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Larson, Holly. Epistemic Authority in Two-Year Colleges. TETYC, Dec. 2018. Posted 02/13/2019.

Larson, Holly. “Epistemic Authority in Composition Studies: Tenuous Relationship between Two-Year English Faculty and Knowledge Production.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 46.2 (2018): 109-36. Web. 9 Feb. 2019.

Holly Larson questions the relationship between community-college faculty and the larger field of composition studies. Based on data showing that in 2016, 49% of first-year college students attended a two-year institution, Larson argues that community-college exigencies should be “central” to the field’s mission (111). Larson builds on Howard Tinberg ‘s designation of community-college faculty as “border crossers” or “mestizas” (109) to claim that these faculty do not function as “thirteenth- and fourteenth-grade” high-school teachers, yet, despite their centrality to composition’s mission, are not recognized as full members of the university community (111).

Larson draws on “standpoint theory” to note with Marianne Janack that two-year faculty are not granted “epistemic authority” by their university-level counterparts (111). This theory, which she characterizes as growing out of feminist scholarship,

examines how a group of people with socially constructed identities views and experiences the world differently and highlights the social conditions a group encounters in power relations, thus emphasizing its shared common experiences. (112)

In this view, dominant groups look down from a standpoint above, a position that makes it impossible for them to recognize the complexities below them and thus allows them to shut these complexities out. In contrast, groups lower in the hierarchy, looking up, see the many different points of view and confront the necessity of interacting with them (112-13). The standpoints thus constructed are not “objective and universal” (112); rather, they are the partial views of those who occupy the relevant spaces. For Larson, composition faculty in the traditional university culture claim the dominant standpoint and therefore fail at the kind of inclusive vision necessary to understand standpoints below them (113).

Larson argues that this failure manifests in both graduate preparation and in scholarship and publishing. She cites her own experience in assimilating theory during her preparation and then, as she moved into her first professional position at a community college, “spen[ding] the semester constantly translating the theory into a practice that is realistic and achievable for my students” (118). What she calls “canonical literature,” while providing rich insights into the history of the field and its guiding ideology, turned out to be “tone deaf to my students’ reality” (118).

Larson cites other compositionists calling for the inclusion of preparation for teaching at a two-year institution (116) and notes that the TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College emphasize how “notions of professionalism are distinct at community colleges, with teaching, service, and scholarship valued in different configurations than at most four-year institutions” (qtd. in Larson 119; emphasis Larson’s). In this view, theory derives from a “pedagogical imperative” that serves students’ needs (119).

Mainstream scholars in the field, Larson argues, do not recognize community-college practice as making knowledge (120). Meanwhile, constraints of time and energy prevent faculty like her from “disciplin[ing] our teaching experiences into theory” (119), as the exigencies experienced by writing teachers in general are exacerbated in a community-college environment (120). Not only do these faculty have limited time to develop standard academic essays, their time constraints make it difficult for them to cite widely and demonstrate deep acquaintance with the theory and research that scholarly reviewers expect (121).

In fact, Larson writes, she and her colleagues do not necessarily have degrees in rhetoric and composition (121-22). While acknowledging the pressure on composition to establish itself as an academic field with a “common body of knowledge” (122), Larson notes that scholarship grounded in practice will not be accepted into this body of knowledge if it is seen as “too general or anecdotal” (121) or unoriginal (123). She contends that the kind of knowledge produced in two-year settings fits Gloria Anzaldùa’s definition of “kitchen-table conversations,” a form of knowledge that is “devalued in academia unless some critical theorist validates it” (121).

To argue for the value of these conversations, Larson cites an approach in social science in which theory and practice are more firmly integrated (122). She questions why community-college faculty must follow the standard academic form for their work to be valued (124). Sharing their knowledge through course materials and accounts of classroom experience, she argues, should be a way for these faculty to enter the larger conversation (125). In addition, she suggests that programs can build in important concepts from the larger body of theory in order to make them useful and meaningful in the specific settings of the community-college classroom (125).

Larson sees this grounding in actual classroom practice as especially important because, for the many students who inhabit these classrooms, the community-college setting is “the only academic space they belong to” (125-26). The two-year institution, in this view, functions as a “third space” that can encourage a sense of “belonging and investment” that students will not get in any other place (126). Community-college faculty, Larson writes, are the only faculty who will “see [these students] on a regular basis”; therefore, the field must commit to the “diverse ways of knowing” that will welcome both these students and non-traditional knowledge-making based in their classrooms (126).

Larson lists venues where community-college faculty can “submit all these diverse ways of knowing intimately about the third space” (127). Contending that these are “still limited,” she proposes two specific actions that she believes will facilitate the efforts of two-year faculty to enter the field’s scholarly conversation. “Acknowledging Alternative Knowledge” includes adjusting the “hierarchical professional ladder” from “vertical to horizontal” so that it allows for more inclusive formats (130). Part of this adjustment for Larson would be the recognition that “lore,” as described by Stephen North, is more than an assertion about “what works for me” but is rather the result of ongoing conversations in which theory is collaboratively built from practical experience in ways that are endorsed within feminist thought (130).

Second, Larson recommends “Shifting Peer Reviewers’ Role from the Gatekeeper to the Gateway” (130). She envisions a relationship between a four-year faculty member and a community-college faculty member in which the mentor would shift from the “punitive and judgmental” practice Larson attributes to the usual review process to an effort to provide an “entry point into the theoretical conversation on the topic” (131; emphasis original) as well as an incentive to two-year faculty to invest their limited time in scholarship. Larson asks that work of this sort on the part of the mentor be valued and rewarded; she quotes Lisa A. Costello in calling for “a radical revision of the institution itself to include different kinds of knowledges and ways of being” so that theory and practice can become symbiotic components of the field (qtd. in Larson 131).