“Alex, what’s your definition of fate?”
“Is violence just physical, or is there emotional violence as well?”
“Was anyone in When I Was Puerto Rican concerned about their reputation?”
“Don’t stop writing. If you keep the pen moving, something will happen in your brain.”
It was the first day back from Thanksgiving break and Joan Dupre, an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, was hard at work. For almost two hours she peppered students in her English Composition 101 class with questions and encouragement, moving back and forth across her classroom, coaxing and cajoling her 24 students to become better writers and thinkers.
The class was preparing to delve into Girl in Translation, a coming-of-age novel about a young Chinese American immigrant in Brooklyn who pursues her dreams amid great hardship. Dupre used a variety of stratagems – small and large group discussions, group competitions to list the book’s themes on the blackboard – to spur discussion. Other techniques Dupre uses to promote interaction include having students role-play and discuss key scenes from a book, having students peer-edit each other’s initial writing drafts, or presenting questions in class as a Jeopardy-style quiz show.
“It’s a much more active education they are taking part in,” said Dupre. “It’s pedagogically sound, but it takes time.”
Time, however, could soon be in short supply for Dupre and the other faculty in QCC’s English Department who teach introductory English composition courses. These classes currently meet for four hours per week; but under Pathways, all core general education courses, including introductory English composition courses, would be limited to three classroom hours per course. For the people who do the teaching, it’s a deeply frustrating situation.
“There’s no depth to the learning,” Dupre said of Pathways. “It’s like skating over ice.”
Seeking to protect their students’ access to a quality education, the QCC English Department has rejected Pathways-compliant English composition courses this semester and has even stared down threats by QCC’s administration to fire most of the department’s instructors (see Clarion, October 2012.)
The conflict has been covered by The New York Times, WNYC, Chronicle of Higher Education and others. Faculty at QCC and elsewhere say that the root of the problem is Pathways’ top-down process. Administrators far removed from the classroom, they say, are imposing decisions that make no sense to those who actually teach. Support has been growing for a moratorium on Pathways implementation, to allow for a more collaborative, faculty-driven discussion of curricular reform.
As the battle over Pathways rages, QCC’s English faculty continue working with their students, developing the skills and the cultural competency students will need to succeed.
On the same day just after Thanksgiving, Beth Counihan, an associate professor of English who also teaches at QCC, led a fast-paced class discussion.
Her students had begun reading John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation about an ambitious young striver who briefly soared to the pinnacle of New York high society in the 1980s by pretending to be the son of the actor Sidney Poitier. Counihan combined a short in-class writing assignment with a wide-ranging conversation about some of the play’s key themes.
“Context! That’s my word,” Counihan told her class as she began to explain the narrative structure and techniques of theater and how to follow the script’s stage directions. She then guided students through the cultural backdrop to the themes of race and class that are central to the play.
Counihan wants her students to become “self-regulating learners” who develop the habits that successful college students need – from keeping a schedule to taking thorough notes and paying close attention to others in class discussion. And throughout the session she drops friendly hints to lagging students and points to examples set by their better-prepared peers.
“Small group work is so important for developing social skills,” Counihan said afterward. She can’t imagine giving students this kind of support while covering the material in the syllabus in less than four hours a week. “We [already] have to compress so much,” she explained. “The historical-cultural context would take a whole class by itself.”
For Julisa Brooks, the time Counihan devotes to helping her understand the context for what she is reading is invaluable.
“I hate history, but the way she teaches makes me want to learn history,” said Brooks, who was wearing her red Target workshirt. Looking over her work for the class, she leafed through pages of notes diligently taken all semester, with words that were new to her vocabulary: “obscurity,” “notoriety,” “playwright.”
The idea of reducing the hours for English 101, Brooks said, “is ridiculous.” Without the time provided by a class like this, she told Clarion, “You’re not going to learn anything about literature, drama [and] art.”
One of Dupre’s students, Angela Rivas, told Clarion that the free-flowing discussions in her class had taught her that “there’s always another side to an argument.”
Rivas is studying to become a nurse, and she says the skills she is learning in English Comp 101 will be valuable throughout her life. She cited the case of a medical worker she knows, who was mistakenly found at fault on the job because the records she’d written were unclear. Communicating effectively in writing, she says, “will help me because I’ll know I can always back myself up,” she said.
Dupre’s emphasis on learning to write clearly and vividly while refraining from clichés has paid off, Rivas added.
“Before I wasn’t as descriptive in my writing,” Rivas said. I would say, ‘My dad was upset.’ Now I will write, ‘My dad looked at me with glaring eyes.’”
As for the amount of time allotted for in her English Composition 101 class, Rivas said, “If anything I would like a few more minutes.”