Still Teaching the Work

Over the last few months I’ve been reading a great deal about social justice and I’ve been thinking and talking and writing about what that might look like in the classroom.  But, the truth is that the classroom is just one of the spaces where the discussion of social justice is important. And a second truth is that the work is tiring, even in small doses.  And a third truth is that the work is messy.  I decided to call this blog teaching the work, because I believe that is what I do: I teach the work of becoming a better writer and thinker, often times through what Freire calls conscientization, but might be recognized in the classroom as the Socratic method, or lots and lots of questions and loads and loads of writing and students lamenting that this is the most they’ve ever written and half-complaining about why everything has to be thought about.

The problem with that work is that many of the other people and institutions with which my students interact will not support and nurture that nascent work that they’ve done.  In fact, I would argue that many of my students resist the work precisely because they understand that what I’m asking them to do is difficult.  And it is: I feel like asking questions, having convictions, and thinking deeply is hard hard work.  It’s work that’s worth it, but it’s easy to be dissuaded from if one is not careful.  I want to give you a few examples of where the work is being done.  I’m synthesizing just a bit of what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

One of the things that has come up at my school this year are two inter-twined notions: competency-based and contextual education.  If you’re not familiar with the most recent edu-speak, then check out an Inside Higher Ed piece or a Chronicle piece or you might read the American Association of Community College’s report called: “Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future” which you can tell is quite important because it has a colon in its title and there are lovely colors and figures and graphs.  The final example I will offer to you is the Lumina foundation’s draft of “The Degree Qualifications Profile: Defining U.S. Degrees through Demonstration and Documentation of College Learning.”  Certainly the titles are Orwellian enough, but the documents themselves, which reflect the federal government’s decade-plus of reshaping community colleges as the degree of choice, are chilling.  Competency-based education seems wonderful, as does contextual education.  Competency-based education tests whether the student has the skill, if she does, she moves on to the next skill.  But of course, this model does not concentrate on abstract thinking or the development of the soul.  Contextual education is related—it looks at the student’s experience and gives them practical experience in the subject in different settings—often a great deal of credit comes from that.  Often though, the learning is narrowed to just the context, again leaving out the training in the broad thinking that have been prized in the academy.

But this is coming and it’s part of the testing and assessment movement, which is part of the larger movement to think of education in terms of the inputs and outputs of business—that is the lens of neo-liberalism—the notion that market solutions are the best solutions for everything and that the point of education is narrowed to the context of markets itself.  In the scheme of neo-liberalism, education only happens as a preparation for work—as Patrick Finn points out in Literacy with an Attitude, there is a working-class education for the working class and a middle-class education for the middle-class who will lead and manage the workers.  Of course, Finn’s book doesn’t predict the astonishing growth of income inequality and the staggering losses of the middle class.  So it’s all too nifty that Bush II and Obama have put the community college on a pedestal just as the middle class goes on life support.  Of course we don’t need a university education anymore, or at least most of us don’t, after all we’re going to be lower-class wage slaves as the super rich rule us all.  It seems like an exaggeration, but it isn’t.  Paul Krugman’s piece in the New York Review of Books makes a convincing case.  We don’t need anything but competency-based and contextual education in a new neo-liberalist community college because we aren’t expected to have agency, we’re expected to be cogs of consumerism.

I think that the community colleges have already largely lost.  They do not have the tenure system as a rule, often they have 75% adjunct labor for the faculty, and the full-time faculty who are there often teach five classes per semester or four per quarter as is common at our college.  Further, even after taking into account the Herculean teaching load, the faculty often don’t have faculty senates to give voice to their concern.  The community colleges I’ve worked at have been anything but a model for shared governance.  Faculty are a necessary evil to be disempowered at every turn.  I know it sounds pessimistic, but it’s true.  I don’t think the universities and four-year colleges are far behind though.  Look at the recent case of the Kansas Board of Regents, which created a far-reaching policy on social media and faculty speech that is a clear attack on educators and upon the higher education system itself, never mind the terrible implications for free speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.  The faculty, in an attempt at shared governance, helped to revise the policy.  Unfortunately, the Board largely ignored what many called a sensible revision.  Phil Nel, a former professor of mine, gives a terrific account of this in his blog. Nel notes that Kansas universities and others are fighting an ideology that sees the “university not as a place for intellectual inquiry, but as a business that produces future employees” (Nel).  I remember being shocked that the policy contained the word CEO rather than college or university president.  I won’t rehash Nel’s points; he does it so well that you simply must go back and read the post for yourself.  The point I wish to draw on, and it’s one that Nel makes with universities, is that American education is under assault from a neo-liberal corporate ideology that does not value the multiple purposes of education.  They value only the production of workers who can work within a market ideology that reifies wealth and has little social mobility.

And it is this last sentence that brings me back to social justice.  This semester I’ve been lucky enough to take a whole class on social justice curriculum and pedagogy.  The readings and the dialogue with my colleagues have illuminated my practice, but I’m still restless because I’ve not been able to get Mary Soliday out of my head.  Soliday’s Politics of Remediation is twelve years old now, but it seems to be the debate that my institution and many other institutions are having about developmental/basic/remedial education.  Soliday makes two arguments that I love.  The first is that institutions use developmental courses to manage their enrollment rather than to help the student.  At my institution there were students pouring out into the halls just two years ago—the boost of enrollment was perhaps caused by the recession or perhaps by modernizing the workforce or perhaps some other reasons.  The point is that the college was full and many 100s of students were shuffled into developmental coursework because of their placement tests—many many of them did not stay—or persist, which is the preferred nomenclature at present.  Now that we’ve graduated the largest class in the college’s history and the economy is better, enrollment has dropped.  With that drop a 100 chicken little’s from the administration building have begun a chant about the fast approaching sky.  But to Soliday’s point, this is a manufactured crisis—now that we need the students—we have none to throw away—we are showing a new commitment to persistence and completion and to new methodologies that will keep them paying tuition—or more accurately—will keep the Pell grants and financial aid coming.  I know this sounds cynical, but we didn’t hire to serve the teeming hordes when we had them—we made do—if we really cared about student completion, then I submit that we would have appropriately ramped up our services when the need was there.

Soliday’s second argument is one that I hold close to me. She asserts that faculty can have the best curriculum and pedagogy, but that it won’t matter to the student unless the entire institution reflects that commitment.  I’ve stated it strongly, perhaps more strongly than she would, but I think it bears examination. If I am teaching students to read and write and thing through the frame of social justice, critical pedagogy and the development of the whole person, but no one is doing that in their other classes and no one is doing that in the administration of the institution, then how likely is that student to be able to integrate these practices into their lives, especially given that my students come from a litany of oppressions?  It isn’t likely, is it?  And from here we move to what I think is Soliday’s most important point: we must manage up the chain in addition to teaching our students.

I have been trying to practice this “managing up” over the last year and have found it frustrating.  Some of my colleagues and I have challenged how the Vice President of Academic Affairs communicates and shares governance; I have gotten a place at the table of committees on persistence and completion and have begun to ask questions like: “who owns the college” or “does this committee accurately reflect the community it serves” or “how will we involve students and faculty in this decision”?  It has been hard work.  It’s hard to find allies and I’ve been heartbroken by some colleagues’ lack of conviction and moral turpitude.  But the work is worth it.  I see the work in Nel’s call for the Kansas Board of Regents to step down.  I see it in Scott Samuelson’s “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers” and I see it in many of my colleagues’ work to give students the ability to develop themselves as humans, as citizens, and as activists—it isn’t that developing them for the economy is wrong, but it isn’t first and it isn’t the only thing, which is what the corporatization, adoption of standardized tests, and neo-liberal ideology are doing.  This blog post is my last for this class, but I hope that you’ll join me as I continue this work and I hope that you’ll engage in the work in your own way.

6 thoughts on “Still Teaching the Work

  1. Robert says:

    I pretty much agree with the post, Darin, though I do not understand how the term “liberal” got twisted into “neo-liberal” and then connected to the repulsive idea that education is primarily and even solely intended to produce efficient, contented workers and laborers. No liberal I have ever known believes such a thing. But enough of semantics — forward. As I argued every year of my 31 years at MCC, the developmental program is a complete sham. The placement test of writing requires no writing. It is gibberish. It sorts fluent, literate students into 6-credit hour 090-level classes which do not count toward a major or toward a degree and are more expensive and time-consuming than the 100-level classes which do count. Quarter after quarter one of my colleagues and I at the west campus taught developmental writing classes filled with articulate, fluent, literate students ninety percent of whom could sit down at a computer keyboard and type out 1000 words of coherent, understandable English prose in an hour or two but had been sorted into an 090 section because they could not correct misplaced colons, semicolons, apostrophes, or quotation marks on a nearly unreadable computerized test. To correct this injustice could have been a simple matter, as I explained time and time again. Abolish the test, which no one defends because it is indefensible. Anyone who has taken it knows that. 1 Enroll every beginning student in a 100-level writing class, preferably composition, which has been the traditional course in fundamentals of writing. 2 Limit class size to 20, which is the ceiling for developmental sections, and 3 give instructors the R (re-enroll) grade, which they have in developmental sections, so that time is no longer a factor in learning. 4 Let the student know on Day 1 what will be required in his or her final portfolio to pass the class. 5 Tutors, writing center assistance, computer fundamentals, etc., can be provided concurrently. 6 If a student must re-enroll, let him or her pick up where he or she left off in completion of the portfolio. But [!] the college receives a lot of funding, I was told, “soft money,” to offer developmental classes, too much to lose in the abolition of developmental writing. Back in the day, I cited research supporting what I say about remedial and developmental writing classes — there really isn’t much positive to say about them — but institutional inertia and supervisors and deans who had no education or experience in the disciplines they were charged with managing and evaluating insisted on mandating a “teaching” of the English they remembered from their ninth grade in high school. Darin, I applaud your Socratic method, your questioning. What your students say about your requirements remind me of what they said of me. I always wanted the institution to include on the preposterous printed forms it required me to distribute to my students so they could “evaluate” me on a scale of 1 2 3 4 5 this statement: “My instructor made me think.” The institution always refused. More than one of my supervisors stated explicitly or implied that they were just not sure making students think was a good idea and that encouraging faculty to do so might cause problems.


    • Robert says:

      I should have said that “the developmental program in writing [!] is a complete sham.” Math is different.

  2. darinljensen says:

    Bob: Here’s a good intro to neo-liberalism that is overly reductive in some ways but begins to approach the concept:

    I will send you a couple of other documents. Bascally, neo-liberal economic policies push for more liberal economics that work against the social net or anything that restricts markets

  3. darinljensen says:


  4. emily says:

    “now that we need the students—we have none to throw away—we are showing a new commitment to persistence and completion and to new methodologies… but we didn’t hire to serve the teeming hordes when we had them—we made do—if we really cared about student completion, then I submit that we would have appropriately ramped up our services when the need was there.”–YES!

    Although I believe that praxis constantly evolves as we read more of the world with their students, I find it deeply troubling that the focus at my institution seems to place the onus for reform on instructors. As you ask, “If I am teaching students to read and write and think through the frame of social justice, critical pedagogy and the development of the whole person, but no one is doing that in their other classes and no one is doing that in the administration of the institution, then how likely is that student to be able to integrate these practices into their lives, especially given that my students come from a litany of oppressions?”

    I feel the weight of this question–it is something of the elephant in my cube this term as I integrate social justice into my writing class. And I agree also that the work is staggering at times. I feel overwhelmed and uncertain. I wonder if I am a magpie simply chasing the next shiny object to flit across my path. But I believe in social justice and my students. And, equally important, I believe, as Freire wrote, “Education will not change the world. It will change the people who change the world.” I join you in teaching the work because of this belief.

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