Emily King became a full-time member of the TMCC English department in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. King, who had been teaching composition courses at community colleges for several years, found herself in a strange situation: recently named tenure-track faculty, she was also teaching classes from the comfort of her home. “I’d been looking forward to being in a tenure-track position for eight years, and never once did I think that the first 18 months of it would be in my bedroom,” she said.
Yet, King has used this time to not only connect in more meaningful ways with her online students, but also to maximize their access to educational resources. “This semester, it feels like I know my online students—even in my asynchronous classes—better than I’ve ever known my students before,” she said. “I’ve tried to mirror my weblive and web classes... so all of my students, regardless of the mode in which they take the class, have the same benefits and materials, curriculum, and scaffolding. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”
One thing King insists on regardless of whether she’s teaching weblive or a web class—or even an in-person class—is making sure each student knows that they are seen. “If students know that they are seen, that raises the bar of accountability. [But it also tells them] I care if they show up. I’m really explicit with them, that in order to take this class they have to be there,” she said.
As simple as it sounds, acknowledging each student’s presence in the class is an integral part of the composition courses King teaches, which not only lays the foundation for the academic journey ahead but that helps students to discover that they do, in fact, “belong” in college. A five-credit class, English 100 both requires a certain level of commitment and fosters the belief that you’ve got what it takes to make the grade.
The Call to Teach Composition
King calls herself an anomaly because, ever since high school, she knew she wanted to teach students to write. Despite that focus, King’s interests have ranged far and wide: as an undergraduate student, she studied literature and philosophy, and for many years she contemplated becoming a lawyer.
“I was fascinated with argumentation, in the justice system, too,” she said. “But when I studied literature I realized I was also really fascinated with the writing process and the fact that we can teach the writing process,” she said. “That’s when I realized I wanted to teach writing because it just seemed like really meaningful work. I also liked the science of it—how you can break it down and understand how it all fits together in relation to the world.”
Driven by a genuine curiosity and love of learning, King often themes her classes around ideas or topics that she has an interest in herself. “I love being a student… I just enjoyed that path so much. And so, when I don’t know the answer to something, that’s the subject matter that we’ll explore in my classes, because it’s something that I want to learn about, too,” she said.
For King, the important thing for college students is not the end result of learning, but instead, the appreciation of the journey that learning itself can unfold. “One of the things I’ve noticed over the years that I’ve been teaching is that students seem less curious about the world. I think part of that comes from the social pressure to focus on the practicality of their education. When we over-focus on the practical, we can lose that sense of curiosity that makes learning enjoyable,” she said. “I really want to rekindle that fire for my students. I try to do that by learning right alongside them.”
English 100: The Co-Requisite Model at TMCC
Students in King’s English 100 class this semester are studying choices, and in particular, how they’re motivated to make certain choices. “I try to choose a theme for my English 100 classes that’s broad enough so everyone can find their own path, and that allows that theme to develop organically,” she said. “Motivation wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to learn about, but it’s something that’s been on my mind, especially given the challenges of working in new ways this past year.”
And yet, it’s a topic that enables students in English 100 an opportunity to acquire college-level writing skills while exploring an idea that is, at the very least, relevant to their lives. Even in relatively “normal” times, the question of what motivates us (or the opposite: what compels a person to procrastinate) is often a complicated one to answer. Add in the reality of a worldwide pandemic and a year of studying/working from home, and again the subject becomes a complicated one, certainly fodder for thought.
Generally, the topics King selects are not only interesting to her, but also ones for which she doesn’t hold a strong opinion—a combination that’s more difficult to come by than one might think. “When I’m building my curriculum, I want to be as unbiased as possible… I choose things that we can explore together...because when I’m engaged, they are engaged,” she said.
Although King has taught English 100, 101, 102 as well as classes focused on technical writing, the former has been both the most challenging and the most rewarding. “English 100… it feels like a gateway course-slash-first-year experience course,” she said. That is due, in part, to the added supports built into the class meant to supplement the traditional assignments completed in a composition classroom. These supports include additional exercises and assignments focused on improving students’ writing skills, as well as frequent check-ins with students, both in her weblive and web classes.
“I’ve been keeping a pulse on everybody by connecting individually with each student. Because, honestly, sometimes students don’t know if they belong in college. They don’t know if it’s a good idea, and they have one foot in, and one foot out. So, I keep encouraging them, and letting them know that I know they are there,” she said.
In a physical classroom, this might be the student who sits in the very back of the room. “They will literally think we don’t notice them because they are in the back,” she said. “And so that student might be absent a few times because they don’t think it matters if they aren’t there,” she said. “We call this imposter syndrome and it’s something we deal with every day as community college instructors.” This year, King has noticed similar behavior patterns from students in an online environment: turning in assignments late or not showing up to the Zoom sessions.
“[In either case] I reach out to the student, and I put effort into that one-on-one contact,” she said. “I’ve also built ongoing conversations into my classes that require students to check in with me every few weeks, answering questions like: ‘how’s it going?’ Or ‘how are you balancing this class with the rest of your workload?’ Or ‘has anything changed since the beginning of the semester?’” This kind of attention is key to student success in a course like English 100 where a major concern is keeping students on track.
“To do that, students need a balance of structure and flexibility,” King explained. “They need choices, but not too many. I’m constantly thinking about how to strike that balance between structure and flexibility for them.” One way King has achieved this is by structuring her classes using a “flipped” approach to online learning. Instead of asking students to learn new skills in the weblive sessions, she’s asking them to come to those sessions in order to practice those skills to reinforce what they already had an opportunity to begin learning on their own.
The new information is provided using a more traditional online format. “This is especially helpful for the student who misses an occasional weblive meeting. Although they don’t get the benefit of live interaction with me and their peers, they still have the materials online,” she said.
King also posts short videos after weblive class sessions that reinforce concepts and address any questions that may have come up during class. Because the short videos are embedded into the online course, that information is available to students anytime during the semester. The effort has been well worth it. “So far, I’m getting great feedback from students regarding this added flexibility, and it’s not at all at the expense of their learning,” said King.
King, who taught in California’s Community College System prior to coming to Nevada, said she is looking forward to the future of the co-requisite model at TMCC, and what it will mean in terms of student success. “I’m really passionate about it, not only because I believe it’s a good teaching model, but because it opens access to education. And that’s the most important thing—it’s called a community college because it’s a part of the community, and it brings education to our community. Having a co-requisite model in place makes us a better institution, and it is worth the extra effort.”
Defining “College Material”
So, who can take English 100? According to King, the class accommodates both the new and returning college student. “I always see this as a great class to take whether you’re in your first semester of college or you’ve been raising a family for 20 years and now you’re back in college and you’re not sure you remember how [to be a student.]”
The added support in English 100 includes more frequent and in-depth feedback from the instructor, targeted reading and writing assignments designed to build the writing skills students need to develop to be successful in college, to name a few. “I think it’s a great class for a gateway course, and honestly, in many ways [these extra supports make it] more beneficial to students, even if they tested into English 101,” said King.
Yet, sometimes “placing” into English 100 can discourage students even before the semester starts. King opens her English 100 class with a discussion about what it means to be “college material.” In a class where the demographic can range from a 13-year old who was homeschooled to a 53-year old, the perspectives vary, which makes for a colorful and interesting discussion. Given these varying points of view, students can begin to realize that “college material” is hardly cut from one kind of cloth and that success aligns with the amount of dedication and hard work you’re willing to put into the class...and into your education.
“English 100 can be the perfect setup for good class discussions because you have multiple perspectives,” she said, which is yet another hidden perk of taking a class like English 100: you’ll undoubtedly become a part of a diverse classroom community where ideas—and standard college-writing practices—reign paramount.
Composition and Community
After a year of disconnection and social-distancing, it might not seem like such a stretch to claim that the community of a composition classroom forms the foundation for the many soft skills students learn not only from the instructor but from one another. King, who asks students to fill out a feedback sheet after every class she’s taught for the past eight years, has noticed that the classroom community is something her students appreciate. “The connection to their peers is sometimes one thing that keeps students coming to the class, that keeps them engaged and keeps them in college,” she said.
King tells the story of a nontraditional student at a community college in Escondido (where she was once adjunct faculty) who came to every English class with a conversation that would, at a certain point, boil down to a single question: am I capable of finishing my college degree?
At first King thought the woman was simply being chatty and kind. Yet, as the conversations continued, the student opened up to King, who learned the reason why she was always asking that question.
“No one in her family wanted to her to go to college,” King remembered. “We would have these conversations and they were always about her needing encouragement. At a certain point, I realized I was the only person in her life telling her that she could finish her college degree.”
The student would, in fact, finish her degree program. That determination and grit is something King also sees in TMCC students who have faced hardships that previous generations of college students haven’t. “I think it's harder to go to college now than it has been in previous generations, not because of the pandemic but just because students now have so much more responsibility. So I really do see that sort of motivation to work hard for what you want, and be willing to do it on your own. A part of my job is to help them see that they don't have to completely do it on their own at TMCC, that there actually is support,” she said.
The embedded supports in English 100 facilitate the important work that happens in the composition classroom, which includes the acquisition of the writing skills required in multiple disciplines and majors, but also skills that will enable students to succeed well beyond their college years. These include: how to find and organize information, how to synthesize ideas and how to interact within a diverse group of people.
“Those are the important skills students learn in English 100,” King said. “Those can be hard things to learn, but that’s what you do in a discussion-based classroom: you learn those skills along with the content of the class. So, it’s not just learning about how to communicate effectively on paper, it’s so much more than that.”
It’s about connecting during a pandemic, about being grateful for not having to drive to campus in the snow, and about recognizing learning and growth, no matter what form it takes. “[This semester] we talked about all of this...and how students know how to take a web class now. Many of our students wouldn’t have known about this option, but now they know the basics… so if ever something happens again, they can take a class online.”
All of that comes with the territory of teaching college composition classes, and in part, that’s what drew King to this profession. “I like helping people start off on new paths, and that’s what I love about teaching at a community college. People come to community colleges to head in a new direction in their careers and their lives. We, as instructors, get to help them with that.”
For more information about English 100, contact the English Department at 775-673-7092.