The community colleges in Ontario enjoy a unique niche in the educational community. Many of our faculty have post-graduate degrees, particularly those coming from a background in the arts and sciences. Thus, we have academic characteristics such as a capacity for scholarship, a love of learning for its own sake and, at least in the case of professors of English, a desire to further the cause of literacy and literature.
The students we teach ostensibly have different educational goals than their contemporaries in recognized Canadian universities. Our students may or may not have attended university already, or may be planning to attend it in the future. Their aims while with us, however, are largely pragmatic: they want generic skills, general education, and professional training in occupations in which they hope to launch careers upon graduation. As educators in this program, we often review university humanities subjects and tailor them to the needs of our students. Advisory boards consisting of employers from specific industries meet with us several times a year to help us update our courses.
One exciting result of this collaboration among business, industry and academia at Seneca College has been its Corporate Communications program. Here, students learn to communicate an organization's messages to many audiences, with as much impact as possible. The program attracts university-educated students with degrees in journalism and the arts. It also brings in mature students who many have been working in business for several years prior to enrolment. It provides them with courses in all aspects of internal and external communication including writing courses taught by public relations professionals and technical courses such as desktop publishing and graphic design. The students also take a few broad subjects where they study the social and historical implications of the impact of technology on their field. They can also do independent research in special areas such as in the health sciences, freelance writing, events planning, or corporate strategy.
Corporate Communications programs like this one are valuable additions to English departments, be they in colleges or universities. They elevate our status in the market-oriented college environment by providing us with a diploma-granting program equal to those in the vocational divisions of Applied Arts, Business or Technology. When offered by universities-particularly when placed within English or Humanities divisions-they can help scholars fend off charges of remaining in an “ivory tower.” A program like Corporate Communications which combines a general education with generic skills and “hands-on” learning can help change the perception that English and Liberal Studies are mere service divisions for “professional” divisions.
Students from Corporate Communications participate in two eight-week co-operative education programs as part of their College training. The school helps students locate suitable paid employment in the field. They write brochures and reports, organize special events, edit newsletters, raise funds for charitable causes, and help major corporations create mission statements or strategic plans for growth. They learn that their academic studies prove invaluable when harnessed to specific, contemporary skills which they acquire and hone during their intensive year of study at the college.
One of my students in the program at Seneca had already completed most of her Ph.D. studies at McGill University, designed programs for high school curricula, studied Zen floral design and opened her own flower shop, then successfully raised an autistic son who was now coping with a regular high school program. As her year in Corporate Communications developed, she became dejected. She was slightly older than some of the students as well as more educated and talented than most of her prospective employers. She was almost ready to abandon her studies and drop out of the program. For me, she became a symbol of the very best kind of person whom advanced university studies can produce. I could not bear to see her fail in the contemporary marketplace.
The story has a happy ending. The student succeeded. She spent her first co-op workterm in the social services sector where she launched new programs and obtained major coverage for her organization in a national newspaper. Her second co-op workterm was spent in a large private corporation. My belief in her was affirmed as she graduated from Seneca and went on to a well- paying, extremely challenging position.
The universities can benefit from our college's experience with this program. Some, such as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, already have co-op programs for arts and science students. This can be a step in the right direction as it gives arts students the confidence as well as the work experience and skills to compete in the marketplace. At the same time, the universities and colleges must be aware of some of the dangers of opening up curriculum development in the humanities to the world of business and industry. The broad scope of humanities studies must be preserved and universality must remain untarnished by immediate, localized workplace concerns. Thus, a difficult balancing act must be performed in this climate: the immediate demands of industry and the eternal goals embedded in broad, traditional humanistic studies must be simultaneously met.
The cross-fertilization of vocational and traditionally avocational curricula is but one area in which academic studies can play a significant role in college life. CSAC's decree that there must be an increase in the amount of general education in the CAATs adds another dimension. It means that courses like the one which I taught for the first time last year, entitled Mainly Poetry, will become a much more common college option. I would like to discuss this course now as an example of this other important trend.
Before the current CSAC initiative, I heard many arguments against the teaching of literature in a community college. Some said it is too time- consuming as college students rarely major in English. Others complained that literature is too difficult for our students, many of whom are not native speakers of English. Still others claim that there is élitism involved in selecting literature for our students to read. By teaching literature, they say, we are asserting the dominance of a stultifying canon of classics and reinforcing social divisions. As Henry Higgins observed in My Fair Lady (or Pygmalion), we are using English to reinforce notions of class, race, and not incidentally gender.
It is true that snobbery and a kind of missionary zeal can form parts of a faulty educational process. In Hong Kong, for example, a Bright Asia private school for wealthy children glorifies Ninja Turtles, videos, and the English language in its élitist approach: “The school told us,” said a first-grader, that “if our English is good, we can go to America”1
Properly taught, there is another realm into which a literary education can welcome our students. There is a universality to the values in the best works of any language. There is intellectual freedom, self-expression, a forum for debates about good and evil, and a home for the imagination which college students crave. To deny them the opportunity to read literature or to limit the available selection to what is “politically correct” is the gesture of the true élitist.
Last Spring in my Poetry Course at Seneca, I introduced the students to a wide range of poetic styles and forms. We read classic British authors such as Shakespeare, Blake and Keats. We also read Derek Walcott, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickinson. Some of the students have admitted preferring their poetry class to their other subjects and a handful are poets themselves. It was fascinating to watch these students open up to literature, find the inspiration to write themselves, and respond freely to new ideas.
Each day brought new treasures. A group of students discovered Robert Frost and made their own video of a walk in the woods to accompany their reading and exploration of a poem. A young man read D. H. Lawrence for the first time and found the perfect piece of jazz music in his tape collection to act as a backdrop to his reading of a poem called Piano. Some students decided to explore an Allen Ginsberg poem and researched “ancient history”: the sixties. One class on an American poet, Charles Reznikoff, led to an open-ended discussion of marriage and adultery; another used a 1990s poem by Thylia Moss as a springboard for a discussion of racial prejudice. Almost every day a new door opened for each of us. We also had lots of fun. Humour, fantasy and nonsense played a role in our daily activities, particularly when it came to our study of such poems as Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.
Poetry provides an excellent opportunity to explore the potential of language. When studying Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish, students delighted in her similes: the “pink swim-bladder” like a giant peony, and the fish skin stippled like wall paper. They heard the sound effects in the poem and uncovered languagels power to communicate in radical ways. I would no more exclude my students from these pleasures than teach them in a dark, airless space.
Poetry offers something to everyone, regardless of fluency in English, if a broad range of material is offered in an introductory course. There is always something to be learned, felt, or admired. This literary genre is, like an olive, often thought to be an acquired taste. It is actually among the most potent tools we have for reaching today's college students and can be effectively integrated in a two-year college curriculum.
Note: 1. Jan Wong “Chinese School Caters to Aristocrats,” The Globe and Mail (April 1, 1993).
Malca Litovitz teaches in the School of English Studies at Seneca College in North York, Ontario. This article is based on a paper presented to the Modern Language Association convention in Toronto, December, 1994.