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Confessions Of A Failed Computer Professor

Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1

Actually, I was not a computer professor but a junior college part-time computer instructor in the late 1980s at Evergreen Valley Community College in San Jose. I bought a Radio Shack TRS-80 in 1979 when they first came out and learned to program in BASIC while waiting to find a job in the San Jose area. After a few months, I found work at an engineering firm; I was called a "logistics systems engineer." It was the early days of the coming techno-paradise — selfies and on-line porn were still in the future. Personal computers were bursting onto the scene. I quickly realized that knowing how to use them and the early text-versions of various applications not only gave me an edge at work, but also freed me from dependency on those odd computer people in the back room who wore white coats and talked about Unix, but never really understood what the computers were supposed to do. They also had a bad habit of blowing your budget no matter how much you allowed for programming, then charging you more hours to “fix” what they produced. Living and working in the Silicon Valley area gave me ample opportunity to get involved in user groups for specific brands of computers and various computer applications. I dove in and mastered them all — word processing, spreadsheets, database management, and later, desktop publishing and graphic design.

I had multitudes of opportunities at work to use my newfound computer skills because no one else had them. For the first time in my life, I was ahead of the curve! In fact, I was the curve!

Mr. Computer Tutorial was soon giving classes to fellow workers and, after work, more classes for several computer stores in the South Bay; these classes were free to new buyers, but I got paid, and paid well. After a series of very bad management decisions (a story for another day) the engineering company I had been working for filed for bankruptcy and I became a freelance technical writer, computer instructor, database application developer, and inventory management consultant through user group contacts and people I had known at work before the bankruptcy.

Somewhere around 1985 I got word through a user-group associate that a computer instructor at Evergreen Valley had quit and they needed someone right away to fill in. I submitted my application, was instantly interviewed by the senior computer instructor who just as instantly gave me the job since the classes were going to start in a little over one week.

But there was a problem: I had absolutely zero edu-credentials. Our section chief, Mr. Morris, the guy who wanted to hire me, figured out a way to substitute work experience for a credential and gave me some papers to fill out that had to be processed through several layers of bureaucratic edu-drones. It seemed quite foreign to the college’s office staffers that someone without any teaching credentials was about to be hired as a part-time instructor. (Ernest Hemingway couldn't have gotten on with Evergreen's English Department.)

Everywhere I wandered in the halls of academe I was met with skeptical looks and foot-dragging. I shuffled from office-to-office with an ever-larger stack of paperwork, occasionally being told to come back the next day for a simple sign off.

But with the constant pushing of my academic padrone, the desperate Mr. Morris, I was grudgingly awarded an interim-emergency credential and immediately began preparing for my first class.

Since Mr. Morris was the only person in the entire academic enterprise who even knew how to turn on a computer, I prepared my own curriculum, handouts and test questions and considered myself thoroughly prepared for my first class.

Then Mr. Morris handed me a book — not a textbook, but a commercial computer book, having to do with one of the applications I was supposed to be teaching. It included chapters that I felt were unnecessary for the class as the class had been described to me. I was instructed in no uncertain terms to “just teach the book.”


The first class consisted of recent high school graduates and adults in equal numbers. All of them were hoping to be prepared for work in the emerging computer field. Many of my students were immigrants.

Presumably, my students had met basic prerequisites for my class. They were assumed to have completed a basic introduction to computers and operating systems, computer terminology and so forth. I quickly realized that although they had passed and even more magically “met” these prerequisites, they hadn't really learned what they needed to know about the basics.

So here I was with a class of about 20 ill-prepared students, some of whom were ill-acquainted with the language of instruction — English — teaching a book that included material that I didn't think was necessary or particularly relevant.

In the first few minutes of the first class it was obvious that having the students sitting at computers was a bad idea. They couldn't resist the temptation to peck away at their keyboards, sometimes on class material, sometimes for no reason at all. It was an enormous distraction.

So I came up with a little ritual that I started all classes with: I strolled over to the master power switch on the wall and, with a flourish, turned off the room's computers. “I want you to pay attention to me, not your computer. You’ll have plenty of time on the computer during your lab sessions.”

Over the next four years or so I taught about 15 classes on Database Management using dBase II, Page Layout and Graphic Design using Ventura Publisher, PageMaker, CorelDraw, Freelance, and several spreadsheet classes using Lotus 123, SuperCalc and a very early version of Excel.

Since most of the classes were based on commercial computer books, I had to develop my own tests. At first I tried short open book essay questions, explaining that I didn't care if students used the book as long as they didn't copy out of it verbatim. Nevertheless, their lack of understanding of computer terminology, the rudimentary language skills of even the native-born speakers of English, and a general inability to read, resulted in what might be called Orphic answers. Often their test answers were in the computer knowledge ballpark, but not pertinent to the need for the precise terminology required for computer usage. On the other hand, there were a number of answers which were incorrect as written, but my experience with the student in the lab told me they knew the answer because they could operate the computer properly, although what they had written was incorrect.

I became as Orphic as my class and soon surrendered and switched to multiple-choice questions.

I always used the first few minutes of each class to go over the last test to make sure people understood the material from the previous class. When I went over the test results, inevitably there would be complaints that some questions were trick questions which allowed for more than one correct answer, and accusations that I was trying to mislead some students. Arguing about these complaints was a waste of class time, so whenever a student made a reasonable case that an individual question was unfair, instead of arguing I removed that question from scoring.

We never got through an entire book in all of the 15 or so classes I taught because the first few classes were spent going over stuff they should have mastered but hadn't. I was always faced with what grade to give students who had not really completed the material they were supposed to complete. Mostly I gave students a C with an occasional B. (Anybody who attended all the classes deserved a C, even if their actual achievements were under par.) I think I gave out one or two As.

Of all the students who finished the class there was only one who I might have considered hiring as a trainee for an actual computer job. The rest would have required too much help, much more than an employer would be willing to provide.

Unprepared students are the rule in America.  The entire system simply shoves the unprepared along until everyone gathers for a great big smiley-faced ceremony, and diplomas fall like confetti. Meanwhile, in the real world of work, well…

One Comment

  1. Harvey Reading January 9, 2014

    I remember being shocked in the 80s, as I reviewed job applications in preparation for interviewing potential seasonal employees. The applicants had at least a bachelor’s degree in the life sciences, and some were masters graduates, that is, they were “educated”. Yet they could barely write a coherent sentence, let alone a full paragraph. It’s only gone downhill since.

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