Intro Courses Place Marginalized Students at Disadvantage

Cyrus Eosphoros, Contributing Writer

This is the second part in a series on the negative effects of assumptions underlying “elite” higher education, at Oberlin and in general.

At the start of my fifth semester at Oberlin, my history professor began our class by saying, “I hope you remember your APUSH.”

For those of you anywhere near as lost as I was, that’s AP U.S. History. My history class was the first half of a yearlong series and the closest Oberlin gets to an introductory American history course. Created by the College Board, AP courses are high school classes modeled after college courses that have become a way for students to prove their worthiness to potential colleges. They can also provide college course credit for students who score highly on the national exam.

I had to look that up, because I’m from Mexico. The month I turned 18, I moved to the U.S. to study at Oberlin.

As I listened to the rest of my professor’s introduction, which focused on their contempt for disability accommodations and our obligation to “keep up,” I tried to deny a creeping realization: I was going to have to drop my major because its faculty didn’t want to bother teaching someone like me.

Despite Mexico’s proximity to the U.S., I was not taught American history in school, and the assumption that I should have been is imperialist. I intended to take the 100-level History course to catch up with my American peers’ homefield advantage. Instead, I got conclusive proof that even Oberlin’s basic courses aren’t intended for people like me.

Perhaps this is a bit unfair. While international students make up anywhere from 8 to 16 percent of Oberlin’s student body, depending on what website you visit, maybe one in six people is still too small a minority to figure into professors’ pedagogy. But within the U.S., access to these resources remains unequal: 40 percent of public high schools don’t offer AP classes.

As I wrote in my last Review article (“Oberlin Mistakes Quantity for Quality,” Feb. 26), people underserved by their schools are more likely to be systematically marginalized in other ways, such as by poverty or racism. Oberlin admission is an achievement; if accomplished without AP classes or college tutors, it’s an even greater reflection on a student’s drive and academic potential. But when underprivileged students claim their hard-won place at a prestigious school, they are failed by the institution — sometimes literally.

While my history class was just one example, the gross assumptions seen in my professor’s comments are a constant at Oberlin. The fast pace of Oberlin courses, which is praised as a marker of quality higher education, is based on this assumption of academic privilege.

Some professors attempt to address this inequality by providing additional background reading. However, underprivileged students continue to be at a disadvantage because they are expected to learn at a breakneck pace without course context. It becomes the student’s duty to effectively teach themselves a second class concurrently.

This expectation of background knowledge in 100-level courses is ironic, because the most emblematic way of getting ahead — those AP courses — are meant to replace lower-level courses for the student, not for the College. When AP classes and their equivalents are considered a given instead of a mark of exceptionality, professors can structure their class with the assumption that every student has that privilege. Instead of providing an introductory education, they assume another teacher has already delivered that knowledge.

In higher-level classes, the lack of access compounds. Professors at the 300-level assume background taught at the 200-level, professors at the 200-level assume the same for their peers’ work at the 100-level, and professors at the 100 level pass their responsibility toward their students onto an ideal AP high school teacher. Any student who has been underserved by their prior educational system is let down by the supposedly high-quality institution they’re attending now.

This is lazy. It is an expression of a desire to put less effort into teaching. Oberlin is implying that students from less privileged educational backgrounds don’t matter, and that we don’t deserve a chance to get on a level playing field with our luckier classmates.

I can empathize with the reality of this kind of student-teacher dynamic, even as I continue to demand that professors recognize it as a weakness and move past it. Professors are already experts in their field and they want to have the kind of exchanges with their students that they have with colleagues who they view as academic equals. This defeats the purpose of a class entirely. The point of organized education is that professors know something their students do not and are there to ensure their students learn it. What professors seem to want instead is to address people who already know what’s on the syllabus. As superficially flattering as the elevation of students to “equal” status may feel, it’s actually a disservice. A refusal to teach to the level that students need ignores the responsibility to create the next generation of their peers.

I’ve seen this practice — offering complex classes without also presenting a way for people to get a grasp on the subject first — defended and praised in the name of “rigorous education,” but what I am criticizing is the opposite of rigor.

Making blanket assumptions about students that can be proven wrong with the merest glance at statistics isn’t rigor, nor is educators testing people on material they were never actually given the opportunity to learn or assuming people who are here as students have already been taught by someone else in order to avoid responsibility for students’ actual education. It’s wrong at any level of education, but for the prestige and quality Oberlin claims to represent, it is unforgivable.

There is a place for advanced classes that examine in detail the knowledge students already possess, but there must also be a way for people to acquire that basic knowledge in the first place. Catering only to the privileged minority of people who don’t need an introduction is lazy, and the reifying of “fast-paced” classes means that this kind of corner-cutting is considered proof of a high-quality education. Because of this, academia’s emphasis on speed becomes a betrayal of the very idea of education. When colleges and universities assume not only that everyone has equal access to a good primary and secondary education but that every student has been taught the same ideas, they are demanding something statistically impossible. These assumptions are irresponsible, simplistic and wrong. They make for poor education, and we have allowed this kind of willful ignorance to dictate basic pedagogy.