Teaching the Writing Teachers

Is it time for a new approach to the master's programs that produce the instructors who teach community college composition?
March 18, 2010

LOUISVILLE -- "I was incredibly well trained to teach college writing, but only one course at a time. How do you teach five classes when you've only been trained to teach one?"

That was the question of a community college writing instructor who has taught herself how to manage the workload she now has. Her experience reflects the sense shared by many composition experts that it's time for a new approach to teaching those who will teach writing at community colleges.

Some four-year colleges rely on their English faculties to teach introductory writing; others have separate writing programs or composition/rhetoric departments. Either way, these programs tend to be led by Ph.D.'s (even if much of the teaching is carried out by adjuncts or grad students who may not have earned doctorates).

At community colleges, the master's degree is the norm for a writing instructor, and there are an increasing number of master's degree programs in composition and rhetoric that are designed to train students for community college teaching jobs.

As thousands of writing instructors from all over the country gathered here Wednesday for the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, a select group met to consider how to improve those master's programs. The session was led by faculty members at San Francisco State University, which has a well-regarded program in the field.

Others here (who agreed to be observed without their names and institutions being used) were considering the creation of new master's programs and the reform of others. And community college writing chairs and hiring committee members were there, too, to provide a reality check on the thinking of those theoretically producing those whom they would hire -- and who would have tough jobs ahead, given the many community college students who enter higher education with minimal writing skills.

Those doing the hiring at community colleges were frank that they really need these composition master's programs to work because they aren't content to hire literature doctorates who are applying for composition jobs at community colleges because of the tough job market for new humanities Ph.D.'s.

"We get these cover letters and they are so out of touch with what we need," one community college faculty member said of those seeking to teach writing. "We're looking for someone who has actually been in a community college classroom, and they are writing letters about their dissertations in literature."

Indeed the mismatch is so serious that San Francisco State, which also offers a graduate certificate in teaching college composition, is enrolling some who already have earned doctorates, but who find they need to prepare themselves for jobs that exist (teaching basic writing at community colleges) as opposed to those they trained for (at research universities).

And even programs like San Francisco State's are making changes. A thesis used to be required. Now students are required to submit a portfolio instead, including an article suitable for publication, a statement of teaching philosophy, a course plan, and an essay of critical reflections on their own teaching experiences.

"With a thesis, there was very little link to what we were teaching," said Mark Roberge, assistant professor of English language and literature at San Francisco State. "They are learning how to teach, and then suddenly in the last two semesters, they are learning how to do academic research. We were training researchers, not teachers."

Kory Lawson Ching, his colleague, agreed. With a thesis "you have document creep" and they were becoming "mini-dissertations," but not teaching the students how to teach writing.

The mismatch concern was also evident when those in the room who have or are planning master's programs described their features and then the group brainstormed about the qualities they want community college writing instructors to have. The existing and planned programs feature, not surprisingly, courses on such topics as the theories of composition and rhetoric. But when describing the skills a community college writing instructor needs, the discussion revolved around attitudes and comfort levels and largely focused on skills that would be needed by anyone teaching in a community college serving a diverse student body, regardless of the subject matter.

The current community college faculty members talked about needing to learn to be flexible, to deal with students with a range of educational needs, and to accept that many classes will include students with "complicated lives." One instructor said that what she wished master's programs provided was "how to have confidence in the face of a guy in your class who is a former prisoner, inked to the max, and wearing chains."

And while many composition writing programs talk about diversity, one community college faculty member said that there are types of diversity that challenge these new instructors. At many community colleges, "the typical student is working class, not really interested in talking about 'white privilege,' and may be homophobic" and there is a gap between such students and the newly minted master's holders who are "well-intentioned, left-leaning or Marxist, and care about our students but aren't connected to them."

Then there is the question of time. Should master's programs train their students for the number of students they would have in an ideal world or the number of students they will have in this era of expanding class sizes and bulging enrollments at community colleges?

Sugie Goen-Salter, professor of English at San Francisco State, said, "when we talk about conferencing with every student on every single paper, if you are teaching 18 students, that’s feasible, but when you are teaching four sections of 30 students, we can be teaching them in a completely unsustainable way." If master's faculty members set out the wrong ideals, she said, they can be setting up future community college instructors to feel like they "have to be a bad teacher."

The issue is a sensitive one for those who teach composition. Their association has guidelines about how many students per semester an instructor can realistically educate -- and studies are issued with some regularity (and were even before the recession) showing that community colleges frequently violate those standards and leave writing instructors teaching many more students.

Ching described meeting a master's student who told him of taking one hour to grade a single essay in a course she was teaching. "I said, 'You can't do that,' " he said.

Indeed the general theme here was to emphasize practical skills, both in the master's programs course components and especially in providing more internships in community college classrooms, where students can experience a range of teaching issues. Said Roberge: "We may need to provide more instruction on the profession of teaching composition rather than just the substance of composition."


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