Paper #5 Epistemological Alignment: Actual Community College Professor

Hiding under my desk for a spot of reading
Hiding under my desk for a spot of reading

Throughout the semester, we have studied many subdisciplines and examined their right to a seat at the English Studies’ table. Each student has blogged about his or her own disciplinarity, often decrying marginalization. I am not alone in this. It is no surprise to anyone that Basic Writing is a marginalized discipline. Further marginalization results from not only being BW-aligned but also community college-proud and being aligned with Computers and Writing.

In class on November 5, Dr. Romberger lectured about the inequities of community college research: it will never be read outside of the journal audience it is written to. This is the very definition of marginalization. Just the week before, we’d heard from Dr. Phillips about how cultural studies promotes the reading of actual literature that represents the people of the places from which is it written. To borrow terminology from disability studies, Melanie Yergeau advocates for organizations that represent and supposedly support people with autism to have #actuallyautistic people on the boards and at the table, so to speak. #ActualCommunityCollegeProfessor isn’t as tweetable, but that is what I am advocating for through the course of my studies.

For too long, we have sat on the sidelines and watched as others have written about us, and it isn’t pretty. Statistics are given. Numbers are interpreted through a university lens. The numbers that purport to represent my students are misconstrued when they are interpreted according to university timelines instead of the much likelier meandering path of the community college student. This path is presented as a dismally lit trail in comparison to the brightly illuminated superhighway of the 4 year student. The reality is there are many roads on this spectrum.

Reading homework at a band concert
Reading homework at a band concert

As a PhD student,I find myself in a similar situation to the BW students who have been misrepresented in the data. I have barriers to my success. I am a mom, teaching full-time at a community college that does not reward research. I’m concerned that traditional measures of success for a PhD student are not going to apply to me. If I continue to research about Basic Writing, I will be presenting at less competitive conferences and submitting to less prestigious journals, but these venues would be the most appropriate for the work that interests me. I am not here to angle for a new job. I am an associate professor with tenure. At the end of this program, I will be promoted to full professor. On paper for ODU, I may be a blot on the program because by all measurable accounts, I will not be a reportable success story. I will know differently, however, because my goals are not the traditional goals of the program, and I can and will achieve what I need to through my learning while I am here.

The marginalization of my people, the community college people, is why I am here. It has been my story all along. At this point in the paper, I would like to join my BW peers in telling a personal narrative. When I first went to CCCC in 2006, I had one child at home and another on the way and little money to spend on professional development. A grant from the conference enabled me to attend. While I was waiting in line with my grant affidavit, shifting my weight from foot to foot, I found myself behind two men in tweed coats with elbow patches who were discussing how they could not believe how community college professors were presenting at the conference. My discomfort grew as they shifted their conversation to the bigger problem of allowing adjuncts to teach FYC classes. It was very quickly clear to me that “my kind” would not be welcome everywhere at the conference. The rest of of my trip was much better, but that initial experience left a lasting impression.

It doesn’t help any that my other interest, Computers and Writing, is even less community college-friendly even though as a conference, the attendees are the friendliest, most welcoming I have found. In 2008, also pregnant again, attending C&W for the second time, I was delighted to see a session about computer use at community colleges given by some big names. I was delighted until I got there and heard these big names talking about all community colleges and all adjuncts based on an experience with one school in Florida. It didn’t occur to them that a community college representative could be in their audience at Computers and Writing and would not enjoy being talked about as a problem that could be solved by university and publishing folks. I only returned to C&W last year. I was not the only community college presenter, and there was at least one additional session about Basic Writing last year, so the situation may be improving. When I attended the Digital Media and Composition Institute at The Ohio State University in 2014, I was the only attendee from a community college. The field isn’t as intentionally exclusionary of community college professors and BW scholars as, say, universities and colleges are to students who must jump through hoops to prove their worth before being able to take FYC, but there is no escaping the fact that mine is a discipline of marginalization.

The marginalization does not stop us from doing good work, either as students or professors. When I think of my community college students, I am reminded of what Adam Banks said in his chair’s address to CCCC 2015:

We [sic] always been underfunded. We’ve always been figuring it out as we go, we [sic] always been dismissed and disregarded, but we served anyhow. We took care of our students anyhow. We transformed one discipline and created our own anyhow. And it was women who did that work.  It was people of color who did that work.  It was queer folk who did that work. It was first generation students in New York City and across the country demanding open admissions who did that work. It was people of all backgrounds teaching four and five and six courses a semester, contingent and part time and full time and sometimes even more times who did that work for us– building and running programs while they taught and theorized. But sometimes it seems to me that the funk of who we’ve been throughout our history is dead. (13:49-15:03)

Adam Banks may have been speaking to a congregation of university professors, but it was my people who were in the choir shouting and clapping and raising hands up high into the air.

At community colleges, and particularly in BW classes, we teach some of the most difficult students to teach. Our students are often the most under-prepared and they frequently have impediments to their learning. These impediments take many forms, not the least significant is the number of people telling them they cannot do it. These students may have documented or undocumented disabilities. They may have children and/or work multiple jobs while attending classes. Some of our students are homeless. The reality of the classroom is that, while few students have all of these barriers to learning, the barriers are present in a mixture of students each and every semester. These impediments are not outliers to the narrative of BW; they are the narrative. And when these students leave a community college, they are not reportable success stories. They take longer to matriculate than traditional students, and they may never graduate. That does not negate their learning either of how to write or how to be a college student. Furthermore, the teachers of these students face their own barriers, including but not limited to intense teaching loads and service on committees, disrespect from colleagues or administration, and a lack of recognition if and when they do find time to research or give back to the academy.

Earlier in the semester, I struggled with what I saw as an over-reliance on narrative from my subdiscipline. I still struggle with how frequently these narratives get turned into unquestioned lore. The fact remains, though, that these narrative threads, while they should not be the whole story, are the reasons for writing the research in the first place. I would ideally like to question the lore through mixed methodology that combines respect for the narrative and proper perspective for analyzing the quantitative data that comes out of research about community college students.

When it comes to my theoretical alignment, I’m skewed heavily into social justice and social epistemic rhetoric. This is in part why I continue to use the term Basic Writing over its cousin, developmental writing. Both have, as Fulkerson said about Composition Studies in the 1980s, “an emerging consensus about which goal is most important and simultaneously growing complexity and conflict over means of reaching it” (410), but I much prefer theory about writing that stresses possibility and potential rather than the deficit model. My Frankentheory would pull from Mike Rose, Paulo Freire, Selfe and Hawisher, and many more.

My desk at the office in total disarray
My office desk, in total disarray, at midterm.

For inspiration, I look to Howard Tinberg, who perhaps said it best when he said of community college instructors: “We need to render our work in a visible and authentic way to those who do not know first-hand what it is we do. We need to construct for them, and perhaps for ourselves as well, an image of our work as intellectually rigorous and, yes, eminently practical. We need to tell our own stories and not rely on others to tell them for us.”

Works Cited

Banks, Adam. “Funk, Flight, and Freedom.” CCCC Chair Address, Tampa, Mar. 2015. YouTube NCTE 24 Mar. 2015. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition Theory in the Eighties: Axiological Consensus and Paradigmatic Diversity”College Composition and Communication 41.4 (1990):409-429. Print.

Tinberg, Howard. “Acceptance Speech: Outstanding Community Colleges Professor of the YearU.S. Professors of the Year Awards Program. 2011. Council for Advancement and Support of Education. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

Yergeau, Melanie (myergeau). “Walk for #AutismSpeaks10 if you support eugenics. #AutismAcceptance = the #ActuallyAutistic speaking. @squawkersmccaw” 22 Apr. 2015, 4:12 p.m. Tweet.


5 thoughts on “Paper #5 Epistemological Alignment: Actual Community College Professor

  1. Nicole, The fact that community college faculty (and research) are currently marginalized makes your work that much more important and meaningful to the disciplines of Basic Writing and Composition Studies. Though it isn’t easy (as your narratives prove) and often uncomfortable, your perspective as a researcher and practitioner are necessary if English Studies is to move forward in some of the innovative ways we’ve been reading about this semester. I’ve not worked or studied at a community college, but ODU has given me the opportunity to learn from the perspectives of my community college peers. I distinctly remember having conversations during last summer’s SDI with Amy Flessert, who generously and patently explained her perspective and pedagogical approach as a community college instructor. It was an “ah ha” moment for me that couldn’t have happened so easily in a “traditional” PhD program with all full time students.

    I’m not sure where I’m going exactly with this reassurance, but one of my subsections in my next paper is alternatively titled, “You Do You.” I think that fits here too. You are confident and comfortable with where you are– keep up the good fight. You’re doing a good thing by pursuing your PhD. Your peers in the program are better for it. Our peers in the field, like those you encountered at conferences, are better for it. And those who read your future scholarship will be better for it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nicole,

      I’m with you here. I’ve always had a strong student concern, and because of that I have a deep and abiding love of the Community College system.

      My Associate of the Arts degree has been diligently and carefully hung in every home I’ve ever had, in a beautiful frame. My B.A. and M.A. degrees and my tech certifications are somewhere in my closet, I think. When I make it to wherever I make it next, I’ll hang two things side by side – my PhD and my Associate’s. Nothing is a greater point of pride to me than my ability to obtain that degree; when I decided to do so, I had been – essentially – a drifter for the better part of a decade. Having left my previous career behind due to bad luck, substance abuse, and self-loathing, I was homeless. I had not a penny to my name, and little to no hope of improving. Cuyahoga Community College saved me from myself – and quite likely saved my life.

      The CC system helped me – as it has helped so many non-traditional students – to get back on my feet, learn a skill that has served me well, find work, find meaning, reclaim my self-respect, and stay sober. It let me find myself on my own terms, and it let me find value in my own identity as a scholar in a way that no other program has since. Every day since I left the two year system, I have encountered some crisis of faith – some doubt about the entire scholarly enterprise. I never doubted, not for a moment, the value of that program, or my work in it. Every moment I was in the CC system I knew that I – as a student – was the most important thing in my instructor’s lives. I knew they believed in me, and I knew they believed in the enterprise of teaching wholeheartedly. And that made me believe in myself and my ability to succeed.

      It hurts me, as well, to see the regard that two year college instructors and programs are held in by the NCTE and CCCC (and C&W). I am a huge fan of the regional TYCA conferences, and try to attend when I can – though I do not apply to present, since I do not want to take the opportunity away from a working CC instructor by my presence. We should all be witnesses to the work that TYCA-affiliated and other CC instructors and administrators are doing, and it is the great shame of modern scholarship that anybody would put on airs of “better than” towards the people who work harder, think more creatively, and struggle more in the pursuit of student growth than almost anyone else. For the typical 4-year student, college is a step forward. For the typical 2-year student, college is a step up. That ethos of student-centric pedagogy and educational philosophy should be celebrated, not marginalized.

      It is a condemnation of the modern academy that R1 scholars would believe that high-quality, student-centric, productive scholarship is of less value when it comes from teaching researchers who find the time (God knows how) to do such work at the end of a teaching load each semester that would literally kill the typical four year researcher.

      Thanks again for writing, and for doing what you do.


  2. Nicole, I really enjoyed the passionate tone of your paper! As I write this comment, I’m looking out of my office into the office of one of the most distinguished, respected professors I know. No, she doesn’t teach upper-level history or arts courses, and she doesn’t teach (my beloved) eighteenth-century British literature. She devotes herself to the Basic Writing curriculum (which we call developmental here, but I think with more of a positive connotation– these students are developING). She has done so much for our school (and students), and last year, she, all by her lonesome, separated ESL from developmental, and she alone teaches those ESL students. Could she teach the easier students, the ones who already have the basic skills they need to succeed in college? Yes. But she genuinely loves her work, and as tough as it is (I watch her teach an EIGHT CREDIT CLASS every semester), she still finds time to research and publish. Oh, and in the spring, she’s taking on the role of department chair. She’s such an inspiring example of the teacher-researcher! You are, too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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