Dialogue: Barclay and Bettina, Part One

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Today’s guest blogger is Bettina Caluori. Bettina  is Professor of English at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey. She earned her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. For the past four years she has served as the coordinator for English Composition I (ENG101). Before that she chaired a college-wide committee on assessment for several years. In addition to writing courses she teaches American literature and women’s literature.Barclay: Let me start with a rather broad and general question.  What is your history as a teacher?Bettina: My first teaching job stands out in “my history” because it gave me an enduring sense of a teacher’s responsibility to devise approaches that enable as many students as possible to learn.  This first job, when I was fresh out of college, was teaching in a private high school for students with learning disabilities and I learned that if you work to teach a topic so that someone with a learning challenge can succeed, you may develop an approach that is actually better for everybody.  The experience provided me with an early introduction to a student-centered mindset and also shaped the direction of my career.  Having absorbed a vague introduction to deconstruction in my college literature classes in the 1980s, my youthful impression was that language could be cracked open and made to mean nothing. For me, it was not a motivating approach to literary study and when an advisor asked if I wanted to go to graduate school I answered negatively. It turned out that teaching students who struggled to understand main ideas was the antidote because it refocused me again on the practical, personal power in writing. Those students also inspired me because as I watched them work, some of my own self-doubts just seemed lazy, and this experience helped me decide to get my Ph.D. in English. I went to graduate school with a background that made me receptive to Composition Studies and resistant to the notion that it was the basement to the grander house of literary study above. Years later I am an English professor at a community college, a good match for me because teaching writing is at the center of what we do. Barclay: Great answer!  I love the idea of starting from the perspective of students with learning challenges.  I think that’s a great way to think about how we can help all students succeed.  I also identify with your disenchantment with theory.  I went straight into a pretty theory heavy grad program and fell in love with “high theory.”  But like you things changed for me when I started teaching.  I realized that the theory of the time (late 90s mind you) was inevitably circular and a bit navel-gazing-ish.  There’s nothing like teaching writing to force us all to focus on the practical.  I like to say to students now that theory is only useful if it helps us to explain, predict, or change reality.  That’s just another way of saying that theory without praxis isn’t really useful (to me).So you mentioned that you now work at a community college.  Can you tell us about your institution and writing program?Bettina: Mercer County Community College [link to http://www.mccc.edu] has an urban campus in Trenton, New Jersey and a suburban campus in West Windsor. Its students are traditional college age and older, and racially diverse. Many are immigrants or international students. Often they are the first generation in their family attending college. Most students have to complete two required writing courses (still called ENG101 and ENG102). Because we have two campuses and many sections of writing courses, working to insure some consistency of approach is important. Right now full-time faculty receive release time to be coordinators of curricula for writing courses. I am the coordinator for ENG101. As a curriculum coordinator I don’t manage the hiring and scheduling related to this composition course, which is taught mostly by adjunct faculty at this point. My focus is communication about our curriculum, assessment, and management of our department essay that all students must take and pass.  This essay has a history I won’t detail here because it is long and the departmental essay has morphed over the years. This past year we created its latest version when we changed from having a common essay topic for all sections to giving professors the chance to write their own topic according to department guidelines. It provides greater freedom but since the topic must align with key course outcomes, be approved by the department, and graded according to a rubric, there is still consistency in approach. Previously students wrote this high-stakes essay in sixty minutes and it was scored in a big grading session at the end of the semester. This year we tried having students write the essay in class during weeks eight through ten of a 15-week semester, and required all students to revise their pass or fail essays for a letter grade after that (which must end up being a C for a student to pass the course). Instead of having a big grading session, we asked all full- and part-time professors to submit sample scored essays to a committee for peer review. The goal was for faculty to get feedback on applying the rubric and gearing comments toward revision. We undertook these changes hoping to give students a greater sense of motivation and control with respect to the department essay since previously it created anxiety at the end of the semester and may have discouraged some students from persisting in the course. We also wanted to create more faculty-faculty communication around one of the most important ways we composition professors interact with our students: comments on essays. So far the switch seems positive overall, but it is still early. Barclay: I think many of us working as writing program administrators in some capacity face that basic challenge: consistency versus individuality.  I too feel that some consistency is important.  The way I pitch it is that a student’s grade should not depend on which section she or he happened to get into.  At the same time, I also want to offer teachers in my program some freedom.  Those two desires are often in tension and I like the way your program is approaching them.  I especially like the focus on faculty-faculty communication and peer feedback.  It sounds like that allows for a general consistency without being too much like “Big Brother.”  I think the sampled submission is also really smart.  Now that I am doing much more with assessment that’s the kind of approach we talk about all the time.I have some more questions for you but will save those for the next post…
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.