It’s only the second week of classes, and already I’m quite seriously behind. The reason is that there is so much remedial teaching I have to do that I keep running out of time before getting to the subject of the course.

It would be great if the students knew what the Roman Empire was, realized what the term “the Middle Ages” refers to, could find Mexico on a map, didn’t mix up Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, and were aware of the fact that the US did not exist in year 711. There are also problems with vocabulary, and I have to stop every two minutes to explain words like “indigenous,” “feudal,” “aqueduct,” “nomadic,” “synagogue,” “lyrical,” etc. Several students didn’t know how to spell the word “Muslim.” The weirdest version that it took me a while to decipher was “moslium.” Maybe this student thought I was referring to a chemical element like potassium or cadmium. Several students didn’t know what a mosque was.

Explaining all this devours class time like I can’t begin to tell you.

33 thoughts on “Remedial”

  1. I know, I have this problem. It gets worse the more advanced the course is, because some people advance without learning these things. It took me an hour to explain vocabulary like this in one class this week so we are a day behind.

    But, “moslium” as an element in the Periodic Table is pretty good. I think Tom Lehrer is still alive and he should be informed of its existence: … it ends: “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard / There may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered.” Well: moslium.


  2. Ask your student to find definitions of these words before class in a dictionary. To “motivate” them grade the activity (5% of their total grade). You do not have to check all the answers; have a quick look at the papers or ask some students to give the definitions at the beginning of the class.

    My Spanish major in their senior year did not know who Lorca was. What. Went. Wrong?


    1. That’s a great suggestion! Thank you, I’ll try it. I already made them create little boxes on every other page of their notebook to write down new words. I also talked about the importance of expanding your vocabulary. Now I wonder, though, do they know words like “expand” and “vocabulary”? I’m kidding, of course, but for me to try to speak only with short, simple, fifth-grade vocabulary is like learning a new language.


  3. The Roman Empire: where the United States, Great Britain, and Nazi Germany got their eagle fetish. Greatest bunch of assholes in Western history. Stole everything from the Greeks. Had olives. Made concrete.

    Mexico: An independent equatorial nation with a long, rich, conflicted history that makes white Americans think of gardeners, weed, fences, and Taco Cabana.

    Buenos Aires vs. Rio de Janiero: capital of that country from “Evita” vs. capital of that country with the huge Jesus.

    The Middle Ages: the time that had all the knights and kings and popes and shit. Nobody ever bathed.


    1. Oh my God. Have you met my students? 🙂

      To be honest, though, your definitions are kind of too sophisticated for these kids. I have a feeling that unless they saw it in a movie or a TV show, they can’t be expected to know it.


  4. Thank goodness I read the comments before I posted mine. I assumed, from your post, that you’re teaching a class of intellectually/socially backward students, possibly from underprivileged immigrant families (my uni had a special one-year programme for bright students from such backgrounds). I was about to congratulate your uni on running such a programme, and you for teaching in it.

    In context, however, it would have been extremely condescending to your students, who, I think, are more products of their environment than deliberately,individually anti-intellectual. Would you agree?


    1. Actually, immigrants are always stellar students. I hope we manage to attract more of them.

      Our students are often very ignorant and close-minded when they first arrive on campus. However, by the 3rd and 4th years, they become completely different people. We give them a chance to travel the world, meet people from other cultures, learn languages, start following the news. If in the 1st year, only one or two students in a class of 40 say they follow the news and read newspapers, by the third year, almost a half do. By graduation, I’d say about 60% do. Fourth-year students come up to me to engage me in discussions on world politics on a regular basis.

      The education we provide to these kids is priceless because it changes their entire way of being. Today, my freshmen couldn’t identify Mexico on the map of the Americas. By fourth year, many of them will have visited Mexico (and other countries.) So it isn’t their personal dislike of learning that’s at fault. It’s the ignorant home environment and the poor secondary education.


    1. I’m teaching only the freshmen course this semester. I keep reminding myself that it does get better as the years progress. It is, however, a little daunting to teach the first-years.


  5. The spelling of “Muslim” is a moving target, for some reason. When I was in elementary school in the 1950’s, the word in use was ‘Mohammedan’ and the religion was called ‘Mohammedanism.’ Years later, I heard of ‘Islam’ and did not realize for some time that it was the same. The word ‘Mohammedan’ was shortened to ‘Moslem’ which is still the way I instinctively spell it, unless I stop and think.

    All this is, of course, a bit of history of the American English language, and has nothing to do with the faith itself nor what its believers/practitioners call themselves.


    1. I’m still not sure whether it should be Muslim or Moslem. I see both versions used, and I heard that one of them offends people, but I can’t figure out which one.

      Does anybody know?

      In class, I use Muslim.


      1. I’ve seen Muslim used more often by Muslims themselves and in publications in classes I took where Islam is the focus, just like how it’s “Hindu” and not “Hindoo”. The only time I saw “Moslem” being used was in a mocking tone, to suggest that people who use that spelling are out-of-touch with reality.


      2. Anybody does know 🙂 It’s ‘Muslim’, just like it is ‘Hindu’, as Nominatissima said. However, Mohammedan — i.e., of the Prophet Mohammad — is still used in colonial-era institutions without any discomfort. There is a football club in Calcutta, for example, still known by its original name, Mohammedan Sporting.

        Colonial spellings are ridiculous things. And yet these are the spellings that have been concretised, for obvious reasons.


        1. Thank you!

          This short post proved to be the most popular this week by far. I wonder why that is. Are people surprised that the students’ level is this low?

          Because if this is shocking, then think about all those who never get to go to college. Or those who don’t even graduate from high school.

          And then imagine what they think about when they go to vote.


  6. That’s f-ing insane. I wish you could either just kick those kids out of class or tell them that if they don’t understand these basic terms, they must do the research that night to catch up – then continue with your class. Of course, they wouldn’t bother with it. I spent unbelievable money at college (something like $200 per hour of class, we once worked it out to), and it just bothers me to no end that so many of those hours were spent covering basic topics, recapping (even literally repeating the previous class), reviewing our syllabus, off-topic group discussions, and the like. Nobody benefits!


    1. Yes, I must confess I felt lecture hours were the most wasteful time I’ve ever spent in my US classroom, because of the incredible inanities that had to be addressed, and the self-involved, unrelated narratives from students that had to be accommodated. I hated going to lectures, and knew I’d learn far, far more in the library with a reading list.

      My uni was a well-established urban East coast place, which had a very different demography of students. So they cannot be excused on the same grounds as Clarissa’s.


      1. Yeah, it’s a weird phenom and I don’t understand why we have to have it. We didn’t where I was an undergraduate, but it does seem to take place most everywhere and to be considered [almost good]. It happened in grad school and I wanted to test out of courses to escape it.


  7. One of my majors was Spanish/Hispanic studies. By the time I graduated, my Spanish (apart from a few technical refinements) was worse and LESS fluent when I graduated college than when I graduated high school. I definitely did my share of work – studied in Spain and wrote an honors thesis in Spanish. But the idiocy of starting with “ser vs. estar” when I already tested at near fluency….
    My other major was political science. We actually had classes where we talked about the difference between the House and the Senate in the American Congress. That’s third grade stuff!
    Some professors seem not to care….show up and put in your time. I’m glad professors like you don’t think this is okay, Clarissa.


    1. I know! I try to orient myself towards the good students, the ones who are bored to tears by my explanations of the names of the continents and boring discussions of what Cold War and NATO are.

      As for languages, at my school, we allow students to take a placement test and if they place out of a course, we give them credits for the course instantly.


  8. Whoa. I read your post and thought “oh, high school, sure”. Only in the comments did I realize you were talking about -college-. Oh lordy. I remember even in backwards Texas,
    we learned all about the Spanish Empire and the various conquistadors and explorers ….
    in 7th grade. My memory is that we learned about North American history in … fifth and
    sixth grade.

    Ah, well. Times have changed.


  9. The Middle Ages: the time that had all the knights and kings and popes and shit. Nobody ever bathed People were really fond of bathing till the Church had all the bath houses shut down because of all the ess-ee-ex. that was happening in the baths.


    1. I think if I were to deliver that in the classroom, all of the students would wake up immediately. 🙂 So I’m now kind of considering using your description of the Middle Ages. 🙂


  10. What’s with the Buenos Aires vs. Rio thing? It seems to be at a totally different level than the rest of it. I mean, I live in Latin America, and I could probably name all the presidents of South America and tell jokes in Spanish about the national foibles of about half of the countries (the Argentine punchlines are all “Sh-yo” and the Uruguayan ones are about denying they’re Argentine. Oh, and teenage boob jobs work as a punch line for basically all the richer countries.), and I still wouldn’t count the difference between Buenos Aires and Rio as being basic cultural literacy.


    1. For the purposes of the course I teach, the difference is pretty basic. I only teach about the countries where Spanish is spoken as the first language. The Luso-Brazilian world is completely outside of the purview of my course.

      I don’t think I could name all the leaders of Latin American countries. 🙂


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