I’ve been thinking about the purpose of education recently. For me, education is a public good. It is not a market commodity. It is meant to be one of the primary engines of human development in our society. I understand that this notion is idealistic and problematic, but it’s what gets me to campus every morning. I believe that what I do is a public good. It helps that I work at a community college. The community college with its more than 100 year history has been a driving force in the democratization of education—the notion that more and more folks should have access to education. I love that idea. When I was hired at Metropolitan Community College in 2009, I was in a final interview with the then VP of Academic Affairs, and he sold me on it. He told me that MCC didn’t even have an application, that anyone and everyone who showed up would be admitted, that MCC would find a place for them. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I felt emotion well up inside of me. I was so proud to be offered that job and to be a part of that mission.
However, we all know that it isn’t as easy as my old VP described it. We’ve been struggling with placement at our college. We implemented a writing sample, but not everyone takes it. We use a corporate computerized instrument, just like most community colleges do. It sorts people, more or less accurately, and isn’t all the human or humane. We have enrollment metrics and dashboards (which, surprisingly, aren’t on cars). Now we have an application because we want to capture data about the students; we want to track them to make them successful. This sounds great until we look at how hard we have to struggle to deal with the messiness of life. Many of our students are poor; they have outside circumstances, which make school difficult. They have prior school experiences that didn’t help them be ready. The list goes on and every reader of this blog knows them well. And, in the seven years I’ve been at MCC, I’ve seen the very classes that I thought were designed to help these students get ready and to ladder into coursework become known as barriers.
I’m sure you’ve all followed the debate about developmental education. After all, a couple of big foundations have spent about 200 million dollars smearing the discipline. And it’s hard to defend developmental education because we know that some students do get stuck there and that Burton Clark’s famous essay about the cooling out function of higher education has some merits. Mary Soliday talks about this, too, in her book The Politics of Remediation, where she discusses the false literacy crises. Mike Rose sounds this note, too, in many of his books. But Dev Ed isn’t all bad. And it can serve the public good. At NADE this year in Anaheim, I saw a wonderful presentation “In Defense of Developmental Education” by Alexandros M. Goudas. I’ve linked to the slides from the presentation—slides that I believe we should be sending to every administrator around. Essentially, he found that the data being used to pillory developmental education wasn’t as good as everyone had been told. He pointed to the very things that every developmental education teacher in the classroom knows are the culprits—poverty and generational lack of education, demonstrated in huge vocabulary gaps for students. Another take away for me is that there is a problem with causation and correlation. Students who don’t do well in developmental courses aren’t failed by the course necessarily—it isn’t the cause. However, forces led by neoliberal capitalists have made it seem that way.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems in developmental education. I know that as a graduate student that I received no training in developmental education or basic writing and that few of our instructors have explicit training in andragogy. TYCA’s most recent guidelines speak directly to the need for graduate institutions to better prepare future faculty for all the contexts present in the two-year college. And it’s an interesting thing to examine, really. There is little preparation at the graduate level. There isn’t always enough money for professional development for teachers to better meet the challenges of students and there never seems to be enough money for all of the services that students really need. Yet, the instructors and developmental education itself are to blame. Occasionally, I wonder if I’ve been set up for failure.
And, for me, that’s why NDEC is important. I feel like I’ve grown up as a teacher in the Nebraska Writing Project, and one of the maxims of that organization is that the best teachers of writing are writers themselves. I believe that. I think I can use the associative property here to say that the best developmental educators and policy makers are those that teach developmental education. I want those who teach developmental education in Nebraska to come together to share best practices and resources outside of the context of administrators who may not understand that education is a public good. I feel like our solidarity is being born because of our commitment to making that public good available to students where they are. I hope to see you all in October. We’ve got work to do together.
Darin Jensen is an English faculty member at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska. He is deeply committed to the mission of community colleges and the preparation of faculty to be effective teachers. He is currently finishing his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. He serves as the program coordinator for NDEC as well as on the Nebraska Writing Project Advisory Board. In 2015, he served on the TYCA task force that wrote the new Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College. He has publications forthcoming in College English and TETYC. To contact Darin, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.