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College Quarterly
Spring 1993 - Special
Limited Literacies: English Instruction in Ontario’s Community Colleges
bv Kim Fedderson

Since their inception, Ontario community colleges have encouraged their English teachers to instruct students in the linguistic conventions of their chosen occupations. In promoting a view of literacy that has the workplace as its central focus, administrators have met with considerable - some would say surprising - resistance from the English faculties responsible for literacy within the community colleges.

The Conflict in Contexts

Underlying the conflict between the colleges and their English faculties are opposed senses of the linguistic contexts into which students should be initiated and consequently, different notions of the kind of literacy required. While college administrators have argued that language instruction should develop literacy for specific vocational contexts, English departments usually have insisted on amore traditional conception. Often, college English faculty have resisted the specialized literacies of the vocations to which college students aspire. Indeed, English faculty often regard the specialized vocational literacies of business, bureaucracy and advertising with what Richard Ohmann has called an “aesthetic contempt.”

Despite their commitment to providing education which has immediate, if not future, economic relevance, college English faculties remain largely devoted to the language of the liberal humanist tradition - the language of Matthew Arnold, as codified in Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Ironically, the group supposed to provide students with workplace literacy skills often disdains the very language it is hired to impart. Currently, literacy instruction in Ontario’s community colleges is caught between false and crippling polarities: on the one side, an insistence on rigidly contextualized occupational writing, and on the other, an inclination to contextless and timeless writing, based upon the best that has been thought and said. I want to sketch the background to these positions, and to show why college administrators have promoted very narrow definitions of literacies; how literacy is diminished when its orbit is constrained by an occupational gravitational pull, and why faculty are suspicious of initiatives linking literacy instruction to specific contexts. Finally, I want to show how college writing instruction fails to provide students with the essential knowledge and literacy skills required to function effectively in their groups or communities.

From English to Communications

In the battle between literacy in specific vocational contexts and literacy in the contextless space of liberal humanism, the first skirmish arose over the issue of general education. When the colleges were formed, it was understood that general education was to accompany vocational training.

This duality was conveyed in Bill 153, The Department of Education Amendment Act, which embraced the principle that the colleges would be dedicated to “total education, [both] vocational and avocational” and “must develop curricula meeting the combined cultural aspirations and occupational needs of the students.” However, Claude Bissell, then president of the University of Toronto, said the colleges should have a “strong vocational and technical bias.” And it was this view which prevailed over the more inclusive vision of York University’s Murray Ross, who argued for “a dual curriculum, technical and academic … [without general education] the colleges would be better named technical institutes.” Despite their eventual evolution into institutions of technical training, in their earliest stages the colleges didn’t have the staff or curricula needed to deliver the specialized technical education promotedby Bissell and others of like mind. Thus, while the goal of increased specialization was never abandoned, most colleges began with strong general education components.

In light of then-fashionable rhetoric about “democracy’s colleges,” many of the first teachers in the system naively mistook the provisional mixture of a technical and general curriculum, cobbled together to get colleges up and running, for commitment to a Deweyan synthesis of avocational and vocational education. Such noble goals were rarely in the minds of those administrators charged with the task of creating Ontario’s community colleges.

Literature and Relevant Writing Skills

The English curriculum soon became one of the mainstays of the general education programme. Initially, most college English departments offered a diluted version of the university English curriculum, and like the model they sought to emulate, had an abiding concern with teaching English literature.

These programmes most often taught writing skills through literature. Thus, there was widespread and usually well-founded criticism throughout the colleges that English faculties were more interested in teaching literature than in teaching writing.

Of course, this was not surprising; the English faculty were themselves products of university English departments in which the quotidian business of “instrumental” or “applied” writing (business, technical, and legal writing) was, and generally still is, held in low regard. Very early on in the colleges’ evolution, the English curriculum was criticized for not being technically or vocationally relevant.

Following Sam Bronfman’s suggestion that “the path between the campus and the plant be open and unhindered,” college administrators equated teaching with skill training for specific occupations. It was argued that there was limited time for CanLit, or existentialism, or Shakespeare, when students were unable to write letters ofapplication, memos, or reports - the kinds ofwriting tasks that awaited them in “the real world.” The college English departments would have to dispense with their traditional notions of literacy, and to get on with training for the workplace. And that meant that English would be redefined as “Communications,” which was a significant shift in terminology. “English” presumes the existence of a common idiom derived from a body of esteemed canonical texts: a tradition. But “Communications” offers an implicit critique of the privilege accorded this idiom, based on the now-familiar argument that language use varies with context. “Communications” recognizes the existence of a variety of “discourse communities” - of speakers and writers who use a more or less common language to accomplish collective projects.

It was argued that students should be trained in the specialized literacies required by their choice of vocational fields: e.g., early childhood education, or golf course maintenance, or business administration, or engineering technology. Students were expected to master context-specific and context-bound language skills in preparation for their lives at work.

Discourse Communities

There is a limited place for community college students within the discourse communities to which they wish to belong. This statement deserves clarification.

Discourse communities have characteristic epistemic, rhetorical, and social dimensions. They determine what members recognize as knowledge. Discourse communities also establish conventions which govern the representation of that knowledge.

The discourse community implies unity, identity and shared responsibility. It creates a hierarchy of relations for its members with respect to its body of knowledge, and thus determines whose words matter most in particular situations. [original continues…]


Kim Fedderson, a former college administrator, is an Assistant Professor of English at Lakehead University, in Thunder Bay, Ontario.