Monday, March 3, 2014

My Experience as a UNC Learning Specialist

In today's N&O, Dan Kane published a story about me and my perspective on the recent UNC scandal involving athletics. For the story, Kane interviewed me via email. I believe the online version of the story itself is mostly fair and mostly accurate. In what follows, I have weaved together my full responses as a single narrative.

My Path to Becoming a Learning Specialist

Before I took my first learning specialist position, at Ohio State, I had no idea the field of student-athlete support services existed. My journey to this field, nonetheless, began in graduate school. I started graduate school at the University of Toledo studying philosophy and religion and intended to earn a PhD and become a professor. However, through my reading of the philosopher John Dewey, I came to believe that philosophy is best practiced when put into action rather than just words. I wanted to live philosophy, not just write about it, and I believed I could do so by teaching underserved youth. With that in mind, I switched to the teacher education program, completed the teacher licensure requirements, and eventually earned my M.Ed.

My goal was to teach 11th or 12th grade Language Arts in an urban school, but the job market for teachers in Ohio was saturated. In the fall of 2009, I secured a job in an urban school in Columbus, but I was teaching 7th grade, my last choice. I learned a lot from teaching 7th grade, but after my first year I knew I still wanted to teach older students, and so I began applying elsewhere. On a whim, I looked at Ohio State’s job openings and noticed one for a reading and writing specialist for student-athletes. The job intrigued me because it involved working individually with underprepared student-athletes, most of whom, I knew, came from low-income communities. I applied for the job and got it.

From my first day at Ohio State, I saw the student-athletes with whom I worked as students first. I found working with them equally challenging and rewarding. To this day, the most fulfilling aspect of working in this field is that I get to see my students persevere through challenges and develop academically throughout their college career.

After I had worked at Ohio State for a year, a similar position came open at UNC. In addition to the appeal of warmer weather in North Carolina, I saw the position as an opportunity to contribute to an academic support program in the process of rebuilding. I saw it as a new challenge, and so I applied for the position. I was offered the job and started Fall 2011.

My work with student-athletes continues to be equally challenging and rewarding, similar to teaching in an urban school.

Learning on the Job

Since starting at Ohio State and throughout my time here at UNC, I have looked to the fields of educational and cognitive psychology to direct the support I provide to students. Research on academic motivation has been particularly interesting to me, and I have made an effort to apply that research and thereby create academic environments in which students’ motivation is maximized. Like even the best educators, I am not always successful and sometimes I doubt myself, but I have seen enough students mature and develop as critical thinkers that I am myself motivated to persevere through the challenges.

Nonetheless, one of the lessons I’ve learned over the past three years is that a learning specialist’s abilities to support underprepared students are limited. When I left Ohio State, I was perhaps overly confident in the potential of an effective learning specialist. I eventually had to acknowledge that UNC is not Ohio State. UNC is in fact a more rigorous university, and students who may be able to succeed at other universities may not be able to succeed at UNC, regardless of the support my colleagues and I provide. An effective learning specialist and academic support program can help many underprepared students, and we choose this field to work with such students, but at a university as rigorous as UNC we cannot support every student who just graduates high school.

A Dedicated Academic Support Staff

As I stated in a recent essay, I believe the past problems in the African and African American Studies department were at least partly attributable to admitting athletes who could not succeed at UNC. By admitting those athletes, the university put the academic support program in often difficult situations.

My past and present colleagues in the academic support program are some of the most dedicated educators I've ever met. Although the current academic staff for the football team is almost entirely different from the staff who worked when the no-show classes took place [nonstandard classes would have been a more appropriate term than no-show classes], I had the opportunity to work with each of the most recent staff before they took new positions. I stand by their integrity as educators.

Few, if any, in the media have acknowledged the fact that the [nonstandard] classes accounted for only a minor percentage of the classes any given football player took throughout his college career. The majority of classes football players took were legitimate classes in which the students had to work hard to earn the grades they received. Furthermore, in any given semester, I believe there were more football players not taking [nonstandard] classes than there were football players taking [nonstandard] classes. From what I can discern, when the academic counselors at times recommended the easy [less rigorous probably would have been a more accurate descriptor than easy], [nonstandard] classes to underprepared students, the counselors did so because they were already working long hours to help those students develop the skills they needed to succeed in their other classes.

The commitment and sacrifice I have seen the current and former academic counselors for football demonstrate for students is nothing short of admirable. Yet because they did not feel comfortable speaking out, and no one (outside athletics) would speak out for them, their integrity has been questioned, and they have been cast as eligibility brokers rather than as the educators they are.

Before I elaborate on my critiques of Mary Willingham’s claims, I want to draw special attention to a word I used: recommend. Reports in the media have consistently used the term steer to suggest academic counselors coerced students into the [nonstandard] classes. Yet I have seen no evidence that coercing students to take particular classes has ever been standard practice in the academic support program. From what I have seen, students are given options, and when the [nonstandard] classes were available, some underprepared students were indeed given those classes as options. Presenting students with options, however, is not the same as steering. Furthermore, as I already explained, when academic counselors did present students with those options, the counselors did so only because they were already working diligently to help students develop the skills they needed to succeed in their other classes and advance toward graduation. [The next three sentences I did not write in my original response, but I should have.] Most importantly, I have seen no evidence suggesting the academic counselors were aware of any improper grade changes or of anything else fraudulent occurring. From the accounts I have heard, the counselors were aware of nothing other than the fact that (1) the classes were less rigorous than other UNC classes and that (2) Nyang'oro was treating the classes as independent studies, which the counselors believed was within his rights to do. Moreover, as has been acknowledged in several reports, those classes, overall, actually had more non-student-athletes enrolled (55%) than student-athletes (45%).

Some may counter by citing the claims of former UNC football players Deunta Williams and Michael McAdoo, both of whom accused academic counselors of steering them into particular classes. Williams told Joe Nocera of the New York Times that counselors forced all the football players to take Swahili as their foreign language. His claim is patently false. At one time Swahili was popular among football players, but so was Portuguese, and a number of football players took Spanish (and possibly other languages), too. If Williams is so eager to comment on his experience at UNC, perhaps he would be willing to publicly release his official transcript so that we may determine whether he actually took Swahili himself or whether he was misrepresenting even his own academic experience in addition to the team’s experience.

Nocera likewise interviewed McAdoo and was thorough in presenting McAdoo as a victim. First, let us not forget that McAdoo—who, as Nocera pointed out, was not a student needing remediation—was found guilty of cheating on three papers, making his claims dubious from the beginning. When Nocera interviewed him, McAdoo was all too eager to report that his counselor would not let him major in Criminal Justice, but he neglected to explain why he was prohibited from choosing that major: UNC does not have Criminal Justice. McAdoo was also interviewed by Dan Kane recently and told Kane he never earned lower than an A- in the four [nonstandard] classes he took. I find that hard to believe. My understanding is that although the grades given in those classes were higher than they should have been, grades as low as B- were not uncommon. Regardless, in both interviews, McAdoo presented himself as a non-remedial student who was committed to academic success. Perhaps he also would be willing to publicly release his official transcript to demonstrate just how committed he was to succeeding in his other, general education courses, which were required by all students at the university.

In short, Williams's claim has already been discredited, and until McAdoo is willing to substantiate his claims about his academic commitment by releasing his official transcript, I do not believe he is a credible source, either.

Challenging Mary Willingham

Although I acknowledge UNC has admitted athletes who were too underprepared to succeed here, and that doing so put academic counselors in difficult positions, I am not content to allow Mary Willingham’s recent claims about UNC athletes’ literacy rates to remain unchallenged. [The N&O conveniently neglected to quote the next sentence.] When considering the stigma attached to illiteracy, I hope readers will agree that labeling students as illiterate or as elementary readers when they are not is extremely unfair. As I explained in my recent blog post, Willingham’s methodology for her assessment was unsound, and her releasing the consequently inaccurate data was irresponsible. [The N&O also neglected to quote the next two sentences.] Being underprepared for UNC academics is not the same as being illiterate or reading at an elementary level. Many students who are too underprepared for UNC would undoubtedly be able to succeed at other, less rigorous universities.

Moreover, we still do not know whether Willingham complied with ethical and federal guidelines when she conducted her research. Her claim that the university conspired to squash her research may be just as plausible as her neglecting to obtain proper consent from the athletes, but, unfortunately, until we can see her completed research application, we will not know the truth. Anyone with an opinion about Willingham’s claims should be demanding to see her completed research application.

The saddest theme of Willingham’s narrative is her feeling that she did not accomplish anything meaningful as a reading specialist for student-athletes. “I was part of something I came to be ashamed of,” she recently told Businessweek, “We weren’t serving the kids. We weren’t educating them properly.”

I am sorry Willingham looks back on her experience with such disdain. Fortunately, her feelings do not represent the majority of academic support staff for student-athletes. The majority of us enjoy helping our student-athletes mature as students and young adults. We embrace the challenge of helping them become better readers and writers. We celebrate when they demonstrate improved critical thinking. Most of all, we take pride in helping student-athletes become well-rounded individuals who leave the university better prepared for life than when they entered. I will never be ashamed of what my current and former colleagues and I have accomplished for the student-athletes we proudly serve.


As I stated earlier, working as a learning specialist for student-athletes has been equally challenging and rewarding. The job is demanding, and I have had to make sacrifices. Outside of work, I am very interested in documentary and international film, but I have not been able to pursue those interests as much as I would be able to do in a job with shorter, regular hours. Furthermore, I have considered returning to graduate school to earn my PhD in Education. At some point, I may move on from academic support for student-athletes, but when I do, I will look back at my experience as meaningful and worthwhile.

Specifically, I will look back at my experience as a UNC learning specialist with pride. I am proud to work here because I believe UNC has made positive strides this year toward restoring its integrity and becoming a leader among universities balancing academics and athletics. UNC made mistakes in the past, but the future looks affirming. I am proud to be a Tar Heel.

Update, March 5th: Two days after the story was originally published, I saw for the first time the print version of the article in the newspaper. Its title is more scandalous than that of the online version, and it strategically pulls a quote out of context to make me sound like I am contradicting myself, as the unfair title suggests. I now believe that although the story itself is mostly fair, the editor's presentation of the story was not fair and was designed to support the particular narrative the N&O has been selling for nearly three years now.

Update, March 15th: Someone asked a legitimate question regarding one of my statements in this essay. I wrote, "The counselors were aware of nothing other than the fact that the classes were less rigorous than other UNC classes." The question subsequently asked was whether the counselors knew Nyang'oro's classes were not meeting at their scheduled times. From what I understand, the counselors did know that, but because of the high importance placed on academic freedom at UNC (the topic of a recent Chronicle article), they believed Nyang'oro was within his rights to treat a lecture class as an independent study. My point was that there is no evidence the counselors were aware of unauthorized grade changes.