Robert M. Kahn, LaGuardia Community College
On Saturday, November 17, 2012, I participated on a panel entitled “Three Perspectives on Meeting the Needs of New Student Populations.” This panel featured educators from three different types of institutions--a CUNY community college, a SUNY four-year undergraduate college, and a college of Boston University that serves nontraditional undergraduate and graduate students. Our aim was to address the characteristics of the new student populations that we have taught (minority students, first-generation college students, new Americans, international students, and working students with families) and to reflect on pedagogical practices that show promise in engaging these students.
Let me begin with a few observations about today’s more diverse student body. Keep in mind that I have been working most recently in the Borough of Queens, the most diverse county in America. LaGuardia Community College has over 18,000 students born in 160 countries, speaking more than 120 native languages, 80% low-income, 37% Hispanic, 18% Asian, 15% African American, 10% White, and 20% other or unknown. Eighty percent need some form of remediation. Their graduation rate is low and their first-year attrition rate is high.
Although Mayor Bloomberg brags about how high school test scores have risen during his three terms, from where we sit--to use Joe Biden’s word--it’s malarkey. The needle has not moved on how many need remediation. Basically, the contemporary students that we see are weak in reading and writing and are generally not engaged with learning. I have my own theories about why this situation exits. For example, I hypothesize that as discrimination becomes less prevalent in medicine, the sciences, the legal profession, and some areas of business, some of the very bright women and minority group members who used to go into k-12 teaching are pursuing other opportunities.
How are the “new” students different from the “old” students? They need more support: more counseling and advisement, more mentoring and tutoring, more assistance with basic skills (particularly ESL for recent immigrants), and more access to financial aid or opportunities for paid employment. Yet, like traditional students, the new students are generally convinced that higher education is the key to a prosperous future in America.
Teaching these new students does not require a major departure from what educators normally do. Instead, educators should serve their non-traditional students by accelerating their continuous efforts to engage all students. They need to employ student-oriented, active pedagogies and, drawing upon Vincent Tinto’s insights, connect students to each other and to their institutions. In my experience, where active pedagogies replace or supplement lectures, the new students gain in multiple ways: (1) Students connect with each other as they engage in group projects, role-playing exercises, and other active pedagogies. (2) The active involvement of students normally entails a strengthening of students’ oral communication skills, particularly valuable in the case of recent immigrants for whom English is a second language. (3) Active pedagogies establish a more personal relationship between students and their instructors; such relationships lead to mentoring relationships and assistance with problem solving. (4) Active pedagogies encourage more critical thinking and creativity than do passive learning methods.
As a person from a community college whose burgeoning student population is so often comprised of low-income, first-generation students working both in a second language and in a second culture, I must add some thoughts regarding counseling and advisement. Given that students often have little access at home to individuals with college experience, it is incumbent upon community colleges to provide adequate counseling and advisement. Lavish counseling and advisement would be even better. Community colleges, however, are the sector of higher education receiving by far the smallest amount of federal and state financial support per student. As such, they exist on a shoestring budget that routinely provides little funding for advisement and even less for psychological and career counseling. In the case of my own college, despite the characteristics of our students and a less than spectacular graduation rate, advisement is only mandatory during a student’s first year. Advisement is simply not required beyond 30 credits. This lack of fulltime counselors and advisors often results in advisement as an assembly-line process employing adjunct personnel and leaving no opportunity for a continuing relationship between student and advisor.
So, how have I engaged or supported these types of students? First, I did something only once that changed the way I looked at students forever. My wife, Beverly Kahn, currently at Farmingdale State University, and I secured a FIPSE grant from the U.S. Department of Education when we were early in our careers for the purpose of creating a minority mentoring program. We were on a small regional campus of Ohio State that sat on the edge of Mansfield, Ohio, a town of 50,000 with an African-American population of 20%; yet we had almost no African-American students and few minority staff members. But we had an idea that appealed to the folks at FIPSE. We “double-teamed” each minority student. Each student was assigned two mentors: a faculty member from the college (invariably white) and a volunteer that we recruited from within the African-American professional community in Mansfield. Not one African-American professional whom we approached turned us down.
But what really personalized the program was the following: After recruiting a record number of about twenty-five African American students by spending thirty Sundays in visiting and speaking about our new program in every Black church in Mansfield, I scheduled home visits with every new student and their families before school began. You learn a lot about family situations and the obstacles people face. On one end of the spectrum was a young man I visited. His parents and numerous adult brothers and sisters took off from work to hear what this Ohio State professor had to say. On the other end of the spectrum, there was a young lady who lived with her grandmother. But, while I talked with the young lady on one end of the sofa in the living room, her grandmother sat on the other end of the sofa and never took her eyes off the television, intently watching “The Price is Right.” I met with a married woman returning to school and all her husband wanted to know was whether she would be home every night to fix his dinner. In the end, we knew which students had good support at home and which students needed extra support from us.
Second, with a small internal grant, a colleague in sociology, Beverly and I taught a new course on social diversity in America. Our sociologist partner was an expert on the Amish, Beverly knew the literature on the women’s movement, and I have studied the African-American community. Each of us taught our specialty for a third of the course. But, we decided that we really wanted to engage our students in special ways. So, the sociologist led a tour to Amish country. Beverly exposed the class to two panel discussions--one with five professional women (i.e., high achievers) from the local community and a second panel with five women who were part of a YWCA program for low-income single mothers. Beverly used the exact same questions with each panel: What do you aspire to do with your life? What are your aspirations for your children? What obstacles do you face? Has violence ever touched your life? As you might imagine, there were stunning differences in the answers to these questions. For my part, after discussing the role of the Black church, the entire class visited a Black church for a Sunday service. Since most white students had never been inside a Black church and, indeed, had never traveled in that part of town, I told the students they could bring a friend or relative with them – and many did. Of course, they were warmly welcomed, the preacher gave a dynamic sermon, and the choir and soloists performed beautifully. We had a smashing good time.
Third, students need to experience and feel. I’ve preached to my students about racism and inequality. I’ve shared the statistical data demonstrating that whites have twice as many or more of the good things in American life (like high income and good education), while African Americans suffer from twice as many or more of the bad things in American life (like infant mortality and time in jail). But, a colleague of mine took the lesson about inequality and class stratification to a higher level. She had her students all play a game of Monopoly where students were assigned to the upper class, the middle class, or the lower class and played with special rules depending on the economic class to which they had been assigned. Thus, at the beginning of the game, an upper class person received $20,000 in Monopoly money, a middle class person $2,000, and a lower class person $500. If a student ended up in jail, an upper class person could either simply pay $100 to get out of jail. The lower class person, once in jail, could only get out by rolling snake eyes. You get the idea. So did the students.
There is one other technique I’ve used to get students to think about inequality. I divided a class into groups, told each group to beg or borrow a video camera (they all came up with one) and make a film illustrating inequality. None of the films would have won a prize for cinematography – but they all were very original. One group interviewed a young African-American teenager who had just moved from the inner city to a house in the suburbs where he was living with his aunt. He described how razor blades were smuggled in at his previous school. One group did a windshield survey, filming out of a car window as they drove through a rich suburb and a poor neighborhood, and commenting on what they were seeing.
Finally, do you use role-playing simulations to engage your students? I’m a political scientist, so mine are political. Between presidential elections, I have used a homemade version of a political convention simulation. I write up 3x5 cards telling each student what their assigned state (or group of states) wants--perhaps the presidential or vice-presidential nomination for a favorite son or daughter, or a cabinet position, or a ticket that skews liberal, moderate, or conservative. The convention simulation is written for the party out of power. So, with President Obama re-elected, we’ll pit Marco Rubio vs. Chris Christie vs. Paul Ryan vs. Mike Huckabee and throw in some second-tier possibilities (like Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, or Senator-elect Ted Cruz of Texas). The simulation lasts two or three class sessions and always becomes a bit raucous and competitive. I’ve had students climb up on desks and chairs to hoot and holler during the final roll call.
In the brief time that I had been given, I threw out examples of techniques that worked for me in engaging students. All faculty should ask themselves: What techniques am I using that engage students? Should I not be using more of these techniques? If, upon reflection, they conclude that they are not engaging their students, they should be asking: Isn’t it time to scan the literature and talk with colleagues in order to find something new to try? Step #1: Engage thyself.