My college is part of the Virginia Community College system; our service area includes suburban and rural areas in the northern part of the state. Like Blaauw-Hara’s institution, my college has seen significant changes in developmental courses, fueled in large part by a state-wide redesign of developmental education implemented in 2013. Since then, our developmental enrollment has plummeted; each year, we have reduced the number of low-level courses (ENF 1 and 2) and ALP courses (ENF 3) that we offer. In the upcoming year, we anticipate further change based on a system-wide change in placement policy: students with a high school GPA of 2.7 or higher will be eligible to enroll in either college composition or the ALP course, depending on the GPA. The ultimate impact of these changes is not yet known.
In our first semester course, we use a reader organized by traditional rhetorical modes, along with a handbook. Our second semester course covers both research and an introduction to literature. With eight full-time faculty and 20 adjunct faculty across two main campuses, a significant shift in the department’s approach and texts is not likely to occur any time soon.
Nonetheless, I have been interested in adapting a writing-about-writing (WAW) approach for my classes since I first read about it a few years ago. I first experimented in my second semester course (ENG 112), requiring that the research paper address writing or language and adding scholarly articles from composition, rhetoric, and linguistics to the reading assignments. An explicit discussion of genre and discourse communities frames our introduction to writing about literature. Since then, I’ve added a writing-about-writing/writing about language (WAL) paper to my first semester ALP course as well.
Like the students described in Blaauw-Hara’s piece, my students have struggled with the readings, the vocabulary, and the conceptual framework. In my second semester course, the students read sections of the seminal article by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions,” to start the term. I always have some students who tell me they just can’t do this. But we press on, and by mid-semester, the students are connecting new readings back to the Downs and Wardle piece in creative—if not yet sophisticated—ways.
This semester, about half of my second semester students took the first semester ALP course with me (or our ESL version of the ALP course). These students would certainly have been labeled “at risk” when they began last fall, based on a host of challenges including learning disabilities, lack of financial resources, lack of academic experience, or lack of time in the United States. The second semester course no longer provides additional class hours for support, although most students could benefit from that support. Looking at my roster—and feeling the external pressure of getting students through a pathway as quickly as possible—I developed my WAW/WAL syllabus while full of doubts.
But once again my students have (after a sluggish start) begun to engage with the material. As I conferenced with students today on their research topic choices, I found myself getting excited. What rhetorical choices do sports commentators make in their tweets and posts on social media? How does code-switching affect the lives of community college ESL students? What sorts of writing do architects do—how could I describe that discourse community? I wasn’t taught cursive in school; is that affecting the way I write now? How do bilingual (and translanguage) educators deal with monolingual parents who don’t like what’s going on in their child’s classroom? Can a change in body language really change how we are perceived in the workplace? What makes up “the canon” when it comes to graphic novels? These are just some of the topics my students are working on this term.
My experience with these students echoes what Blaauw-Hara found: they need to build skills, but they are also willing and capable of grappling with “weighty ideas,” and they thrive in a “rich intellectual environment.” I have set aside two office hours for my WAW/WAL students each week, and they are coming, ready to talk and full of questions.
I hope others will pilot WAW sections in community colleges and share their stories. Perhaps a session at the 4Cs in 2018?