Seriously, What’s the Difference?

Jeanette Lukowski

It all began with an article from The New York Times titled “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide.” The article was part of an assessment tool being used by the community college for whom I was an Adjunct English Instructor that fall semester of 2016; the Assessment Coordinator was asking all teachers of Composition I to use a set of common articles in the beginning of the course, and again at the end of the course. I had two sections, so agreed to help.

In December, then, as my Composition I students were working through the assessment activity during our last day of class, I read Kristin O’Keefe’s article for the first time. Published on The New York Times’s blog in February of 2015, O’Keefe seemed inflamed by comments made by “an educator explaining criteria for high school graduation…to her audience of parents and incoming freshmen: ‘here’s what you should take if you want to go to a real college – you know, not community college.’” Although I was not as annoyed as O’Keefe appeared to be, I was intrigued by the suggestion of there being a “divide” between the two types of schools.

I have a personal history with both 4-year universities and community colleges.

I grew up in Chicago, moving to Minnesota when I was in my twenties. While living in Chicago, I attended both community college and university; I also attended both types of schools in Minnesota, before receiving my B.A. as a non-traditional commuting mother of two young children.

My teaching credentials also encompass a wide array of experiences, from traditional classroom experience at both universities and community colleges to online teaching for each type of institution.

What, I wondered specifically, is this “divide” O’Keefe refers to?

When I met with the Provost several hours later to discuss his invitation to teach additional courses for the community college during spring semester (I was already committed to an adjunct load for the year with a four-year university seventy-five miles away), I asked about my ability to use the same textbook for the spring semester Composition II course as I would be using with the university’s equivalent course. Since many of the community college students transferred to that particular university, I would see if I could unearth this suggested “divide” in northern Minnesota.

The Provost agreed to my proposal; my rather informal, semester-long “assessment project” began.

*          *          *

The first challenge I faced was to align course syllabi for a M/W/F fifty-minute class with a T/Th seventy-five-minute class.

Additionally, the university ran on a fifteen-week class schedule, while the community college’s course would last sixteen weeks.

Oh, and their Spring Break weeks occurred at different times.

I wasn’t given much time to dwell on these matters, though, since there were only two weeks of “break” between the community college’s semesters—and the office personnel who do the printing of syllabi and ordering of textbooks close for official holidays like Christmas and New Year’s.

Again, because this was an informal assessment project being pulled together in a hurry, I made no firm plan of how to track the “data” I would be collecting; I simply made notes on one of the many legal tablets I carry around with me from class to class. Some notes were made while students were freewriting in class (to use Peter Elbow’s term), and some more notes were made while I sat alone, holding formal office hours on one or the other of the campuses.

The journal entries that follow are observations of and conversations with students I have had the pleasure to meet and work with over the years, and the correlations I choose to draw by way of possible connections.

*          *          *

Week 1:

The first day of every course, no matter where I am teaching, runs pretty much the same way. I hand out the syllabus, run through introductions and such, and—if time allows—have students compose an in-class journal entry.

The second day of class, the university students received a “fresh” version of a lecture, while the community college students received a more polished, practiced version of the same lecture—followed by class discussion about the set of essays they were assigned to have read for homework.

The class discussion with the university students the next day began with a similar opening question, but followed an entirely different trajectory, as all such conversations are apt to do.

*          *          *

Journal from February 9, 2017:

Conversation styles are throwing me this week. I have been having an impossible time getting the [university] students to talk—while almost the exact opposite is occurring at [the community college].

Tuesday, for instance, I was “lecturing” the class about the highlights of chapter 3 in our textbook—“Arguments in Media,” or whatever. [Female student] was answering every question—with her deep, loud voice—and never raised her hand.

When [male student] in the second row opened his mouth to contribute (also a deep voice, but not quite as loud), he was almost “silenced” (drowned-out) by the building lull of conversations going on behind him. Now, usually there are two groups (pairs) of young women talking all the time—but this day it was all three back rows?

I regularly practice two distinct types of teaching styles with students: Lecture Mode, when I instruct students about the serious matters I would like them to know from each portion of the textbook, and Discussion Circles, when we collaboratively explore the many nuances of writing in published essays. Pedagogically speaking, Lecture Mode is the time when I convey the many “rules” of writing (in this particular case, the ways academic arguments are constructed, and how to locate—then cite—all sources used according to MLA style), while Discussion Circle time is used to examine the many ways a variety of writers have incorporated argument(s) into their work.

When I am “imparting knowledge” during Lecture Mode, students sit in their regular rows or columns, depending on the configuration of each specific classroom, and while I neither require nor request it, most students will automatically raise their hand if they have a question or want to offer a comment. By contrast, when it is time for Discussion Circles, I ask students to arrange themselves in such a way that no one has his or her back to another student; they are invited to contribute to what I hope becomes a hearty conversation, the only requirements being that they respect our right to disagree with one another—and they don’t take the “debate” out of the classroom’s conversation.

Although I have heard about teachers who use tools such as a talking stick to maintain order within the discussion circle, I have never felt the need to micro-manage the conversation until this particular class at the community college. For reasons I could not fathom at the time, too many of my group of twenty-eight community college students were maintaining their rigid behaviors from high school: playing with their cell phones while I was in Lecture Mode and chit-chatting with their neighbors whenever the spirit moved them. (Discussion Circles made cell phone use during class too obvious for all but one of my most defiant students, but we as a class chose to ignore her bad behavior, and all breathed a collective sigh of relief on days she was absent.)

The twenty-five university students, on the other hand, would pretty much rely on five of their classmates to speak, no matter what the topic, or how the seating was arranged. I tried everything short of standing on my head or placing electric shock buzzers in their chairs, but there were literally only two days when I heard most of those students speak in class: the first day, when I asked them to introduce themselves, and the last few days, when each student was asked to give a five-minute informal presentation on the topic of their final paper.

Pulling teeth.

*          *          *

Journal from February 16, 2017:

What if the “difference” between a four-year university and a community college is nothing more than the difference between a city and a small town?

  • Everyone knows everyone else at C.C., vs. larger populations of Univ.
  • Many more opportunities at Univ.—since kids “live” on campus, vs. commuting from home to C.C.
  • People attending Univ. “move away” from home—perhaps staying in Univ. “town” after graduation, vs. C.C. students who have no intention of moving (part of reason they are at C.C. in first place?)
  • Students are focused: four years to completion (perhaps five), vs. C.C. students who fit college in, when they can, around other life events
  • Activities are focused on-campus—students don’t have tons of contact with off-campus locations early in their “careers” as students because many lack transportation, vs. C.C. activities taking place in a commons-area (high traffic)—or in partnership with an entity in the community (since most are commuting to the typical small—one-building—campus)

*          *          *

Journal from March 3, 2017:

While it is not scientifically proven, student athletes in each institution seem to have different foci. At [the community college], student athletes are being imported from other states—and the school seems to make extra “accommodations” for those students. (Academic struggle means withdrawing from the course just days before it ends, rather than letting the student fail?)

I have also read / heard about the “one-and-done” student athlete rule / philosophy at [the community college]; attendance is lax, attention to skills-learning in the classroom doesn’t seem to matter.

[The university], on the other hand, has presented me with two young men who have placed academics first. Both are “from” small towns in Minnesota (Roseau for one, Detroit Lakes for the other); one plays basketball for [the university], while the other decided to drop his hockey career for academics.

In the news, at the very time I was drafting this essay, a family of basketball players was under the lens of scrutiny. Although I have no connection to either the family or the institution, my retired teacher mother asked me the night the news broke, “How do those young men think they can get away with theft like that?”

I simply replied, “They weren’t thinking, Mom,” because I had seen similar attitudes of nonchalance from other student athletes.

I have had the opportunity to teach some very fine, honorable student athletes. Just as all teachers are not cut from the same cloth, students athletes run the gamut as well. But that incident brings the question back around for me: are colleges holding all students to the same level of academic rigor—whether athlete or musician, artist or writer?

*          *          *

Journal from March 14, 2017:

This morning, my clear-headed thought was that [the community college] teachers are focused on teaching a specific set of skills—but perhaps overlook the importance of critical thinking. [I had overheard a community college instructor giving students oral exams in the office space we shared. The instructor’s technique was problematic for me.]

Skills aren’t always “transferable” from one discipline to another, and students never think about using many of the skills beyond the immediate classroom.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, could/should be part of everything they do, once mastered.

Anyone can learn to use a computer; anyone can figure out a way to memorize “data” like the Periodic Table in chemistry; anyone can be taught the rudimentary skills of cooking, playing an instrument, or even learning how to dance. But THINKING, especially CRITICALLY, that takes a whole new layer of…changing computer keyboarding skills to programming, transforming a student into a scientist, a master-chef, a talented musician, a prima-ballerina.

Critical thinking raises the bar from proficiency to mastery. It makes one self-reliant. It allows us to problem-solve, not just monitor or identify that a problem exists.

My class(es) and I were also reading a novel this semester, an activity I like to include as part of their expanding look at published writing. I approach it like a book club rather than a literary analysis, and ask the different levels of classes to engage with the novel in differing ways.

This semester’s selection was T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, because it allowed us the opportunity to engage in some of the nation’s hot-button topics (immigration, the wall between the U.S.A. and Mexico) without the extra layer of political affiliation (the book was published in 1995).

One of my students at the community college—a young woman who had been home-schooled by what I assume are very conservative, Christian parents (based on conversations I had with the student throughout the semester)—was stunned by the compassion exhibited by the Mexican immigrant male towards his wealthy, Caucasian male “rival” at the novel’s end. While I no longer recall her specific words, I remember the feeling of euphoria accompanying me on my seventy-five-mile drive home that afternoon; oh, happy day, her critical thinking skills were developing!

*          *          *

Journal from April 2, 2017:

The hammer falls hard on the position essay.

 [The community college] problems include two students presenting papers written for another class (one talking about her experience at [XYZ] Community College? Another using the I-Search final paper she wrote for me in Comp. I, complete with multiple online sources viewed in Dec. of 2016), and one young man who turned in a paper with the clear statement, “women like me…”

Ugh.

Students are often still childlike; children test boundaries. Each semester, no matter where I teach, I tend to run across a student who blatantly plagiarizes a paper. This discovery was recorded so specifically because I was sitting on campus, either grading in my office between classes or silently fuming in the library with my students while they were independently researching for their final paper.

Each college has a specific protocol for handling plagiarism. I publish the institution’s specific language in my course syllabus, “punish” the student based on the infraction, and pass the information up the chain-of-command if deemed appropriate.

After that, I entrust the administration with the situation—never inquiring about their decision—just as I hope they trust me to continue to do my job without interference.

*          *          *

Going back to O’Keefe’s, “The Community College / ‘Real College’ Divide,” she writes of a “divide” between “people who believe in community colleges, and people who dismiss and even diminish them.”

I do not know where O’Keefe lives, nor what region she is writing about with regard to this article—but I know what I heard when my children were each introduced to their high school in Minnesota. The high school’s guidance counselors promoted a very specific set of courses for students who tested well in the years leading up to ninth grade, making them “college ready,” while the students who had not tested well were simply given a plan to graduate.

Is that the “divide” O’Keefe means?

When I look into a classroom of students each semester, I do see a different set of people depending on whether it is a community college or a four-year university; I also see a difference in student population with the time of day, regional location of the school, and current state of the nation’s economy.

The similarities vs. differences I observed this one semester in northern Minnesota were:

  1. The community college students were younger than what I encountered in another community college in another time and state. Without asking for their Name, Rank, and Serial Number (although three of them shared specific information about being sixteen years old in their writing), I ascertained that approximately half of my community college students were enrolled through their high school’s Post Secondary Enrollment Option (meaning they were driving over to the community college for a class or two while still engaging in high school curricula and activities). By contrast, I don’t recall a single PSEO student being in the university class, so the maturity level of any topic discussed was always higher in the university than the community college.
  2. Most of the PSEO students were attending the community college without a clear sense of purpose. Without a defined career path / major in mind, the PSEO students were working in a vacuum of sorts; their work was unfocused and random when compared to their university “peers” who were working towards a very specific goal—and already had enough knowledge about their field from which to prepare a decent academic argument.
  3. Finances seemed to dictate the students’ attending college. Since the local area had recently experienced an economic recession of its own, many of the students were identified as First Generation college students. Were they attending the community college as a way for their parents to avoid the financial burden in a year or two? Were they attending the community college because they couldn’t find a “good paying” job in the area? Were they attending the community college because the local high schools were cutting budgets by hiring fewer teachers / offering fewer courses? If one is offered an athletic scholarship to a top-tier program, or has parents who are financially supporting the venture, students tend to gravitate towards universities; if students are coming from homes where money is a concern, and/or students are paying for it themselves, community college tuition is often a more affordable way to complete those “core” courses most Bachelor’s degrees require.

Yes, there are tangible differences between the four-year university and a community college—reputations of specific programs, athletic team classifications, and the variety of Majors/Minors each can offer—but a “divide,” as in a chasm, or to separate into opposing factions? No.

Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to the term “divide” right now, thanks to the divisive nature of the language many people in positions of power are using.

To borrow from Karl Marx, “Nothing can have value without being an object of utility.” So I challenge us all—as teachers, and as students—to focus on the value our education has brought into our life. The use will deem it a quality education.

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