Home > Reflections > Wherein Shane Reflects on a New Job

Wherein Shane Reflects on a New Job

Greg!

So, I’ve been a bad contributor. I’ve selfishly been working and writing on my own projects and I’ve neglected this one. That isn’t to say that the importance of Comm Ed has waned in any way. It’s more likely that my brain has been taxed on the Academic/ school front for these past several weeks and when I had time to sit and write, I wanted to write something else.

But the end of a semester is an opportunity for reflection. I’ve done plenty of that, too. I’ll do my best to organize this in some sort of easy-to-follow format, but I have several thoughts. Before I get into it, though, I will say that there is plenty that I like about this new job. Most of my colleagues are nice, I have a great set of program coordinators, an awesome chair and dean, the campus is pretty, and the town has many options for fun (many more than Covington). Also, here is a picture of my office!

2014-01-16 17.44.33

Adjustments

Let’s start here because I think this probably explains my absence better than anything else I have to write about today.

1. The State System: In Georgia, part of what makes working at a community college great is that the community college belongs to the university system. This makes transfer easy, and it means that a community college’s first-year comp would (or should) be similar to a university’s first-year comp. That organizational model also makes it easier for the 2-year schools and the universities to communicate with each other.

Here, the university system is separate from the community and technical college system. In fact, this year the two systems have finally approved what could be called a “Common Core.” Now, if a student graduates with an AA or an AS they are guaranteed admission to one of the state’s universities (but not all of them). In other words, one university has to be willing to accept them, but it’s a bit of a gamble on the student’s part.

This has changed the curriculum, then. Comp 1 and Comp 2 (a course in writing in the different disciplines) are both offered, but only the American Lit surveys will transfer, so those are about the only surveys offered now. This doesn’t bother me much since I teach American Lit anyway, but it did lead to a lot of people feeling butt-hurt over not getting to teach their favorite classes. I think this common core is a positive step, but I don’t think it’s done.

2. Developmental: Now you are quite familiar with the developmental English courses where you teach now. We call our courses Developmental Reading and English (DRE) and there are three levels. I’ve only taught DRE 098 which is the final level before curriculum courses (or Comp 1). Each DRE course is designed to be taken in eight weeks (this is state-mandated). There is no 16-week version. Each course has a common read (we read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks…I write about that experience here). Teaching reading strategies is a new beast, but it’s fun, and the book is good. Then, we teach three formal writing assignments (an exploratory essay, an annotated bib, and a research essay). Everything is very controlled in the course. There are no exit tests or in-class essays (unless I want to do them). There is no anonymously-graded final. OH! And these courses have seven contact hours per week.

3. Course Load: Now this was a bit of a transition, but only slight. You know I’ve worked for colleges in the past where I had to teach more classes than any person should. My load here is, again, six courses a semester. This is balanced, though, with the 8-week DRE. If I do one of those at a time, then I’m still only teaching five courses at any given moment.

4. Lab Day: Lab day is one of the best things about this job. Every DRE and freshman-level comp course gets one class period per week in a computer classroom. This allows for so much hands-on instruction and drive-thru conferencing. It just takes a little manipulation of the schedule so that lab days always hit on the write instructional days.

5. Student Populations: Now this is big. I’m working in a sho ’nuff military town now. A huge percentage of our students are active military and another huge batch are former military. Another big group is married to military or raised and moved around by military. Beyond that, the town has it’s share of crime issues, and I have many students trying to get their lives together after wrapping up a prison sentence. At my last job, my campus saw about 2500 student bodies a semester. This school sees about 12,000. The unique challenges and perspectives that they bring, though, help keep me fresh, and they really drive home for me what we are trying to do here with Comm Ed.

So what does this have to do with Comm Ed?

Well, I suppose it has everything to do with Comm Ed. This is a school that gets really hung up on its systemic demands and practices. The bureaucracy is strong and at times overwhelming. But there are a ton of really great people who are doing really great work. The English department chair wants her faculty to be creative and engaging, and she’s helping me figure out how to bring the student open mic here. There is more community here–a closer sense of camaraderie among faculty.

Whenever I was sitting in my office during the days leading up to my first semester, I thought, “This is a school where they want me to treat these students like numbers–like some kind of robot sheep.” But as soon as I walked into my first class, I saw people. I will always see people, too. I met people with real and legitimate issues that can’t be accounted for through an algorithm. And most of those people passed my class. Not because the system wants me to pass a certain number, but because I was willing to work with the human issues in spite of the system. The system will never account for the myriad of things we will encounter in a 16-week course, and to default to the system in those times of crisis is weak.

Now, looking back, I definitely got better at certain aspects of the Comm Ed project/mission/enterprise. First, I think that my sincerity took a big leap forward. This happened due to my DRE courses. They need sincerity. Maybe I’ll write more about that experience next time.

I hope this was an alright post for you, friend.

 

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  1. May 31, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Yes, this post is more than alright, my friend. A couple of posts ago I declared myself “horrified” at my performance, and now you’re a “bad contributor.” So, while self-criticism is perhaps the highest form of thought, we have beaten up our respective selves sufficiently for the moment. We’re back in the saddle, and as you intimate in the latest post, we have plenty to talk about.

    The most important point you made was, “I was willing to work with the human issues in spite of the system.” An issue is a problem or a question, and I admit that a purely individual, as it were secret, problem is theoretically possible. But most problems–virtually all of them, really–involve other people. Here’s the big problem. In modern times everybody learns that there is an objective world in which one (and I mean one person) can intervene to achieve beneficial, or if you like, profitable results. We (all of us moderns) grudgingly concede that there is such a thing as inward, subjective experience. We further assert, rather fetishistically in the United States, that all human and civil rights pertain only to individuals. However, the discourse of rights tends to deemphasize the element of responsibility. Worse, subjective experience, as distinct from individual rights, is strongly devalued as “bias,” “prejudice,” “fantasy,” or “limited perspective.” And so people take on a terrible cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, media instructs people to pursue their dreams, to seek happiness in consumption, and to embrace the profit motive–you deserve a break today. But on the other hand, especially in the workplace but also in education, we learn that only calculation, “systemic demands and practices,” and exclusive focus on outcomes qualify as admissible.

    After my first meeting of Comp I in this summer semester, a student spoke to me with the following statement: “I’m afraid my English isn’t good enough to pass this course.” So. What am I supposed to do? What’s the ethical thing to do? We ran through as many options as I could think of, and we ended up with a plan for the student and me to work one on one for 20 to 30 minutes after each twice-weekly class. This seems to me the most basic ethical rule: you don’t treat people as objects, “like numbers–like some kind of robot sheep.” Notice, the statement, “I’m afraid that x,” cannot be reduced to an objective situation: “A state of fear is in effect with respect to object y.” And further, the object of the student’s fear is her own experience: many (but not all) of the students in that first class meeting were native speakers of English, and she felt less qualified than her classmates. Now, the fact that the student wants to achieve an objective–passing the course–contributes significantly to her fear. However, the student was wise enough to express her subjective state to me sincerely–people generally don’t lie when they confess that they are afraid of something. That is, she took action–and courageous action it was too–to give me to understand her subjective situation. She is no expert in communicative action, but when people want to understand each other, they find a way. In this sense we are all equal. That is not to say that people can’t improve their understanding of “the pragmatics of social interaction,” or indeed that they can’t improve their communication skills.

    You mention, Shane, a certain nostalgia for your former employer’s membership in the state university system. Well, no matter how you slice it, system is no picnic. True, bureaucracy and whatnot in your new situation sounds more assertive and overwhelming. The problem is simply this: the system processes people en masse, but teachers and students interact individually–or dyadically. This, I think, is a fundamental contradiction, and the solution is by no means obvious. Nevertheless, we, you and I, have the solution in sight.
    *The educational system is concerned with educating the masses, that is, with effectively achieving certain (not-very democratically determined) outcomes. The focus is on intervention in the world considered as exclusively objective.
    *Teachers and students are certainly concerned with the achievement of objective outcomes, but being capable of communication, they also take into account the subjectively expressive and socially ethical dimensions. The focus is on understanding in the objective, subjective, and social (intersubjective) worlds.
    *In the schoolhouse, which may be either a physical or a virtual space, teachers and students maintain an ongoing discourse oriented toward understanding. Hence, they approach rather closely the ideal of “an already accustomed communicative way of life.”
    *Ethical and humane pedagogical practice, which emphasizes the expressive and ethical dimensions, is socially critical in two ways. First, it provides a filter (in your excellent metaphor), a criterion, for best pedagogical practices. Second, it provides a diagnostic for social pathology, specifically, for contamination (or colonization) of dialogue by monological system.
    So, for example, my new student wants to achieve the systemically managed outcome of passing the course, but she knows that to achieve that goal she must express herself sincerely and that she and I must interact respectfully.

    The solution is not therefore to subvert the system. Our critique of systemic mandates is precisely that–a critique, of a management style. Significantly, the system builds in many opportunities for communicative action, such as Lab Day and the great number of contact hours in your Developmental classes. The solution is to approach our interactions with students as the human interactions they really are.

    So here’s my problem. I think of communicative action, and therefore communicative education, as a dialogue–a face-to-face small-group and indeed dyadic interaction. So, for example, when you and I lost our routine of many hours of face-to-face chat (sniffle), our blog took a downturn. Now that we’re back in the saddle, I’m glad that your period of adjustment has focused us both on practical matters. And a practical issue that we should pursue is how to adapt my no-doubt erroneous dyadic view of communication, not to the mass, but to the groups of twenty or thirty that make up our classes. Certainly as a teacher I’m devoted to the practicalities of teaching, but “communicative education” is a theoretical concept. It is not a mechanism for generating teaching practices. It is a description, in unabashedly idealistic terms, of what people actually do to understand each other in the educational situation. It is a theory of practice.

    –Greg

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