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Composition Forum 24, Fall 2011

Tinberg, Howard, and Jean-Paul Nadeau. The Community College Writer: Exceeding Expectations. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2010. 157 pp.

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Mark McBeth

In the conclusion to Errors and Expectations, Mina Shaughnessy wrote, “Colleges must be prepared to make more than a graceless and begrudging accommodation to [students’] unpreparedness, opening their doors with one hand and then leading students into endless corridors of remedial anterooms with the other” (293). While her statement addressed 1970s Open Admissions issues, her sentiments still resonate in higher education today, raising different polemics. In their 2004 study, Sommers and Saltz reiterate, “The first year of college offers students the double perspective of the threshold, a liminal state from which they might leap forward—or linger at the door” (125). This liminal state becomes a more prevailing issue as university policies (and budgets) often mandate where students deemed remedial can begin their educational careers. In the twenty-first century when university systems (like CUNY where I work) divert their students to community colleges before accepting them into baccalaureate programs, community colleges increasingly offer students preliminary literacy (and numeracy) instructional opportunities before they continue their educations elsewhere. In the very first paragraph of The Community College Writer, Tinberg and Nadeau underscore the role of community colleges as well as complicate the situation in considering students’ learning conditions: “Within the context of community colleges, the first-semester writing course is especially crucial, given the varied levels of student preparedness and the extent of work and family demands. So many students fail to persist when confronting this very demanding first semester of college” (1). In their research, these authors highlight the literacy tasks and academic customs that community college writers must newly process at the outset of their first year at college.

In an educational scenario too often accounted through a lens of complacent resign or, even worse, throw-in-the-towel surrender, Tinberg and Nadeau offer an alternative rhetoric of tenacity that chronicles the resilience of students in continuing their educations, demonstrates the resolve of these composition scholars in sustaining such a difficult research endeavor, and narrates the steadfastness of educators in dedicating their careers to student achievement. In contrast to the stereotypical and disparaging accounts of disengaged community college students, these two authors approach their project by depicting and interpreting the first-year experience of community college students with a sense of hope. The authors’ subtitle of Exceeding Expectations foreshadows the optimistic impetus of this entire project while simultaneously addressing the false perceptions that educators may promote about this particular student body. Tinberg and Nadeau challenge this established thinking, stating, “Our students have stories to tell and we intend to let them tell those stories. Too often community colleges and the students who attend them are mischaracterized and reduced to simplistic stereotypes (students who cared little about high school and care even less about college or those who opt for community college because it poses few challenges” (20). (I would add that this reduction is not solely reserved for community college students.) Rather than mere statistical numbers offered by quantitative evaluation so often relied upon by institutional assessment, these authors analyze student portfolios and interview profiles that reveal what the bottom-line of admission and retention might more productively mean in qualitative measures. They “focus on what the products or writing samples reveal” and straightforwardly address the tensions between studies “conducted on a scientific basis, while at the same time grounded in specific writing situations” (15). Their project, thus, exemplifies research that examines specific and localized scenes of writing but could be reproduced in nearly any higher educational venue. As they claim, they offer an opportunity for their students—in their own voices—“to set the record straight” (20). For research conducted anywhere, this would be an admirable objective.

While other composition researchers such as Sternglass and Carroll have enlightened us about students’ educational journeys at four-year institutions, too infrequently do we have an extensive view into the learning experiences of community college students. Beginning in 2007, Tinberg and Nadeau surveyed students at four community colleges (including their own) as a means of drawing some generalizations about community college students in which they could ground their subsequent findings at their home institution. Over a two-year period, they collected data from faculty interviews, student conferences, focus groups, and student portfolios, providing an overall view of the expectations of community college faculty in comparison to the perspectives of students. The authors present their colleagues’ assignments “to dislodge some simplistic notions of community college writing instruction” that merely prepares students in “skill and drill” (55-56). The colleagues they interview “challenge students to reflect deeply on the problems before them, problems typically tied to the working world that they will soon enter but firmly rooted in academic convention” (56). The students who were fortunate enough to encounter these faculty members learn that the life of the mind and the work-a-day world are not mutually exclusive, but in fact intermingle and reinforce each other. The students in the study confirmed that they did not want “concessions for their hectic school and work loads” but, instead, to be treated like adults: “Show us what it takes to succeed, they say, and we will take it from there” (57).

The Community College Writer: Exceeding Expectations conveys that students can achieve educationally even under the duress of busy lives that don’t allow them the entitled privilege of an unfettered college experience devoted solely to study. Through analysis of student interviews and explications of their writing, the authors offer a broad view of the teaching and learning occurring in community colleges. These authors collect intriguing information about community college writers and render insightful profiles of them, but I couldn’t help feel the need for deeper analysis of the information and data they collected. So much more seemed to reverberate beneath the wealth of ideas that they presented. But this may be too much to ask of one pair of researchers. In fact, Tinberg and Nadeau urge other composition scholars to continue this research path of “studying community college writers over time and in context” and considering student work “not in isolation but within the complex matrix of faculty expectations (in many courses), the institutional mission (so often complex and comprehensive), and student aspirations (which can change over time)” (130). The work these researchers have produced should inspire the continued scholarship of those who work within composition as well as remain a necessary part of the preparation we provide Ph.D. candidates who are entering our field.

Significantly, at the 2011 Atlanta CCCC, a Sense of the House Motion proclaimed that

Basic Writing is a vital field and its students and teacher scholars [are] a productive force within composition; [it] is under attack by exclusionary public policies; and therefore must be recognized and supported by CCCC as a conference cluster and with featured sessions.

Both the Sense of the House Motion and The Community College Writer point to an exigent moment as “exclusionary public policies” potentially threaten the inclusionary social progress we have achieved over the past half-century. As more and more students choose (or are forced) to continue higher education close to home for financial reasons, and as more and more university systems filter “underprepared,” “at-risk” students through their community colleges before allowing them admission to bachelor’s programs, Tinberg and Nadeau offer us timely insight into the work of community college faculty and students.

While not all community college writers are basic writers, many arrive with the composing problems that all transitioning freshman face as they negotiate advanced literacy skills in the college classroom. As Shaughnessy advised, “[The writing teacher] will begin to see the difficulties of so-called writers, writ large. For the problems of getting an idea and beginning to write, of remembering where one is going as sentence generates sentence, of sustaining the tension between being right and readable and being oneself—these are problems few writers escape” (293). The Community College Writer focuses on one particular strata of students, but all writing instructors and program administrators should be able to see the composing quandaries of their own student bodies within these narratives. We should all keep a close scrutiny over writing classroom activities and accompanying student writing, institutional policies and accompanying educational repercussions, and imperative scholarly questions and accompanying politics in our field. In an era when higher education must diversify its opportunities for and remain vigilant about the various needs of wide-ranging student bodies, Tinberg and Nadeau’s research agenda and reporting exemplify the ongoing body of knowledge that is so desperately needed at both two- and four-year college writing programs.

Works Cited

Carroll, Lee Ann. Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002. Print.

“Sense of the House Motions.” Conference on College Composition and Communication. NCTE, 12 Apr. 2011. Web. 20 May 2011. <>.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations. 1977. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication 56.1 (2004): 124-49. Print.

Sternglass, Marilyn. Time to Know Them: A Longitudinal Study of Writing and Learning at the College Level. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1997. Print.

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