Sharon Mitchler | Centralia College
My student was anxious. I could see that even though Zoom limited my ability to read their body language. The tone of voice, the worried, stuttery phrasing. And most concerning was the story the student shared, which brought me right up in my chair. My student was dual enrolled in the local high school and at my community college, both remotely. Working nights to help the family income during the pandemic made connecting with me difficult, and the student was concerned about falling behind. Oh, and the book for the course had not yet arrived at their house. We were able to find work arounds that this student was comfortable implementing, despite the challenges. As with many of my students, this student wanted to be successful. To paraphrase, “the spirit was willing,” but the context was complex.
An important idea in my work with community college students is “contextual pedagogy” –– in brief, that local context, including the specifics of a particular institution and the time a course is offered (e.g., during a pandemic) should drive a series of pedagogical choices to best support students.
Contextual pedagogy, for me, is a reminder that as all writing is contextual, so is all writing instruction. The physical, financial, emotional, and cultural realities for students in a given location at a particular time drives a series of pedagogical choices for instructors who want to meet those students where they are. Aside from issues of placement and college readiness, the lived materialities of the spaces in which students write should help shape our choices for writing instruction.
Each writing instructor needs to respond to the inequities that exist for the students they will be teaching. While I will use my context to share examples of the choices I am currently making in this blog, others have their own local contexts –– varied community histories, and geographies, as well as other material realities to which they need to attend and make adjustments to best support their students.
Figure 1. Main Campus of Centralia College. Photo by Centralia College.
Centralia College is an open-enrollment, rural community college, located halfway between Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. We serve 1900 full time students. Established in 1925, the college has a long history in the community and is the only institution of higher education along this stretch of the I-5 corridor. This was already a factor in determining how to best support students who would be driving long distances to attend. However, there are at least five other major contextual impacts that I need to account for in this moment.
- The Pandemic brought to light significant technological inequities.There are more than a few students with no wifi, high speed internet, hardware, or available tech help and with limited software. Additionally, students’ experiences working remotely in some degree of isolation is minimal or at least the vast majority have only attended classes remotely since March 16, 2020.
- Time, especially in the sense of scheduling, means balancing complex lives with higher education. Typically students are juggling:
- Caring for siblings, parents, and/or children –– in the 2019-2020 academic year, 40% of enrolled students had children (Centralia College Foundation)
- Attending more than one institution –– dual enrolled in high school/community college/four-year college or university
- Working –– 47% work while taking classes (Centralia College Foundation)
- Finances are pretty tight. Just because community college costs less, it doesn’t mean that paying for classes and books is a walk in the park. Tuition and fees for associate degree seeking students is $1550 per quarter for 15 credits, and bachelor’s degree seeking students pay $2,400 per quarter for 15 credits (Central College Foundation). This is an exorbitant cost for foster kids; people on their own; and, those whose families do not have the means or the inclination for financial support. Due to the age range of our students, typically from 16-55, students are frequently a major contributor to the income in their household. 49% of Centralia College students receive need-based financial aid (Centralia College Foundation).
- Centralia College students are likely to come from minoritized or historically underserved populations, which brings the additional confluence of systemic barriers due to race / class / gender. In a county where 82% of the population identifies as “white” according to the census, and on a campus where 68% of students identify themselves as “white,” to be a person of color means to be immediately visible here. Additionally, in my rural community, there are higher percentages of students who meet poverty or “working poor” definitions.
- Institutional status can matter. There is a built-in “less than” that students carry because they are at a community college, instead of a four-year college or an Research 1 with strict entrance requirements and the “we are sorry to inform you” letters. My students all know people who go to those institutions, and the local high school’s tendency to elevate those who have been admitted to them inadvertently minimizes the achievements of those who attend community college. Even our first generation college students have an awareness of attending “just” the local community college.
My teaching philosophy must account for the context in which my students learn. Students thrive with clear communication about how to be successful and when the structure of a class supports flexible paths to achieving that success. To accomplish this, I draw on the work of scholars who connect theory with practice: Asao Inoue’s work with antiracist assessment and labor-based grading; Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak’s Teaching for Transfer; and Aja Martinez’s work on writing and Critical Race Theory.
The use of “ungrading” or “labor based grading,” which I first began to learn from Asao Inoue’s work, is a pedagogical choice based on my students’ context. Students have varying degrees of time to commit to a course, as well as goals for how they will use a writing class. They may choose the number of assignments they wish to complete based on their situation. Some students choose to complete all of the available activities, intent on the greatest personal growth, a desire to become more prepared for future writing tasks, and/or a higher grade for transfer or admission to a competitive program, like nursing. Other students choose to pass the class with a “C” grade. Ungrading makes student choices transparent and welcomed. For all students, how they spend their limited time and energy is then, somewhat, under their control.
Figure 2. Teaching for Transfer. Image by Kara Taczak.
I use Teaching for Transfer (TFT) in my writing classes because that structure amplifies what students bring and the multiple genres and forms they will be using as they move on to other writing in their lives (Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak). TFT has a growth focus, meeting students where they are and providing a pathway for agency in their current and future approaches to writing in multiple situations and genres. My students are not generally English or composition majors. However, they are all writers. They choose to be in this class space. What seems to be disinterest may be, and often is, unrelated to my specific class. Talking with students in those moments before and after class––either by being in the room early if face-to-face, or opening a zoom space early and staying later for students to chat––is important.
In my context, it becomes important to build a pedagogical approach that not only acknowledges inequities are barriers for students, but allows them to maneuver without asking for special accommodations. This does no harm to students who are not managing all the inequities. It also makes space for the inevitable changes in roommates, childcare, work hours, work place, health issues, and unexpected situations that arise during the term.
I assume students are doing the best with the choices and resources they both have and are aware they can access. For example, they may not know how to request CARES money or vouchers for childcare or bus passes or understand that office hours are for when you just want to have one-on-one time with your professor, and you don’t have to stay the whole hour. I am explicit about using this information in class discussion.
I draw on what they bring –– this is not a deficit space, and deficit thinking wastes time. These students bring multiple experiences, Englishes appropriate for a variety of genres, and a desire to learn. Aja Martinez’s heuristic for crafting pedagogy and curricula with Critical Race Theory is an important guideline for “acknowledging the importance of context, [and] centralizing the experiences and perspectives of the minoritized” throughout the writing courses I teach (112-13). Student experiences are central to course content, so home languages and varieties of Englishes are given weight equal to Standardized Edited American English (Inoue 301).
Currently, my commitment to valuing student’s experiences, labor, and responsibilities beyond my classroom leads me to the following pedagogical choices:
- I use “best by” dates, rather than “due dates.” Over the last three quarters, a steady 30% of students use this flexibility regularly to not only remain in the class, but to compete it successfully, as this New York Times profile of my practice explains (scroll down!). In spring 2020, students used “best by” to turn in work “late” without penalty: 88% of emergency remote (pandemic) students completed the entire course with a passing grade.
- I default to a flipped classroom. When students meet together, there must be doing / working with, rather than lecture. Group work has to happen during class time because students’ lives often dictate that they are able to meet only during face-to-face or virtual synchronous class.
- I assume students are working on phones. So I need to consider a list of questions: Does the campus LMS look different on a phone than on a laptop or desktop? What buttons disappear or are not visible in that format? How do you communicate with students who only check the “todo” list? Can they see the videos? Do they have enough bandwidth to stream / keep cameras on in a video chat program?
- I don’t ask students to turn their camera on. Who else may be in their space? They share their personal space, and to see that is to see more than any instructor has a right to demand.
- I use open access texts, copies on reserve, and pdfs of shareable materials whenever possible. Yes, this collection has to be built and adjusted over time because the course load at a community college means there is just as much time crunch for professors as for students. I rely on my librarians and my professional network heavily for suggestions and texts.
Supporting student success requires a pedagogy that reflects current context. Our field is premised on the importance of context, audience, and purpose, commitments that extend to our teaching as well as our scholarship. While the choices I have made would not necessarily work well in other contexts, I am confident that my professional peers are also attentively building supportive structures that work in their students’ contexts.
Editors’ note: Do you have a pedagogical move that works well in your context? Please feel free to share in the comments and/or on social media!
Centralia College Foundation. “2019-2020 Report to the Community.” https://www.centralia.edu/foundation/projects/publications.aspx.
Inoue, Asao B. Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Parlor Press, 2015.
Martinez, Aja Y. Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory. National Council of Teachers of English, 2020.
Yancey, Kathleen, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition and Sites of Writing. University Press of Colorado, 2014.