Democracy’s college? That’s over

Community colleges were supposes to be “democracy’s college,” writes Keith Kroll, an English professor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan. That “grand experiment” is coming to an end, Kroll writes. From President Obama on down, community colleges are seen as job training centers providing workers for local employers, not as places where students begin higher education.

Within the next 20 years, 80 percent of classes will be taught online, he predicts. Ninety percent of faculty will be part-timers who may never meet their students or each other.

In the community college of the future each department will have one full-time “faculty manager,” whose responsibilities will include distributing prepackaged, business-driven curricula and course syllabi; selecting the common textbook from which all faculty members will “teach”; scheduling and assigning classes . . . and managing the online grading program that all faculty will use to assess student performance. There will no longer be in-person department meetings, faculty representation on college committees, shared governance, or professional development . . . (faculty) will no longer be teachers, but technicians with no say in what they teach and how they teach.

English instructors will teach writing solely to give students the practical skills required by employers, he writes. Literature — indeed all the liberal arts — will be eliminated on grounds they have “no economic value.”

The revised mission statement of the Association of American Colleges and Universities is “to make liberal education and inclusive excellence the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice in higher education.” I’m not sure what “inclusive excellence’ means.


Unafraid of Virginia Woolf

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.

Why college grads can’t write

College graduates can’t write because Freshman Comp doesn’t teach them, writes R.V. Young, an English professor at North Carolina State, on the Pope Center’s Clarion Call.

When the GI Bill opened college doors to many more students after World War II, freshman comp “became the foundation for liberal education of a broad swath of American students who were often encountering for the first time the liberating effect of intellectual cultivation – the mental excitement of mastering intellectually difficult books, handling ideas with discernment, and realizing their thoughts in clear, coherent language,” Young writes.

. . . At least some acquaintance with the humanities was thought to prepare students for leadership or at least furnish the materials for better citizenship and a more fulfilling life.

In the last 30 years, freshman comp has been taken over by “the social sciences and the public education establishment.” Researchers write up their theories; adjuncts do the teaching.

Since theorists believe reading and writing are different skills, literature has been banished from composition classes.

Theorists believe grammar and usage conventions are unimportant, unteachable and “may even be damaging to minorities.” They tell adjuncts not to mark errors on student papers:  Students “best learn to write from one another by breaking up into little groups in class and ‘peer-reviewing’ their work, since it is their own generational cohort for whom they should be writing.”

In the 1970′s, when Young started at North Carolina State, English professors taught freshman comp.

The “theory” of composition that guided the course was that students learned to write by writing a great deal and having their papers marked thoroughly and severely by the professor, who would often reinforce the lesson in individual conferences.  The first semester of this two-semester course required 14 short papers, the second semester 11 plus a short research paper.  It was the academic equivalent of boot camp.

Asking students to write essays about works of literature gave them a common topic,  which they approached with few preconceptions, Young writes. Freshman find it easier to assess the role of faith in Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, than to “give thoughtful, unself-conscious account of their views on abortion or global warming — the kind of topic that is typical nowadays.”

Young no longer teaches writing. As a literature professor with no “composition theory” training, he’s considered unqualified.

How well is this new approach working? An increasingly common complaint among employers is that college graduates can’t even write a short memo that’s clear. The melancholy results of the now prevalent approach to composition are plain to see in the pitiable level of reading and writing skills possessed by most college graduates.

Frisky blogger Jessica Wakeman wishes she’d learned more about literature, history and politics and taken fewer gender studies courses. “There’s a difference between what I thought was “cool” to learn about at the time and what has actually proved useful in life,” she writes.