Down to the entryway of higher education

For millions of Americans, community college is the gateway to higher education, job skills and a better life. Last fall, for me, community college was a gateway in the other direction.

It led me, temporarily, out of the bubble of elite higher education.

With a semester off as a tenured journalism professor at Washington and Lee University, I spent this fall teaching a writing/research course at Surry Community College. Every week, I drove the 130 miles from Lexington to stay at our son’s farm in Fancy Gap and taught a class of 16 challenging students on Tuesdays and Thursdays in Dobson, N.C.

Walk in the woodsI recommend the experience to other university professors. We have a lot to offer — and something to learn.

It was Trump country. And yet, I found more diversity there than at W&L. Four of my Surry students were Hispanic. One young woman wrote in an assignment of her mother’s Hispanic shoe store getting ripped off by a few shoplifters. An African-American single mom in her 30s wrote in another assignment a memo to the principal of her daughter’s elementary school, questioning the decision to pull her daughter out of the regular class for special help.

One student managed the local Dairy Queen. Another worked at Chick-fil-A. Four were “Early College” high school students. Four were repeating the class. Four more failed to show up or dropped out.

Virginia has a system of 23 community colleges and an ambitious goal of making “first-generation college student” an obsolete term, with a college graduate in every household. North Carolina’s community college system, once considered one of the most progressive in the country, has 58 campuses.

The funding of this system seemed criminally low for being “progressive.” My pay as a one-class adjunct barely covered mileage and meals, even with the extra $4.70 a week thrown in for my Ph.D.

But the experience was rewarding. It freed me from a privileged liberal arts environment and tested my real value as a teacher. If this was left-behind America — Trump’s unrewarded supporters and demonized immigrants — what could I teach them about writing?My class

A lot. Nonfiction writing, I tried to show, is personal empowerment. Instead of a research paper, I gave assignments I thought could be useful to them: a memo, an op-ed, a press release, a blog post, a publishable book review. Writing, I said in every way I could, is connecting with a real audience. It’s thinking logically, supporting assertions, making claims that persuade.

And what a time for applying these ideas — with the U.S. House engaged in the ultimate Constitutional exercise from the Age of Reason: impeachment of a duly elected President.

I wanted to show respect for them, as they did for me. So for class discussion, I used a few good opinion columns I could find that leaned slightly in Trump’s favor.

Professors in their ivory towers wonder what could have gone so wrong with America, that so many citizens could elect a big-time real estate cheat and reality TV star. For some of us, our reaction is a sincerely baffled curiosity, with a sense of obligation to serve the common good in a time of need with our modest skills – teaching, scholarship and service.

Community college, as W&L’s provost told me, is “where the real heart of American education is happening right now.” A Harvard-educated law professor recently left his New York university to teach a semester in ethics in “Appalachia,” to try to understand what went so wrong in 2016. Evan Mandery was turned down by a Tennessee community college, but eventually taught at Appalachian State, writing that he took solace in the shared moral values he found underlying the argument of liberals and conservatives (but not libertarians, who he said valued abstractions over empathy).

I suspect that other professors would like to teach at least one term or course at a community college, if such experience were rewarded by their home universities. But that would take a fundamental shift in the reward system.

Community colleges could help by making it easier for us to teach there. I was dismayed at how many hoops I had to jump through — for almost no pay.

But there are rewards. For me, the best reward was to be let into another world, sometimes poignantly expressed. “I come from the kind of place where the tobacco grew and the factories fell,” one student wrote. “The place where I’m from has little to offer and little to gain.”

This op-ed appeared in a slightly different for The Roanoke Times, Dec. 2, 2019, A-7.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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