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Community Colleges Take On Larger Role in Modern Language Association

Community CollegeThere has been an uptick over the past decade in the alliance between community colleges and the Modern Language Association. The MLA formed a committee on community colleges in 2006, and, nearly a decade later, the relationship would appear to be stronger than ever as outside pressures, such as the Common Core (CC), bring their interests into closer alignment.

The growing voice of community colleges in the MLA was evident at the 2015 annual convention in Vancouver, British Columbia, held Jan. 8-11.

More than a decade ago, “community colleges were not on any radar,” said Dr. Michelle J. Brazier, assistant professor of English at Raritan Valley Community College. Community colleges, she said, were generally sidelined in MLA discourses that tended to be dominated by public universities, four-year colleges, and research universities.

But ever since 2000, approximately, the MLA’s relationship with community college partners has been growing. In part, this is purely pragmatic—college tuition has increased substantially, meaning more students are electing to attend more affordable two-year institutions prior to moving on to get a bachelor’s degree. Students, therefore, are coming to college prepared in ways that differ from decades past, necessitating better understanding between two-year and four-year institutions.

“The people who would be the old-school, traditional MLA, they’re finding that they’re not teaching the same students they were twenty years ago,” Brazier said. Such trends, she said, have led to increased membership of community college partners in the MLA, as both parties realize their common interests.

There are almost 1,000 community college members of the MLA, out of an approximate 26,000 total membership.

Dr. Frederick L. De Naples, professor of English at Bronx Community College and member of the MLA committee on community colleges, praised the MLA’s responsiveness to community college concerns.

“The MLA traditionally and as part of its mission represents scholars as well as teachers, and sometimes it has seemed to CC members that the scholars got a lot more attention than the teachers,” De Naples wrote in an email. “This long-held perception (if not reality) may account for the small number of MLA members from community colleges.”

This year’s conference program would indicate that teaching—both at the high school and college level—is of deep interest to the MLA. Each day featured a series of panels on questions relating to the Common Core, teaching, and student preparation; all in addition to panels relating to more scholarly topics.

Dr. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, told Diverse in a phone interview that the MLA strongly values its relationship with community college members, saying that community college faculty make up a “significant” portion of MLA membership.

She added that community college faculty have been joining the MLA in increasing numbers over the years and that she anticipates the relationship to continue to grow. “They are at the front line,” Feal said.

One area of vital interest to both community colleges and the MLA, Feal said, are the Common Core State Standards.

“Our members, including scholars from elite institutions like Yale and NYU, have been working hard on this question because the Common Core standards not only affect high school [students], but high school teachers whom we educate at the four-year level,” Feal said. “And of course the two-year institutions that receive those students need to prepare them in turn to be college ready at the four-year level if the students are to go on.”

Changes in high school curriculums due to the Common Core State Standards have made communication between K-12 and community colleges all the more essential. But keeping tabs on local public schools is not a straightforward task, community college faculty say.

Brazier, for example, said that she is “still learning” about what is going on at her local public schools in New Jersey. The situation there is highly dynamic, she explained.

“We’ve had some conversations with our local high schools. But in our case it’s very complicated,” said Dr. Carol Denise Bork, professor at Mercer County Community College.

Bork explained that students in the area come from highly diverse academic backgrounds: one might come from the private Hun School in Princeton, where the annual tuition for day students is more than $36,000, and another from Trenton Central High School, a school so asbestos-ridden and in such a state of decrepitude that it is slated to be demolished this spring.

The Trenton public school system had the worst graduation rates in the state of New Jersey for several years, according to DOE statistics.

“The graduate of the Hun School and the graduate of Trenton Central High School who have—let’s say—a 3.4 GPA are very radically different students, positioned very differently in terms of their preparation,” Bork said.

In terms of the Common Core, Bork said that she is “optimistic” about its potential, saying that the Common Core’s writing composition approach is more closely aligned to MCCC’s than, for example, the approach used by No Child Left Behind.

“We’re optimistic, but at the same time when we talk to high schools in our area, they are panicked about how they are going to implement (CC), because they don’t have time, they don’t have money, they don’t have support to figure out how to do it,” Bork said.

Feal said that the MLA must continue to be an active voice in the debate around the Common Core. “The MLA really needs to get in there—and we have—and work on this, because it affects all our members directly or indirectly,” she said.

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