Monday, December 22, 2014

Teaching in a Community College

Ginia Bellafante has an interesting article in the Times on community college, focusing on one professor at a college in Queens. As she says, community colleges are where some of the biggest problems in our educational system crash into each other. The professors have been through graduate school in their academic disciplines, most of them receiving exactly zero instruction in how to teach; they now confront students without the basic skills their professors take for granted and seriously in need of motivation and proper instruction:
One enormous challenge for community college instructors is that many students arrive with the notion that a college education is essential, but remain unconvinced that what they will learn during the course of their studies is equally so. To create a world of young people skilled at analysis you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said, “cringe at complexity.”

“There’s a mistrust and antagonism between teachers and students because authority hasn’t traditionally been good to them,” he said. “Their experiences in the education system have been coercive. It’s not really clear to them what the value of academic knowledge actually is. If they come here with the goal of doing something very specific — to become a stewardess, or a makeup artist — they may think, ‘What’s the point?’ ”
It is actually quite difficult to teach anybody something complex, and for people who don't see the point it is all but impossible, yet to do this we assign people with absolutely no training for the task. Nor is it really clear what we actually want to teach these students; words like "complexity" and "analysis" are made to do a lot of work here, as if "the analysis of complex real-world situations" were a recognized field of study with clearly defined benchmarks. We know, or think we know, that the economy demands workers with more education and more skills, so we set up community colleges to impart these things. And this is a noble and important goal. But in fact only a minority of students who enter community colleges ever get a degree or a certificate, and how much they actually learn during their year or two hanging around the campus is an open question.


Shadow Flutter said...

With one exception, a 12th-grade english teacher, all my best instructors were college professors, who, I assume, had precious little formal training in how to teach. Some may say this is because I was prepared for college, but I never thought so. I was running away from something more than running to college, and despite how good my professors were, I didn't learn the skill of skeptical inquiry and independent critical analysis until after I graduated. Sometimes I think I didn't become self-aware until after college.

But that's my story. More and more young people who are prepared for college are going to community college first because their families can't afford the cost of a 4-year college. I would think the clash between those who are prepared and those who aren't creates its own problems. Will teaching teachers how to teach solve this? And why are trade schools frowned upon? Why do some people think other people aren't up to snuff unless they have been to college?

I have been taught by teachers well schooled in the art of teaching, who couldn't teach because they weren't sufficiently trained in the subject matter. How many years must a teacher be in school to learn the subject matter AND learn how to teach?

I hear about how we have to improve education, but it is almost always about improving our science skills. Can I make a lone vote for the humanities? I think the humanities make better informed citizens than does science. Why don't we emphasize philosophy more in high school? Not to learn what a bunch of old white men have to say, but because philosophy more than any other subject teaches critical analysis and reasoning skills, how to organize your thoughts, and how to make sound oral and written arguments.

John said...

It is certainly true that putting people through years of education courses does not guarantee they can teach, and that some untrained professors are great teachers -- at least, as you say, for prepared students. But I went through graduate school in history and I can tell you that teaching to underprepared students was absolutely not on the agenda. The agenda was 1) research and 2) the sort of teaching that would be appreciated by the top 10% of college students. I was directly told by two professors some version of "I aim my course at the one in fifty students who will really get it." Caring about lagging students was at best tolerated and more often scorned as beneath us.

The contrast between the social and intellectual world of graduate school and community college is stark, and I bet many community college teachers find themselves thinking regularly that nothing they learned in graduate school has much relevance to their jobs.

As to why we care so much about college. One reason is creeping credentialism, parallel to wanting years of experience at even menial jobs and being unwilling to train anyone without experience. Another reason is that people who have been to college adopt the position that their efforts and their degrees are important, and that hiring people without degrees implies, somehow, that they wasted their time in college. But it is a hard problem and one my dropout sons resolutely refuse to take seriously.