Is there still academic freedom in community colleges?

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As I prepared to start this new semester, juggling composition classes at three different community colleges, I found myself asking this question. I guess it’s a good thing that it is the first time it has come up in the fifteen years that I’ve been bouncing around the local community colleges. But if I examine the issue closely, I realize that there has been a subtle shift all along.

When I began this phase, teaching at community colleges after ten years in K-12, the focus of the (largely unspoken) learning objectives was to align with university expectations, especially the state school systems (CSU and UC) in order to improve student preparation for transfer to universities.

But after No Child Left Behind legislation entered the K-12 system (around the time that I switched to college-level teaching), the conversation changed. As funding became more challenged in colleges, they discovered that if they aligned programs with the new K-12 programming focused on “learning objectives” and standardized remedial instruction, they could receive additional funding. So instead of looking forward asking, “how can we prepare more students for universities?” the colleges started looking back, asking, “how can we be more accessible to all high school grads?”

The shift created, in the words of best-selling author and entrepreneur, Seth Godin, “a race to the bottom.” Departments began standardizing curriculum, creating “approved, common-core” textbook lists and otherwise structuring and limiting instructor choice. Up until this semester, I’ve always had enough “wiggle room” to make it work. But just as the universities have issued a call to action to the community colleges to streamline and improve their student writing assessments and placement strategies, I have upgraded and raised the standards in my composition courses. I dumped the approved, required, expensive, useless 101/1A textbook in favor of an affordable, readable, interactive book about academic writing and added not one, but two, readers to every composition class – not approved traditional anthologies or collections, but actual college-level books. Two of my three colleges are totally supportive, but the third (and biggest) college is still trapped in the bureaucracy so common to NCLB- standard, required textbook from the list and only one reader, also from the list.

So what is an instructor who insists on academic freedom for herself and her students to do? The same thing I’ve always done: go rogue; turn renegade. So the bookstore won’t stock the second reader? Their loss! Students can get used copies from Amazon for less than half-price delivered in just two or three days. And students usually actually read these books instead of using them as coasters or paperweights.

Is assigning unapproved textbooks a deal-breaker? In most colleges, it won’t be. If it becomes a real issue, it’s probably not a college I want to teach for any longer anyway. But the fact that it is even a questions is disappointing.