Education

On Gatekeeping | Inside Higher Ed

My first personal experiences with gatekeeping educational gatekeeping revolved around standardized tests.

At some point in grade school I took a test and they decided that my math and English instruction should be “accelerated.” Fine. Whatever. It meant a couple of hours a week per subject where a handful of us left class to work with a different teacher. In 5th grade, we took the SAT, but they very consciously did not tell us our scores, not that I would’ve known what it meant at the time anyway.

I was a good student in grade school because I didn’t associate what we were doing with “schooling.” I was a curious kid, a precocious reader because my mom had owned a bookstore since I was a year old, and for the most part, doing the stuff we were asked to do seemed reasonable and even occasionally fun.

That spirit and enthusiasm for school leached out of me over time as school became less about learning and more about schooling, until I became one of those chronic underachiever kids in high school. Sure, I’d be in the honors classes, but don’t expect more than a B and sometimes not even that. I was – blessedly – on no one’s radar for special treatment as a young person of promise. 

And then I took the PSAT. One day, without notice, we were herded into the cafeteria, given some #2 pencils, handed those booklets with those dumb questions, and went to town for a couple hours filling in the little dots. Didn’t know what it was for, didn’t care. 

However many weeks later, I was a National Merit Scholar, and all of the sudden, I was a young person of promise and gates no one would’ve invited me to look at, let alone walk through, were being tantalizingly cracked for me. I did not care for it. Catalogs from selective colleges arrived every week. Because I went to a suburban high school overwhelmingly serving upper middle class or richer white kids, we had a college counselor who now wanted to meet with me to discuss my “options.”

I half-sandbagged my one attempt at highly selective admission (Duke), writing a personal essay on my biggest challenge being having to drive a domestic car to school, or sometimes even take the bus (!), while my classmates were tooling around in Volkswagen Cabriolets and Mercedes Benzes. The college counselor told me I couldn’t submit a satire of the college application essay for my college application essay. I did it anyway. I was not offered admission.[1]

My brief period as a candidate for admission to a highly selective institution was a good lesson in how the gates are unlocked and for whom, and it has made me distrust the gatekeeping aspect of education institutions ever since. I was the same kid prior to and after the PSAT, and yet two hours of multiple-choice bubble filling suddenly elevated me above the pack.

Later, as I pursued writing as a graduate student, I was witness to a different, more subtle version of gatekeeping. The “workshop,” the central feature of creative writing pedagogy, was a form of gatekeeping in and of itself, with the implications that a writer must be able to withstand the rigors of having one’s work dissected/torn apart by a potentially hostile audience, if you expected to persevere and achieve the life of a writer.

It’s true, there is lots of rejection and disappointment in the writing life, but with years of hindsight, it now seems strange to me to center rejection and disappointment in the pedagogy itself.

Maybe others found the workshop format more helpful, but subjecting a work in progress to a cacophony of voices – even if some of them were singing hallelujah – was a guarantee that I’d never want to work on a piece again. Lots of war stories abounded about “surviving” workshop or having a story pass muster, and I suppose there is some measure of pride in achieving these goals, but having now persevered at this business for 25 years, I can say that it is not an experience that built the kind of resiliency that writing requires.

Ultimately, if you want to write, you have to become much more comfortable with being ignored than anything else.

While there were some professors who seemed to genuinely relish what they saw as their role to identify the next generation of promising writers, even going so far as to tell certain students they did or did not have “it,” more often the gatekeeping was less overt.[2] The promising students got a little extra attention, the introductions to the editors and agents and the like. 

Unlike the workshop, this is often how publishing and the arts work. You’ve usually got to be good or better than good, but it doesn’t hurt to have a champion who is already established in your corner. I suppose this is probably true in high profile academia as well, though I am not nearly as familiar with that arena. 

These thoughts came to me after reading Matt Reed’s recent perceptive post on “Writing Students Off” where he takes issue with an essay I’m not going to link to that makes the entirely unremarkable observation that “some students are smarter than others.”

As true as that is, my response as an instructor is “who cares?” I’m sure my response is wrapped up in my personal beliefs around the gatekeeping function of education and educators, but also, seriously, why does this matter?

It never occurred to me to rank my students. Writing is an activity that benefits everyone, so the goal in my courses has always been for everyone to maximize that benefit for themselves

We also have no idea when an in-school experience is going to kick in and prove meaningful to a student, so the notion that I should be sorting the worthy from the wanting does not compute with me.

Maybe this is why I did not make it as a professor or academic, but if the price of entry is believing in gatekeeping as a central job of the instructor, I was doomed to failure the whole time.

 

[1] Probably more about my grades than the essay, or the fact that in my interview with a Duke alum who asked me what I might want to do and I said I wasn’t sure, but definitely nothing like “investment banking.” He worked in investment banking.

[2] I did have one encounter, not with a professor, but a visiting writer who read my story and said something along the lines of “Why would you even be trying to do this?” which was pretty painful at the time, but ultimately wasn’t enough to put me off entirely. She is now a bestselling, widely beloved novelist, and no, I won’t say who it is. Given our relative statures in the literary world, you could argue she wasn’t wrong to ask the question in the grand scheme of things, but still…

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