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Studying the Student

posted: 9.28.10 by archived

Student diversity is one of the most obvious challenges when designing a course in a community college environment. It takes just one semester of teaching to realize how different the students—and their goals—may be from one another. I’ve been struggling with this challenge for eight years, and in revisiting it for this blog I consulted my colleagues Howard Tinberg and Jean-Paul Nadeau, who earlier this year published their study The Community College Writer: Exceeding Expectations. I asked them how what they discovered about students changed or reinforced their own notions of how to design the composition course. They were generous enough to sit down for an hour’s chat, so I’ll try to distill, without distorting, what they had to say into some bullet-worthy points.

Get to know your students

HT: The study confirmed how important it is to know these students as well as possible and to listen to the stories. I’m thinking back to…how much it would have helped me as an instructor to know something of their backgrounds and their other activities, some of which were highly literate and required all kinds of reading, writing, and speaking skills that I wouldn’t have had access to if I hadn’t been able to be with them or talk to them as much as we did.

J-P: You have to build in time to get to know students—that’s one thing we learned and it’s a wearing process and you have to be persistent, but even giving students meaningful feedback and getting it to them in a timely way has to be built in to your course schedule. One-on-one conferencing is an important part of my course design, and I make no apologies for it to anybody.

It‘s there at particular points in the semester intentionally, and my relationship with students is absolutely different as a result, and I’m totally convinced that they learn more than they otherwise would. You know, it’s as much about the affective as it is about the paper, because…after all my talk about the syllabus and how close my office is, they still wanted to know where my office was. They just don’t process it because they think, “I’m never going to go there, I’m never going do that,” so getting them in there is a great way to show them I’m human.

Take a developmental approach

HT: Because we had a range of students, people of different ages, expectations, and preparedness, it was interesting to see how ready some of the more motivated folks were and how much others needed much more direction.

J-P: I’ve always tried to get students to own their writing (to allow students, I should say, to own their writing), and I think we realized that they don’t always want to own it. And they want to be told what to do.  So that made me think about the developmental process—from the early, necessary directedness to getting students to even want to own their writing, to more ownership toward the end of the course.

Every time I sit down with a set of papers, it’s never easy to comment. And it used to be enough to do it and to see all the marks and know I’d done hard work. You certainly want to be respectful in your comments and to know that it’s the student’s own work, so some things I wouldn’t be directive about ever, but you know they need some form of guidance. These endless questions get to them. So I try to observe and inquire when I comment.

Balance workplace and academic literacies

HT: I’m trying to find a middle ground between the need to prepare students for the academic work and the need to prepare them for a literate life outside the classroom. That’s where the genre approach comes in. I like the approach because it extends students’ literacy beyond the writing of essays.  Moreover, genres have specific and teachable structures.

J-P [who also uses the genre approach]: I like that getting beyond essays helps students gain a sense of audience and purpose. I encourage them to consider what they’d like their writing to achieve, its intended consequences. The genre approach also opens some students’ eyes to the variety of writing out there.

Stay flexible

J-P: At a community college I think we’re masters at adaptation—if we do our job. I think it’s personal, I think you do it individually with students, but I also think you do it with individual classes. I have my live audience. I see them. I can see how they’re responding and if they’re looking at me with a quizzical look I react to it. I don’t ignore it. I want communication. That’s what’s it’s all about. I just can’t ignore misunderstanding or confusion. I always address it.

HT: If things don’t work out well in one class, then I try something different the next class. And when I say the next class I mean the next section, maybe the next hour. I’m literally doing something different, tweaking perhaps or asking different questions that I hadn’t asked in the first class because I really didn’t know if it wasn’t going to work in the first class and it may not have worked.

Howard’s eloquent summary

HT: It’s just not about delivering information, about delivery systems. We’re trying to establish connections with real people and we ourselves are making new connections, with our course, with our subject matter, with the students. They change every year, and it’s that more organic model that I think we ought to be holding out and valuing. And I think we’re getting away from that to something a little more systematic, a little more interchangeable, more expendable.

One thing above all that we learned from this study is that people are not expendable, that they are indeed distinctively different from one another, that they cannot simply be categorized as a community college student and that our expectations as faculty need to adapt to the fine reality that we need to speak to that particular student, like Ben, like Tina, like Wendy. We can’t treat them like one homogenous group. For me, what in the final analysis has stayed with me is that these are so very different people and as a result very different writers.

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Categories: Campus Issues, Classroom Challenges and Solutions, Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Teaching Advice
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