Del Principe, Annie, and Rachel Ihara. “A Long Look at Reading in the Community College: A Longitudinal Analysis of Student Reading Experiences.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.2 (2017): 183-206. Print.
Annie Del Principe and Rachel Ihara conducted a longitudinal study of students’ reading experiences in a community-college setting from spring 2011 to spring 2013 (186). Their goal was to understand what kinds of reading students encountered in the community college and how the students responded to and negotiated the reading requirements.
Del Principe and Ihara compare their study with the longitudinal study detailed in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roska. Arum and Roska examined student experiences at four-year colleges, contending that students showed very little intellectual growth through their college careers (183). Del Principe and Ihara note that rather than address intellectual issues, questions about the community-college experience are more often framed around “numerical” concerns such as retention and graduate rates. In contrast, they intend their study to address the “quality” of the two-year-college experience as illuminated through students’ reading practices (183).
The authors summarize findings of three other longitudinal studies focusing on reading, all done at four-year institutions. Two examined reading trajectories of single students at private institutions, both researchers finding that the students’ reading strategies became more “sophisticated” as they advanced in specific majors (184). A study of two students at a public research university captured these students’ experiences in “a variety of humanities classes,” revealing that the students lacked the preparation and guidance to manage the “prodigious reading required” in this environment (185). Both of these subjects dropped out of college (186).
In comparison, Del Principe and Ihara studied five students who, while similar demographically and in terms of academic background to the general community-college population, were “fairly successful students by most academic measures,” four of them completing associates’ degrees within three years; all transferred to four-year colleges (187). The authors collected “many pages of artifacts” from these students and conducted 23 hours of semi-structured interviews across the students’ entire career at their large East-Coast institution (185), using D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly’s “narrative inquiry” method to assess how the students’ stories of their experiences changed over time (187).
Originally Del Principe and Ihara recruited ten students, four who tested into developmental sections and six who were placed into Composition I. However, five students, including three of the developmental recruits, failed to complete the study. The authors note, therefore, that because only one of the remaining students began with remedial coursework, they were unable to build a representative picture of the community-college population and consequentially limited their claims (187). They do contend that their subjects were “not exceptional students” and that their accounts of their reading experiences shed light on the practices of students who do successfully negotiate the community-college environment (187).
Del Principe and Ihara report the individual “reading narratives” of their five subjects, framing them with claims by Arum and Roska that in four-year institutions, the “selectivity” of the institution seemed to affect whether or not students did extensive or demanding reading (185). Further, the authors invoked data from a study by the National Center for Education and the Economy that found that in two-year colleges, reading and writing requirements were “not very cognitively challenging,” and expectations for student performance, including the ability to analyze and evaluate information, were low (185).
In order to interpret their data against these claims, Del Principe and Ihara drew on “[John] Dewey’s concepts of continuity and interaction of experience,” which defined “continuity” as the way that an experience related to other experiences that occurred before and after, and “interaction” as the nature of the context in which the specific experience occurred (188; emphasis original). According to Del Principe and Ihara, this theoretical framework allows an investigator to determine whether a set of experiences “promote[s] and open[s] up new possibilities for growth . . . rather than distort[s] and shut[s] down growth” (189). The authors contend that educators have the obligation to attend to, in Dewey’s words, “what attitudes and habitual tendencies are being created” in order to choose pedagogies that promote growth (qtd. in Del Principe and Ihara 189).
The reading narratives indicate that many teachers assigned reading and required textbooks, but most supplied PowerPoint notes, tested mainly on material covered in class, and did not follow up or assess students’ reading. The narratives led the authors to claim that “often reading isn’t truly ‘required’ in [the] classes and it’s possible for a student to get by, even succeed . . . without doing any/much assigned reading” (200-01). Two of their study students wished for more rigorous reading, while the other three, in two cases because of taxing work schedules, “were often relieved rather than disappointed,” to find that they didn’t have to read (201).
Del Principe and Ihara contrast what they found to be “practical and reasonable reactions” to the community-college environment with the trajectories of the private-institution students studied by other researchers; the four-year students, Del Principe and Ihara report, improved as readers as they advanced in their majors, while the community-college students improved in that they “develop[ed] more appropriate, efficient, and effective ways of reading” that allowed them to apportion their time more strategically (201).
The analysis suggests that students tend to take reading somewhat more seriously in courses in their majors than they do in required general education courses (202). Moreover, the narratives indicate that the only courses in which reading was consistently valued and assessed were the composition courses; the authors posit that the “content” instructors may have prioritized other components of the courses (204).
In their cross-case analysis the authors posit that some factors in the community-college environment limit instructors’ ability to focus on reading. Lower reading proficiency in the student population might mean that basing grades on careful reading would affect retention rates (202). Furthermore, assessing reading skills may be prohibitively time-consuming in an environment in which instructor workloads are already high, especially in content courses with high enrollment caps (204).
Borrowing Jean Anyon’s idea of a “hidden curriculum” that students absorb through the way a class is conducted, the authors return to Dewey’s concept of continuity in learning to maintain that students are acquiring “attitudes and habitual tendencies” that are not conducive to growth as Dewey defined it (203). Del Principe and Ihara’s discovery that the attention to reading that occurs early in students’ academic careers in their composition classes is “not continuous with the arc of students’ reading experiences” as they continue their community-college careers (205). In their view, composition scholars might usefully ask “whom and what we intend to serve by teaching reading” in an environment in which the hidden curriculum defines reading as an unnecessary skill (205; emphasis original).