PALS Note: PALS welcomes this guest post from Darcy Mullen, a PhD student at University at Albany. In this post, Mullen explores the closing of the for-profit ITT Technical Institute and asks how non-profit college professors can support students coming into their classrooms from the for-profit sector.
Things we don’t like: when students fall through the cracks of any given education system.
Things we REALLY don’t like: when predatory for-profit learning institutions take advantage of students, leaving them with piles of debt, wasted years, credits that won’t transfer, and questionable skills to show for all this.
When ITT Tech filed for bankruptcy in September of 2016, and shut its electronic doors to students in the July 2016 term, students were left in a lurch. ITT Tech offered some options. Many were offered a deal: ITT Tech will wipe out any of their loan debt, and they will lose the credits they earned, OR they can take the credits and keep the debt. Some have taken the first option, others have taken the second. I want to focus on the second group.
We don’t have concrete data on how many students have done which option. But many students have taken their credits and signed off on that option. They’ve taken their credits to local community colleges and found that many of these credits won’t transfer. Others, with the equivalent of an associate’s degree, are approaching four year colleges to find that there are major transferability issues as well. While some started this spring, another problem is that many have to wait for fall enrollments (due to major-sequencing).
The drive behind this essay is not to bash predatory for-profit institutions (although they make my blood boil). Instead, I’d like to propose some lessons to be learned from the case study of ITT Tech and its pedagogy for communication and writing in order to expand the pool of who we think of as a non-traditional student and their pedagogical needs.
I have not yet encountered students in my first year writing classroom that have self-identified as ITT Tech transfers. My interest in this topic came from a friendly conversation with a former- ITT Tech student. I marveled over how the ITT Tech commercials were such an institution amongst all commercials ever! With other for-profit, distance-based institutions in recent news, I am hoping we start a conversation about these students that have been discarded rather unceremoniously.
I was given access to course materials (such as syllabi, and the assignments I reference) and other information comes from a former ITT Tech student (who I am keeping anonymous here). We can still find a lot of course materials, like syllabi, online.
Non-traditional students take many forms with diverse subjectivities. However, when we consider the traditional “non-traditional” student, we don’t tend to consider the students that have been betrayed (financially, pedagogically, and so on) by a prior institution. This is a subjectivity that is important to consider in both comp/rhet and literature classrooms. Let’s take a look at some potential areas to focus on in, specifically in the case of the American Literature classroom.
After reviewing a sample of curricula materials for the reading/writing requirements of what we would call the ITT Tech core requirements, I propose we spend some time thinking about 3 ideas. For these ideas I offer some hypothetical text-assignment-goals that might work for a classroom with either a high proportion of this type of nontraditional student, or (more generally) in a classroom where one might need to do a bit more work to build trust:
Never Underestimate Zombies
Assignments in lower-level composition courses were about procedural writing—one assignment I saw was on Surviving A Zombie Apocalypse. Zombies seem to be the thing that bring students together these days. From Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Cormac McCarthy’s quasi-zombies in The Road, zombies get everyone’s blood flowing.
Beyond content, zombies are applicable here because these particular students have survived the closest, metaphorically hyperbolic, thing to a zombie apocalypse that American colleges have produced. These students may not have yet had the opportunity to build skills anticipated in first or second year literature and writing classes.
They are entering the American Literature classroom having experienced instability and disappointment at high levels. Regardless of one’s teaching methods for dealing with trigger warnings, this is a trigger worth noting. And like many students that have had challenging experiences, they have empathetic perspectives that should be framed as strengths for understanding complexity. Using a text such as McCarthy’s The Road, or Whitehead’s Zone One to examine issues of identity in American culture is one way to bridge a discussion about identity issues while modeling close reading in a way that fits a variety of student literacy needs.
The Eye of The Tiger vs. Unsupervised Hours
Part of the ITT Tech curriculum included a large emphasis on independent learning that wasn’t always supervised or used as an opportunity for feedback. I saw one assignment, for example, focusing on a profile of Bruce Lee. The assignment was structured around independent learning. We know students tend to do better with mentoring and, well, teaching. The grade the student received was not great. Not a big surprise, and not cool either. The work seemed to come with very brief feedback or opportunities for revision, or many other elements of the writing process for that matter.
Some of these students, I’m sure, will be happy to have more supervision and hands-on feedback from conferences, face-to-face classes, workshops, requirements of revisions, and so on. But this will also be a new thing for many students coming into four year colleges as Juniors. What we would see as normalized classroom processes may be perceived with resistance—“Why do I need to do this?” In other words, “This is not a process I’m used to.” I think first person, or a good old Bildungsroman, in combination with modeling the workshop process can help with this.
A text like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird or Karen Russell’s Swamplandia can demonstrate the need for community in critical thinking. Like any other transfer student, changes in expectation of the rhetorical situation is to be expected. Novels like these are great for writing assignments that identify the role of communication and rhetoric within communities and the dangers of breakdowns in communication. The next tactic I would take with such a project is to do collaborative writing on these texts. Small writing groups could begin with the common ground granted in a template from They Say I Say, and to make decisions together about how to present an argument.
Apples and Oranges
In another assignment, a student compared the visual rhetoric of the company Apple with The Department of Homeland Security. One of the biggest issues that the instructor’s marginalia indicated was a lack of citations. If I had gotten that paper in my classroom, I would have reported it for plagiarism, period.
All institutions have different standards for what is a plagiarism offense or not, and the specifics of those standards are not my point. I’m trying to get at the idea that institutions do have standards and disciplinary procedures for plagiarism. But it is also a good reminder not to take both college-level skills and expectations for interaction and supervision in the American Literature classroom for granted. This was a skill that slipped through the cracks in a second-year level writing course, and the loss of this particular skill might be one that causes serious problems with irrevocable consequences.
For this, I’d prescribe Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Jackson, and maybe some exercises from, the not as popular textbook, Writing Analytically. The relationship between actions and consequences is pretty much what drives most American Literature. Using literature that takes that relationship seriously isn’t the worst way to deal with cause and effect in: argument structure, how to build a paper, close readings, and the role of procedures in college.
[Apples to Oranges: Appendix
When in doubt– or when there’s a problem in comprehending materials or re/building community in the classroom–my go to is having students make red and green cards for Apples to Apples. We play that, with small groups acting together as a single-player. It’s a pedagogical exercise that forces group decision-making, and the competition acts a solidification tactic. Working out concepts as a whole class, like “failure” in Welcome to Braggsville, through a discussion of hypothetical “red cards” like “college,” “performance art,” “America,” “adviser,” and/or “spring break” gives the opportunity for a discussion of how the narrative operates. I have not obtained rights to “copy” Apples to Apples in my classroom. This is my public mea culpa if I am violating intellectual property rights.]
We don’t have much data, yet, on the scope of students impacted by ITT Tech’s collapse. We won’t have that hard data for a while. Many students are still trying to decide if they should erase their debt or keep their credits and start in a new college in the fall. The shift in demographics of non-traditional students to include this demographic hasn’t happened yet.
Until we have more information with which to make better-informed decisions, I suggest we keep an eye on the fallout from ITT Tech and hope that students haven’t been put off from higher education by the whole process. It is worth keeping in mind that these students are not just transfer students. They were dropped by a school they trusted. When they end up in our classrooms, we can, and will, do better.
Darcy Mullen is a PhD student at University at Albany, studying Rhetoric, Food Studies and Protest Writing. Her most recent publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a cartographic tool in the local food movement, one on the politics of place and tourism in Myanmar, and a chapter on pedagogy and disability studies using “Beowulf” as a case study. Darcy blogs regularly about stories and soil, and tweets #bookselfies with her adorable #souphound @FarmsWatson.