Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students

PALS is thrilled to have a guest post by Clay Zuba, a teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona. Zuba writes about his prior experience in the college-level classroom and asks higher education professionals to consider how to best serve the level and teaching needs of incoming students. Zuba makes the point that we need to understand how students develop as learners in order to best meet their needs. For more from Zuba, you can find his nonfiction and fiction writing about House of the Seven Gables here

via Ed Lim Photo

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a preponderance of professors, have at least once or twice recently said to themselves, “students today . . .”

Fill in these ellipses with your most common complaint about students entering your classrooms. You may find that they cannot read critically or write clearly. Perhaps they don’t know how to pose thoughtful questions or conduct research. Or know the first thing about symbolism, or the American Revolution.

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

Including myself. Since beginning as a high school English teacher about a year ago, I’ve learned a lot about these students. It surprised me. I wanted to share. Maybe we can work together.

via Geoff Livingston

Who I was, and who I came to be

I was one of you once. In January 2016 I earned my Ph.D. in American Literature, with a specialization in antebellum print culture. I published. I held a number of research fellowships. Between the time I started a Master’s Degree in 2010 and I moved on from the academic job market in 2017, I taught undergraduates at six universities on the east coast, in Texas, and the southwest. I had on-campus interviews, no offers. That is the way it is for many of us right now.

I began teaching at a college preparatory high school this past fall. I teach English to juniors and sophomores at what is considered an elite high school. One hundred percent the students with whom I work will attend a four-year college. This year they have been accepted to places such as Duke, and Stanford, and Airforce Academy. But many will attend in-state land-grant universities or smaller, out-of-state niche schools private and public. My students are very likely representative of those that will enter your classrooms as freshmen.

Even though I am very good at research, I admit that I love to teach young people in writing and literature. And I believe in the mission to prepare my students for university-level study. Much like you, as a university instructor, I often found my students insufficiently prepared to undertake their course of study in higher education. A few of them had a strong foundation in writing and literature. But many of them had trouble paraphrasing a thesis in an article in The Atlantic. Even the ones that could needed to learn to think  more critically. And some of the others (literally) didn’t understand how to analyze figurative language. I admit to thinking some version of “what on earth is going on in high schools”?

What I found out is going on surprised me. It may surprise you, too. We are actually teaching students all of these skills in high schools. We are teaching them to write essays with a clear thesis sentence at the end of the first paragraph. We are teaching them the elements of the gothic as a literary genre. We are teaching them to identify and analyze figurative language. And most students take their education seriously.

However, a number of entangled conundrums await students when it comes time for them to transfer their skills and knowledge from high school to college. I come to my conclusions based on my experience teaching both groups of students, rather than empirical study. I  hope you will find them helpful.

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Four rules for teaching my high school students

  1. Reorient, repeat.

I taught them to write a strong thesis statement and identify symbolism. Even so, you need to repeat and reinforce these skills. You need to reorient the knowledge students already have for their college environment. There are at least three reasons I need to ask you do this.

First, most young students do not transfer skills and knowledge well from one environment or field to another. High school students have difficulty transferring what I teach them about writing to their history class. They have difficulty applying their knowledge of history to help them historicize what they read in my American literature class. The same will be true of your students, but they will be facing an even greater change in environments, undergoing one of the great rites of passage in our society: the transition from high school teenager to college adult.

Second, if you do not demand that students apply their old close reading skills to your new classroom, they will assume that you do not require close reading skills in your classroom. They will assume that these were only for high school. So, model close reading skills as you like to see them. This will give my students confidence as they grow to use these skills in your classroom.

And three, their brains are still growing in their capacity for abstract thought.  For example, my students’ understanding of the types of abstract ideas that symbolism can encompass and how writers attach these ideas to concrete objects, will be different than when they become your students. No doubt you have your own favorite theory of intellectual development, but for reference I’ll link to the ones William Perry first published in 1968.

Believe me, my students and I discussed symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. We spoke about how the concrete symbol of the A acts as a vessel for abstract problems of sin and self-actualization. We identified how the symbolism of the A changes throughout the novel. But I’m going to have to ask you to model this thinking again if you want your students to analyze symbolism again in the college classroom, with college-level thinking.

  1. You need to teach writing – again, constantly.

The critical thinking that your students will do about literature will be deeper and more demanding than in my high school classroom. But as I mentioned above, they do not have the experience reasoning and creating on the level of abstraction necessary for your college classroom. If they do not have expertise in thinking, these students will not have experience writing with about abstract ideas, either.

You must teach writing even if, especially if, you are a tenured professor. If you appreciate the close connection between writing and critical thinking in your own work, you will see how important it is for you to give students feedback on their writing. Because it is feedback on their thinking. And if they know you are an expert on, say, Faulkner, they will value your feedback on writing more than they did the adjunct (still an expert, but an institutionally devalued expert) who taught them to write in their first-year writing course.

  1. Foster intellectual curiosity

As a high school teacher, I hope I’m helping my students build foundations that will enable them to ask worthwhile questions about literature and writing. But because, again, they are still developing, I can’t yet help many of them ask complex, nuanced abstract questions – and most questions worth asking in college are abstract.

They do have intellectual curiosity. But they are not sure yet what is worth asking. They do not know what is debatable and unanswered. And because of this, you are going to have to teach them, at least once in your classroom, to do research. If you use your university’s databases for research, you are going to be the best resource available for using research to answer the types of questions you’d like students to ask in your classroom.

  1. Be more attentive to your students as young people.

When I was teaching college, I didn’t consider it my job to think too deeply about my students inner emotional lives. And neither did any of the professors who served as my research or teaching mentors. But they need us to be attentive to them as young people, sorely.

I see my students 4-5 days a week. It gives me an awareness of how much they look to us as examples to build their spectrum of the moral and intellectual possibilities for adulthood.

It’s true that your students have plenty of other role models in college. But most of them are not good role models. Maybe your students’ parents are not even good role models. So you need to show them you care. Check in if they miss an assignment uncharacteristically. Encourage them when they doubt themselves.

It isn’t too late for you. You can still make a difference.

via Liz West


I could tell you more. But you’ve already given me your attention for long enough. If you’ve read this far, you’ve been kind enough to listen. Yet, if we are really going to work together to help our mutual students, this has to be a two-way partnership. And I want to hear from you.

What can we do, as high school teachers, to help our students prepare for college? What are the gaps between high school and college?

What am I missing in the miasma of grammar, genre, symbolism, figurative language, oral proficiency, vocabulary, historicization, themes, authors, writing structures, research skills, reading skills, et cetera, that I hope to instill as foundations for their college learning experience?

Please write back.  

Contributor Bio:

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Clay Zuba is an English Teacher at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Phoenix, Arizona, where he teaches American Literature and writing. In 2016, he was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Delaware. His acclaimed blog about Nathaniel Hawthorne is a precursor to his upcoming historical novel Love in the House of the Seven Gables.


“Hope and Keep Busy”: Teaching American Women Writers as Models of Moral Courage in Dark Political Times


After the election of 2016, like many educators, I had to challenge my previous assumptions about teaching and students. As a progressive educator, I had always believed in the human capacity to change and grow through knowledge, empathy, and education. But a presidential campaign based on anti-woman, anti-immigrant, and racist rhetoric had culminated in the victory of Donald Trump. In the face of the election’s outcomes and the subsequent attacks on vulnerable American populations that followed, my previous pedagogical assumptions seemed naïve and ill-informed. Yet even as I grappled to find my pedagogical way in this new world, the words that kept running through my mind were from my favorite childhood novel—one that I teach often— Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:

“Hope and keep busy.”

In the novel, Marmee comforts her four daughters with these words when she must rush to her dangerously ill husband, a Union chaplain in the Civil War. The 1869 novel’s “little women” were based on Alcott and her three sisters. Although the novel doesn’t mention it, Alcott’s parents Bronson and Abigail Alcott were social reformers and abolitionists; their home was part of the Underground Railroad. Alcott herself was involved with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.

As a professor at a small college in Texas, this past year I often encountered students who are worried about the loss of LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and Civil Rights in general. Some students feel lost and let down by the Republican Party, the political party they were raised in. In the aftermath of the election and to this day, I don’t know what to tell students when they come to me with these concerns or bring them up in class discussion. But in the spirit of Alcott, I tell all of my students to be strong and brave, to “hope and keep busy.”

Before the election of 2016, I had cynically taught Marmee’s words in the context of the “cult of true womanhood” and separate spheres ideology. “Hope and keep busy,” I would tell my students, was a platitude to satisfy nineteenth-century women and children with little political power and influence. But over the past year, I have come to see Marmee’s instructions as wisdom for those of us who feel disconsolate by our current political moment. To “hope and keep busy” is to believe in a better future and to fearlessly endeavor toward it, even if you are not sure of the outcome.

In response to my students’ worries, over the past year I have been intentionally teaching nineteenth-century American women writers like Alcott as models of moral courage and political empowerment in the face of political and social injustice. Many women writers from this time period were active in abolitionist and women’s rights activism and writing. In a previous PALS blog post, I wrote about “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature,” a very popular 200-level topics course for English majors and minors that also fulfills a general education requirement for non-majors. I am currently teaching a class for English majors on nineteenth-century social reform movements and literature. I’ve also had the chance to speak about some of the writers featured below at community fora and an International Women’s Day teach-in on my campus.

Angelina and Sarah Grimké: “Read, Pray, Speak, Act”

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Students are consistently inspired by the words of Angelina and Sarah Grimké. The two sisters were daughters of an influential judge and slave owner in Charleston, South Carolina. Outraged by slavery, they became abolitionists and moved to Philadelphia. Through their writing and speeches, they were some of the most powerful voices of the abolitionist movement. They initially spoke only to female audiences, but when men joined their audiences the Grimkés received censure and criticism. This lead to their advocacy for and involvement in the women’s rights movement as well.

Several of their most significant pamphlets are included in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and are easily accessible for classroom use. In her 1836 pamphlet An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, Angelina Grimké provided four interconnected strategies that women could use to fight slavery:

1) Read

2) Pray

3) Speak

4) Act

Because I teach at an institution with a religious tradition and an emphasis on service, my students see the relevance of Grimké’s words to the social justice issues they care about today. Students comment that Grimké’s advice to be informed and reflective makes their activism and political involvement intentional and structured, a contrast to the mayhem and dysfunction they see in Washington, D.C. and the state capital of Austin. To them, Grimké’s words mean 1) First, educate yourself on the issue; 2) Then reflect by connecting your fears and hopes about the issue to your own values or a “higher power”; 3) Next, foster dialogue with your family, friends, and others in your sphere of influence; 4) And finally, take action in your community by contacting lawmakers, protesting, and volunteering.

Grimké’s pamphlet was burned in the south, and the Charleston police warned that if the sisters ever returned, they would be greeted by—and not protected from— violent mobs. Things only got worse for the abolitionist movement after that with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the events leading up to the Civil War; yet the Grimké sisters remained committed to the abolitionist movement and women’s rights causes.

Questions for class discussion:

  1. How did the Grimkés’ religious commitments inform their writing and activism?
  2. What does “Read, Pray, Speak, Act” mean to you? Is this an effective political strategy in the present day?
  3. How would the Grimké sisters respond to today’s social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March on Washington?

Sojourner Truth: “Make This Nation Rock Like a Cradle”

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Sojourner Truth was a formerly enslaved woman and a vociferous abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was the first black woman to win a court case against a white man when she sued for her son’s freedom. During a speech in 1858, an audience member accused her of being a man, so she opened her blouse and showed her breasts. Truth was a deeply religious woman whose millennial vision for an ideal world informed her activism. Throughout her life, she worked as an itinerant preacher to tell the “Truth” of the Christian gospel and work against injustice and inequality.

Truth is most known for her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, an extemporaneous oration she gave at the Women’s Right Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Truth demands equal human rights for all women, including black women. She identifies the intersection of race, slavery, and gender in her critique of national inequality:

Nobody eber halps me into carriages, or ober mudpuddles, or gibs me any best place! [….] I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off the slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ar’n’t I a woman?

Truth had not been invited to the Women’s Right’s Convention and was not on the program due to tension between black and white women in the abolitionist and women’s movements. Because she could not read or write, white women later rewrote Truth’s story, including multiple transcriptions of her famous speech. Indeed, teaching “Ain’t I a Woman” as a literary text raises pedagogical questions about cultural appropriation, textual mediation, and issues of white privilege that students see as relevant and ongoing in the present day.

After the Civil War, Truth worked in the Freedman’s Village of Washington D.C. When threatened with arrest for this work, she said she would “make this nation rock like a cradle.” Teaching Truth’s life and work as a model of moral courage encourages students to think deeply about the United States’s legacy of slavery, racism, and sexism and the tensions between idealism and activism.

Questions for class discussion:

  1. How can Truth’s experiences as a black woman, a former slave, an anti-slavery activist, and a women’s rights advocate offer us insight into our own experiences?
  2. What did it mean for Truth to “speak truth to power”?
  3. How can Truth’s positive and negative relationships with white women help us see a better way for race relations in the present day?

Today’s Students: “Structure to the Chaos”

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There are any number of American women of letters who joined the ranks of Alcott, the Grimké sisters, and Sojourner Truth: Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, just to name a few. All of these women writers used their voices and the written word to point out the nation’s flaws and injustices and imagine “a more perfect union.”

My once despondent students have been heartened by the influence of these writers’ thoughtful and committed activism over the past year, and especially by the outcome of the December Senate race in Alabama and the recent activism and voice of Parkland, Florida student Emma Gonzalez. But through the study of earlier activists and writers, they now realize that change comes slowly and there is still work to be done. Many of my students have said that learning about the perseverance of these women writers makes them feel “safe and comforted” and brings “structure to the chaos” of today’s unpredictable political news cycle.

The students find it encouraging that all of these women writers believed in the democratic institutions of the United States, even when our country’s promises seemed distant and unachievable. The lives and writing of these American women provide students with examples of moral courage and remind us that those who “hope and keep busy” engage in a profound act of pedagogical resistance in our daunting political times.

Questions for classroom discussion:

  1. What do these authors have in common with present-day protest writers and activists such as Claudia Rankine and Emma Gonzalez?
  2. What did these writers have at stake? Do you think they worried about the outcome?
  3. Which quote from the readings makes you feel better about the future? Is there a quote that helps you see your present-day situation more clearly?

Questions for pedagogical reflection:

  1. Has the election of 2016 changed the way you teach specific authors, texts, and courses?
  2. Is it appropriate to promote students’ personal development—along with their intellectual development—in American literature courses? How do you do this? Through class discussion? Reflective essay prompts? Other strategies?
  3. How is the framework of “moral courage” applicable to other authors you teach? What does this pedagogical approach allow us and our students to see in the literature that other approaches might overlook?

Note: This blog post is based on an opinion article published in the Dallas Morning News. Click here to read that article.