Composing the FYC Course: Community College Style

Holly PappasHolly Pappas teaches writing at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts. She began blogging in 2004 as a way to collect reflections about her teaching and, more importantly, to find her professional voice while working as an adjunct. She writes here about the challenges of designing a FYC course that will meet the diverse backgrounds and goals of community college students. Holly also blogs at Re: Thinking, Teaching, Writing and Community College English.

Mid-course correction

posted: 3.22.13 by Holly Pappas

Despite snow in the forecast, it’s spring break here and time for mid-semester evaluations, of both my students and my course/myself. Typically that initiates, for me at least, a period of glumness that can last until end-of-the-semester adrenaline kicks in.  The statistics are grim: about 10% of the students still registered for my courses are not showing up for class and another whopping 40% or more have slipped perhaps irretrievably behind in coursework. For all of my talking and thinking and writing about the excitement of course design, it is again the issue of student persistence that’s occupying my thoughts these days.

Last week a student said to me, as if to explain her failure to turn in the previous two assignments, that none of her other classes required homework. When I asked how this could be, she acknowledged that she did look over the PowerPoint slides her teachers provided just before exams, but that was all of the out-of-class work required to earn her a slot on the Dean’s List. She asked me to predict her final grade in the course, to help with her decision of whether to risk hurting her GPA or to withdraw from my class.  I can’t get her out of my mind. 

It’s not always so easy to tell what the problem is when students disappear or disengage.  This student clearly failed to understand what I expected in a writing course (for whatever reason, including perhaps lack of clarity on my part), but for other students it’s harder to root out the interfering issue(s). As students are working, I circulate through the computer lab, both to look at student progress and to chat. I ask them about how many hours a week they work, repeating a colleague’s recommendation that anything more than 20 hours work makes carrying a full-time course load nearly impossible. Before and after class, I hear about family troubles, depression and anxiety, court dates for child support or other issues not explained. I worry about one student who spends all his time before (and sometimes during) class reading a book clearly for pleasure, but who can’t seem to manage to get anything posted on his blog; as weeks pass and his excuses about computer issues at home dwindle, I’m convinced he has a writer’s block of some sort that he can’t acknowledge. So many of them seem to feel invisible, as if I won’t notice they haven’t turned in any work, and unable or unwilling to speak up, to seek help.

There are so many reasons for students not writing that it’s hard to figure out how to help. In response to concerns about student preparedness as well as political pressures for accountability, students are now required to take a one-credit College Success Seminar. But we teachers need to be talking about this more.  Although colleagues occasionally commiserate about fall-offs in student attendance, the extent of this problem seems veiled as (speaking only for myself) the responsibility I feel to help my students succeed slides to something close to my own shame as they disappear or stop writing.

I’ve tried a few things in the classroom this semester: a lot of low-stakes writing at the beginning of semester to encourage a regular writing practice (using a “mindful writing tool” called small stones, via Hoarded Ordinaries) and a lot of in-class writing to try to help them over the hump of the blank screen. But only a small fraction of students entered into true “small-stone spirit,” and though I devoted a lot of class time to student work, maybe a third of my students failed to produce much actual writing.

I’ve been thinking more generally about where my responsibility lies—how much more should I do to help them succeed, how firmly should I set limits so that they learn through failing. Can I teach persistence explicitly, or do I do that by enforcing the consequences of its absence? Is my flexibility a help or an injury? By allowing nonparticipants to remain in my class, am I trying to “help” the individual at the cost of the climate of the classroom as a whole?

I’m not sure these questions are answerable, but for now I’ve come to a tentative resting point. I try to reconcile the limits of my influence by acknowledging that all I can control is the information with which I can equip students: about my course, about strategies for getting support and completing work, about the quality of the work they do. More immediately, when I return from spring break, it’s time for a serious chat. I need to clarify yet again my expectations about the work required to do well in the class and my distress over how things are going. I need to ask students what is going on, both as a class and individually, to ask them to reflect and self-assess and, most importantly, to formulate a plan to get us all to our destination.

I’d welcome any advice you can give about how to handle the non-writers in a writing class.

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One Response to “Mid-course correction”

  1. Pamela Hardman, Cuyahoga Community College Says:

    Holly, don’t beat yourself up because your students are not succeeding this semester. All of us who teach at two-year colleges have comp classes like the one you describe here. As my students have reminded me more than once, we see only a small part of their lives, and often their college classes are the least of their concerns. Teach the students you have; let the others go. Treat them with kindness and dignity so that when (or if) they decide to return in the future and are in a position to take their college work more seriously, they’ll know that you will still be there for them.

    And, yes, we all hear students say that their other professors don’t make them do any work out of class, so there must be something wrong with us. In a few cases, their gripes may be true, but I’ve learned not to take such complaints seriously. Students need to hear upfront that a composition course requires a lot of reading and writing both in and out of class, a serious commitment of time and energy, and that all over America first-year composition students are having the same experience.

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