It seems to me that some students come to community colleges because they can get a solid two years of college work before they transfer to a four-year school. These are not the students we have to worry about. These students will go on. They will complete four-year degrees and in many cases, they will go on for further education. The students that community colleges need to worry about are the students who come to us with poor skills and poor motivation. Someone has told them repeatedly that going to college will mean a huge difference in the amount of money they will make in their lifetimes, but those people have not connected “going to college” with specific skills or degrees, and so many of these students have only the vaguest idea of what to expect in college and what will be expected of them.
About 50% of students entering community colleges place below college level on tests in reading, writing and math, and conventionally this means that they have to take classes that do not have college credit in order to improve those skills. What this often means is that students look at the English or the math class and think it is just “another English class,” or “just another math class” and remember that they weren’t very good at these in high school, and it begins to feel like a bit of nightmare. They have been there before, and it wasn’t fun the first time, so why will it be different this time? Once that attitude sets in, students start missing class and forgetting homework and falling back on all their bad habits, and failure is guaranteed.
However, it seems to me that interdisciplinary classes that engage students in an interesting and compelling subject, where the English (writing) is all connected to the subject have a better chance of creating engagement than something that seems like “the same old, same old. Wolves are a great topic for this because everyone in the West has an opinion about wolves ranging from the hyper-Romantic to the exterminators. I figured it was worth a try, and with the help of my co-teacher, a wild-life biologist, I set about to create a course that would give students credit in English and credit in political science, but do it in an unconventional way.
We have been meeting for three weeks. We have eleven students in the class. We meet for three hours a day, two days a week. We have had not absentees in three weeks. This alone tells me we are on to something. Because it is an experimental class, my co-teacher and I are constantly revising the course outline, but we are developing some consistent moments in the class. For example, we begin with “the image of the day” that can be everything from a Disney “big, bad wolf” to a Romanticized wolf. The students write for fifteen minutes on this image and then we move on to whatever we are doing for the rest of the class. We have taught them how to read a scientific paper, we have looked at maps, and we have seen videos by wolf biologists from Slovenia. We have discussed evolution and ecological niches.
For writing assignments, our students have had to write a story in which the wolf was either a bad guy or a good guy, they will write book reviews and do a big research project. Students are already giving me ideas that they would like to research. They will write evaluations of guest speakers and they will write evaluations of the course itself.
While we have only been at this for one fifth of the semester, I have rarely seen a more engaged group of students in our community college. They come from all different backgrounds, and yet, they come to class, they listen to each other and they have things to say.
I think that the potential for other interdisciplinary courses in enormous. I suspect that the more college is not “the same ole, same ole,” the more students will engage and learn. Once we hook them on learning, then they are on their way.