Learning Communities Invite Interdisciplinary Study

Instructor working with students in a science lab.
Rebecca A. Eckland

Are you ready to dive deep into psychology, political science and complete your core writing classes at the same time? Are you ready to streamline your class schedule so you can complete more required classes efficiently? If you answered “yes” to one or both of those questions, you need to check out TMCC’s new Learning Communities, which are continuing in the Fall of 2020. 
In case you’re wondering, a Learning Community pairs a core writing (English 101 and English 102), math or science class with another required class. In other words, it’s a twelve-credit and four-class “block” that combines the skills you learn in one class with a subject-specific lens over the course of one academic year.

Up Close with A Learning Community

This semester, English professor Cheryl Cardoza and English instructor Lenaya Andersen are teaching a Learning Community that combines English 102 with Theater 210. “You’ve got to take English anyway, so Learning Communities are a great way to get your required classes completed while working on other core requirements, like diversity,” said Cardoza. 
Although this is Andersen’s first semester teaching a Learning Community, she’s teaching another one in the Spring of 2020 that pairs English 102 and Psychology 101. “The greatest benefit of pairing another class with composition is that students get experience with writing in the real world, or at least across disciplines. One of the things I strive to teach my students in my regular composition courses is that the instruction and practice they are demonstrating in my classroom is not contained within those four walls or this discipline. Truly, they will be writing for their other courses and for their entire lives, whether they pursue a career [that requires a lot of writing] or not. The coupling of composition with another discipline drives that lesson home as they get real-time experience recognizing the transferability of the skills they are developing,” she said.
For example: what does writing have to do with political science? In terms of rhetorical practices, a lot actually. But those connections aren’t always apparent, and it’s not always obvious that the ideas you learn in one class can be directly applied to another. Yet, Learning Communities emphasize making these kinds of connections. “Everywhere you go, you will start to see the connections between  ideas you learn in your various college classes,” said Cardoza.
Sofia Alcala Saldana is a first-year English major at TMCC who said she originally decided to enroll in Cardoza and Andersen’s Learning Community because the classes fit with her schedule. However, after participating in the Learning Community for the Spring semester, Saldana, sees additional benefits to this kind of instruction. “For one, it helped me make connections between my classes…[and] it really opened my eyes as to my writing because it helped me develop new writing skills,” she said.

Additional Supports for Students

Learning Communities aren’t only focused on writing. Students enrolled in this Learning Community complete what Cardoza calls a “seminar de-brief.” This involves completing analyses of the work they discussed in the previous class.  In a class when students had read the play The Laramie Project, Cardoza and Andersen task them with a “diversity character analysis.” 
“Basically, we asked them to look deeply at the text and to drill down to the hidden—yet perhaps also central themes,” said Andersen.  “This was a great opportunity for students to know their own minds and really wrestle with the material before they heard their instructors' perspectives. The discussions were analytical, thoughtful, and incredibly inclusive in ways that would not have been possible without both the student-led discussion and the teacher led-discussion.”
In the de-brief on The Laramie Project, for example, both instructors asked students to trace the evolution of various characters throughout the play. At a certain point, the students decided that the setting—the town of Laramie, Wyoming—played an equally important role in the expression of the play’s main themes, perhaps just as much as the literal characters. 
“It’s fun, but it requires the students to think a lot about what we read and discuss. It also requires that they not be afraid to put themselves on the line,” said Cardoza. Because half of the Learning Community is Theater 210, a performing arts class, students are required to create work that is performative as well as intellectually-driven. “The seminar part of the learning community helps them to establish what they think and feel. The multi-modal assignments provide an opportunity to express those things,” she said. 

Creative Assignments that Inspire Out-of-the-Box Thinking

“Multi-modal assignments” combine the learning outcomes of both classes. For this Learning Community, students are tasked with writing contrasting monologues from the perspectives of two characters of their choice. The student would then either perform these monologues to the class, or ask another student to perform their monologues for them. 
“This invites the student to think meta-critically about the material we’re reading, yet it’s also an opportunity to be creative. They can utilize technology for this—creating a vlog or uploading their monologues through YouTube. The most important part is that they not only discuss the piece itself, but the reasoning behind their expressive choices. Learning Communities offer students a unique opportunity to think outside the box and utilize creative as well as analytical thinking,” said Cardoza. 
Franz Rafael Castillo, who is a first-year nursing student at TMCC, said that these kinds of creative assignments helped him not only academically, but personally as well. “It’s really fun,” he said. “I got out of my shell and I started to interact with more people [in the classes.] It brings you out of your comfort zone without [you] even realizing it.”

A True Community with Extra Supports

In addition to unique assignments, students who sign up for a Learning Community can look forward to receiving extra support from both the Tutoring and Learning Center and the Counseling Center. Again, because a Learning Community is technically two classes—or six credits—students not only have to enroll in both classes for a two-hour block each day the Learning Community is held, but will also be held accountable for six-credits worth of assignments and exams. 
If it sounds like a lot of work, it is: but it’s work that’s well worth it. Not only are students completing two required classes, pairing English with another core subject has rewards of its own. “It’s sort of like double-dipping,” said Vianka Interiano, a social work major who enrolled in the Learning Community. “For example, one essay is worth points for both classes. So, instead of [having to] write two [separate] essays, you’re just writing one. It makes taking general education classes much easier.”
Another perk? You will have a cohort, or a group of students, that you see in your classes over the course of a year. “Sometimes at community colleges, students don't have the organic cohorts that exist with fraternities and sororities and sports and dorms that are more prevalent on University campuses,” said Andersen. “Learning Communities are an excellent way to develop strong cohorts and relationships with their peers. Even after we had to make the COVID switch to remote instruction, they continued to support each other. They have each other's backs and they are able to offer insightful peer support and advice while simultaneously teasing and joking with one another.”  
Andersen offers one example that happened on a discussion thread when one student reported how overwhelmed she felt as she tried to navigate a full time job, online classes (not her first choice), and homeschooling her daughter. “Many students promptly responded with encouragement, understanding, and solidarity. That has happened multiple times as they have created close bonds,” she said. “I always tell students that their greatest resource as they navigate higher education is their peers. Students with supportive peers who are experiencing similar paths in academia always thrive more successfully than those who feel isolated and alone as they attend college.”
The students echo these sentiments, calling their classes a “community” where not only learning, but camaraderie, happens. “I would definitely recommend [enrolling in] a Learning Community,” said Saldana. “The schedule works really well and the professors are always there to help one another and their students. It’s a fun and interesting community that has helped me quite a lot.” 

Coming Fall 2020: New Learning Communities

If you like the idea of completing two required courses with one Learning Community, next year TMCC students will have an opportunity to pair their core writing class with political science and psychology.  If you’re interested, be aware that you must take all four classes over the course of the academic year; there are no substitutions or exceptions. 
What is guaranteed, though: participating in a Learning Community will help you in your college career in more ways than one.

Learning Community for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021:

  • Fall 2020: English 101 & Political Science 101 (Introduction to American Politics)
  • Spring 2021: English 102 & Psychology 101 (General Psychology)

Stay tuned for more Learning Communities that will offer you an opportunity to pair other gateway and required classes, such as math and science, with another class.

For more information about how to enroll in the next Learning Community, make an appointment with one of TMCC’s Academic Advisors by calling  775-673-7062 or schedule an appointment using the online form