Friday, May 28, 2010
Timothy McLaughlin: Writing the Right Way at Bunker Hill Community College.
Interview by Doug Holder
Almost right down the block from me in Somerville, Mass., just across the border in Charlestown, resides Bunker Hill Community College. I have always heard about it of course. Poet friends of mine have taught there, many people I know have taken courses there (including my wife); I heard about their Midnight College, the diverse student body, and the almost 12,000 students they serve. I never thought I would have the opportunity to teach there. But then… well, the recession hits and to use a cliché “other doors open.” As it turns out my fellow Bagel Bard as well as an English Professor at Bunker Hill, Luke Salisbury, set me up with an interview with the English Department head Timothy McLaughlin. And sure enough I was teaching an English Comp. course for the spring 2010 session. Now, I have to tell you I was nervous. I had taught in other settings, but this was a newbie for me. But I did it, enjoyed it and will be teaching again in the fall…and glad of it. Now, McLaughlin has been at BH for over 30 years, and has seen that and done that more times than I can imagine. So being the inquisitive character that I am I decided to interview him for “Off the Shelf,” so he could tell you-- dear reader-- what BH offers, and why you might want to go there, or recommend it to others.
Doug Holder: In the June 2009 Mass. Community College Developmental Education and Best Policy and Practice Audit it stated that 61% of students in Mass. Community Colleges begin with developmental courses. Developmental courses are preparatory courses for college work. 50% of those enrolled will withdraw or fail. What do you see as the root of the problem?
Timothy McLaughlin: I’m not sure there is one root cause. It’s a pretty complex problem that we’ve been struggling with for many years. The simple answer is this: community colleges are open admissions institutions. We accept just about everyone. And as the numbers show, many students are not ready to do college work—which means that, despite our best efforts, many are not successful. Why? Lots of reasons. We have many students who come to us after being away from school for years, which means skills are rusty. Most of our students are juggling family and work commitments. We have students who struggle with English because it is not their first language. I could go on. It would certainly be great if everyone who came to us was ready to do college level work. I don’t see that happening any time soon. I should add that there is a recent trend toward lower numbers of students being placed in developmental writing courses. The biggest challenge for us is to keep students once they register for courses. We’re constantly looking at how we can do a better job of retaining students—through better advising, through more tutoring support, through technology. You name it! We want students to succeed.
DH: Tim, you are the chair of the English Department. If I asked you what the mission statement of the department is--what would you say?
TM: Hey, we have a mission statement! It’s actually available through the college website. Basically what it says is this: that the English department is committed to helping students develop the writing and critical thinking skills that are essential to success in college—and beyond. It says that we’re committed to taking students from wherever they are now and helping them become individuals who can express themselves effectively, individuals who can make better sense of the world out there.
DH: From discussions with you I know that the mechanics of writing are emphasized, as well as "critical thinking." Why is it not enough to be a competent writer? Why do you feel strongly about teaching critical thinking?
TM: This takes us back to the mission statement. For me a competent writer is someone who can understand and express ideas clearly. Almost all the writing a student has to do in college is based on reading the ideas of others; it is based on processing complex information and sorting through multiple and sometimes conflicting perspectives. You have to be able to think critically. Further, almost all writing in college involves taking a position of some sort—staking a claim, making an assertion. In order to back up a point, you have to be able to sort information, synthesize various points of view, and distinguish between fact and opinion. Writing and critical thinking are inextricably intertwined. Someone once said, “How do I know what I think until I’ve said it. “ To me this means that writing is not only a means of expressing one’s thoughts; it is also a way of figuring out what you think.
DH: What are the challenges you face with your diverse student body?
TM: Yes, there are challenges but I also have to say there are many benefits. Students bring an incredible wealth of life experience with them. Getting back to the mission statement, the department is committed to drawing upon this diversity in culture, age and background to make learning a richer experience. The amazing diversity of this place is one of the things that make teaching at BHCC such a great experience. OK, so yes, let’s also recognize the challenges that go along with this. For me this is primarily related to the challenges of helping students overcome writing difficulties related to English being their second language.
DH: Can you give us a brief history behind the innovative Midnight Classes that BH offers?
TM: This was an idea that came from an adjunct faculty member in the Behavioral Sciences department. Her department chair liked the idea and brought it to the attention of our dean. Eventually the president heard about it and found the idea compelling. She saw a need and an opportunity and put some resources into the development of what we now call the Midnight College. We started off with a writing course and psychology class last fall and added a sociology course this past spring semester.
DH: You have a number of satellite campuses, in addition to the main campus in Charlestown. What does the Somerville satellite offer the prospective Somerville student?
TM: As far as I know we are only offering developmental math at the Mystic Activity Center in the fall. This may change in the future. Much depends on demand. BHCC’s Charlestown campus is so accessible to Somerville residents it affects our ability to offer courses at a site in Somerville.
DH: I know you have an interest in jazz. I used Amiri Baraka's essay " Minton's Playhouse" which concerned the famed NYC jazz club in one writing class I taught. There is a lot of improvisation in jazz. One might say this is true in writing creatively, or even in expository writing. What's your take?
TM: Almost all improvisation in jazz is done within a structure of some kind. So while there is great freedom there are also boundaries. Much the same could be said about writing an essay. Jazz players use forms, such as the 12-bar blues, as a vehicle of expression just as poets use forms like the sonnet. Interesting things happen when there’s a creative tension between form and expression. William Wordsworth said that a poem is like a fountain, a sudden bursting forth of creative expression—which seems descriptive as well of a jazz solo. And yet for both writer and jazz musician there is an incredible discipline that is demanded. For a jazz musician this comes in all the hours of practice and study that provide a foundation for that improvisation on the bandstand; for the writer it’s all the hours of writing and rewriting. Even in writing an expository essay you’re always working away at finding a new turn of phrase or just the write sentence rhythm – the same sort of thing you’re trying to accomplish in a jazz solo.