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College Quarterly
Fall 1993 - Volume 1 Number 1
Reading, Writing, and Restricting: The Pedagogy of Community College English
by 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 often have insisted on a more traditional conception.

Frequently, 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 called an “aesthetic contempt.”

Despite a commitment to providing education which has immediate economic relevance, college English faculties remain largely devoted to the language of the liberal humanist tradition, of Matthew Arnold as codified in Fowler's Modern English Usage. Ironically, the group supposed to provide students with literacy skills often disdains the very language it has been hired to impart. Currently, literacy instruction in Ontario's colleges is caught between false and crippling polarities: on the one side, an insistence on rigidly contextualized occupational writing, and on the other, an inclina-tion to contextless and timeless writing, based upon the best that has been thought and said.

From English to Communications

The first scuffle in the battle, between literacy in specific vocational contexts and literacy in the contextless space of liberal humanism, erupted over the issue of general education. When the colleges were formed, it was understood that general education was to accompany vocational training. This dual role 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 which meet the combined cultural aspirations and occupational needs of the students." But University of Toronto president Claude Bissell then argued that 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."

Despite their eventual evolution into institu-tions of technical training, in their earliest stages the colleges did not have the staff or curricula needed to deliver the specialized technical education promoted by 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 a provisional mixture of a technical and general curriculum, cobbled together to get the colleges up and running, for a commitment to a Deweyan synthesis of avocational and vocational education. This goal was rarely shared by those charged with the task of creating Ontario's community colleges.

Literature and Relevant Writing Skills

The English curriculum soon became one of themainstays of the general education programme. Initially, most English departments offered a somewhat diluted form of the university curriculum they sought to emulate, and maintained an abiding concern with the teaching of English literature.

These programmes most often taught writing skills through literature, and there was often well founded criticism throughout the colleges that English faculty were more interested in teaching literature than in teaching writing. That was not a surprise. The 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 is held in low regard. Very early in the colleges' evolution, the English curriculum was criticized for lacking technical or vocational relevance.

Following Sam Bronfman's suggestion that "the path between campus and plant be open and unhindered," college administrators equated teaching with skill training for specific occupations. It was argued that there was limited time for essays on CanLit, existentialism, or Shakespeare, when most students were unable to write letters of application, memos, or reports -the writing that awaited them in 'the real world.' English departments would have to dispense with traditional notions of literacy and get on with the business of training for the workplace. 'English' would be redefined as 'Communications.'

The shift in terminology is significant. 'English' presumes the existence of a common idiom derived from a body of esteemed canonical texts, a tradition. 'Communications' offered an implicit critique of the privilege accorded this idiom, based on the now familiar argument that language 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 that would be required in the specialized vocational fields, e.g., early childhood education, or golf course maintenance, or business administration, orengineering 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. Discourse communities have characteristic epistemic, rhetorical, and social dimensions. They determine what their members recognize as knowledge, and 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. Community college students, however, are not given an education that prepares them to become fully-fledged members of discourse communities.

In part, this has to do with the nature of the occupations these students are expected to enter.These occupations are framed and defined by the discourses of other communities. Students do not find themselves in occupations where knowledge is created but where the knowledge — often created in a variety of other fields — is applied. For example, the very popular Law Enforcement programme is constituted by the discourses of law, criminology, sociology, and psychology, but as a discipline it maintains a subordinate and largely passive role with respect to the knowledge developed in these fields.

Also, the roles for students within the discourse communities to which their subordinate occupations give them access differ from the roles of those who become fully enfranchised members in those communities. College students do not share in the responsibility for the knowledge that informs their disciplines. While they are expected to apply the knowledge given to them, they are not expected to contribute to its development or its transformation. This prerogative is reserved for experts in the discourse communities providing the theoretical foundation for the colleges' vocational fields.

Similarly, whereas members of the discourse communities which frame the colleges' occupational contexts have it in their purview to generate and modify the rules which govern the representation of knowledge in their communities, college students are exempt from this responsibility and are expected to follow the rules for representation created elsewhere. Students are provided with skills and knowledge on a 'need to know' basis, where 'need' has been narrowly defined by the college English curriculum as what they think an employer wants an employee to know.

The design of the college literacy curriculum reflects the limited roles community college students are expected to play in the workforce. From the outset, emphasis on mechanics and usage comma splices, sentence fragments, pronoun agreement displaces higher order rhetorical concerns from the literacy curriculum. The conventions of standard English are presented as a set of fixed rules in a reified language which the literate observe, and the illiterate do not. Students are required to master a series of recipes for vocationally specific forms of discourse, including letters, reports, forms and résumés.

There are many problems with this curriculum. First, it limits rather than enables. College students' subordinate relation to the discourse communities to which they are introduced anticipates the relation to production that they will have on the job. Second, it is authoritarian. Rules are established which students are expected to follow, and not to question, modify or reject. Students are prepared to be docile, passive workers, able and eager to follow the orders of their superiors. Third, as a result of their initiation into these limited literacies, students are relegated to a subordinate status in the hierarchical communities in which they find employment. In other words, the idiom in which community college students are trained is rarely the prestige idiom in which the goals of the community are formulated.

Students' Perceptions

Of course, some students resist such limited literacies. Many sense that college equips them for subordinate roles in society, and stay away. Others recognize that the curriculum is impoverished and drop out. Community college attrition rates are now between 33% and 66%, and while retention research has only recently started in the colleges, there is some evidence that the best and the brightest are among the most likely to drop out. However, the remaining students often hold an unstated, if insistent, conception of what constitutes an appropriate curriculum, and use narrow definitions of vocational relevance as criteria for determining what does and what does not belong.

Many students have tacitly accepted an instrumental ideology which values the technical aspects of curricular knowledge, and thus devalues the non technical. Today's colleges are not places to study 'why' but 'how,' and students come to college to learn 'how' how to fix computers, build bridges, or market products. Having assimilated a pervasive occupational instrumentalism, these students will submit to what they view as expert instruction aimed at giving them marketable skills, but they frequently will resist instruction addressed to them as social, political and cultural beings.

It is unsurprising that this preconception constrains the literacy curriculum. Students expect their English teachers to provide them with a set of neutral skills. A teacher who moves the curriculum beyond these skills, and attempts to problematize language by calling attention to its political, social and cultural dimensions, is teaching against the grain.

It is hard to fault students for the expectations they bring to community college education. They are simply reflecting the utilitarian orientation which is characteristic of technological society. But it is unfortunate that such prejudices further contribute to the subordination of the students who hold them.

Faculty Resistance

English teachers continue to resist the development of the specialized vocational curriculum. Many of the faculty argue that there is a common tradition which informs our political, social and cultural institutions, that our students should be acquainted with this tradition, and that linguistic enfranchisement will permit these students membership in the discourse community which shapes our politics and culture.

Even allowing, as sceptics assert, that insistence on the place of the prestige idiom in the classroom serves a need for legitimation vis-a-vis colleagues in the high schools and universities more than it serves the learning needs of students, the obstacles to avocational education are great. There is notenough time, student motivation, or institutional commitment to attain the kind of cultural literacy recently described by E.D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom. Moreover, familiarizing students with elite culture is not necessarily empowering them, and may actually reinforce feelings of inadequacy.

While ardent vocationalists marginalize college students by equipping them only to perform routine tasks within narrow vocations, college English teachers who attempt (in service to egalitarianism)to acquaint students with a more powerful form of discourse often are largely incapable of helping them to master it. Thus, the remedy proposed by some well meaning faculty to the shunting of students into limited vocational literacies promotes its own kind of marginalization. However different the intent, the effect is essentially the same.


In 1968, T.E. Reid wrote that unless the next decade saw substantial policy changes, “CAATs in Ontario will … in effect seal the fate of the average, culturally disadvantaged pupil who survives four years of secondary school in watered down streams … The principle of 'separate but equal' education is now institutionalized … Instead of the colour of one's skin being the distinguishing characteristic, poor or well-to-do family backgrounds become, in general, the de facto entrance labels.”

The current approach to literacy instruction in Ontario's community colleges further serves to seal the fate of the college student. Many teachers within the system argue that the programme of writing within occupational contexts needs to be replaced by a programme which acquaints students with writing across disciplines, and would not restrict them to parroting the writing found within a specific occupation. As Denis Lawton remarks, this kind of programme can enable students "to see reality from as many of the different social positions as possible," and would be less likely to restrict students to the narrow social, rhetorical and epistemic constraints of the literacies with which they now leave college.

Is the development of such a curriculum likely? The signals are mixed. Prior to the 1990 Ontario election, the Ministry of Colleges and Universities stressed the need for colleges to be more responsive to the needs of a changing economy. Translated into practice, this prescription means more attention to short-term training, and augurs ill for the future development of more generous English programmes.

On the bright side, an Ontario Colleges' Council of Regents' recently completed planning report, entitled Vision 2000, recommended that colleges devote more attention to academic subjects and to general education. The administrative concern with vocational literacies might be tempered by following this recommendation in both spirit and letter; that might foster a climate in which faculty can examine the inadequacy of the view of literacy into which many of their ranks have retreated. Without these changes, however, community college students will remain subordinated participants in the discourses that shape their lives, and while the colleges may equip them with the literacy needed to function as employees, that will not provide the literacy they need to participate fully in all the communities in which they have legitimate roles to play.

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