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As a community college English instructor, I face an ongoing challenge of interrogating and dismantling stereotypes about our students and our curriculum. Yes, a number of our students are pursuing applied or technical degrees or certificates, with a goal of entering the workforce as soon as possible. But an equally large number of our students plan to transfer to four-year institutions (and many want to pursue advanced degrees). Neither target outcome should entail a lowering of expectations or a reduction in opportunities for learning. We aren’t grade 13, the easy way out, bottom tier, or just a check in the box—or we shouldn’t be.
Writing about writing (WAW) pedagogy is, to me, a perfect match for the community college. It treats writing—and language in general—as an object of investigation. Students can focus their investigations in relevant and meaningful ways, writing about the very sorts of writing and language-related issues that will shape their academic and professional careers.
Over the past four years, I have explored a WAW syllabus for my second semester freshman composition course (and I’ve written about this in previous posts, here, here, and here). As part of that course, in the spring semester, I have encouraged my students to participate in our Humanities and Social Sciences Research Symposium, a juried poster session. We began the Symposium as part of a previous quality enhancement plan (QEP), and as it has continued, we have refined and improved the structure and parameters of the event with a goal of raising the bar, bit by bit, so that our students experience authentic academic conversations with judges, students, and college community members. At the Symposium, we want content—not a grade—to be king.
Raising the bar (and thus defying stereotypes about our students and their potential) has required some significant introspection on the part of our faculty, particularly as we developed the cross-disciplinary rubric used by judges at the Symposium. What do we value in academic research? How do we assess the quality of sources used by students? What do we value in primary research? How familiar should students be with scholarship on their topic? How much weight should we place on presentation? How can we capture what we value so that we can communicate it to students and judges alike?
For my students, I have required the symposium as one component for earning honors course credit, and I have also offered extra credit. But that extra credit comes with a contract of sorts: I don’t want students to show up with paragraphs from the papers taped onto a board. Instead, I present the Symposium as a rhetorical challenge. Students must discuss with me the affordances and potential drawbacks of the poster format, as well as the needs of the possible audiences at the Symposium (which could include a professor, the Title IX Coordinator, an administrator, students, or a member of the community). They need to think about words, arrangement, images, colors, size, and copyright.
I am not convinced that we have fully achieved our goals for the Symposium. But we have made a great deal of progress. As coordinator, I have watched as students have interacted with judges, hesitantly at first, and then with growing excitement and confidence. Often, there is a single moment of epiphany: “This person thinks my topic is just as interesting as I do!” Voices rise in pitch, and hands begin to move in the air, highlighting the power of dialogue—of sharing and of thinking in the moment. More than once, I have had a student say to me, “I didn’t know it would be like this. I want to do it again.” Yes. Real learning—and real scholarship—is like that.
This year, two of my students took home prizes in the Symposium: a project on the viability of West African pidgin as an official language for West African nations, and a project on the history and structure of American Sign Language (with a focus on whether ASL should be used to fulfill a foreign language requirement). Both projects came out of my adapted Writing about Writing (and language) second semester freshman course. The students were honored at the college-wide awards ceremony at the end of the term, where their winning projects were displayed again for all college award recipients and their families.
Can first and second year students at community colleges engage in authentic—albeit novice—scholarly work? Certainly. WAW approaches to composition encourage this sort of scholarly initiation, and a Symposium validates their efforts; they aren’t just eavesdropping on the conversation but joining in. With the variety of people walking through, they may even find themselves in a position of relative expertise. That sense of knowing is powerful.
I am very grateful for an administration that supports our Symposium, with dollars and with attendance, and who support faculty scholarship and innovation as much as they can. I am also grateful for colleagues who resist the insertion of that insidious “just”: we are a community college, not “just a community college.”
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