English 615 final paper

The final paper for Corey Lewis's English 615 Writing Workshop. I "double dipped" and used it for English 611, also--at the professors' encouragement. 

Putting Writing to Work: Composition Instruction in the Community College Composition Classroom

    As their name suggests, community colleges serve a diverse student population. The term “diversity” typically connotes racial and ethnic diversity, and students attending community colleges certainly come from various cultural backgrounds. However, students entering the community college composition classroom are also diverse in their range of immediate needs and future aspirations. Unlike students taking a composition class at a four-year institution, community college students do not share a common goal to achieve a particular degree. Some may wish to complete an associate’s degree, and a few may aspire to eventually transfer to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree, but many students are simply taking classes to improve their career mobility or to satisfy their interest in lifelong learning. Therefore, constructing an effective composition curriculum presents a special challenge to community college teachers, who must adapt the knowledge they present to fit the needs of the majority of students in their classroom. Instructors should expose students to writing genres that are applicable outside of academia and that students can use in their own personal and professional lives.  

    In order to make their assignments relevant to their students, instructors must first understand who their students are. According to the American Association of Community Colleges’ website, the average community college student is 29 years old. Half of all students attend school part time, and of these part-timers hold down full-time jobs while attending school (“Fast”). Thus, the typical community college student falls outside the definition of a “traditional college student,” who is between the ages of 18 and 22 and enrolled in a full load of classes (Sommer 4-5). Instructors teaching freshman composition at a four-year institution may expect to teach a classroom of 18-year-olds for whom attending college is more or less a full-time job; meanwhile community college instructors typically encounter students of a full range of ages, with other responsibilities such as work and family competing for their attention and often distracting, or even derailing, the students’ attempts to further their education.     

    Although this paper will focus on community college students, it should be noted that they are not the only students who must balance their education with the demands of competing obligations. With tuition and costs of living skyrocketing, especially in California, financing higher education is becoming increasingly difficult for students and their families, even those at four-year institutions. A 2006 study by the American Council on Education discovered that 70 to 80 percent of students work while attending college, regardless of age, dependency or marital status, or type of institution attended (“Facts”). Therefore, understanding the working population of students is important to instructors at all levels of higher education, although it is especially critical at community colleges.

    Numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. In “Community College English: Diverse Backgrounds, Diverse Needs,” Kathleen R. Cheney demonstrates the diversity of community college students--as well as some of the many challenges these particular students face--by introducing readers to a few of her more memorable students. There’s Nancy, an aspiring nurse who lost her job as a result of NAFTA and now struggles to balance a demanding school schedule and teenaged daughter. After a back injury forces Ed to find a job that doesn’t require heavy lifting, he returns to school to change careers and establish a modicum of security for his family. And then the reader meets Miriam, a high school student and daughter of educators, whose relatively privileged background and enthusiasm for writing place her at the top of the class. Cheney’s examples provide a composite sketch of community college students that illustrates their diversity and complexity, as well as the hardships and responsibilities that often impede their educational pursuits.

    Although Cheney’s students differ radically in the experiences they bring into the classroom and the knowledge they hope to take away from the class, she asserts that they are united by the need for “skills that allow them to access ways to be informed, to support their development as participatory citizens empowered to act through their ability to use language as a connection to the community” (208). In order to meet this need, instructors must nurture in students the ability to critically analyze sources of information, the curiosity to seek out knowledge for themselves, and the confidence to lobby for their needs at bureaucratic agencies and other privileged repositories of information. Thus, writing is not just the act of putting words to page. Rather, the process of conceiving and executing a well-written paper sharpens higher-level thinking abilities and polishes communication skills—facilities that allow individuals to fully participate in a democratic society.

`    Composition curricula at both community colleges and universities often link critical thinking to writing instruction. Student-centered composition pedagogy, with its emphasis on writing as both a process and a product, has pushed the first-year writing class beyond the bounds of grammar drills. In “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” Janet Emig describes the connection between the pen (or word processor) and the brain: “Writing…connects the three major tenses [past, present, and future] of our experience to make meaning. And the two major modes by which these three aspects are united are the processes of analysis and synthesis: analysis, the breaking of entities into their constituent parts; and synthesis, combining or fusing these, often into fresh arrangements and amalgams” (13). In other words, the often-dreaded blank page is, at least in theory, a fiction. Writers incorporate their past experiences, present lives, and future predictions into any act of writing. These three “tenses” shape the way they digest information to recreate their subject in prose. The composition process allows writers to make connections and reconstruct information in ways that other modes of learning cannot. Therefore, effective writing curricula magnifies students’ critical lenses—whether that lens is trained on their own lives, the world around them, or the intersections between the two.

    Although cultivating critical thinking skills may be a worthy pedagogical goal, these skills are not usually the primary motive of the community college composition student. Many students--especially those who juggle part- or full-time jobs and family obligations in addition to their schooling—have more immediate needs, such as satisfying course requirements or acquiring writing skills sufficient to craft a presentable resume. Unlike students at a four-year university, community college composition students may never be called upon to complete an academic writing assignment after they leave the class. Thus, many two-year students are seeking what Michelle Juchniewicz describes as “functional” and “specialized literacy.” Functional literacy means reading and writing skills satisfactory enough to meet basic competency requirements. Specialized literacy, on the other hand, encompasses the specific skills and language required to assimilate into various trades and professions (201-202). These literacy needs necessitate a curriculum that emphasizes practical assignments intended to mirror the everyday writing situations students will encounter in their personal and professional lives. By assigning writing activities that reflect students’ needs, instructors can make writing accessible to students, especially individuals who consider writing to be a tedious and even pointless activity.

    The idea of situating composition instruction to make writing natural for students is not new. Seminal child psychologist L.S. Vygotsky proposed that children learn to write most effectively when “an intrinsic need [is] aroused in them, and [when] writing [is] incorporated into a task that is necessary and relevant for life” (Vygotsky 118). In other words, children acquire writing skills most readily when instructors present writing as a natural activity that students can readily apply to their own lives. If writing is imposed as “training from without” (118), or if instructors assign writing activities that seem to lack context or are mundane, students are more likely to become bored and frustrated by the composing process. Without seeing writing as a critical component to social interaction and communication, students are likely to view writing as a chore rather than a tool. Therefore, to arouse students’ interest in writing, assignments should be purposeful, and the skills they summon and develop should be applicable to the world outside of school.

    Although Vygotsky specifically wrote about childhood language acquisition, his theories can easily be applied to community college students. With an average age of 29, community college students are what Robert F. Sommer would classify as “adult learners,” or learners who grasp new knowledge when they understand and feel empowered by the educational process (177). Sommer argues that a key component of guiding adults to become authoritative over their own education is to equip them with skills that are applicable to their own lives (38). Most community college students probably do not consider themselves to be writers; however, they undoubtedly use various forms of writing in their everyday lives. For instance, most jobs that are beyond the most menial, entry-level positions—the types of jobs for which nearly all community college students seek to qualify--require applicants to submit a resume and cover letter. A mistake-ridden, illogically organized resume can exclude even a highly qualified applicant from a desired position. Furthermore, the proliferation of electronic media such as email and instant messages has re-introduced writing as a significant method of communication between employees, friends, and family members. Outside of the classroom, students encounter a variety of writing situations, and instructors should exploit these seemingly run-of-the-mill genres to teach students effective writing.

     While assignments should be relevant to students’ lives, they do not have to simply imitate the routine writing activities students encounter in their day-to-day lives. Assignments should reflect real-life writing scenarios, but instructors must also make the assignments challenging to students, guiding them to develop their writing abilities. Learning to compose a simple email with correct punctuation and address might be a useful first assignment, such as an introductory email to the teacher, but the assignments must gradually increase in rhetorical and analytical rigor as the course progresses. Challenging and expanding upon students existing writing abilities introduces what Vygotsky termed “the zone of proximal development,” or the distance between a student’s current skill level and his or her potential skill level when aided by an instructor or peers (86). Vygotsky argues that the zone of proximal development is a useful concept for understanding “not only the cycles and maturation processes that have already been completed but also those processes that are currently in a state of formation, that are just beginning to form and develop” (87). Activities that stimulate and expand upon students’ prior knowledge, under the guidance of an instructor or peers, lead them through the zone of proximal development, fostering mastery of new knowledge and skills. Thus, effective writing assignments incorporate students’ existing writing abilities—the ones they use in their day to day lives—and allow them to apply their skills in an activity that is meaningful to their lives, while still urging them to develop new knowledge.

    Acknowledging and accessing students’ prior knowledge—knowledge that students acquire outside of the classroom as well as inside--is an integral part of fashioning a curriculum that both meets the needs of students and empowers them to succeed within the educational system. A key source of students’ prior knowledge is their culture, or the “accumulation of the social experiences of humanity in the concrete form of means and modes, schemes and patterns of human behaviour, cognition and communication” (Stetsenko, qtd. in Moll 257). By this definition, culture is not necessarily embedded in an ethnicity, but refers to the multiple influences that shape the way individuals think, act, speak, and write. Culture was essential for Vygotsky. Through the mediation of cultural tools and signs, humans internalize new knowledge, or assimilate new knowledge into their existing schema. Vygotsky noted, “The internalization of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology” (56-57). In other words, all human behavior, including and especially learning, is rooted in cultural practices and artifacts, and all learning is situated in a particular cultural and historical moment.

    However, the culture of everyday life and the culture of the academy differ and are frequently at odds with each other. Cultural communication, or the type of communication as it is practiced in everyday life, usually differs from the communication practices that are taught in composition classrooms. Although academic papers may encourage students to draw on their cultural experiences, the conventions that govern how students frame and analyze personal experience differ markedly from everyday communication practices. Instead of asking students to apply their prior knowledge to genres that mirror everyday writing activities, composition classes frequently ask students to learn new writing patterns that are particular to the academy, such as essays. “Practical genres,” then, become secondary to “higher-level” genres.

    Yet, as the word “practical” suggests, practical genres are rooted in writing as it is practiced in daily life. Granting these genres equal status with academic writing modes allows educators to tap into what Luis Moll terms “funds of knowledge,” or the ideas and skills that students develop at home and in their communities and bring with them into the classroom (258). The word “fund” is integral to Moll’s theory, as it implies that students’ “folk” or “common” knowledge can be an asset to education, and not a deficit. Educators can productively use everyday communication practices as instructional tools, which empowers students to view their existing abilities as a resource and not something to be abandoned while in class. Students become active contributors and participants in the educational process instead of passive recipients of someone else’s knowledge. This empowerment is especially important for community college students, who are typically adults and bring with them a wealth of life experiences.

    University freshman composition classes often ask students to incorporate their personal experiences in writing assignments. These assignments have traditionally taken the form of personal essays, research papers, and more recently, autoethographies, which combine elements of the former genres by asking students to act as researchers in a subculture in which they themselves participate. Traditional freshman composition assignments develop students’ analytical and writing skills but, perhaps more importantly, serve as an initiation into the world of academic writing—a world in which students will immerse themselves for at least the next four years, or longer if they continue on to graduate school. As students learn how to write essays, it is expected that they will transfer the skills they acquire into other genres, such as letter writing. Although this approach makes sense for students who need to be able to produce well-written essays, it is not the most effective method for teaching writing to community college students, most of whom will never need to compose an essay ever again. Community college students require a different approach—one that will elaborate upon genres they already use and develop skills that can be directly applied back to these forms of writing.

    Because of its inherently practical nature and easily discernable structure, process description is a useful assignment with which to begin the course. Process descriptions provide step-by-step instructions for carrying out procedures, and are used regularly in the workplace as verbal and written directives. Its widespread vocational application makes the ability to provide comprehensible instructions essential to master. Process descriptions may sound simplistic but, if used appropriately, can be an effective pedagogical tools for community college writing teachers. As Sommer points out, process descriptions also challenge students to select a topic that is neither too broad nor narrow and highlights the importance of audience awareness in translating thoughts into written words (130). Instructors should use process descriptions to demonstrate the importance of focused, clear communication and develop students’ knowledge of how to relate ideas in a linear fashion so that others can easily grasp and follow along with the writer’s instructions.
Because process descriptions urge students to develop an understanding of the impact their writing has on readers, instructors should incorporate peer reviews—and reenactments¬--into the assignment. The assignment should ask students to include all materials needed to complete the task, step-by-step instructions, and a brief conclusion. Furthermore, instructors should caution students to be careful to revise carefully for ambiguities and to make sure to define all technical terms (Sommer 130). Students should select activities they excel at and that can be easily replicated by others at home. Some examples of processes students could right about include how to make the perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich, how to check radiator fluid, or how to remove carpet stains using natural ingredients. By situating students as experts at a process they believe they are competent at, instructors are accessing students’ funds of knowledge and empowering them in the educational process. After students have completed the assignment, they would switch with a partner, who would try to complete the activity at home, following the paper’s instructions exactly. If the peer reader noted any errors in organization or vague phrases that impeded his or her ability to complete the task, he or she would make suggestions for revision to make the description more accurate and legible. Then, students would revise their papers and turn them in to the instructor. By making the process description a collaborative activity, instructors can introduce students to peer editing and the importance of reader awareness while livening up an assignment that could otherwise be a bit dull. Students can easily apply these skills to their current or future careers, where they will most likely be required at some point to explain a process to another person, especially as they ascend the ranks to tackle managerial or training roles.

    Process description reflects some of the same skills as reader summary, except students are summarizing an activity instead of a text. At the college level, reader summaries are used particularly in classes designated for students who do not test into freshman composition. According to Valeri-Gold and Deming, summaries help develop reading and writing skills by “expos[ing] students to the ways in which reading and writing are integrated” (qtd. in Perin 2). This is an important skill for university students to develop, because they will spend the remainder of their academic careers writing papers based at least partially on textual research. However, if summaries introduce students to the relationship between reading and writing, process descriptions demonstrate to students the relationship between writing and activity. Students may never need to summarize a short story or essay again outside of the classroom, but they will most likely be called upon to relay step-by-step instructions of activities they perform at their jobs and at home. Therefore, the ability to translate a process into prose is a different but equally important form of literacy, and one that is applicable to community college students.

    Letter writing is another useful, student-centered assignment to teach students the fundamentals of composition because emailed letters and memos are used so widely in the workplace. The everyday nature of letter writing makes it a relatively unintimidating exercise for students who are insecure about their writing abilities or who are returning to school after a lengthy absence. Although drafting a letter may seem to draw upon low-level writing skills, Sommer observes that this kind of serves as an excellent introduction to rhetorical techniques such as audience awareness, organization, and diction (35). Developing these skills will prepare students to compose more complex texts as the semester progresses. Furthermore, students can easily transfer their knowledge of structure, word choice, and audience into non-academic writing, such as cover letters, memos, and emails.

    Due to its personal nature, a letter can be seen as somewhat analogous to the personal essay, a mainstay of the four-year institution’s freshman composition class. The personal essay remains deeply embedded in the curricula of most freshman composition classes because, as Joel Haefner explains, theorists have constructed the premises that “inherently formless, that it is accessible to a universal audience, that it uses common, referential language, and ultimately that it is grounded in the personal experience of the essayist” (Haefner 511). In other words, the essay provides a useful introduction to college-level writing because it is less structured and formal than other genres of academic discourse and it allows writers to use readily available subject matter—their lives—as the primary resource. Once students master the supposedly “formless” form of the personal essay, they can apply their skills to other genres of academic writing that require more attention to structure and incorporate other texts. While the practice of writing essays may yield improved writing skills, assigning students to write numerous essays will produce students who are competent writers of that particular genre. Freshman composition instructors assume that students will then apply the skills they develop while writing essays to other writing activities, such as letters or emails. This approach makes sense for students who will spend the next four years chiefly occupied writing academic essays. However, the needs of community college students, many of whom will never be required to write an essay after they leave the class, necessitate a modified curriculum. Community college students require an introduction to writing that develops the skills they need to write in the “real” world—their world--and not in the academy. Although the personal essay is a worthy genre for freshman university students, it is not the best method for equipping community college students with the skills they need to meet their goals.

    In addition to the personal essay’s utilitarian aspects, theorists have also ascribed a existential function to the genre. Haefner notes that traditional composition pedagogy links personal essay writing to the development of a more acute sense of self. He writes, “As composition pedagogy disposed of the notion of writing as product and embraced the paradigm of writing as a process, the personal essay was still a useful tool in propagating the myth of writing as individualistic expression” (Haefner 516). The essay, then, serves as a mode for expressive writing--a chance for students to reflect upon and explore some aspect of their lives on paper.

    The use of personal essays has also made its way into community college classrooms, and for many of the same reasons that have made the genre almost an institution in four-year composition classes. In “The Power of ‘I’”, community college instructor Bethany J. Carson explains her reliance on personal essays in her own classroom, and extols the virtues of a genre that she says helps fashion “an acting, feeling, deep-thinking self.” Additionally, she adds that writing personal essays prepares students for the critical engagement that college-level writing requires (B5). Although Carson’s goal is well-intentioned, her argument ignores the fact that more than half of community college students will never complete a degree of any sort, associate’s or higher (Lamkin 14). These students do not need preparation for a hypothetical college curriculum that they will never experience; they need to develop writing skills that will help them achieve their career goals, the goals that brought them to the class in the first place. Furthermore, the personal essay is not the only genre that encourages students to critically analyze their experiences. With a little ingenuity on the part of the instructor, even so-called practical genres, such as the letter, require students to synthesize personal experience and analysis.

    While teaching students the practical aspects of composition, letter writing can hone students’ critical thinking abilities and provide a vehicle for empowering self-expression. In “ ‘Strangers No More:’ A Libratory Composition Curriculum,” Kyle Fiore and Nan Elsasser describe the latter’s experience teaching composition at a two-year college in the Bahamas. All of Elsasser’s students are women, and they collectively represent the first generation of Bahamanian women to enter higher education and the workforce. The women share a common goal: to pass a standardized examination administered by the college English department. Elsasser, on the other hand, hopes that her students will begin to investigate the problems and complexities of their lives through writing. She allows the students to vote on a theme they will focus on, and they elect marriage. Over the course of the semester, the classroom becomes a safe place for the students to discuss and deconstruct the patriarchal oppression that permeates Bahamanian society. The class culminates with the students cooperatively drafting a “Letter to Bahamanian Men,” in which they scold men for their chauvinism and shirking of familial responsibilities, and suggest remedial actions to equalize relations between the genders. Ultimately, the letter is published in newspapers across the island, validating the power of not only the women’s written word’s but also their voices. As an added achievement, all of the students passed the standardized exam after completing Elsasser’s class. Elsasser and the students’ success demonstrates that even a seemingly routine assignment such as letter writing can teach students basic writing techniques while evolving into a consciousness-raising and even transformative event.

    Community college composition instructors can apply Elsasser’s general approach in their own classrooms, tailoring the assignment to meet the demands of their schedules and the needs of their students. First, students would read the “letters to the editor” section of the local and school papers to familiarize themselves with the genre and the concerns of campus and community members. This exercise has the added benefit of exposing students who may not be in the habit of reading the newspaper to current events. As a preliminary writing assignment, instructors would ask students to analyze features of a letter they particularly admire, emphasizing that they should examine the letters not for the content of the authors’ opinions but for the way in which the writers convey their point. This encourages students to begin thinking about what they think constitutes effective prose.
Then, the instructor could use students’ examples of exemplary letters to discuss grammar, syntax and other preliminary writing concerns. For instance, the instructor could apply a sentence that demonstrates uses commas correctly to a lesson on comma rules. If the class contains a sizable population of students who are not native speakers of Standard English, the instructor could use the letters to teach conventions of grammar and syntax that can cause the student to be stigmatized if used incorrectly, such as the Standard English conjugation of “to be” or tense usage. Similarly, the instructor could incorporate a particularly cohesive paragraph into a brief lesson on paragraph structure. These are writing elements that can be tedious to study, but are crucial for students to develop in order to produce the types of correspondence that can help them advance from low-paying, dead-end jobs into professions that offer better salaries and career trajectories.

    However, letters to the editor can also be incorporated in more advanced writing lessons. Because these letters are usually persuasive, instructors should also use them to introduce students to rhetorical techniques, such as whom students envision as their audience, what they think a counter-argument to their position might be, and whether a colloquial or formal register is better suited for their purposes. These techniques will benefit students who will take more advanced composition courses at the college or who transfer to a four-year university, where they will be required to write argumentative papers. But rhetorical facilities have an application outside the academy, as well. While an email to a co-worker or friend can appropriately use a casual salutation and colloquial terms, a memo to a superior or prospective employer requires a more formal address and keener attention to grammar and syntax. Furthermore, students may be called upon to defend strategies or decisions in the workplace, and introducing them to elements of argumentative writing will help them accomplish this task. Ultimately, teaching students to understand and employ rhetorical techniques will help them adapt their writing to suit the context under which the communication occurs, both inside and outside the classroom.
Once students have selected a topic and developed an argumentation strategy, they would compose a letter in which they offer their opinion about local issues or voice their concerns about a problem they see in their neighborhoods that the paper isn’t covering. The instructor should encourage, but not force, students to actually submit their letter to their local newspaper or the campus newspaper. The editorial page of the newspaper is one of the most widely read sections, and students who send their letter to smaller, community-based papers will have an excellent chance of seeing their letter in print. If the letter is printed, the student effectively becomes a published writer. This amount of fame, however small, can validate both the student’s writing abilities and the relevance of his or her opinions, making the student a more confident writer. And a more confident writer is a more able writer, which is ultimately what the community college composition classroom is trying to produce.

    Although what is commonly known as “good writing” may have some universal characteristics (at least within American culture, which still privileges speakers of Standard English), an effective community college freshman composition curriculum is not the same as an effective university composition curriculum. A traditional freshman composition class may work well for students at a four-year university, but community college students have needs that are different, even divergent, from the traditional college freshman. Roughly half of the community college student population will attain any sort of degree, associate’s or higher, within eight years of initial enrollment (Lamkin 14). This means that the majority of students in the community college composition classroom will never take a formal writing class again. These students do not need to learn the conventions of academic writing; they need to learn practical skills that will help them become capable and lucid communicators, not adept essay writers. All too often, “practical skills” are conflated with “low-level” skills. This association smacks of elitism and is indicative of society’s tendency to privilege theoretical knowledge over practical knowledge, the educational theorist over the elementary school teacher, and the Ivy League university over the regional two-year institution. Mastering the practical aspects of writing will help students use language where it matters most—their everyday lives.

Works Cited
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