Community college students usually read nonfiction in first-year English courses. Freakonomics and Fast Food Nation are standards. Katherine Boutry taught Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours to her composition students at West Los Angeles Community College, reports Inside Higher Ed in Unafraid of Virginia Woolf. Most rose to the challenge of reading complex literature, said Boutry in a panel on teaching English to community college students at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting.
At the beginning, some students viewed the course “as a death march,” Boutry said. And as they worked, line by line, through Mrs. Dalloway, the most common response once students understood what was going on was, “Why didn’t she just say that?” The indirection mystified students.But by the time the students got to The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s novel that focuses both on the writing and reading of Mrs. Dalloway, the students saw the work as “an inside joke that they could understand,” something they had never before experienced in literature.
Students who read literature were no better or worse at writing than students who read nonfiction, Boutry said.
In course evaluations, most students said they’d changed their mind about reading literature. Three students got tattoos that read “fear no more,” a phrase from the novel.
Other English professors talked about fears that the “completion agenda” will push them to lower standards to get more students to a degree.
Community college instructors are discouraged from “slow reading” literature with their students, said Carol Bork, of New Jersey’s Mercer County Community College. While few students will go on to study advanced literature, all can benefit from the “critical thinking” skills that textual analysis develops, she said.
Steven Canaday teaches at Anne Arundel Community College, in Maryland, which recently announced a commitment to double by 2020 the number of degrees and certificates it awards. All students seeking an associate degree must pass first-year composition; most certificates require students to pass out of remedial writing, at a minimum.
. . . as community colleges increasingly rely on “an army of part-timers” to teach, limiting the number of full-time faculty and academic advisers, Canaday said he doesn’t see how his department can magically get more people passing — particularly if enrollment continues to increase without matching increases in budgets and staffing.
Composition is considered a “bottleneck” course and the department is under pressure to drop the requirement of a research paper in order to boost pass rates.