Some Thoughts on the Rhetoric of Education and the Preparation of Community College Teachers

Recently I’ve been thinking of a presentation that my colleague, Sarah Thomas, a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, gave at the Nebraska Writing Project Summer Institute.  The problem that she brought up, as I understand it, is: how do we still have authentic writing and writing instruction in the classroom in an era where the assessment culture, driven by neoliberal notions about the purpose of education, dominate.  One of the audience members, Adam Hurig, who teaches at a community college, had the courage to say that he didn’t get the formative and summative assessment jargon that we were talking about.  I think it is the confluence of these two events that has clarified the direction of my continuing research and my decision to go back to school to get a doctorate.  To be clear: we have to fight the assessment culture that has become the dominant force in education.  And, concurrently, we have to train the teachers who will be practitioners at community colleges with the background and methods that will make them more than just content experts, but also able to talk back to their own institutions and to the education culture in ways that serve students.

I’m sure that these two items seem very different, so let me spend time with each of them and then try to synthesize them in a way that makes my “mad bomber” activism and perspective seem, I hope, a little more sane.  First, I think that most educators would agree that NCLB is a disaster, a failure of epic proportions.  I say that without hyperbole.  And I should be quick to add that by most educators I mean K-12 educators and professors in education departments.  Interestingly, while faculty in English and math departments at colleges and universities bemoan the preparation of their incoming students, they don’t know why the students are that way.  Really, I know it sounds like an over-generalization, but most of the faculty, good and smart people for the most part, know abstractly that NCLB and the testing culture that it has spawned are bad, but they don’t know why exactly and deeply.  Charles Simic, who is one of my favorite poets, is a good example of my colleagues’ attitudes.  In a post called “The Age of Ignorance” on the New York Review of Books website, he lambasts the public’s ignorance and their belief in conspiracies, creationism, love for foolish, yet attractive politicians etc., which he sees as a result of the dumbing down of the high school curriculum over decades.  When I posted this article on my Facebook feed, many of my professor friends were quick to like it and comment with something like an amen.  Of course, Simic fails to mention that we educate more of our populace than we ever have before and that many more students take an advanced curriculum that was only available to the rich 100 years ago.  His post smacks of elitism and it’s just wrong.  The curriculum isn’t to blame–it’s the assessment culture that has made the curriculum huge, but which also precludes the time to investigate deeply and creatively.  He’s right in a way, but for the wrong reasons, and his call from the ivory tower is condescending.  I would love to invite him to the high schools that my colleagues teach at or to the community college where I teach–it’s a different world.

But all of this doesn’t get rid of the fact that my students at my college are shockingly unprepared.  Unfortunately, because of our ignorance, college and university teachers are largely unprepared to undo any of the damage that has been committed to these students because of the test culture.  This fact brings us back to Adam, who I’m using as a cipher, with apologies, who teaches at a community college in Lincoln and to myself who teaches at a community college in Omaha.  We are both highly trained content experts.  We understand the deep teaching of writing, reading and thinking, and we work hard with our students.  However, he and I, like most teachers at community colleges, and I would bet like most teachers at universities haven’t had any methods training or training that gives us a background in the current issues in education.  Teachers like us only know and engage with the rhetoric of education and the current issues surrounding our national discourse on education if we are interested. And there are many many Charles Simic’s out there who would rather blame the curriculum than look deeply at real causes.  Of course, this isn’t new; Joseph Harris in Composition: A Teaching Subject since 1966 speaks directly to this as a cycle rather than something new.  When the sons of merchants entered Harvard in the 1800s, the professors were quick to point out that these students didn’t measure up. Mike Rose in Lives on the Boundary tracks the increasing numbers of students being educated at higher and higher levels.  And never mind that, while my students cannot do the critical thinking that I want them to do, that they instead have digital literacies that astonish.

Simic writes that “A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business” and this is true.  The neoliberal ideology and corporate kleptocracy that run our country see students as human capital rather than as human beings to be developed.  Educators fall into this trap too, especially when we talk about the point of education, or the major outcome at the minimum, to be getting students “career ready.” We did not push back on the argument that our culture had about the purpose of an education.  And, unfortunately, we have substituted an education that prepares students to be citizens, activists and better humans, for an education that is interested in mere preparation to be a part of the economy.  We must never forget that those who run the economy aren’t interested in their subjects’ resistance to these systems.

All of which brings me to a recent conference that I attended in Austin Texas called NISOD–I was receiving a teaching excellence award that the organization doles out to its member colleges every year.  One of the keynote speakers was a woman from the Lumina foundation.  She explained that the goal of the foundation was to help 60% of Americans receive a degree or certificate by some date in the near future–the current rate is a little less than 30% nationally, so it’s an ambitious goal. And it sounds laudable right? But this rhetoric is insidious.  For colleges to judge the quality of their offerings, she suggested that we will have to engage in much more assessment, what Sarah called the “data culture” in her equip.  The speaker also made it clear that the reason why we needed 60% of our citizens to be educated with a degree or credential was so that they could engage in the 21st century economy–there was a little talk about being a good citizen, but it was clear that her version of a student was one who engaged with, rather that critiqued and resisted the global capitalism that has resulted in the larges income inequality in history and brought the world to the brink of environmental disaster.  Lumina comes from the latin for light.  As I sat in the darkened auditorium with 500 other award winners though, I could see very little of the light going on with the education professionals there.  It sounds harsh, but community college instructors are largely unprepared to meet and resist the current rhetoric of education which is permeated by the assessment culture that has already overwhelmed and undermined my K-12 comrades.  I was the proverbial canary in the coal mine, but it might be too late.

When I add this up, it this makes me even surer that my research work will revolve around critical pedagogy at the community college.  How do we make sure that our instructors have a broad view of the purpose of education?  We often talk about the poor persistence and completion rates at our community colleges.  And Vincent Tinto, the guru on student retention and success argues in Completing College that it all comes down to engagement.  We see engagement very narrowly in our culture–we see it as enticing students with the promise of future success in a competitive economy.  Perhaps though it is the students’ unconscious resistance to joining the rat race that makes them drop out.  What if instead we taught the whole student, what if we gave them the tools to be activists in their community against those unjust systems rather than worked to conform them in some way to fit within that system?

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3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Rhetoric of Education and the Preparation of Community College Teachers

  1. Arretta Johnson says:

    Darin, I wholeheartedly agree with the premise of your paper. I have been a K-8 educator for 10 years and now I am working on obtaining a Masters in Literacy at UNO. I am also participating in the Oxbow Writing Project this summer and thus, I had access to your paper.

    I want to commend you for voicing your opinion regarding the NCLB and how it has failed to accomplish what it was supposed to in our nation’s classrooms. The overload of testing in the past decade has caused the education system to care less about the long-term learning of each student, but instead has focused on short-term fact learning so students appear to have mastered the facts on the myriad of tests they are subjected to. It is a fact that “tracking” persists in our schools and with the pressures of joining the “rat race” of the “working class”, it’s no wonder that many of our adolescents are depressed and confused as they graduate high school. Many have not been prepared for the rigors of college because they were placed and kept on a “track” that indicated they would be blue-collar workers with little reason to attend a 4-year college.

    I have a question for you, Darin, since you are an instructor at a community college here in Omaha, NE. Are you finding that most students you teach are able to complete their assignments and participate in class on a college level?

    Thank you so much for the sharing of your insights with us.

    • darinljensen says:

      Arretta:
      Thanks for the question. I teach a great deal of developmental ed, which is to say underprepared students. Therefore, I am often in the position of teaching students to participate at a college level and to put in the work to complete assignments. In those classes I am teaching literary and study skills, persistence and writing skills. I think that the large Omaha public school district’s decision to not allow zeros on assignments has created some unrealistic expectations for the level of commitment and engagement that I require in my classroom. However, by the time my students are in Composition I or II they are there. Our lot at Metro is that we begin where the student is at, which is what I love and what tires me out some days. Thanks for reading!

  2. i think that I would love to agree with you, mostly because I think the value of a person is in the way they interact with the world around them, and the measure of a teacher is in getting them there. But at the same time, the kind of goals to which you are referring are…complex, abstract, and frankly hard to connect to the details of a classroom.

    Not impossible. In my research composition class I asked students to do a 15-20 page research essay and broke it down by expository/background section, classical essay with rebuttal (along with an annotated bibliography), problem/solution essay in the form of a policy proposal with specific measure taken for a local omaha/nebraska/regional solution or set of solutions for the general or specific problem they were addressing. It was good for teaching them forms, teaching them revision (to put their separate papers together into a longer, cohesive piece), research and evaluation methods, etc. And almost 1/3 to half found a topic they were really interested in and ran with it. One student even told me that he thought this was the best course he’d ever taken (not because the teaching was excellent, but because he got to “get his hands dirty” working through a problem he loved.

    ESL and composition and even history–all humanities courses I’ve taught–lend themselves to tracking bigger themes, but it’s still hard to use them to teach students to be moral, to be excellent human beings, to explore themselves as people. And I don’t think it’s because of the subjects; i think it’s often because of the students. They’re busy, they don’t want to engage, they have more important things to think about. Maybe teachers could do a lot more to help students engage with the power of the idea in the moments of class discussion or work, and I think that most teachers do a little bit. I also think we underestimate how much students draw on those moments in the classroom while under our eye but also for years afterwards. But mostly, I fear that those bigger themes are often beyond our control and certainly beyond what most teachers feel comfortably allowed to teach.

    Let me explain. I’m a Christian. I value people. I value nature. I value truth. I value the experience of learning. I value what I deem to be good and right and just and compassionate. The older I get, the deeper I value it, to the point of frustration often, because I believe the world could be different, yet it isn’t. And I tie all of those values into my faith, in some fashion or another. But I can’t teach my faith in the classroom, and I honestly think I shouldn’t be able to. Certainly I don’t trust others to teach their faith-based values in the classroom. And in fact, my least favorite professor in college is someone who argued with me aggressively and (I think) gave me a B for mediocre work because my arguments stood opposed to his (probably more strongly than I might otherwise have felt on the feminist issues he touted because it irked me that he would read such strongly 20th century feminist sentiments into a 19th century book that was only mildly feminist, as I saw it). How do we teach students to be adults, to stand on their feet, to think through the issues of the world, of the human soul, without treading on their autonomy or shackling their sensibilities? If we ask teachers to do this, as I think we must, we’re asking them to go where angels fear to tread.

    What “humanity” should we teach them? Whose morals and what activism? Can I teach them a Marxism so radical it pushes them to skirt the law? take it on? burn down builds and destroy the establishment using it’s own structures? (frankly, that’s how angry I am with it sometimes) How far should we go? Should we shock them with the depths of human depravity? show them how susceptible they really are like the Milgram and Standford prison experiments so clearly show? And how do we point without force and caution without imposing limits? How much do we really want to open doors, and how much “wisdom” can we teach them to encourage that their understanding is bound by compassion and not just stark possibility?

    Every semester or so I am frankly horrified by the sentiments my students espouse, and I want to tell them how horrified I am or how terrible the logic of their arguments is (and in actual fact, sometimes I have asked them if that’s what they think, and if they’re ok with the logical consequences of their line of thinking as their essay arguments seem to suggest). Other times I take a deep breath and try to remind myself that they’re only 17 or 20 or 25 and that life is a series of second and third and fourth chances and wisdom is earned most often in years of slow thinking and growing. And that I’m not responsible in the end for their humanity, or their understanding, or lack thereof.

    In the wrong situation, with the wrong student or wrong parent or wrong administration or even the wrong country (I would never go to the UAE, for example…) I could get fired. I did a mild version of brown-eye/blue-eye for my students the day I taught the Nuremberg laws that came close to violating my authority as a teacher and could have reasonably stressed some students out (though only if they had prior stress disorder issues, I think), and technically it might have counted as experimenting on them without their consent. I stopped doing it, but I think it may have been one of the most valuable lessons they learned. And it was stressful for me setting it up and delivering it. There is safety in teaching to the test, and at the end of an exhausted day it can just be a relief to say, “I taught them what they need to know” rather than, “I taught them what they ought to know.” To REQUIRE teachers to teach more, to expect them to train students in life as well as grammar and essay structure and logic and cohesion, and to EVALUATE them on how well they do that–that seems like a dangerous cultural undertaking. And the very first question has got to be *whose standards?* what measure of a man do we expect? (or should we expect? or can we expect?)

    who are we to teach that?

    but I do, when I can.

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