Response to Robert Reich: Collaboration Across the Community College

By Carole F. Edmonds

Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's article "Creating New Paths to the Middle Class" in the Fall 1994 issue of On Common Ground calls for new paths to the middle class and rightly points to community colleges as institutions uniquely positioned to help Americans reach their career goals. As Reich notes, community colleges serve Americans of all ages and backgrounds from those who are over thirty and seeking retraining after losing a job to traditional-age college students getting the first half of the courses towards a bachelor's degree to persons with degrees seeking new directions.

Linkages with business and industry to insure the appropriateness of course work and establish cooperative work experiences for students and collaboration with secondary schools is extensive and on-going at community colleges across the country. Certainly that is the case at Kellogg Community College. Collaboration is occurring at every level of education and among levels. At the community college, however, we need not only to collaborate with the K-12s and the universities, but also across the college. My college, like many community colleges, is considered comprehensive; that is, we offer associate degrees for students planning to go to work directly after they complete their community college study and for students who plan to transfer to universities. While faculty seem to work together across programs of study_certainly nursing students take composition courses and there is general education in every program­ the linkages are often a mile wide and an inch deep.

Students and faculty often talk about getting general education courses "out of the way" so they can get to the "real" courses in their specialty areas of drafting or nursing or computer repair. Furthermore, faculty in specialty areas usually speak of the humanities, in particular, as being part of curricula for students planning to transfer to universities and "nice" if they fit in the occupational curriculum (which they do not because there are already too many requirements).

For years that is how the discussion went at Kellogg Community College. Then in 1993, we developed a proposal, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which brought occupational program faculty and transfer program faculty together to study primary texts from European American, African American, Native American and Asian American traditions and required all participating faculty to integrate the texts in their courses.

The design of the project was simple: six faculty members­ three who taught occupational courses (nursing, drafting, and business) and three who taught liberal arts courses (English, music, and history)­ would meet together for a semester to read the same texts and discuss them with each other and with visiting scholars. At the end of the project, they would produce an annotated bibliography that would be useful to their colleagues throughout the college and they would integrate some of the texts they had read into their own courses. During the discussions, they would focus on the theme of work which would provide a starting point equally accessible to occupational and liberal arts faculty.

What actually happened was more collaborative and stimulating than any of us had anticipated or even dared to hope for. First, work was just the starting point of conversations about the readings that were far ranging and thoughtful. For instance, in discussing Thoreau's Walden, the drafting instructor said that he was going to use a passage in his classes which talked about Thoreau taking the time to spend half a day just looking at the world outside his door. The instructor commented that students needed to develop their creativity by looking up from their computer screens and contemplating possibilities, just staring out the window. Then he asked the nursing instructor if that was important in nursing, and she said, "No, there just isn't time." He then described an experience with the birth of his daughter when there happened to be no other babies born on that night and the nurse had had time to come in and hold the baby and he knew she was experiencing the miracle of birth just as he was. The conversation moved on, but at the next session, the nursing instructor said that she wanted to share something. She said that she had repeated the comment about time to celebrate the wonder of life as part of nursing with her colleagues in the nursing department. They had decided that in some way they had to be sure their students experienced that joy and excitement as part of their nursing education.

Other moments of discovery occurred at almost every session, sometimes induced by the provocative and helpful comments of visiting scholars, such as Xiao-huang Yin from Harvard University, who opened up a whole world of Asian American texts, but who charmed the faculty by providing many practical suggestions about how the texts might be used in freshman/sophomore level classes, even providing the entire syllabus and reading list from his courses. His openness and that of the other visiting university scholars, plus their interest in how our faculty read the texts and how they saw them as working in their courses built new bridges of collaboration across types of institutions at the same time that our music instructor and drafting instructor gained new respect for each other, coming to anticipate the group's discussions eagerly and stopping each other in the hall to share information about a new article or book read. Conversations ranged from the relationship of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon to West African religions that opened up new vistas for the history instructor to the ways Native Americans and African Americans use design that the drafting instructor planned to incorporate into projects for his product design students.

Sometimes the moments of sharing were personal, as when an African American instructor shared the similarities between the experiences described in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to his own life, right down to having been offered a scholarship to the same predominantly black college. Another time, the conversation focused on the description of a mother's death in a text and the recent death of the mother of one of the faculty members. All of these conversations could occur in groups that did not cross the lines of occupational and liberal arts faculty at a community college; however, because the conversations were both personal and professional, because they jumped from pedagogy to interpretation to personal experience, they created a bonding that was both personal and professional. The remarks of the instructors at the end of the project in response to the question "What is the major benefit you received from participation in this project?" were telling. They said: "(1) Deepened my appreciation and understanding of diverse cultures. (2) Shared a growth process with colleagues I did not know"; "The major benefit for me was an increased awareness of how the humanities are so much a part of everything we do. A part of this benefit was the relationships that were developed by participating in this project"; "Working with people from other areas. Exposure to literature I probably wouldn't have read;" "The motiviation to read more history and literature provided by the grant and the discussion with colleagues. It was particularly interesting to hear people's reactions from different fields/occupations/curricula/degrees. I received a more diverse outlook."

Collaboration on the NEH project brought faculty together in ways that developed their appreciation not only of the texts read and the visiting university scholars but also of each other's strengths and insights. They are continuing to work together. One exciting outcome has been the development of a new NEH-funded project to engage twenty faculty members from different subject areas in two month-long summer institutes focusing on Native American history and literature in 1995 and African American history and literature in 1996. Participating faculty are from English, communications, allied health, technology, music, sociology, biology, and art. There is also a librarian this time.

Secretary of Labor Reich is absolutely right in targeting community colleges as places where Americans can receive education leading them to careers which will provide a middle class standard of living. He is also right in pointing to the need for lifelong learning and the enrichment which a broad education makes possible. By bringing faculty from different departments and from occupational and liberal arts curricula together to study and to talk to each other about primary texts, not only will the courses be enriched by the multiple voices of Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich or Benjamin Franklin, but students will see that teachers talk to each other and see connections between nursing and English or music and history. Connected learning is vital to students­ and to faculty. We cannot assume that the connections will just happen without structured opportunities to make them happen. That's what the NEH projects are doing for Kellogg Community College. Further, the administration and faculty see these projects as a beginning and are eager to collaborate in other ways and to encourage similar projects at other community colleges.


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