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Partnerships between universities and community colleges are commonly perceived as a one-way street where the former extends expertise or resources to the latter. But that approach overlooks the growing interest in and potential for university–community college partnerships that draw from the experiences, skills and perspectives that both types of institutions have to offer.
We saw this potential after organizing an Institute for Reading and Writing Pedagogy at Brandeis University, which brought together eight Brandeis Ph.D. students and eight Middlesex Community College faculty members. Developed by the Modern Language Association, the institute pairs universities with community colleges for a week of intensive training in pedagogy. We expected a week of productive conversations and workshops on that topic, but what occurred went beyond our expectations.
Participants from both institutions characterized the conversations that took place as “transformative” and even “magical” in ways that not only made them better instructors but also refreshed their relationships to scholarship, writing and academe in general. The event was a success because of the powerful synergy between the theoretical and scholarly orientation of Ph.D. students and the practical teaching experience of the faculty. In other words, it was a success because it drew from the strengths of the people at both institutions.
Bridging the Gap
The MLA institute consisted of a series of workshops that focused on concrete challenges related to inclusive pedagogy. The two facilitators—Paige Eggebrecht, director of the writing center at Brandeis, and Nicholas Papas, professor of English at Middlesex and one of the co-authors of this article—helped faculty and students work through topics such as how to design assignments that meet specific teaching goals, how to scaffold projects, how to come up with fair grading policies and how to approach reading productively. Miranda Peery, an English Ph.D. student at Brandeis, described the benefits of pedagogy training with people from different institutional backgrounds: “We started the morning with a problem, such as what grading policies work and don’t work. Then we were told, ‘Let’s try it!’ Then we moved into groups that were a mix of graduate students and faculty. We worked alone on our own grading policy but we could also look up and ask the faculty nearby, ‘Does this make sense? Does this work in a classroom?’”
In those moments, she said, the theoretical and idealistic orientation of the graduate students confronted the practical teaching experience of the community college faculty. “We were given a reality check,” said Medha Asthana, an anthropology doctoral student. Students came into the program with “our analytic, deconstructing language, and the faculty would say, ‘on the ground, with our students, this is what works instead.’”
For many of the Ph.D. students, the Middlesex faculty members’ deep commitment to teaching modeled the academic culture that attracted them to graduate school in the first place. Most doctoral students at Brandeis, as at universities around the country, come into graduate school wanting to teach. But they quickly discover that pedagogy—and especially substantial discussions on topics such as how to create inclusive classrooms for undergraduates—is simply not a central feature of most Ph.D. curricula. Indeed, throughout the week, students benefited from being able to workshop ideas for assignments, syllabi and in-class activities.
But the students also reported an unexpected benefit of the institute—and one that was directly connected to its distinctly collaborative nature: it was helpful emotionally, as well. As one student put it, “In graduate school you are set up to not like teaching—it is seen as a chore or obstacle to publications or your dissertation.” But spending time with community college faculty presented a different perspective: that working with faculty whose professional identity revolved around meeting students’ diverse needs and creating an inclusive classroom space can be incredibly validating.
Bringing community college faculty and graduate students together has additional tangible advantages. When Nicholas reviews application materials for faculty positions at Middlesex, he finds most Ph.D.s are not viable candidates, because they do not have the appropriate teaching training, experience or demonstrated commitment to inclusive pedagogy. But he wants to hire people with a Ph.D. because their intellectual rigor can be helpful in addressing the challenges of teaching at a community college. Thus, a collaboration like the Institute for Reading and Writing Pedagogy helps solve two problems at once: it gives doctoral students the teaching training they yearn for, while satisfying community colleges’ desire for job candidates whose pedagogical approach is as sophisticated as their research.
For their part, community college faculty members also benefited from the collaboration in surprising ways. They enjoyed the theoretically oriented conversations with graduate students and the opportunity to have close engagement with the academic texts of pedagogy. They also appreciated the rare opportunity to reflect on pedagogy in an unhurried environment away from the demanding routine of teaching, grading and administrative tasks. They don’t normally have the time to look at the research and academic articles on teaching, to discuss and work through the theoretical aspects of teaching. The institute provided an intense way to zoom out and see the broader framework for what they are actually doing, remember why they were doing it and, ultimately, improve their teaching.
For the Middlesex faculty members, the institute became a valuable reflective exercise, as the sessions reminded them of their core teaching objectives and the profound influence they exert on students’ lives. Engaging with enthusiastic graduate students who were at the cusp of their teaching careers reminded many community college instructors of their initial passion for teaching. This rejuvenated spirit often translated to a more energetic and passionate classroom environment. Multiple faculty participants—some with decades of teaching experience—said the techniques that they learned transformed their teaching.
Others reflected on the value of the institute across disciplines. One participant, Deb Botker, history department chair and president of the Faculty Staff Association at MCC, commented, “This institute provided the tools, assignments and lesson plans needed for those of us who do not have backgrounds in teaching reading and writing. The facilitators managed to have a broad range of faculty and graduate students from across disciplines work together to find solutions to some of the most vexing pedagogical problems.”
Bursting Institutional Bubbles
Cross-institutional collaboration enabled participants to get outside their professional bubbles, said Asthana. This bubble can consist of advisers who may be committed and talented teachers but who do not see teaching as their primary professional identity. This bubble can also be a space of privilege, which leads to assumptions about students’ backgrounds and how faculty members are expected to engage, or not engage, with them. Of course, the community college professional bubble also has limitations. It can mean seeing problems as distinct to their institutions or focused so much on meeting the immediate demands of teaching that larger reflections on pedagogy are sidelined.
Getting out of institutional bubbles enabled participants on both sides to see what they had in common, while offering fresh perspectives on their respective classrooms. For instance, graduate students appreciated how community college instructors are deliberate about teaching reading and writing in all their courses and that they do not assume all students are familiar with academic conventions. Of course, this is an important lesson for university faculty members, as well, who sometimes forget that they, too, are teaching students with a variety of educational backgrounds and different levels of exposure to such conventions.
As Gowthaman Ranganathan, an anthropology Ph.D. student, noted, “Four-year institutions like to pretend like we don’t need conversations on topics like how to read and write, but we absolutely do.” Research by John C. Bean and Dan Meltzer bears that out: students at all levels need to acquire academic skills like mindful reading. Moreover, the institute’s workshops, on topics like how to give student feedback that is critical while still encouraging, determining inclusive grading policies, getting students to be excited by the material and teaching them how to find a writing voice—while initially designed with community college educational contexts in mind—are “ubiquitous teaching challenges,” said Peery.
Indeed, participants noticed that discussions on pedagogy in two-year institutions were relevant for everyone, including people in the institute itself. Who wouldn’t benefit from lessons on how to find the joy in writing and the potential for surprise in reading? What professor or graduate student wouldn’t benefit from conversations on topics developing strategies to complete large writing projects, refining their writing voice and close but also efficient reading?
The collaboration between Brandeis and Middlesex, and others like it, underscore the rich potential in merging the experiential knowledge of community colleges with the research-intensive environments of universities. Such partnerships not only provide graduate students and faculty with robust pedagogical training but also nurture a more holistic, empathetic approach to teaching. Bringing universities and community colleges together does more than share resources and knowledge—it enriches the educational experience for both educators and learners alike.