Literacy in the Open-Access College
reviewed by Robert R. Lawrence - 1985
Title: Literacy in the Open-Access College
Author(s): Richard C. Jr. Richardson, Elizabeth C. Fisk, Morris A. Okun
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0875895697, Pages: , Year:
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Literacy is a study of an anonymous sunbelt community college called Oakland, which has grown in twenty years from one college (tuition free) to a multicampus collection of colleges of some 80,000 mostly part- time students who in more recent years pay a minimum tuition. Oakland has a large number of part-time faculty and a large number of administrators. Evening students are taught by part- time faculty or full-time faculty teaching overload classes for extra pay. Oakland seems to be a composite of several community colleges.
A simple summary of the findings of the authors of Literacy might read:
1. The state does not fund Oakland students in basic (no degree credit) courses.
2. Oakland faculty are allowed overload classes; teaching so many classes precludes their attempting to teach literacy.
3. Students may have functional literacy, but they never gain academic literacy.
4. Students tend to be part-time, and not to follow course sequences.
5. Students graduate or leave the college having never gained critical thinking skills.
6. S. D. Rouche and U. N. Comstock, A Report on Theory and Methods for the Study of Literacy Development in Community Colleges (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education, 1981), provided the same negative finding after studying Texas community colleges.
In essence, the revolving door criticism of community colleges by Jerome Karabel and others ten to fifteen years ago is being upheld by recent literacy studies. By raising again the criticism of the open-access college as not providing a college education, the authors of Literacy may have entered their study with a bias that is neither clearly stated nor indeed fair. The criticism raised here might well apply to all open-access collegestwo-year, four-year, or midwestern land-grant universities that by legislative mandate must admit high school graduates within their state, having few or no other requirements such as SAT or ACT scores and previous foreign language study. Many of the so-called invisible colleges could also be attacked for not teaching critical thinking through essay tests and out-of-class essays, especially in their non-English and non-humanities classes.1
But the serious problem for the reviewer is that the authors do not give careful, detailed explanation of the difference between functional and academic literacy. Literacy is vaguely defined as critical thinking. The concern of the authors is with what they call academic literacy. They distinguish academic literacy from functional literacy, stating that college students should learn to think and write academically, that is, critically.
The authors argue that the full-time faculty have no commitment to teaching literacy. They discovered that the full-time Oakland faculty teach students to pass objective and short-answer tests, teaching mostly by lecture and emphasizing key words and phrases. These professors do not teach students to construct essays on tests, nor do they assign essays or research papers.
The authors of Literacy generally find the circumstances of the community colleges, and of the studied Oakland College in particular, weak to poor in general, but particularly poor in their teaching of writing and critical thinking. Included among their recommendations are:
1. Recruit selectively, beginning with students who have at least a high school equivalency, and enrolling them in basic skills courses, if needed.
2. Emphasize degrees and limit eligibility to students making defined progress toward a degree within an acceptable time limit.
3. Label courses as to level of academic expectancy with appropriate prerequisites.
4. Emphasize remedial courses, tutoring, and study skills.
5. Require students to qualify for two-year or four-year transfer programs within a specific period of time.
6. Require defined progress toward achieving educational objectives. . . . Use standardized or teacher developed examinations of academic achievement.
7. Limit use of part-time instructors. Full-time instructors should be a large majority of the teaching faculty and should provide sound student advisement. (p. 158)
While I have not had the Oakland experience, the literature cited by Richardson et al. suggests that a majority of community colleges have. The authors recommend that open-access colleges need to again emphasize advising and program coherence instead of strategies to enroll as many part-time students as possible in discrete courses (p. 169) and suggest that administrators should concentrate on the number of students completing the degreenot numbers per seas the purpose and goal of the college.
Some of my reactions to the seven points are:
1. Recruit selectively. Unless otherwise stated in the legislative mandate, it is against the law for an open-access, publicly funded college to have selective admissions. Selective admissions should be for those specific programs where the laboratory and clinical settings are truly limited. There is no doubt that for certain programs, for example, Culinary Arts or Nursing, faculty must see how a student performs in the open-access college in specific courses for perhaps twelve credit hours of prerequisite courses before the students are admitted to the particular program. In the meantime the student has had adequate counseling, advising, appropriate basic (noncredit) courses, and prerequisite courses. It is the role of the community college to provide abundant support and advising facilities.
2. Emphasize degrees and limit eligibility to those students seeking a degree. I am not sure this is wise; many nontraditional students come to test the waters, and as undecided majors for several semesters taking only one or two classes a semester may find that they are truly in the right place and refine their time management, reading, and study skills, and develop critical thinking in such abstract disciplines as logic, algebra, and computer language. Others do not, and these we must advise and counsel to seek career skills taught in other settings, such as apprenticeship.
3. To label courses as to level of academic expectancy is only logical, and I assume that most course schedules do that; but some adult students do very well in courses without having the prerequisites. There is nothing wrong with a student taking a course simply to learn what he or she can out of sheer interest. A clearly stated syllabus and a lenient withdrawal policy are appropriate, too.
4. If the college can require pre-admission counseling, orientation testing, and academic advising before registration, then the emphasis on remedial courses, tutoring, and study skills can be done on an individual or small-group basis. At the same time, emphasis on advanced, interdisciplinary, and transfer courses can be discretely emphasized where appropriate.
5. To require students to qualify for a specific program within a specific period of time flies in the face of the philosophy of lifelong learning. This problem is better handled for the weaker students by financial aid regulations and academic suspension rules.
6. The requirement of defined progress is already handled in those programs in which the student is majoring. Where the student is simply taking one or two courses a semester for work or family reasons, that student is fulfilling another purpose of the collegeopen access!
7. Limiting use of part-time instructors is, I believe, being done by the accrediting associations already.
Richardson et al. make a number of allusions to the Rouche and Comstock study of Texas community colleges, noting similar findings.2 They also make a number of allusions to other studies of community colleges, again noting similar findings. They fail, however, to precisely note the likenesses. A chapter reviewing the literature in order to demonstrate that their one case study was in line with the literature would have strengthened their argument.
A review of the journals of the National Council of Teachers of English, College English and College Composition and Communication, plus some of the better known works such as Errors and Expectations by Mina Shaughnessy, would have revealed that there is a new movement in the teaching of rhetoric and composition at all levels of higher education.3 No longer do the graduate departments of English advocate the teaching of poetry and literary arts as the basis for themes and essays. Rather than comparing and contrasting two Shakespearian sonnets to develop literacy skills, contemporary English teachers at both open-access and limited-access colleges are likely to suggest that the students compare and contrast two concerns or two persons out of the students life, such as their two grandmothers. The emphasis is on teaching writing and critical thinking at the same time.
Richardson et al. failed to adequately define literacy as they think it ought to be taught in institutions of higher education, and to support appropriately their assumptions by making explicit reference to the contemporary theories of writing as a process being advocated in graduate school departments of English and Rhetoric. Adding a chapter on modern rhetorical theory and the recent movement often called Writing across the Curriculum4 would have clarified their position. Colleges that have a Writing across the Curriculum program are showing an interest in teaching the very literacy and critical thinking concepts to their students that Richardson et al. think all open-access colleges should teach.
My experience has been in a predominately urban community college with minority and nontraditional students, but it has been largely at variance with that of Richardson et al. at Oakland College. And how lucky I feel!