the traditional accumulation of debt in pursuit of a college diploma, including the slightly unorthodox path that I took to college.

I began my college career at Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT at the age of twenty-three. I stated college later than most, primarily because the path to secondary education had never been made apparent to me.  Throughout my childhood and during my entire high school career, the word college was never once uttered to me. Not by parents, not by teachers, and not by guidance counselors. For reasons that I will never understand, it was universally determined at an early age that I was not college material. 

So even though I graduated in the top 5% of my high school class, I found myself rudderless and lost after graduation with no plan for the future. I quickly moved out of my childhood home, a process that had begun two years earlier when my parents gave me bath towels, flatware and a microwave oven for my birthday (making it clear what they expected of me), and embarked on a five year journey of difficulty and heartache that ultimately led me back to school.

I attended Manchester Community College for two years, earning an Associates degree in liberal arts. I have attended three other colleges and universities since my days in Manchester, earning degrees at each one, but the best education I ever received was at MCC.   

After graduating from MCC, I enrolled at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. Trinity accepted all but one of my community college credits, meaning that I effectively received two years of Trinity College credit at a community college price.

At the time, tuition at Trinity was about $38,000 per year.

The cost of my two years of community college? Less than $5,000.

A savings of more than $70,000 for the two years.

As a result of my academic performance (top 5% of the class again) and involvement in the MCC community (President of the Honor Society, member of student council, a Truman Scholarship finalist), I was offered immediate acceptance and a sizable scholarships at a number of outstanding schools in the area, including Yale University, but I opted for Trinity College for a number of reasons.

Most important, Trinity was only about fifteen minutes away from home and work. While attending MCC and Trinity, I worked about 50 hours a week managing a McDonald’s restaurant, launching my DJ business and tutoring in the writing center on campus, so proximity to home and work was critical if I was going to succeed.

Trinity also had a program that specifically catered to non-traditional students. Though it did not change my course work in any way, Trinity’s IDP program was designed to help integrate the non-traditional student into campus life as much as possible, and the program made me feel more welcomed and accepted than any of the other colleges I was considering.

Trinity was also a member of the Greater Hartford Consortium of Colleges, affording me access to a number of colleges in the greater Hartford area. This allowed me to earn a degree in English from Trinity while simultaneously earning a teaching degree at St. Joseph’s College, an all-women’s school in neighboring West Hartford that had a solid reputation for turning out excellent teachers. Thus I earned two degrees at two different institutions for the price of one.

Enormous savings.

I attended Trinity College (and St. Joseph’s College) for a total of three years, meaning that I spent a total of five years in college while most traditional students spent four. But I graduated with two degrees (three if you count my Associates degree from MCC), making the extra year well worth it.

I received a number of scholarships from Trinity based upon my academic performance at MCC (another enormous benefit of attending community college first), but I was still responsible for well over half the cost of tuition during those three years of school. I paid for this with student loans, Pell grants, and personal savings, graduating with about $16,000 in debt.

Don’t get me wrong. $16,000 is a lot of money, but it’s not an overwhelming amount of money when paid off over time. Six months after graduating, my loan payments amounted to less than $300 a month.

Absent any parental support or college savings, the cost of a college education could have been astronomical for me. Paying the full cost of four years at Trinity College without the benefit of scholarships would have left me with a debt exceeding $100,000. Though I certainly had to make sacrifices in order to earn my college degree, I did so without crippling my financial future.

While it would have been wonderful to attend college immediately after high school and live on campus for four years, this was simply not a possibility for me after high school. I did things a little differently, and though it set me back by at least five years in comparison to my peers, I also feel like I was much better prepared for college when I finally made my dream a reality. I had spent the previous five years before college struggling immeasurably. I had been homeless, jobless, penniless and had experienced the crushing sadness that comes with the belief that you have no way of making your dreams a reality. When I entered my first college classroom in the fall of 1994, I was ready to work and prepared to excel.

There are many roads to college. Some are easier than others. Some are costlier than others. The crippling debt that so many students graduate with today is not required in order to be successful. It is a choice that is made by students who do not want to compromise on their road to higher education. I respect their decision. I sometimes wish I had made the same decision. But the crushing debt that follows graduation should not come as a surprise. A college education has a cost attached to it, and that cost is made clear before a person ever signs a student loan agreement.  

I remind my students almost every day that anyone can find a way to pay for college, regardless of their family’s financial means. All they need is the desire to succeed and the willingness to work.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.