October 5th 2008

Faculty Inquiry: A New Carnegie Grant

Faculty Inquiry: A New Carnegie Grant

This last week, I attended the Academic Senate for California Community CollegesStrengthening Student Success Conference; this was one of the sessions I attended.

The Faculty Inquiry pre-conference session focused on professional development, one of the integral strands of the Basic Skills Initiative in California (specifically, strand C).  I attended primarily because I am interested in professional development that supports not just my interests, but my classroom needs.

Moderated and presented by the Carnegie Foundation, this session focused on what has been learned in the SPECC (Strengthening Pre-Collegiate Education in Community Colleges) initiative as well as on what is next for the initiative.  The speakers defined Faculty Inquiry as “a different way to think about professional development” and listed a number of key elements that make it a worthwhile pursuit:

  1. FI is not just one flex day here and there, but involves “regular work.”  That is, the process of FI is woven through the ongoing tasks and activities in the classroom in order to build a process of inquiry and excellence into our teaching.
  2. FI is connected to our goals for student learning.  Thus, our professional development is intimately connected to outcomes (SLOs perhaps)–in this case, a shared sense of outcomes (see the next bullet).
  3. FI is collaborative, both within and between departments and divisions.
  4. FI is grounded in inquiry and evidence-gathering in our own classrooms.  In the process, we can ask consequential questions of our own student constituents and then look at how our evidence fits into the broader picture of others in our divisions, at our college, and in the results of outside research.
  5. FI is a means of engaging thoughtful questions and learning from experience in a complex setting.

The idea is that “intensive work with a select group of faculty” is better than lunchtime workshops (which may be sparcely attended or irrelevant to classroom work).

The work of FI happens in small groups:  faculty work with colleagues teaching the same course or in the same program to frame common questions about student success, problems, etc.  They then ask these questions of their students, developing research from the ground up and connecting it to institutional initiatives and other research.

Katie Hern, from Chabot College, presented a facsinating example of FI in action in “When Capable Students Fail“.  Her work, accessible through the Windows on Learning section of the SPECC site (click on English: Cases) looked at what she called the “academic sustainability gap,” that gap between what our students often show that they can do but can’t sustain long enough to acheive a passing grade.  Her work identified a number of “archetypes” of students we see all the time, including the quiet, non-questioner, the student who disappears after Thanksgiving or Spring break, etc.  Her inquiries led her to identify a pretty cool Venn diagram of reasons these students gave for their failure to sustain success–which she uses (and via her site, so can we) with other classes to help students identify their weaknesses and involve them in their learning.  I urge you to check it out, and then also check out the other areas in the Windows on Learning site, which includes Math cases and other resources.

FI is also a grant opportunity through the Carnegie Foundation–there is a Call for Proposals to be part of the Faculty Inquiry Network: Basic Skills in Complex Contexts.  You can download a copy of the FIN Call for Proposals that Katie passed out in the session.  Complete application materials will be available after October 10, 2008 at www.chabotcollege.edu/fin.

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April 2nd 2008

4Cs NOLA Wednesday — Ethnography in Composition

Today I attended a half-day workshop, “Out of the Classroom/Into the Streets: Ethnographic Research in Composition and Basic Skills Courses.” There was some presentation, but we also talked a lot about our experiences with Comp and Ethnography and broke into groups to analyze some classroom strategies.

The presenters, Jan Ramjerdi, Nancy-Laurel Pettersen, Belle Gironda, Peter Gray, and Todd Craig, were all from Queensborough Community College, an extension of CUNY, Bayside, NY. They presented a rationale for, sample syllabi from, and student writing examples of ethnographic work in composition and basic skills classrooms.

As it turned out, the rationale was largely unnecessary, since everyone there was there because they’d already bought into the idea. Still, it was nice to get a bibliography of research and history of ethnography in its composition framework, which is pedagogically different from its anthropological framework (although there are overlaps). In a nutshell, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways With Words is the seminal text for comp-ethnographies but the pedagogy develops through Mina Shaunessey’s developmental lens and James Berlin’s political perspectives, among other influences, to modern works by Wendy Bishop and others. The essential difference between composition ethnographic works and anthropological works, one of the presenters posited, was that ethnography of communication (describing/understanding how people communicate) characterized our discipline’s approach. In my mind, I expanded the word “communicate” to encompass “human interaction,” although there may be arguments with such a broad interpretation.

One immediate question was posed by a member of the audience–isn’t comp about learning writing? The presenter did a good job of staying focused: Comp can be about both, of course, and the particular tack one takes in teaching depends on the context of the course. A basic skills ethnographic course will not be the same as a Transfer-level comp ethnography class which will in turn not be anything like a graduate-level ethnographic study. We were given examples of different approaches.

The workshop went well beyond its noon cut-off and I have a stack of handouts related to it. The conversations we had ranged from the practical–how some of us (including me) are using ethnographic work as part of our classes–to more esoteric questions of theory.

I was particularly interested in its application at the basic skills level–Nancy-Laurel uses it in her reading courses–and we exchanged email addresses so we could collaborate on strategies. I was thinking how it helps comp classes linked to social science courses as well as the additional reading emphasis we need to add into our 251 courses. One presenter complained that her experience was that basic skills focused too much on the personal and the students don’t write enough length at the end of the course. Ethnography allows the personal, but also factors in a kind of research that students can easily accomplish with little “book knowledge.” Interview essays work well in this sort of research and it is not hard to build longer essays using this approach.

One presenter was using the approach to develop literacy narratives, such as “How did you learn ‘hip-hop’ cultural literacy?” to get student buy-in and have them write about relevant issues.

I was also interested in improving my course, and I got a lot of ideas from the presentation. Some people’s approaches seemed too prescriptive, others too loose. However, not only can I look through their syllabi and rubrics, but they included student writing samples as well. Fabulous!

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