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Obermark, Lauren E. “Misfitting” and Disability in English Graduate Studies. Nov. 2019 CE. Posted 01/28/2019.

Obermark, Lauren E. “Making Space for the Misfit: Disability and Access in Graduate Education in English.” College English 82.2 (2019): 173-203. Print.

Lauren E. Obermark examines the English graduate school experience through the lens of disability studies, incorporating the concept of the “misfit” to analyze responses to a survey she conducted at the “midsize regional public university” (179) where she is an assistant professor.

She reports that her own graduate education, where she regularly felt she “did not fit the graduate school mold” (173), aroused her interest in issues of access in English graduate programs like the one she attended and the one in place at her institution. To key concepts of access and disability, Obermark adds “wonder,” which she draws on Tanya Titchkosky to define as “a multipronged and exploratory orientation” (177) that can be “uncomfortable” because it is “outward-facing and change-focused” (178). She describes her survey as an act of wonder; her grounded-theory approach to the responses leads her to conclude that many assumptions underlying common models of graduate education create unacknowledged “pedagogical misfits” and diminish access in these programs (176).

Disability scholarship leads Obermark to argue for understanding disability studies as a form of inquiry into concerns that affect everyone as these studies consider how the “collaboration and interdependence” that improve conditions for people with disabilities can enhance everyone’s lives (176). Such an approach, she contends, makes questions about access “generative” rather than casting access as a way of correcting a specific problem through “accommodations” that can create more obstacles than they remove (174, 193-94).

Noting that institutions implement procedures that attempt to resolve access problems, Obermark describes many such efforts as part of a “disability bypass,” which renders people needing different forms of access invisible as their needs have supposedly been met. In graduate schools, she argues, this bypass takes the form of insistence that no student succeeding in academia meets the definition of disabled (182). Obermark’s survey examines the ways she believes the university and the students alike bypass or deny the existence of students for whom extant forms of access mean struggle (181).

For the concept of “misfitting,” Obermark turns to the scholarship of Elisabeth L. Miller and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Quoting Garland-Thomson, Obermark writes that “a misfit is a result of incongruence or ‘awkward’ juxtaposition” and therefore “does not imply a problem with the environment or with an individual” (177). A premise that emerges from the survey data is that misfits occur when established norms are wrongly assumed to work well for everyone. In Obermark’s view, such misfitting can affect access, especially as it often goes unnoticed (177).

Obermark’s institution offers an MA and an MFA, which feature many overlapping classes for students working toward a number of goals, such as credentialing for their secondary teaching jobs or preparing for PhD work. Of the ninety-five students offered the survey, thirty-two participated(179). Opening questions asked about the “most common in-class approach and the most common assignment” in the students’ experiences (183). By wide margins, students reported that whole-class discussion was the most common approach and an academic essay the most common assignment (183).

From open-ended comments, Obermark concludes that many students question whether the class discussions really serve either the learners or the course goals as effectively as they might (184). Student comments note the tendency for a few students with strong oral skills to control discussion, in one case describing this environment as “repetitive and even a bit intimidating for those not ‘in the loop’” (184). Another called such discussions “unstructured and random” and not clearly aligned with assigned materials (185). A student who found the reading challenging wrote that the discussion did not provide the access to the material that she needed (185).

Student comments about the essay assignments, in Obermark’s view, constitute “a deeply enculturated essay allegiance,” with students contending that only the traditional essay correctly showcases graduate-level skills (188). Obermark counters that much recent scholarship in digital and multimodal communication suggests that a wider range of options might be fruitful (188).

For Obermark, students’ sense that they are expected to succeed in these situations even if they are not comfortable with them suggests that students have internalized a message that those for whom the accepted process is not the best fit are not actually “fit” for graduate school (185). She characterizes “reverse accommodation” as a common assumption on students’ parts that it is “their job to figure out and work through” any issues they encounter with the teaching methods considered the norm (190; emphasis original). Rather than questioning how the norms could change, Obermark argues that students see adaptation as their only recourse. The ability, in the words of one respondent, to “just muddle through and figure it out on our own” is seen as the duty of a graduate student in English by students and professor alike (191). Misfitting, in this view, is the misfit’s fault.

Maintaining with other disability scholars that “accommodation” is not “access,” Obermark argues that accommodation as generally provided “requires a great deal of emotional labor from students,” making it their responsibility to inform and educate their instructors individually about their needs, thus “reliev[ing] the professor (or the institution) from making a wider change” (192-93).

For Obermark, the students’ struggles to accommodate the traditional academic assumptions raise the question of what the field of English studies really wants. She responds to “water cooler” assertions that graduate school should be rigorous and the material difficult with the contention, quoting Anne-Marie Womack, that “The way to teach difficult material well is always to make it more accessible” (194). The failure to provide this access leads Obermark to wonder whether the field “really want[s] [graduate education] to be accessible or inclusive in meaningful ways” (195).

Acknowledging that colleagues may see student struggles as “an ongoing reality” (195), Obermark asks questions about her respondents’ attitudes toward disability. She reports that for students currently teaching, learning about disability issues makes them more aware, not just of specific disabilities, but also of difference and diversity generally in their own classrooms (196). Such awareness, she contends, suggests that the teachers acknowledge their responsibility to change rather than requiring their students to adjust when their fit to norms is not perfect (196).

Obermark writes that examining how graduate students manage their fit in current graduate-school culture might encourage an open-ended and ongoing conversation, perhaps triggering small changes in the pedagogical practices that are often taken for granted (195). She offers examples of alternative practices that can welcome other ways of learning rather than promulgating what she considers a “take it or leave it” message (177), which she believes drives students out of graduate programs when they perceive that their abilities are not those the field requires. Thus, in her view, awareness of misfitting is a step toward creative thinking: improving access generates new approaches that she believes enhance access for everyone.


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Jensen and Toth. Graduate Education for Two-Year College Professionals. July CE. Posted 08/10/2017.

Jensen, Darin L., and Christie Toth. “Unknown Knowns: The Past, Present, and Future of Graduate Preparation for Two-Year College English Faculty.” College English 79.6 (2017): 561-92. Print.

In the July College English, Darin L. Jensen and Christie Toth follow up the latest update of the TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College with an examination “of the past and current status of graduate preparation for two-year college English faculty in order to imagine possible futures” (563). They include a current listing of institutions with graduate programs that prepare teachers for careers in two-year colleges.

The authors contend that “English studies graduate programs, . . . with some notable exceptions, do not yet meet their responsibility to prepare students to be two-year college professionals” (562). They contend that the “near-invisibility” of two-year colleges in English graduate education and the “institutional bias” some two-year faculty encounter (563) are “neither justifiable nor just” (562). They note that “more than 40 percent” of college English teachers teach in two-year colleges, which enroll “nearly half of all US undergraduates,” many of whom are from underrepresented groups (562). Jensen and Toth join Holly Hassel and Joanne Giordano in designating two-year college professionals as “the teaching majority” (qtd. in Jensen and Toth 563).

The authors contend that the field as a whole is unaware of the long history of two-year college teacher preparation. According to their research, the 1960s saw a proliferation of community colleges; a “damning portrait” of the teaching environment in these institutions from incoming NCTE president Alfred Kitzhaber, the authors write, led teachers in these colleges to begin to lay out the principles of their profession (565). Jensen and Toth note a number of important publications in the 1960s and early 1970s by two-year college teacher-scholars that enriched and documented an ongoing discussion in venues like major conferences (565).

The year 1971 saw the publication of the 1971 Guidelines for Junior College English Teacher Training Programs (564). Among the principles laid out in this document was the need to address the particular characteristics of the two-year student population, with an attention to the diversity of this population that, in the authors’ view, “anticipate[d] the 1974 document, Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (567).

Another important principle that emerged during this era was the mandate for actual classroom experience through internships under the guidance of experienced two-year college teachers (568). Jensen and Toth stress the document’s insistence that actual two-year college faculty are the appropriate authorities for designing suitable graduate training; moreover, the document asserted that two-year college professionals should be full-time members of all graduate faculties and that all constituents of such a program, including advisors, should be fully knowledgeable about the exigencies and opportunities of teaching at two-year institutions (568).

Another important document from this era was the 1978 “National Directory of Graduate Programs for Junior/Community College English Teachers,” compiled by Gregory Cowan and published in Teaching English in the Two-Year College (568, 569). This project located forty-three programs offering specific degrees. Many were “specialized master’s degrees, concentrations, or post-master’s specialist or certificate programs” (568). In addition, some institutions offered the new “Doctor of Arts” (DA) degree, meant as an equivalent to a PhD but with a stronger focus on teaching (569).

Twenty-seven other institutions billed their coursework as appropriate for teachers planning to teach at two-year colleges (569). The authors note that some of these programs indicated what “university faculty believed” was needed to teach at two-year colleges; in keeping with the principles articulated in 1971 Guidelines, the Directory noted which programs included input from actual faculty in two-year institutions and which required hands-on internships (570).

The authors report, however, that in ensuing years, most of these programs disappeared (570), partly because of a decline in the number of available jobs and the “adjunctification” of two-year colleges (570). They raise the possibility that the rise of rhetoric and composition as a legitimate scholarly career path may have affected the demand for specialized programs, but they contend that rhetoric and composition degrees do not necessarily meet the needs of two-year faculty (571).

Jensen and Toth find that during this period of “[r]etrenchment” (570), some community colleges undertook to design their own graduate programs. The authors identify three whose faculty published on their efforts (571). The programs reinforced principles highlighted earlier, such as the need for hands-on teaching and mentorship and the need for actual two-year faculty to lead in program design, but they also incorporated the need to prepare aspiring two-year faculty for the professional activities beyond teaching that the two-year college demands, such as attending department and committee meetings, becoming active in professional organizations, and pursuing a research agenda (572).

The 2004 Guidelines for the Academic Preparation of English Faculty at Two-Year Colleges, which has been “circulated widely within TYCA [Two-Year College Association]” (573), responded to the “specter of mass faculty retirements” as well as the labor issues surrounding the use of contingent labor by asserting that the need for properly prepared faculty remained unmet (572). Confirming the importance of professionalization “beyond the classroom,” the document pressed hiring committees to attend to the specific qualifications appropriate to two-year college faculty, even among adjuncts (573). The authors note their own use of the 2004 Guidelines in their own professional development and program design, but contend that ongoing labor conditions made this document “an aspirational rather than descriptive articulation of TYCA’s vision” (573).

“The Current Landscape” features results of the authors’ survey of extant programs claiming to offer graduate work suitable for two-year college faculty (573-77). Programs provide a range of options including master’s degrees and certificates. The authors find that curricular information on websites is often inadequate for full assessment. Many of the programs are housed in departments of education (574); some offer DA degrees under the auspices of “higher education” programs, which the authors state may be more appropriate to training administrators than teachers (574-75).

The authors note that many DA offerings have been subsumed under rhetoric-and-composition PhDs. This section addresses in detail strong models at four institutions: Murray State University, Marymount University, City College of New York, and San Francisco State University (575-77).

As they “imagine possible futures,” Jensen and Toth reiterate their claim that few programs address the needs of two-year college faculty; moreover, respondents to some surveys they cite report being discouraged from pursuing a two-year college career (578, 580-81). For the authors, this continued invisibility of the two-year college option in English graduate studies has major implications for all branches of the discipline. They cite the 2014 Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature to note the “disjuncture between English studies graduate curricula and the actual postsecondary landscape” (579). They claim that as the job market grows tighter, most English studies graduates are not qualified to teach in half the institutions in the United States (578-79). In addition, they warn that increasing numbers of undergraduates are doing their first two years of coursework at these schools ().

They see this disjuncture as a “moral failing” (584; emphasis original) in that the institutions for which teachers are not being prepared house the underrepresented populations for whom English studies purports to advocate. They underscore this failure in noting that, despite the dismal working conditions often characterizing two-year colleges, the CCCC Labor Caucus’s 2015 Indianapolis Resolution

makes no specific mention of two-year colleges, nor does it include TYCA on its list of professional organizations that might enact and enforce the resolution’s recommendations. (586)

Acknowledging that recognizing the importance of the two-year college mission will vary depending on the individual contexts of specific institutions (580), Jensen and Toth call on all English studies professional organizations as well as programs to make the two-year college career option available and visible, with input from faculty specifically engaged in these institutions, ideally as full-time graduate faculty (584-85). Because “isolation is vulnerability,” they charge rhetoric and composition with pursuing an “integrative rather than separatist approach” (583) in order to fully embrace the needs of “the teaching majority” (586).