Spent the late morning/early afternoon at Mondoville’s Admissions Open House, representing the Humanities Department (English, Religion/Philosophy, History) at a table in the library amidst folks from the other disciplines, athletic teams, Greek organizations, and student services. We had about 300 visitors, and I had brought a variety of books from our various disciplines, copies of the student literary mag, and promo posters from writers we’ve hosted in the last couple of years.
It turns out that I could have drawn an equal amount of interest by passing out free cancer. I reached the point where I was buttonholing kids and parents at random and trying to see if I might spark some interest in what we do. Nyet.
It’s dispiriting, but I understand why it happens. Even in the best of times, I think kids are less likely to pursue the humanities from the beginning than they are to discover a passion after they’re here — and these are not the best of times. This is even more the case at Mondoville than at many small liberal arts colleges (SLACs). Mondoville has, in recent years, followed the model of what our new president calls the “college of access”, which means we have drawn lots of first-generation kids who may have been intimidated by larger schools, who may have been underprepared, or who may have used us as a safety school or a chance to earn grades that will get them into the school they really wanted to attend. The previous administration emphasized athletics and the discount rate as a way of getting bodies onto the campus, and the result is that the perception of Mondoville seems to range from a chance to say you played college ball (and in the South, that means a lot) on one end to a glorified community college on the other. Neither image is entirely fair — we have had some very strong, thoughtful, talented students (some of whom majored in English) in my time here, and we’ve helped a lot of kids build better lives, which is intensely satisfying — but that was what we settled for, and that was generally what we got. That model has managed to keep the lights on (for which I’m grateful), but at the same time, it leads to scenes like the morning’s open house, which left me feeling as if I had just been slapped with a carp.
Don’t get me wrong — I love what I do, and I approach my texts and my teaching with the same ferocity I had when I got here. I love good writing and good ideas, and I work as hard as I can to make sure that stuff makes it another generation. And my kids seem to recognize it — my classes fill quickly, and despite class GPAs below the college averages, my evaluations range from warm to incandescent. I’d just like to draw more kids who would be willing to stop at my table without my waylaying them.
The new administration wants us to grow beyond the college of access model, into a college people choose, rather than a college they settle for. I’m genuinely excited about that — at least in part because I think that will bring a more intellectually motivated type of student, who may be more interested in what my colleagues and I have to offer, instead of seeing it as a hoop through which they must jump. I hope the new administration gets a chance to do that — if nothing else, it would make open house a bit more exciting.