Harvard Educational Review
  1. Honored but Invisible

    An Inside Look at Teaching in Community Colleges

    By W. Norton Grubb, with Helena Worthen, Barbara Byrd, Elnora Webb, Norena Badway, Chester Case, Stanford Goto, and Jennifer Curry Villeneuve

    New York: Routledge, 1999. 392 pp. $ 75.00, $24.99 (paper).

    Community colleges in the United States have traditionally been viewed as “teaching colleges,” which refers to institutions where the focus is largely on teaching and its improvement. Yet what is known about the nature of teaching in the community college? Is teaching being improved, and if so, how? How is classroom practice responding to an increasingly diverse student population, with high concentrations of low-income and minority students? The collection of ten articles in Honored but Invisible: An Inside Look at Teaching in Community Colleges, written by W. Norton Grubb and seven coeditors, provides a compelling and incisive examination of these basic questions, offering valuable guidance to those invested in enhancing the quality of education in community colleges.

    At the core of Honored but Invisible are the perspectives of over three hundred community college administrators and instructors, along with descriptions of classroom teaching. This kind of documentation represents a refreshing departure from much postsecondary literature that tends to highlight what teaching should look like, rather than what actually happens. The need for such evidence, the authors argue in the introductory chapter of the book, is clear:

    There’s almost no information about what teaching looks like in the “teaching college.” Teaching is invisible in several senses, then: Not only does it take place behind closed doors, out of sight of other instructors and administrators, but it has never been the subject of sustained description, or any analysis of what happens, or why it looks as it does. The lack of evidence has been a central motive for our writing. It’s difficult to think about improving the quality of these institutions . . . without knowing more about what instructors do and what shapes their teaching. (p. 11)

    The interviews with and observations of nearly 260 instructors in thirty-two U.S. community college yield a comprehensive discussion of teaching beliefs and practices, “ranging from wonderful classes — fast-paced, innovative in their use of both in-class activities and assignments, highly engaging to the students — to the absolute worst” (p. 18). Chapter one, “Instructors’ Approaches to Pedagogy and the Multiple Conceptions of ‘Good Teaching,’” provides a discussion of approaches to teaching and the many forms “good teaching” may take, as reflected in the theoretical literature and the interviews with the community college instructors. This chapter familiarizes the reader with various approaches to teaching in the community college: the “traditional” approach, also referred to as “the conventional wisdom” (p. 28), or the “drill and kill” approach; the “meaning-making” approach, often characterized as “constructivist” or “student-centered”: the “student-support” approach, which emphasizes the “caring” component of teaching and the ideals of inclusiveness in community colleges; and approaches that take on elements of any of these three. The authors illustrate that instructors can be “good” and “bad” using any one of these approaches; they also argue that judgments about teaching cannot be made without sufficient “hard data” about the effectiveness of certain approaches. As the authors describe, the grim reality is that instructors are largely alone in their teaching and their struggles to improve their classroom practice, typically relying on trial and error to develop their teaching approaches. “Community colleges need not be this way” (p. 57), assert the authors, but the tide will not turn until more systematic institutional support is directed toward instructional quality.

    In chapter two, “The Modal Classroom: The Varieties of Lecture/Discussion,” and chapter three, “Lecture/Workshop and ‘Hands-on Learning’: The Complexities of Occupational Instruction,” the authors discuss the most commonly observed teaching dynamic in their sample of community colleges: the lecture/discussion, “a hybrid approach in which the instructor devotes some time to lecture and structures some time for discussion” (p. 61), or its adapted form, lecture/workshop, used in occupational courses. These two chapters raise important questions about the instructor’s role and the quality of student learning, especially when the lecture/discussion or lecture/workshop structure devolves into teacher-centered, teacher-controlled instruction. Have instructors been trained to know how to achieve an effective balance between lecture and discussion (or workshop)? Is there time and motivation for teachers to reflect on the kinds of questions they ask in class, or on the level of student engagement their practices promote? Chapters two and three send a message emphasized throughout the entire book: If community colleges, as institutions, do not place greater priority on teaching, answering these questions will remain an individual struggle for the instructor, or worse, will go unexamined.

    Chapter four, “Literacy Practices in the Classroom: The Foundation of Schooling,” includes an interesting discussion of a familiar college activity, note-taking. The authors highlight the social dimension of this common study skill, using their observational data to illustrate how instructors’ implicit and explicit expectations about the purpose of note-taking affect the quality of student learning and the locus of authority in the classroom. Another useful discussion in this chapter focuses on the differing orientations toward literacy between academic and occupational programs. For example, instructors in academic classes typically do not expect their students to master the discourse conventions of a particular field (e.g., anthropology), since the courses are viewed as introductory. In contrast, students in occupational classes often “actually [rehearse] in class the vocabulary, verbal practices, and register of the field they [are] studying” (p. 155). As the authors point out, the differences in literacy practice, while perhaps predictable, are rarely recognized or discussed. This silence creates a barrier to the successful integration of academic and occupational courses, and denies instructors the opportunity to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the literacies at work in their teaching.

    Chapter five, “Remedial/Developmental Education: The Best and the Worst,” tackles the persistently controversial issue of “whether remedial education should be maintained within any institution that calls itself a college” (p. 172). The authors respond with a strong repudiation of claims that remedial education “dumbs down” higher education, arguing that “once we recognize the distinction between an unsystematic collapse of student and instructor expectations and a rigorous course of remediation, then we can see that developmental education is one of the most difficult teaching challenges and needs to be rescued from its second-class status” (p. 174).

    The authors expand their defense of remedial education in chapter six, “Standards and Content: The Special Dilemma of Community College,” calling attention to the confusion around “the need for remedial education, which is necessary in open-access institutions and which can be both demanding and sophisticated, with the very different problem of supposedly college-level courses that have been stripped of their content” (p. 19). This chapter also contains an insightful discussion of four structural elements that make the standards issue particularly thorny for community colleges: 1) the commitment to an open-access policy, “which brings . . . both students who are not academically well prepared and instructors with a substantial allegiance to these nontraditional students” (p. 239); 2) the hiring of faculty who may be experienced in a particular discipline, but lack any preparation in teaching; 3) the pressure to maintain high enrollments or risk losing precious revenues; and 4) the awkward alignment of high standards with the primary goals of open-access institutions. The authors raise a critical question with this last structural feature: Can community colleges pursue their educational goals — namely, the promotion of “individual mobility” and “social equity” — and yet institute high standards that do not look like “gatekeeping mechanisms” (p. 241)? While the authors contend that “community colleges are institutions where multiple standards operate simultaneously, reflecting the vast variety of students and their purposes” (p. 211), they also emphasize that the creation of meaningful standards requires institutional leadership.

    The next chapter, “Innovative Practices: The Pedagogical and Institutional Challenges,” describes four areas of instructional change in the community college: 1) attempts to move away from the standard lecture format; 2) the use of technologies to enhance teaching and learning; 3) the creation of learning communities (LCs) or “linked courses, where a group of students takes two or more courses at the same time, and instructors coordinate their teaching” (p. 261); and 4) efforts to integrate academic and occupational courses (also discussed in chapter four on literacy practices). As a believer in instructor collaboration, I greatly enjoyed the discussion of the latter two areas as they revealed great possibilities for curriculum reform. As the authors point out, instructor initiative alone will not sustain these curriculum changes; rather, these innovations necessitate institutional support. Moreover, in cases where these innovations have been successful, it is clear that the changes satisfy the instructors’ longing for greater collaboration with their colleagues.

    Chapters eight and nine, “The Institutional Influences on Teaching: The Potential Power of ‘Teaching Colleges’” and “Funding and Policy: The Neglect of Teaching,” emphasize points made in other chapters in the book about the ways the teaching and learning enterprise is influenced by institutional forces. Chapter eight focuses on the roles of individuals in the community college, from the instructor to the administrators, in shaping the institutional culture, while chapter nine looks into the interplay of funding with local and federal policy. The authors illustrate that, while community colleges are definitely in need of increased funding and additional resources, it is equally critical that the institutions determine how those resources can be directed toward the improvement of instruction.

    The final chapter, “Alternative Futures: Creating the ‘Teaching College,’” represents perhaps the most challenging chapter for the authors, as it wrestles with a range of conflicting pressures on community colleges. For example, how will community colleges preserve the ideals of “open access” and “yet still be part of higher education and the ‘collegiate sector’” (p. 350)? How will community colleges recover from “practices that encourage fragmentation rather than coherence” (p. 351) in their curriculum? The authors conclude that “good teaching is necessary to reconcile the conflicting demands placed on community colleges” (p. 362), but until such questions are opened up to public examination, teaching in the community college will continue to be a haphazard and lonely endeavor for many instructors.

    In their concluding comments, the reader is reminded that, relative to other educational institutions, “community colleges are certainly the most varied in their students and purposes” (p. 356). For this reason, identifying what constitutes “good teaching” is rarely obvious. The value of Honored but Invisible lies in its ability to bring clarity and vision to what “good teaching” can and should look like in the community college.



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Book Notes

The Gendered Society
By Michael S. Kimmel

Honored but Invisible
By W. Norton Grubb, with Helena Worthen, Barbara Byrd, Elnora Webb, Norena Badway, Chester Case, Stanford Goto, and Jennifer Curry Villeneuve

An Elusive Science
By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

The Best for Our Children
Edited by María de la Luz Reyes and John J. Halcón

Holler If You Hear Me
By Gregory Michie