Back When the Teachin’ Was Easy…

I started playing pool, like everyone does, with the ten-dollar house cue in the wall rack. I finally bought one of my own, for about $80, and it was miraculous. It made me a better player. A few years later, I spent $400 on a cue, a surgical instrument that made the $80 cue feel like a dull axe. And now I have a cue from the angels, a marvel of precision that I just love to have in my hands, a cue that enables a far greater repertoire than anything I’d tried before.

It’s a fact that a fine instrument is easier to play than a clumsy instrument, the thousand-dollar guitar more sensitive and less brutish than the fifty-dollar guitar. But we give kids crappy instruments because we don’t know if the investment will pay off. A professional could make a fifty-dollar guitar sound halfway decent, but they get the expensive one because they’ve demonstrated their commitment.

This isn’t dissimilar to the way we treat students in any field; the ones who need the most support get the least.

Those of us who taught first-year writing at Duke had a 2/3 teaching load. Teachers at most community colleges have a 5/5 load; at most other public undergraduate schools, a 4/4. First-year writing courses at Duke were capped at 12 students. Try to find a freshman comp course less than twice that size at most undergrad schools. First-year writing courses at Duke were all taught by people who held PhDs, people with substantial and demonstrated capability in academic discourse.

So those Duke kids, the ones who’d grown up with money and books and professional conversations at dinner, whose parents and grandparents were all insiders, learned academic writing with a remarkably well-tuned (and expensive) instrument. We could focus inordinate amounts of time on the critique of each paper, on the construction of each assignment. We could develop new writing courses every semester, with plenty of time to locate interesting readings and place them into interesting dialogue with one another, supported by an astonishing library and close support from a large library staff. And Duke’s students—the ones predestined to succeed, the ones who’d already had every advantage—could afford that opportunity, as part of a school whose own admissions office now claims approximately $70,000 per year cost of attendance.

Those other kids—the ones who mostly didn’t have invigorating intellectual home lives and didn’t grow up with books all around, the ones who have to work full-time during the school year to make it, the ones who went to crappy feed-lot high schools, the ones who might thrive if only they had more attention and more support—go to schools where unaffiliated adjuncts teach way too many courses to way too many students. It’s a raw consumer logic, in which those with advantages can purchase greater advantages, and those who already start a couple of laps behind have to carry extra weight.

When I teach pool now, I give everybody the $400 cue to work with right from day one. It teaches better habits, opens more doors. It brings joy. It just feels like the right thing to do.