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Unafraid of Virginia Woolf

January 12, 2011

LOS ANGELES – How important was Mrs. Dalloway to composition students at West Los Angeles Community College? Katherine Boutry, their instructor, offered the ultimate in concrete evidence during a discussion at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association about English pedagogy at community colleges. When students filled out their course evaluations, three wrote that they had gotten tattoos that read “fear no more,” a key phrase from the novel. The students acted independently of one another and in fact selected different body parts for their tattoos (Boutry respected their privacy by not sharing the details).

Boutry didn’t stumble on a group of Mrs. Dalloway fans at her college. In fact, she broke the norm at West Los Angeles (and many other community colleges) of teaching writing by having students respond to nonfiction works. Boutry noted that at many elite colleges, first-year students learn to write by responding to fiction, and she asked why that approach should be denied to students at community colleges.

So she built a composition course around Mrs. Dalloway, "A Room of One’s Own" and The Hours -- abandoning such standards as Fast Food Nation and Freakonomics. Boutry said she figured that her students could, if they wanted to, read those nonfiction books on their own. But she doubted they would ever tackle Virginia Woolf without some guidance.

She didn’t play down the difficulties. Some students were sufficiently confused by the approach that they showed up on the first day with the Edward Albee play about Woolf, not the works by Woolf. At the beginning, some students viewed the course "as a death march," Boutry said. And as they worked, line by line, through Mrs. Dalloway, the most common response once students understood what was going on was, “Why didn’t she just say that?” The indirection mystified students.

But by the time the students got to The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s novel that focuses both on the writing and reading of Mrs. Dalloway, the students saw the work as "an inside joke that they could understand," something they had never before experienced in literature.

Boutry said that she was nervous about whether the use of literature would have a negative impact on the students’ ability to write essays -- and she said that student progress in that area was no better but no worse than when she had taught composition based on nonfiction. Of 234 students in sections in which she taught Woolf instead of nonfiction, more than half said in anonymous end-of-semester evaluations that they were dubious of the approach at the beginning and were reluctant to be reading literature. Only five students, however, said that their views had not changed and that they wished they had been in a nonfiction section. (As for the tattoos, there was no question about that -- the students volunteered the information.)

Boutry's talk clearly inspired those at the meeting. But many others who spoke worried that community college students are losing out on what the humanities can offer -- at a time of unprecedented attention on community colleges. Professors talked about state funding formulas that reward community colleges more for each section of nursing than for each section of composition or English.

English professors talked about their concerns that they may be discouraged from teaching fiction as a literary experience -- and that standards may be eroded in the push under the national "completion agenda" to get more students through.

Carol Bork, of New Jersey's Mercer County Community College, expressed frustrations with the way general education is described in various documents outlining course goals for the state's community colleges. The state talks about “skills” and “gateway courses” for students in science and technology fields, with the idea that the first courses students take at a community college give them enough knowledge that they can go on and take more. Literature, on the other hand, is discussed as something to be covered in “a broad-based examination” of various works -- a single survey, in other words.

The problem, Bork said, is that literature is "reduced to a series of factoids," with the idea that an instructor will "lecture on selected works." And, as a result, community college English instructors are discouraged from "slow reading" with their students -- and from the kind of textual analysis Boutry described.

Bork said that English faculty members shouldn’t accept this as inevitable, even if most of their students are training for specific careers and are unlikely to take advanced literature courses. This type of learning encourages "critical thinking," and Bork said she wants the technician who reads her mammogram to have such critical thinking skills rather than assuming that they are the purview of the more privileged student elsewhere.

Steven Canaday of Anne Arundel Community College, in Maryland, said that he is concerned about the impact of the completion agenda on retaining quality of instruction -- aside from literature.

Anne Arundel, like many community colleges, recently announced a commitment to double by 2020 the number of degrees and certificates it awards. English instruction is viewed as key because everyone must pass first-year composition to earn an associate degree, and most certificates require students to at least pass out of remedial writing courses.

Canaday said that he and his colleagues would of course like to see all of their students pass, and graduate. But he said that very few students fail because they can’t meet the requirements. For many, life intervenes and they drop out. And as community colleges increasingly rely on “an army of part-timers” to teach, limiting the number of full-time faculty and academic advisers, Canaday said he doesn’t see how his department can magically get more people passing -- particularly if enrollment continues to increase without matching increases in budgets and staffing.

His administration, he said, is sending departments lots of information about “bottleneck courses” (such as his department’s composition course) that many students don’t pass.

One idea being discussed as a result, he said, is that the composition course end its requirement of a research paper. "Most of us disagree and think that’s something we should maintain," Canaday said, but ending the requirement would probably result in more people passing. He said he’s unsure what will happen as the faculty at individual departments set out this month to figure out what to do. His hope, he said, is that "rather than see this as a moment to retrench, we see this an opportunity to ask for more."

If politicians and administrators really want more people to pass English and to finish degrees, he said, it’s time to look at class size, to hire more full-time faculty members, to get specialists in remedial education to review how the college offers it and to suggest improvements.

All of these things, however, cost money that the college lacks, Canaday said. At least for now, however, he argued that his colleges should ask for what they really need, not cut back on what they aspire to teach students.

 

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