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Design by Committee?

posted: 9.21.10 by archived

I’ve been watching a couple recent videos about Rutgers’ first-year composition (FYC) program via Jeff Rice at Yellow Dog and Alex Reid at Digital Digs. In one, five students discuss their attitudes and writing processes as they go through their first semester of Expos (as in expository): it’s a fascinating glimpse, complete with 2:00 am candy bars, a variety of procrastination activities, and frank discussions of how to BS your way through assignments. Watch it here:

The Expos Five from Expos the Movie on Vimeo.

In another video Kurt Spellman explains (briefly) the pedagogy of the program: learning how to read difficult texts and formulating “arguments using textual evidence” (in particular, five formal assignments of five pages each, the collegiate version of what some of my students have learned so well in high school):

Teaching Expos 101 from Expos the Movie on Vimeo.

Sharon Gerald of Writerly Haphazardry gives the community college retort in a post that laments “the sad fact that the two-year colleges in my area,…are not even in this conversation…about what college composition is [and] about what it ought to be.” She writes about time constraints and the lack of faculty trained in composition, issues familiar to anyone who’s taught at community colleges.

These discussions lead me to wonder about department-wide standards for FYC: What factors make them more desirable, or more difficult, in a community-college setting? Are they in fact a good idea?

From the college, department, and student point of view more uniform standards seem to be a good idea—they ensure that students get similar experiences in different sections of the same course and that adjuncts (who may have limited comp backgrounds and limited time) have a framework of pedagogical support.

However, some factors of the community college situation make the adoption of a college-wide program difficult. The time crunch for all faculty (whether full-timers teaching five sections of composition or part-timers heading off to teach at other colleges) makes it hard, as Gerald points out, to even start the conversation, and administrators are often too busy to adequately supervise and coordinate such a program. The number of adjuncts may make the adoption of a standardized curriculum more difficult to implement, with high turnover rates and difficulty maintaining open lines of communication.

Here are the conditions in my department: the English department meets 1 to 2 hours per month, generally with a packed agenda of announcements and housekeeping details. One year it took several months to debate revising the catalog course descriptions of our three FYC courses, and there was little to no time to discuss either overall course structure or specific assignments. Though adjuncts teach about 70 percent of regular-track FYC sections, two or three adjuncts at most attended the faculty meetings—at which they have no vote.

Academic freedom, as locally interpreted, allows faculty great latitude in course design within the roomy guidelines of these course descriptions. A union-negotiated, rather generic list mandates what information must appear on faculty syllabi, but faculty may use whatever text they wish (or none at all) and there are no department guidelines regarding type or number of assignments. A Title III grant has provided funds to support the redesign of gateway courses including FYC; this “redesign” consists of a resource toolkit of articles, links, and lists of suggested technology offered for voluntary adoption by faculty.

While I appreciate the flexibility and creative possibilities of course design, I haven’t come to any conclusions about how well it serves our students. If we decide that a standardized curriculum would be a good idea, then we have an enormous challenge to design one, since surely Rutgers’ approach will not fit our community college, whose population is so varied in backgrounds and goals. If we accept a diversity of pedagogy, I wonder if there might not be some better way to match up student and teacher.

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Categories: Adjunct Advice, Campus Issues, Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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3 Responses to “Design by Committee?”

  1. Alex Reid, SUNY Buffalo Says:

    Just a comment on the academic freedom issue. Part of the deal of delivering a program is that one gives up some individual freedom to have some say in the larger direction of the program. So if you teach Brit Lit Survey I, then you’re teaching British literature from a particular historical period. Academic freedom does not permit you to teach all 20th century American lit in that class, right? Personally, I wouldn’t pursue a uniform program like Rutgers’ for my institution. Instead, ideally I think you need a discussion of the objectives of the program and an ethical engagement on the part of all instructors in trying to reach those objectives. So one may have diversity of approaches but a commonality in terms of goals.

  2. Michael Goeller, Rutgers University Says:

    Thanks for your comments on our videos and our program. It is very useful to have this outside perspective.

    Uniform programs like the one at Rutgers are rare and grow out of unique circumstances. I don’t think they are for everyone and they are difficult to create without the support of the larger institution and faculty. But there are benefits, as you point out: From the college, department, and student point of view more uniform standards seem to be a good idea—they ensure that students get similar experiences in different sections of the same course and that adjuncts (who may have limited comp backgrounds and limited time) have a framework of pedagogical support.

    The biggest benefit, though, is that uniformity (especially in requirements and grading standards) allows the program and individual instructors to hold high standards for student achievement, which is a very ethically engaged approach in these days of grade inflation. Without uniform grading standards, instructors are left on their own to battle against student resistance to writing or simply to give in and ask very little of their students — perhaps hoping that someone else will ask more. Many succumb to inflating grades to help inflate their teaching evaluations, becoming complicit in a group conspiracy of mediocrity. Where there are common standards, teachers are given the role of supporters and not gatekeepers, helping students achieve department standards without having to take the fall for low grades. They can play the good cop to the department’s bad cop with students. And the department can maintain high standards, which have many institutional benefits.

    Of course, students should write longer papers also, and Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) requires students to also complete a second writing intensive course, typically with research writing as the focus — as in all of the Writing Program’s higher level course offerings and a number of other courses at the University.

    One of the best places to learn more about our approach to Expos is from The New Humanities Reader website: http://newhum.com/. There you can see samples of strong student essays from Expos, an instructors resource manual that is based on our pedagogy, and sample assignments.

  3. Michael Goeller, Rutgers University Says:

    Better links:
    http://newhum.com/3e/for_students/galleria/index.html
    http://sasundergrad.rutgers.edu/academics/requirements/degree/writing.html