Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Writing as conversation and as process

For the past two days, my five sections of composition have been at the library for instruction. Each class has had 75 minutes with our instructional librarian, who has created a lecture and hands-on activites to get them involved in a research process that will eventually (by mid March), help them produce a draft of a researched essay.

The students have a tremendous amount of choice in their project topics, regardless of 111 or 112. They don't get to choose the product format, which is admittedly "academic" in an attempt to meet some of the learning outcomes of the courses. But at this stage of the game, they are just starting to figure out their topics and what they might do to learn about these interests. What's been most interesting to me has been to watch what happens when they are encouraged not to fixate on the target of the final paper that uses a minimum of 5 sources, but to explore the resources available to them to learn about their topic. 

Since the 112 students have wide open topics (I've used the Vlog Brothers concept of "world suck" as a frame for a problem-solution type essay, which I'll model after solutions journalism writing), we dialed back to concept mapping before we even let them into the databases. Some students were stumped by te idea of being able to write down any word they might associate with their topic. Yet, when I asked them questions like "where does that happen?" or "who does that affect?", they were able to ome up with more words. This makes me wonder what we can do to encourage better questions and makes me think that I might have to finally (in my copious spare time), go back and explore things like The Right Question Institute's work.

Kevin explained to both 111 and 112 students about how databases work and that computers are stupid. Most of them don't really understand how searches work, conceptually, and Kevin has a couple of really interesting anaolgies that help them see that computers don't really think about what a record means.

We also worked out a guided practice that forces them to look at a couple of different databases, record the process of searching, and pay attention to what the resources have to offer to help facilitate better results. Even still, many of them get so fixated on the search results that they don't see anything in the frame around the database. For example, one of the questions asked students to find the 7th source that comes up in their sarch of any database. One of the questions asks the students to write down the MLA citation for that source. Some databases, like Ebsco's, have a "Cite" link in the tools menu on the right have portion of the screen. But, since it wasn't in the center with the article, some students couldn't find this helpful resources. Another question asked students to identify the type of source the 7th record was. Some couldn't do that, despite the database's identifcation of the source as "academic journal" or "news article" in the list of results or from the title listed in the source field of the record.

All of this makes me question what we mean when we say that a student didn't pass a composition course. Is it that the student didn't have the information literacy skills to help them ask and answer questions? Is it that the student didn't have the academic literacy to write in a way that looked like it was "scholarly" or "school-like"? Is it that the student didn't have the motivation to engage in or sustain a research process? Is it that the student couldn't process the reading well enough to write about or in response to it? Or maybe is it that the student's material conditions (work, family life, transportation, etc.) came into conflict with the demands of the course?

I wonder how much of this gets unpacked when we talk about "failing students" or "failing schools"? 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Open enrollment and the urban college

Last week's reading for my graduate class was a selection from James Traub's 1994 book City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College. Traub's discussion of "the underclass" had been roundly criticized by Mary Soliday's 2002 The Politics of Remediation, which we read the week before. Soliday argues that the idea of "underclass," which she presents as a designation that indicates cultural barriers, is often substituted for "working class" to suggest that somehow the urban experience is responsible for lack of achievement. In Soliday's view, the underclass is a compelling image for "neoliberal intellectuals" because it allows failures in remediation to be cast as resistance to assimilation and highlight student need rather than the institutional structures that might need to be addressed. By giving agency to students in their own failures in City College, Traub implies that "college is affordable for everyone, but not attainable for cultural reasons" (Soliday 131).

So, I went into Traub expecting to see an indictment of open admissions, and I did see that. But, what I didn't expect was the ways that Traub echoed current educational debates 20 years later and relied on almost caricatured narratives of underprepared high school graduates and the frustrated, unprepared academics unfortunate enough to teach them.  Honestly, there were parts of the book describing Charles Frye's remedial class that could have been swiped from Welcome Back, Kotter, and strained belief.

On the other hand, Traub does get at the complexity of higher education, a complexity that troubles me.
City College lives at the intersection of these two principles. It cannot fully satisfy both. The only way to ensure that it flourishes as a fine professional and liberal arts institution, as it once did, is to recognize the limits of its social mission. City, and any other college that aspires to high academic standards, cannot be asked to educate large numbers of deeply disadvantaged students, as Ann Reynolds understands. It's not unreasonable to ask that students who complete high school without the academic credits detailed in the College Preparatory Initiative complete them elsewhere, presumably in a community college. Programs like SEEK, which permit students to enter without having satisfied admissions criteria, should stop functioning as entitlements and accept only those students who show special promise. And City cannot allow its commitment ot remedy disadvantage to lead to the sort of "social promotion" that has such a demoralizing impact on the high schools. City must accept students who have a decent chance of succeeding, ply them with help, and then insist that they satisfy not only high expectations by high standards (Traub 204-205).
As a former high school teacher and a new professor in a community college system, I've taught to see the students who are "without the academic credentials" they need to complete college. Four-year institutions raise admissions standards and reduce remediation. Those students who lack the academic credentials now, as in 1994, come to community colleges, and I think that's a perfectly logical and reasonable situation. But increasingly, those community colleges, too ,feel the same pressures that Traub describes here: educate all who come, but on a time-limit. Prepare them for college and careers, regardless of where they are when they start, within a certain timeframe. That's not entirely realistic.

Traub's recommendation to "ply them with help" seems to be the key. Northern Virginia Community College has 4 pathways programs designed to do just that for different populations within the college. In my limited experience here, the Pathways programs do seem to help students navigate the system. But they are likely not cheap to implement. If we're really determined to educate all, then these programs need to be the norm and not the exception. They need to carry students who need additional support into the community college system and beyond.

Do we have the societal commitment to do that?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Politics of Remediation and Free Community College

As part of his "State of the Union" address, President Obama proposed a program that would grant students the equivalent of  two years of full-time tuition at community colleges. Obama pointed to a Tennessee program as a model for this national initiative, In a time where there's tremendous focus on the growing cost of college, this grand idea has drawn significant positive attention, and some equally vehement backlash.  The debate over the "America's Promise" plan for free community college for students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and have family adjusted gross incomes of less than $200,000 reveals some of the stratification and politics of access and representation that Mary Soliday explored in her 2002 The Politics of Remediation: Institutional and Student Needs in Higher Education.

Part of the issue that some have is that Obama has chosen not to expand the Pell Grant, which can be used for tuition at 4-year colleges as well as community colleges. Many of those advocating expansion of the Pell instead of the President's plan have an interest in maintaining enrollment in 4-year universities, which have felt the pinch of budget cuts and the backlash against rising tuition rates caused by the withdrawal of government support for higher education. These articles tend to highlight research (or sometimes "research") that proves that 4-year colleges have better outcomes:
Do I think that community colleges are the answer? I'm not sure. Pell Grants should be expanded, but there are many families that identify as "middle class" that the Pell Grants don't help. Those families could benefit from this plan. But both expanding the Pell and enacting America's Promise require a level of societal commitment to education and to funding that education through government programs that I don't think we have the will to do, despite all of our claims about the value of an education.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Public and hidden transcripts in the NFL

In my reading for this semester's class, I've come across a concept that seems to be sticking in my head. Richard E. Miller's Writing at the End of the World uses the ideas of public transcripts and hidden transcripts from James Scott's Domination and the Arts of Resistance. To be fair to Scott, Miller's piece is the first place that I've encountered Scott's work. Miller doesn't fully buy Scott's arguments about how performance of these two forces construe social action, but I can see some merit in them as a way to look at what might seem to be shocking outbursts.

Let me share a bit about the two terms, at least as I understand them from Miller's explanation. The public transcript is what "'serves as a shorthand way of describing the open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate'" (Scott qtd. in Miller 127). So, the public transcript is the one that gets valued and validated. It's the story that maintains the status quo. On the other hand, "the hidden transcript is, by contrast, a kind of discourse 'that takes place "offstage," beyond direct observation of the powerholders" (Scott qtd in Miller 128).

Thus, the hidden transcript provides an alternative view of what could be, whether that view is to parody the public transcript or a vision of a different world that is shared by those who are not in power. The subordinates don't really have the access to power to affect change, and often seem to comply with the public transcript because they "are attempting to avoid any 'explicit display of insubordination'...when in fact they have neither embraced this ideology nor resigned themselves to the fate this ideology has in store for them" (Scott, qtd in Miller 133, emphasis in Scott's original work).  

When the hidden transcript does get expressed publicly, it can be quite shocking. But, as Miller notes, "it is important to recognize that the shock arises not so much because the public revelation of the hidden transcript discloses unknown information, but rather because, in the act itself, the revelation threatens to 'tear the public face of the hegemony'" (Scott qtd. in Miller 133). This last piece resonated with me because as I was reading and discussing Miller's work, I kept hearing coverage of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch's refusal to talk to the press during the mandatory media day event.

While an NFL player's refusal to answer the predictable questions that are supposed to produce the predictable responses about team work, team as family, and "giving 110%" doesn't rise to the severity or extreme situations that Scott purportedly describes in his book, the media reaction to the NFL star's almost 5-minute repetition of "I'm here so I won't get fined" was the type of shock Scott describes when hidden transcripts are made public.  The mixed reaction of his fellow players and fans seems to confirm that there are hidden transcripts at work here. 

Certainly, Lynch hasn't endeared himself to the media and repeatedly has brought the type of attention to the NFL that the league does not want, through over the top unsportsmanlike celebrations and three separate arrests during his NFL career. It would be tempting to write this off as just another egotistical display of a selfishly ungrateful superstar. But that's a bit simplistic to me, especially in light of some of the profiles of Lynch that portray him as a guy who loves to play, but doesn't love the limelight and fears both disappointing and being disappointed by others

Yes, being available to the media is part of the job, but it's probably not one that many players love. And Lynch's refusal to pretend that it is more than a job requirement threatens our narratives about what we expect from successful athletes.

We want to believe in our teams. We pay for our tickets and our jerseys. We buy coffee mugs and baby onesies to show our allegiance. Even if our team doesn't make the big game, we tune in, at least for the commercials. And we expect the two-week-long show to include the voices of the players. But how did we come to conflate athletic ability and being a good communicator?

We want to think that successful athletes owe something to us for their success, and should demonstrate their gratitude by being nice to us and being role models for good conduct. But that also ignores the pressure that constant scrutiny must place on an individual.

I suspect that why Lynch's refusal to play along with the media hype shocks people because it reminds us that not all of the stories we tell ourselves, and the media perpetuates, are true. Not all football players want the constant celebrity and attention that they get from being at the top of their game. Not all kids who make it out of rough circumstances are willing and able to be role models, even if their rise confirms what we want to believe about hard work. And guys who play professional sports don't actually have meaningful relationships with the fans or with the media who cover them.

So, is Lynch selfish? Is he an ass? Maybe. But maybe we're also a bit complicit because we're looking for stories that confirm the public transcript that plays out every January.

Work Cited
Miller, Richard E. Writing at the End of the World. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh, 2005. Print.