Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Qualifications? What Qualifications? We Don't Need No Stinking Qualifications!"

As some of you know, not long ago I spearheaded a petition, with the official sponsorship of the 28,000-member Association of Writers and Writing Programs (long live the AWP!), to add creative writing to the California Community Colleges' (CCC) Disciplines List. Although that specific petition failed to garner enough votes at the statewide Spring Plenary session in 2007, the status quo still negatively affects thousands of creative writing students in the CCC system.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of California community colleges allow any English instructor regardless of his or her documented area of expertise to teach creative writing workshops as well as any other highly specialized course offered within their respective departments. And some CCC campuses and their English departments utilize seniority as the sole or ultimate criterion to determine faculty teaching assignments.

This mal-ethos is beyond logical comprehension, for I know of no four-year public institution that essentially says (by policy or procedure), "We don't care what your degree says; anyone can teach anything he or she wants that's offered in his or her department."

Yet, most community colleges officially pronounce via college catalogues and websites that "the students come first." (Was it P.T. Barnum who mentioned something about a "sucker is born every minute"?)

Any novice of critical thinking can quickly surmise that a profound contradiction subjects California's community college students to academic pot luck: "Maybe this semester I'll finally get a well-trained poet or fiction writer as my creative writing instructor." CCC students depend on us to look out for their welfare; they automatically assume that their creative writing instructors know what they're doing; sadly, many of these students aren't aware of some of their instructors' shortcomings until they get to a four-year institution (that is, if they can survive and prosper in those advanced workshops, for some fail because they didn't receive the kind of informed training their student counterparts commonly benefit from on CSU and UC campuses).

However, even more disturbing is the nonchalant ability of far too many English department faculty members in the CCC system, most of whom are white, to be overly generous when it comes to their own qualifications. One would think that community college faculty members would have learned from their own experiences as undergraduate, graduate, and even post-graduate students that they benefited specifically because their colleges and universities did not allow anyone to teach anything in the curriculum.

Should four-year institutions and universities administer a simple exit exam to correct such nonchalance? "Once you receive your degree, will you be qualified to teach anything as a professor in your respective department?" The results of such exams could save the public millions in salaries, health benefits, and pensions by denying degrees to those who answer in the affirmative: potential employers would receive exit exam results with official transcripts. As for those who pass the exit exam but do otherwise once they gain academic employment, their degree-granting alma maters should have the ability to legally revoke degrees just as state motor vehicle departments can revoke drivers licenses from reckless drivers: "We've received evidence that you're teaching creative writing even though your graduate degree is in composition; therefore, unless you can prove possession of a graduate degree in creative writing or "equivalency" in creative writing within 30 days, we must revoke your degree in composition and notify your employer that you no longer hold a graduate degree from our university."

For those of us who are people of color, such academic self-generosity on the part of some white English faculty members in the CCC system is just one example of institutional racism. If one queries many white English faculty members in the CCC system who've sat on hiring committees as to why they didn't hire any people of color, they'll often cite "questionable qualifications" to justify their hiring results. But the issue of qualifications is quickly minimized--it vanishes outright for some--when it comes to who should teach creative writing: "Oh, I want to teach creative writing. I took a creative writing class or two during my college days and I even had a poem published in the local Penny Saver! And our contract says seniority rules, so there!" Comedy has its uses, but when community college students pay tuition for workshops taught by unqualified faculty, their daily reality is anything but humorous.

California's community college faculty members who don't possess graduate degrees in creative writing (these degrees have been available since 1942; over 300 graduate creative writing programs currently exist in the U.S. alone) or who don't have "equivalencies" in creative writing should not be allowed to teach such workshops if CCC articulation agreements with the California State University and University of California systems are to have any worth--and if our creative writing students' welfare actually matters.

12 comments:

Sheryl said...

Robert,
I worked at a community college in Colorado and it was very simililar. I taught sections of developemental reading, developmental math and developmental writing. I finally got out of the one dept. and got to teach a poetry workshop in the English dept., but I am now with a different institution. My take in Colorado was that the money was a major concern and student learning despite it always being talked about came last. Now I am at a University with more money and more focus on education. In Colorado there is no money at the community college level and I mean NO MONEY. I've seen the similar seniority thing, but worse than that it seems if someone is married to someone or dating or you know, suddenly they are a creative writing teacher. Poof! It's really unbelievable. The semester I got the poetry workshop someone else was teaching 3 creative writing courses! No book, no PhD, no MFA! Lord! I wold like to say more about the whole developmental ed thing too. They wanted me to teach multiple sections 3 in each subject in multiple semesters (5 week, 7 week, 10 week, 12 week). Also I taught GED! They encouraged non-native speakers to do what they called accelerated courses. So, students who could barely work up the nerve to speak to me were taking 2 writing courses simultaneously in a 5 week term!!! It was UNBELIEVABLE. And worse than this, the college was noted for its "successful" program! Geez. The guy that ran the one campus was awesome and a wonderful teacher, but the other campus was a nightmare. I felt immoral teaching there.

Sorry to get off subject. But yeah, down with the b.s.

Sheryl said...

I have to add that there was also a 15 week semester!!!

Robert Vasquez said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert Vasquez said...

Dear Sheryl,

I deleted my previous comment because of the large number of typing errors (sadly,
I'm anal retentive when it comes to such things).

First, you're a shining example of someone whose commitment to creative writing spurred to you to seek an MFA after you already possessed a PhD in American Literature: That's commitment with a capital C! In contrast, an unethical person would simply say to him- or herself, "Well, I have PhD in Lit, so I'm sure I can teach creative writing."

And I'm sorry to say that that's the problem in the community college system: For some less than logical reason, some faculty assume they can teach creative writing--or any other course in their department--simply because they have a graduate degree in English. And those whose degrees are specifically in literature or composition--for rare are the schools that give generic English graduate degrees--should know better.

I'm sorry to say that we have a huge disconnect between community colleges and four-year institutions when it comes to who is and isn't qualified in creative writing. For some reason, some community college faculty have conveniently forgotten that they immeasurably benefited when their former alma maters didn't allow just anyone to teach anything.

On the other hand, some community college faculty are ethical when they select their teaching assignments and don't sign up for creative writing classes even though they might have contractual seniority rights to teach any course in their departments' curriculums. We certainly need more ethical faculty in our system who will also stand up for what's right.

Considering the course articulation agreements most community colleges have with four-year institutions and systems, I wouldn't be surprised if those at the four-year level review and ultimately revoke these articulation agreements when it comes to creative writing courses and other specialized courses offered by English departments.

After all, someone has to look out for these students'.

All the best,

Robert

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