- Back to the Future
Always historicize.—Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious
Fredric Jameson's maxim is a fitting way to think about The Profession of English in the Two-Year College, the recent collection of essays edited by Mark Reynolds and Sylvia Holiday-Hicks. What makes this collection of essays unique is the series of narratives sandwiched between Reynolds's introduction and Howard Tinberg's concluding essay. While both Reynolds and Tinberg frame the critical issues facing two-year colleges and introduce the reader to the questions still facing these colleges as sites of teaching and research, the narratives provide something else entirely.
It is a convenient fiction that teaching English in the two-year colleges is a natural and uncomplicated historically situated practice. What the narratives manage to reconstruct is the sense of freedom and uncertainty that the early pioneers of the community college explosion of the 1960s and 1970s faced as they tried to piece together, often from whole cloth, a space between the regimentation of high school and the selective and elite practice of the traditional undergraduate institution that honored the promise and confronted the challenges that these new institutions brought to higher education. These narratives make the choices and compromises visible and part of the record at a time when the two-year college faces a new set of challenges and realities. As the last bastion of open-admissions institutions, two-year colleges now teach more than half of the students enrolled in freshman composition. At a time of crippling budgetary crises, they fill a role of increasing importance, and their history is important to understanding what composition means in a [End Page 349] part of the teaching community not often acknowledged, as Reynolds points out, as a site of knowledge making.
The Profession of English in the Two-Year College is a discussion of where the two-year college has been. The narratives, which are derived from experiences from all over the country—Oregon, Seattle, California, Maryland, New York, Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Utah, Mississippi—create a picture of the community college from its beginnings, without a road map about what the community college was to be. Many of the writers come from disciplines other than composition: journalism, dietetics, literature, film studies. Because of the nature of community colleges—small departments, faculty wearing multiple hats, adult students with work experience—interdisciplinarity and collaboration were promoted and opportunities to connect with other fields and for instructors to learn other fields, especially emerging fields like media and computer literacy, became possible. William V. Costanzo, for example, says in his essay "Lessons from a Cactus: Divergent Teaching in a Converging World": "I found myself teaching and writing about topics as diverse as Joseph Conrad and laser discs, basic writing and TV commercials, filmmaking and computer programming" (60). Thus, we become border crossers, crossing borders not only of discipline, but as Mark Reynolds suggests in his essay "Two-Year-College Teachers as Knowledge Makers," between secondary education and the university or the world of work.
Community colleges are both a teaching and a learning space, for instructors as well as for their students. Many narratives discuss how practitioners learn from their mistakes—what they didn't know before teaching—and how, as Costanzo says, the students "pointed the way" (60). It is not surprising for those of us who teach in these settings that many of the writers remember students' names and stories from long ago. The essays are poignant with the human contact that is so present in the community college. Marilyn Smith Layton remembers the engineer from Holland who asked her, "Why are you teaching poetry in this composition class?" She reflects, "I remember that engineer and that class like a mother in love with her first-born" (29). Later in the semester, the engineer says to her, "You are a good teacher. . . . But you know nothing about the lives your students live—lives like Gerald's in our class, a man who drives a mail truck" (29). This lesson served her well as students from Southeast Asia flooded her college. Community college students force us to look at them, to...