Some forty-five years ago now, I began my college teaching career at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, where I learned in just a few short months what I did NOT know about how to teach writing. I had an excuse, of course; I had never taken a writing course (exempted, stupidly) and had only figured out how to write papers for my college classes by a kind of osmosis. Still, that first year was one long series of lessons in humility. My students were wonderful; they deserved a teacher who could guide them. Instead, they had me. But I didn’t give up easily, and with their help I began to understand what I needed to do: analyze their writing carefully, systematically, and listen intently to what they wanted to write about, and why they wanted to write about it. By the time I left Tampa to return to school for a Ph.D. (and to learn more about writing and about rhetoric!), I had found some footing, again thanks to my students. Together, we improved.
Today, roughly half of students in college began their work at a two-year school. Yet these institutions get much less funding than their four-year counterparts and hence have fewer resources: year after year, decade after decade, they are asked to do more with less. Yet in my travels around the country, I am regularly inspired and heartened by colleagues teaching at community and junior colleges. They often seem to know their students better, more deeply, than at four-year state colleges, and they care deeply about them. I wish that all those state funders, all those legislators, could visit the schools I visit, talk with the faculty and meet with the students I meet. I think they would be heartened and inspired too. Maybe even enough to make some changes in their state’s funding formula.
Recently I visited Northeast Junior College in Sterling, Colorado, where I met with faculty from across the disciplines to talk about students and about writing. As always, I came away impressed: with the philosophy teacher who had started five or six extracurricular clubs for students and who challenged his in-class students with forward-looking assignments; with the agriculture teacher who started every class with some writing; with the nursing faculty who asked piercingly insightful questions about how to help their students improve as writers and thinkers; with the English teacher who had started a writing center from scratch and made it part of the campus Comprehensive Learning Center. In this small northern Colorado community, this college felt very much like where the rubber meets the road, a no-nonsense, let’s get to work right now kind of place.
I came away wondering how I could make more connections with two-year colleges and how much we would all have to gain if four-year and two-year college teachers of writing made opportunities to work together. I know that some states, such as Oregon, encourage such collaboration, but more often than not, such encouragement comes without any support or funding. But today’s technologies may offer ways for colleagues to work across boundaries with minimum expense: webinars, google hangouts, and other ways of meeting up now abound.
Do you teach at a two-year college or at a four-year college? If so, what ways can you imagine sharing, partnering up, and maybe even fostering some on-line exchanges between students? How can you imagine breaking down the walls between institutions?
In the meantime, here are some photos I took at NJC: what a happy day I had there!
Student writing displayed in the Center.
One room in the Center.
It's always snack time!