Encouraging Community College Students to Emerge

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Today’s guest blogger is Barbara Hamilton, an Assistant Professor of English andWorld Literature at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, New Jersey, where she also serves as Honors Coordinator and Director of the Peer Tutoring Program.  Barbara also teaches upper-level literature courses for William Paterson University and was a past campus coordinator for the Rutgers Writing Program. When I moved to a community college from a university writing program two years ago, I wondered how students would respond to the reading level, essay length, and intellectual challenge of Emerging. Compared to the traditional university student, many of my current students are first-generation learners with more life experience but heavier family and work responsibilities that interfere with their time to read and write. Could they handle it? Happily, though, my performance anxieties ceased by the time I returned the first essay. They may have difficulty finding uninterrupted time to write, but nothing stops my students from thinking, talking to their family and friends about questions raised in the text, or interviewing co-workers about the ideas we discuss in class.  First-year writing is first-year writing, and what my students might lack in terms of cultural capital they make up for in their desire for cultural capital. Because of that desire, no one has complained about the perceived difficulty of Emerging.  For learners engaged in college-level discourse for the first time—who have often made great personal sacrifice to be here—there is a certain rush, a rise in academic confidence that comes from quoting a philosopher like Appiah or a recognized global figure like The Dalai Lama.  For a person who has never had The New York Times or The Atlantic piled casually on a coffee table at home, typing those titles on a Works Cited page becomes a rite of passage, a bridge crossed, a sign that progress is being made and dreams are closer. I remember that rush of accomplishment as a first generation student myself; why would I deny them this chance to grow? There are slight differences, of course. I have modified my practice in two ways recently, and both changes have improved my teaching. For one, I build reading sequences into my syllabus with even more attention than I have in the past.  What my current students demand above all is relevance. I can’t assume they’ll care about what Olsen or Gladwell think unless those issues seem important to them or their families—unless they are worth the time and sacrifice to tackle them. For instance, few care enough about genetic engineering to appreciate The Dalai Lama’s call to develop a global set of ethics.  However, if I link that essay with the Duhigg and Barboza article about unethical factory conditions in China, they immediately relate. They not only love their electronics, but many have family members who have worked in deplorable conditions. Worker safety and consumer responsibility become the venue for considering the feasibility of global ethics. One of the most successful in-class pre-drafting activities has been to have students create and then perform mini-plays in which The Dalai Lama and Apple executives discuss who is responsible for working conditions. Another change is that I must be more attentive to comprehension difficulties, especially in readings without an obvious thesis or with counter-arguments that seem more developed than the main message.  My students are often thrown by the time Surowiecki spends describing dysfunctional groups and miss his main message that groups are beneficial. This demands a discussion of the difficulties of excerpting a larger piece or the importance of reading editorial introductions and noticing book titles.  It’s also a great time to use one of my favorite lines:  “If you think that’s confusing, don’t write that way yourself.” Their own writing competence has to be my goal.  If they remember at the end that most development should advance their central project, whether or not they remember what Surowiecki thinks about the wisdom of crowds is secondary. Overall, first-year writing success looks much the same no matter the institution, but it might mean just a little more to community college students. It’s the portal to their dreams.
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.