McWain, Katie. “Finding Freedom at the Composition Threshold: Learning from the Experiences of Dual Enrollment Teachers.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.4 (2018): 406-24. Print.
Katie McWain recounts a study of instructors of dual-enrollment courses. She interviews and collects documents from seven teachers, five writing program administrators or dual-enrollment coordinators, and one high-school administrator. These educators represented three “dual-enrollment partnerships” in demographically varied institutions and schools in the Midwest (409).
Documenting the increase in credit-bearing college courses taught in high schools by high school teachers, McWain notes ongoing critiques of the process from composition scholars but states that attention has been turning to how the instructors of these courses can be better supported as members of the composition community (408). She writes that the proliferation of these courses, especially in community colleges, makes dual-enrollment teachers “the first-contact professionals” who will introduce students to college writing (421), placing them in “a uniquely liminal institutional positionality” (408).
In this role, in McWain’s view, the teachers have the opportunity to make first-year composition “a transformative practice” (407). But she argues that the possibilities inherent in dual-enrollment programs depend on teachers’ overcoming significant challenges. Study of teachers’ actual negotiation of these challenges, she contends, is rare (408, 421), but understanding them and working to help teachers overcome them is “the responsibility” of the composition profession (421).
McWain attributes the growth of the dual-enrollment model to the pressure to graduate students more quickly and efficiently; since 2015, she notes, federal funding has been offered for the development of such courses (408). She traces the impact of this trend on the academic freedom of the high school teachers who instruct the majority of these classes (407).
Coding of interviews revealed four “challenges” faced by dual-enrollment instructors in the high schools (409). The first is that these instructors function within “discourse communities” and “activity systems” that differ from those experienced by college faculty (410). McWain distinguishes between the “community of literature” that surrounds high-school English curricula as opposed to a “community of composition” that college writing faculty inhabit (410). Her interviewees express frustration at attempting to provide college rigor without the support college faculty often receive. Further, one interviewee contends that her high-school colleagues “don’t see themselves as writers” and question their own expertise (“Rachel,” qtd. in McWain 411). Preparation may be taken up with “‘calibrating’ assessment strategies” rather than addressing pedagogy (411). Finally, the many entities for whom high school teachers work problematize the concept of academic freedom, as each employer competes to dictate the priorities teachers have to set (411).
Second, dual-enrollment instructors in the high schools struggle to meet college outcomes while still meeting rigid curricular requirements for the high schools where they teach. Such rigidity limits innovation and creative teaching practice. McWain gives an example of a student whose unique project on To Kill a Mockingbird received “all zeroes” as “[o]ff topic, not score-able” when tested against the required assessment paradigm (412-13). In contrast, some interviewees testified to the lack of a specific curriculum, but the freedom that may have followed from this dearth of guidance was undercut by the lack of a “professional teaching community” (412) with knowledge of college expectations and access to “the research and policies” generated by the composition profession (413-14). Teachers spoke of tweaking assignments designed to meet the high school standards rather than developing more rigorous ones that might be rejected (412).
The third challenges McWain explores involves the pressures dual-enrollment instructors face from other stakeholders, especially parents. She illustrates that the role of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is poorly defined in dual-credit environments (414-15). Her interviewees emphasize the demands of communicating with parents in a high-school setting, including “diplomatic emails” about problem areas and the expectation that parents should always be informed if a student is doing poorly (416). The failure to clearly reconcile these requirements with the responsibility given to students in a college course leaves instructors without “protection” should administrators and parents protest low grades (416). Academic freedom can also be challenged if parents object to the “mature and controversial subject matter” that may characterize college work (“Sally,” qtd. in McWain 415).
Finally, McWain argues that the labor conditions of dual-enrollment instructors both affect pedagogy and limit agency. Interviewees detail the amount of work involved in regular high-school teaching (416), while one participant created a spreadsheet to demonstrate that dual-enrollment teachers worked 117 more hours per semester than other teachers (420). These instructors are expected to plan college-level coursework with, in one case, “a 22-minute lunch” and “a 47-minute planning period” (“Kelly,” qtd. in McWain 417). “Sally” reports “being responsible for 124 students” (417). Moreover, teachers report that “assessment is prioritized over pedagogy,” forcing instructors to adjust their activities to meet grading demands (417).
Asked what they most needed, interviewees stressed “time” (419). McWain contends that all teachers, including those in post-secondary environments, face demands to teach more for less compensation, but she highlights the extra burden confronted by the overlay of dual-enrollment duties onto high-school exigencies (419).
McWain illustrates “innovative solutions” developed by teachers themselves, such as one instructor’s handling of parental objections to course content (419-20). Teachers and administrators alike envision more support, such as collaborative “teams” to help with professional development and course design and designated coordinators for dual-enrollment programs (420). McWain suggests possible gains in pushing for more membership in the certifying body, the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, which has created standards in several areas. Despite criticism that the Alliance “is not a guarantee of curricular integrity,” McWain contends that the organization at least encourages awareness of important issues (420).
She also recommends that composition’s professional organizations and graduate programs recognize the increasing role played by dual-enrollment instructors and begin to incorporate coursework and policy positions that will encourage better conditions and improve practice for these faculty (421). Her own study, she writes, is “preliminary and general,” but she argues for the importance of learning about and supporting “this growing segment of our disciplinary population” (421).
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