The Burst of The ITT Tech Bubble and Pedagogical Support

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.

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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 Welcome to Braggsvillesupervision 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

Apples to Apples

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.

Contributor Bio:

FullSizeRenderDarcy 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.


Pairing 19th c. and 21st c. African American writers; or, it seemed like a great idea at the time . . .

This past term, I taught a new course on nineteenth century African American writers. In an attempt to show students how nineteenth century African American life is incredibly relevant to twenty-first century African American life, I created an assignment I called “19-to-21.” This assignment required students to pair up a twenty-first century African American writer with one of the nineteenth-century writers on our syllabus, then give the class a presentation comparing the two writers stylistically and thematically. It sure did seem like a good idea! Yet very often, the presentations fell flat. Inspired by the wonderful recent “teaching fails” post, I thought I’d recount how I conceived of this assignment, what I hoped for it, ways it succeeded, and ways it failed. I think the idea has potential, and I’m hopeful that some of you could take what was very often a “meh” assignment and turn it into something more yay-worthy.

(Harriet Jacobs and Colson Whitehead)

Pairing up the writers

I’m not going to lie, selecting contemporary writers for this assignment took a lot of time and thought, and I was glad I had the whole summer to think about it. There are many wonderful contemporary African American writers who directly engage with the nineteenth century in their work, so the big problem for me was choosing. (My class was small, with only nine students enrolled, so I could only choose nine works.) Although the list was poetry heavy (occupational hazard), I included fiction and plays, too. Students drew the names of works out of a hat at the end of the first week of the term, so selection was random, and they had the works far in advance of their presentation dates, which were sprinkled throughout the term. Once they had their twenty-first century works, they were on their own to choose authors for comparison. Here are the contemporary works I chose (and I’d love it if you would offer suggestions for others in the comments section!):

And here are the nineteenth century writers and works we studied:

Finally, here are the pairings students came up with:

  • David Walker and Kyle Baker
  • Frederick Douglass and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Marilyn Nelson
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Vievee Francis
  • William Wells Brown and Tyehimba Jess
  • William Wells Brown and Suzan-Lori Parks
  • Harriet Jacobs and Thylias Moss
  • Harriet Jacobs and Colson Whitehead
  • Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, David Walker, William Wells Brown, and Natasha Trethewey (clearly, this didn’t work out so well)

(William Wells Brown and Suzan-Lori Parks)

How it worked and how it didn’t: insights and pitfalls

Here are the particular things I asked students to do in the presentations, which were intended to be 15-20 minutes in length:

  1. First, give a very brief (just a couple of minutes) summary and evaluation of the 21st century work.
  2. Then, draw some connections between the 21st century work and a 19th century work or works of your choice. For example, you might consider these questions (but don’t feel limited by them):
  • What overlapping themes do you see in the 19th century work and the 21st century work?
  • What textual or visual similarities do you see between the two works?
  • If applicable, how does the 21st century work appropriate, respond to, critique, or revise the 19th century work? How does the 21st century work respond to the 19th century more generally?
  • Whatever direction(s) you take this, make sure to pull out a chunk of text (or video, or whatever the medium is) from each work to show us and to compare.
  • Finally, prepare a question about the works for the class to discuss. Strive to move beyond questions that have to do with “did you like this” or “what do you think the author was trying to do here?” Root the question in the connections you are finding between African American literature and art in the 19th and the 21st centuries.

(Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Marilyn Nelson)

Sometimes, this really worked, as when one of my students compared Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, which is about postbellum, pre-Harlem African American music (from minstrelsy to the Fisk Jubilee Singers to early vaudeville and more!), to William Wells Brown’s play The Escape, both of which are formally experimental texts that make use of (and radically re-shape) minstrel texts. Another student compared the dramatic monologues in Marilyn Nelson’s My Seneca Village to those in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, and she looked at rhyme and form in both poets’ work as well. In both of these cases, students kept their summarizing to a minimum, got quickly to the textual comparison, and provided the class with lots of visual aids to keep them interested. Both of these students also knew and were able to use literary terminology well in their analyses. Perhaps most importantly, these works really did speak to one another. It was easy to have conversation because the parallels between works were extremely clear.

When the 19-to-21 presentations didn’t work, it was largely for these reasons:

  • Way, way too much time spent summarizing (few things are more boring than listening to a lengthy plot summary of a book one has not read)
  • Speeding through the textual analysis before the class has had time to digest the comparisons
  • Lack of visual aids to keep class interested
  • Discussion questions that were largely unanswerable (these fell into a couple of categories: 1) why-did-the-author-do-this-and-not-that questions; 2) questions that were too closely based in the 21st century text, which the rest of the class had not read; or 3) questions comparing both texts, but without providing the actual texts for the class to look at)
  • Unfamiliarity with literary terminology, causing students to say wildly inaccurate things about the books they were reading
  • Lack of an interesting connection between the works, or trying to do too much (as you can see in the above example where Trethewey was paired with half the syllabus)

Meh . . .

 Of the nine presentations, we had three excellent ones, four that were just okay, and two that were truly taxing. (Both of the truly taxing presentations were heavy on plot summary and light on analysis, used few or no visual aids, and did not use accurate literary terminology.) I had such high hopes for this assignment, but presentation days honestly became one of my least favorite times of the term. I could see that most of the students felt the same way. Only my most committed students were invested in their peers’ work, and part of me just wonders if that’s the pitfall of presentations. (I’ve certainly seen this lack of engagement in other classes where I’ve had students do presentations.) There was a lot of zoning out, a lot of surreptitious phone-checking under the seminar table, a lot of notebook-doodling. This was a talkative class who liked each other and liked the nineteenth-century works, so the lack of investment in the presentations wasn’t from a lack of investment in the class or in each other. Perhaps most students weren’t nearly as curious as I imagined they’d be about twenty-first century books they hadn’t read. That’s my bad!

(Frederick Douglass and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins)

Looking forward: ideas for next time

 If I were teaching this as a fifteen-week course, I think I’d just build some of these twenty-first century works into the syllabus. (If those of you who are on the semester system try this, let me know how it goes!) Because we’re on ten-week terms at my school, there’s not really that kind of class time to spare. Here are some ideas I had that I might try next time:

  • Turning the assignment into a short paper instead of a presentation
  • Giving a demonstration of what I’m looking for to the class, rather than just writing it on an assignment sheet (no matter how clear I think my instructions are, they don’t always get followed; perhaps modeling a presentation would be a good idea)
  • Changing media and cutting down on options (for example, what if our class met outside of class time once a week to screen an episode of the current WGN television series Underground, then talked about all of our nineteenth century works in relation to the show?)
  • Asking students to provide excerpts of the twenty-first century works for the class to read a few days before the presentations (a couple of poems, a chapter of a novel, a scene from a play)

Or . . . I could just scrap it altogether and spend more time doing archival activities, which my students really enjoyed. I still believe in the relevance of nineteenth-century works to twenty-first century works, but I want to find a better and more exciting way for my students to make these connections. Can this assignment be saved? Let me know if you have ideas!