I just finished teaching a summer session here at the community college, and I’m ecstatic! Before you think I’m having a sun stroke, yes, I said teaching my summer school class was a great experience; at least, this one was.
Freshman Composition II (aka: How to Write a Research Paper) is one of my favorite classes to teach anyway, but hardly something most students look forward to at any time, least of all in the middle of July. It’s appears daunting: scrunching what’s normally a 15 week course into 11 days: 44 hours of class time (which is actually more class time than a normal semester).
The structure of summer school underscores the pointlessness of our time-based educational system. Even the creators of the venerable Carnegie Unit are revisiting and revising why we tie learning to a specific number of hours. How do we know 44 hours is the right amount of time for a course on psychology, algebra, world history, composition, or anatomy and physiology? All those courses were offered during the same session. Can every student learn the material in the same time period? Should they? In the summer session, what gets condensed is the amount of time students and I have between classes to study, review, prepare, and engage with what the content of the course. When the college offers these same courses online, students and teacher often have more time options, depending upon how the instructor has designed the course. Yet, students will earn the same three credits based on Carnegie units.
Faced with these limitations, however, my Comp II class and I went on to have a marvelous time.
My official responsibility for this course is to teach students how to write a literary analysis. That’s the focus of our official syllabus (which some of us are pushing hard to have updated), but that’s not a good fit for the students we actually teach. The ones enrolled this summer are typical: Almost all are Black students in their mid-to-late twenties, with the exception of one student in her 50s. Most are working jobs; one young man works the midnight shift, then comes to class. Most are parents of young children or caring for elderly relatives. Not one is planning to become an English professor or a literary critic. As is increasingly the case today, only one or two have written a formal research paper or done what we would consider formal academic research in high school. Since these students are slightly older than traditional freshmen, even those who did some research projects in high school barely remember it—which may actually be a good thing. They hope to go on to additional college courses; some are trying to transfer (several of them as soon as Fall semester) to four-year universities, and move into various professions.
I chose to expand the course to teach them how to do formal academic research for multiple purposes and in at least the three style formats that they are most likely to see as the move through their college and professional work (MLA, APA, and Chicago/Turabian). Producing three academic-quality research projects is a tall order even in the regular semester, much less in summer session. Although I set some general topic parameters, students were responsible for developing their own research questions and searching out academically acceptable information to answer those questions. They had to prove themselves proficient in eight areas of research/writing (see below). I did set aside “class time” for students to use the Internet since many of them do not have access outside of the school (not uncommon here in the Delta).
The final exam for each student included a five-minute oral presentation summarizing their research and what they had learned about the process during this course. As I listened, I thought about those who still think of community college as a step-child in higher education. Many people, including entering students assume that the courses here will be easier, less demanding than those offered at four-year institutions. Sometimes, our summer courses are filled with bright, young, mostly white students who are preparing to enter one of the large state universities in the Fall. This class was more typical of the student population of our community college, and even some of my co-workers felt I may have been asking too much of them in this course.
The students, admittedly intimidated at first, rose to the challenge and produced wonderful work. Most important: They had proven to themselves that they were capable of such work. What a great summer.