Friday, July 10, 2009

In Search of a Higher Education: My Teaching Experiences at a HBCU

Picure of Morgan State University courtesy of myinferno 2007 at

I wanted to begin the weekend with something upbeat. I've been in such a silly mood all week. But just as I started composing, I received a call from my boy, Dollar Bill the Hot Tub Don (pronounced all at once like A Tribe Called Quest).

I haven’t seen or heard from him all summer, so I was genuinely surprised. However, I don’t want to know where he has been or what he has been doing. I don’t want to be called to testify in court later. What sordid lives some of us lead. But I digress.

Dollar Bill the Hot Tub Don (pronounced all at once like A Tribe Called Quest) sent me over the article "I had a dream" by St. Petersburg Times columnist Bill Maxwell chronicling his two year tenure teaching at Stillman University, a small historically black school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. [Click here to link to the original article.] Maxwell resigned his $70,000 a year job as a columnist and editor to accept a $33,000 a year professorship at Stillman with the stated purpose of “…nurture[ing] needy students the way that mentors had encouraged him as a young man.”

As I began the article, my judgment was already skewed. I readied myself to be angry and outraged. Dollar Bill the Hot Tub Don (pronounced all at once like A Tribe Called Quest) opened his email to me by describing Maxwell as a Ronald Reagan Democrat and used language such as “very biased” and “racist.” But by the fourth paragraph, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. His experience almost directly mirrored my own.

Years ago, I, too, decided to teach at a HBCU. I had read numerous articles basically reprimanding African American academics for passing up teaching positions at HBCU’s to accept more lucrative positions at predominantly white colleges and universities. And I agreed. Even though my colleagues, friends, and family attempted to talk me out of it, out of a sense of duty to my people and my community, I decided to sign on.

What I found at this particular HBCU simply broke my heart. The very first thing I realized after I began was that the culture of the institute was unlike any other university or college campus I had ever attended or visited. The culture better approximated a street or ‘hood culture than a culture of learning and intellectual attainment. Early on I joked to a college that the students’ conversation seemed particularly animated by “the two f’s”—fornicating and fighting.

But by biggest surprise awaited me in the classroom.

Since this was a private institution, I expected small classes, but I found myself crowded into an undersized classroom with about thirty-five students. And while grading the writing samples taken on the first day of class, I began to realize just what I had gotten myself into. Very few of the students evinced anything close to college level writing skills. Over the course of my tenure there, I found myself expending most of my energy simply teaching basic grammatical skills.

Most students were unwilling to engage in any type of intellectual labor; most of them refused to even read in preparation for class. Imagine standing in front of a literature class attempting to teach a text that no one had even read.

I offered my help outside the classroom in an effort to provide remediation far beyond what was required of me to any student willing to come. But most never did. In fact, most of my students showed up for class late, if they came at all. Some of my students I saw only on the yard or during sports events or at the step show or various Greek events.

However, my greatest moment of bewilderment came at the end of the semester when I was required to turn in grades for the semester. In my years of teaching, I had never given as many “Fs” as I gave that first semester which prompted a high level administrator to all me in for a short chat.

I tried to explain to him, how do you give a grade to a student who you haven’t seen most of the semester? How do you give a grade to a student who could hardly read or write a paragraph? I tried to explain to him all the safety net measures I had put in place to prevent students from failing, how I had offered to provide remediation to those students who needed it which was most of them.
He responded by informing me that students who fail do not come back. And that at this point in time, we could not afford to lose any more social security numbers. Social security numbers? I had a roll book full of students who did not possess the most basic skills required of college students, and he was worried about losing financial aid revenue.
By now some of you are angry at me. By now some of you are probably referring to me in pejorative terms. Probably by the third or fourth paragraph, you had determined that I am an elitist of some kind.

But his was not meant to be some long diatribe against HBCU’s; it is not my intention to paint all HBCU’s with a broad brush. There are quite a few HBCU's out there with a long tradition of excellence. But the smaller schools are struggling due to the talent drain caused by integration among other factors. And when keeping the doors open surpasses education as the ultimate goal, what are you left with?
This is but my experience at one school, one man’s experience out of many. And notice that I always used the qualifier “most.” I did have the pleasure of working with a number of very bright students and very committed and competent staff members as well.

Additionally, I still believe in, support and am committed to the mission of HBCU’s. In addition, I realize that in most cases, these schools are simply working with what they get. Too many African American students, mostly from economically depressed areas, are graduating high school after receiving inferior educations, and these schools offer the only hope they have of receiving college degrees. Furthermore, having to constantly struggle just to keep the doors open presents other serious problems as well.

But what I am hoping you, the reader, will offer me today is answers and maybe solutions. What was your experience in an HBCU? How do we remedy these problems? Where do we go from here?


RainaHavock said...

I'm at a HBCU right now. The classes are very good size but I wish the administration was a little bit better.

Max Reddick said...

If I am not mistaken, you are at FAMU. From what I understand, FAMU is one of the better HBCU's. In fact, I have several good friends on staff there and two of my nieces go there as well. But some of the smaller HBCU's are struggling now, and their struggles severly affect the quality of education.

md20737 said...

This article is to sad for me to comment because its all true.

msladydeborah said...

My stepfather taught at Central State. This is what he had to say about that particular school.

"It is the only institution that I have taught at where the students dress better than the faculty and they carry books around without ever opening them."

That was a real eye opener for me.

Some of the HBCU's are about the business of education. Others leave a lot to be desired.

Anonymous said...

gleaned from:

“Forty percent of FAMU students are in a science or science-based major, such as pharmacy (six years), engineering (five years), architecture (five years) or allied health, which now requires a master's degree.”

"Many FAMU students try to avoid deep debt by working. During the 2006-2007 school year, FAMU had more students in federal work-study jobs than UCF, FAU, or UNF (which all have larger enrollments than FAMU). Large numbers of FAMU students also interrupt their education to work until they have enough money to re-enroll. Those trends all hurt the graduation rate."

RainaHavock said...

@MAX: Yep I'm a proud rattler! :D Who do you know on staff here? I love it out here and I have to admit that they do a good job it's just some thing that erks me off but I'm sure that's what most school goes through anyway.

Max Reddick said...

@ MD20737

I certainly did not mean to sadden anyone, but I did want people to think.

@ MsLadyDeborah

Sadly, I hear stories like that often. The values have changed in our society. I remember speaking to a mentor who told me how he went to school as raggedy as a mango seed, but he did not miss a day, and he excelled. Now they come sharp as a tack, hardly make it to class, and fail to achieve. Sign of the times?

@ anon

Thanks for the link.

@ Raina Havock

ssssssssssssssssssssssss! Does that sound lik a rattlesnake?

RainaHavock said...

@MaX: It goes little something like this:

Anonymous said...

This is a sad post. The good thing is that not all HBCU are like that.

I can understand the impact of working while schooling. But I think the larger issue is the culture of learning and valuing education. If you can see students at greek fests and parties, but not in class something is wrong.

At what age do we learn to value education? How do we change the our culture to value learning?

I don't know the answer to that. I only know that I work on my own kids, and my nieces and nephews. I hold my sibblings accountable for teaching their kids ahead of their grade. Hopefully the kids will carry the experience with them through life, and seek to do more than what is expected of them.

Sometimes its hard (timewise) to participate in a mentoring program. But we can all try to mentor the kid(s) that we often. Maybe more mentoring can help

blackink said...

I'm almost left speechless. But not really.

Without giving away too much, I know that Bill Maxwell is a relentless grump.

And these two excerpts, in particular, caught my attention:

"When I could not pronounce the second name on the list, I knew for sure I was in big trouble. As I fumbled with the strange combinations of alphabets and apostrophes, the class roared."

"Instead of taking pride in being exemplary students, many were devotees of hip-hop culture. They were anti-intellectual, rude and profane."

I might question the impression he had of the kids before he ever stepped foot on campus. Maxwell clearly doesn't think much of hip hop or the people who enjoy its culture, even though it's apparent he doesn't know much about it beyond what Tipper Gore told him. Seems a little Cosbyesque to me.

But ... I also know that there's serious problems afflicting our smaller, poorer HBCUs. I can feel what you're talking about Max. Really.

But I really wish Maxwell had offered some ideas, some answers rather than run through a litany of complaints. That's easy. Anyone with two eyes and a little time on their hands can point to the problems, you know?

Like you asked, where do we go from here? Me, personally, I think we need to work on the socioeconomic discrepancies from the earliest ages. By the time these kids get to college, it's too late.

Better day care, better child care, better early schooling, creating better parents, could count for a lot. Problem is, not many people are invested or interested in that sort of grassroots work. Maybe because it seems overwhelming.

Ok. This is way too long. Nice, provocative post though, Max.

Citizen Ojo said...


Lyn Marie said...

The issues Bill Maxwell mentions is not only in the HBCU experience, but in many schools (at all levels)across the country. As a teacher I completely understand the frustration.

The truth is our society highlights wealth and ignorance. An example of that was our last election. The number of people both Black and White noted that Barack was not Black enough because of his education and manner of speech. To be educated and proper spoken is to be White. This was not the Black standard I grew up with (Malcolm and Martin and the like). Not to mention the many people that celebrated Sara Palin's ignorance of basic government and history. "She speaks to the middle class". Well if she does we can see why so many students are failing!

The answers are the same answers from 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We must hold our society to a higher standard, starting with our schools and school administrators. Schools that pass students just to move them on needs to end. Alternatives to traditional education need to be created an example of that would be the KIPP schools or magnet programs. Basic manners should be part of all school curriculum and reinforced by parents. It can be done but we as a society must stop making excuses and just do it. If we do not we are losing many intelligent, creative minds because no one cares enough to make them be the people they were meant to be.

I know this sounds a little like a soap box speech but it is the truth.

Max Reddick said...

@ Raina Havock

I see ya'!

@ Anon

Not all HBCU's are like this. An not all students attending a HBCU are as I described. But in the same instance, we need to think a few things through. Do we keep them open just for the sake of history and tradition? How do we affect change?

@ Black Ink

I'm feeling you too. As I read the article, I discerned many of the same things. There seemed to be this huge generation gap between Maxwell, and his students and instead of attempting to close that gap, he clung tenaciously to his old ideas and worldview.

But in the same instance, from my own experience, I have seen much of the same thing, and I did try to reach out to them. Again, the love for learning and intellectual attainment must begin long before students step foot on a college campus.

@ Lyn Marie

I know exactly what you are talking about Lyn Marie. I work closely with the local school system, and I know what teachers are up against. The value system has changed tremendously. We have become a culture whose ideal of success is measured in dollars and not sense. But what do we do about it?

uglyblackjohn said...

Ojo (3:49) actually thinks that it would be a good idea to turn some of the smaller HBCU's into Jr. Colleges to do the remediation.
His is the best idea I've read on the topic.

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