Appreciating (Textual) Diversity: Learning Communities and Nontraditional and Disadvantaged Students

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2012

Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana

In this essay, three faculty members from the Pace University English and Modern Language Studies Department argue that the choice of texts in Learning Communities can support the needs of various student communities by including texts, both traditional and non-traditional, which are relevant and applicable to what students see in their culture and in their daily lives. The final section presents the results of a survey of Pace University writing faculty participating in Learning Communities, and includes statistics about the use and effectiveness of non-traditional texts for inspiring non-traditional and underprepared students.

1. Heather Bryant’s Teaching With Multimodal Texts: Snapshots from a First-Year Learning Community

The Learning Community entitled “American Diversity: Challenge and Opportunity” connects history and English for first-year students in the Challenge to Achievement at Pace (CAP) program. At the start of the semester, one of my students, Jon, slumped in the back of the classroom, zoned out on his computer. His diagnostic essay scrawled on two pages of an exam booklet, a series of incoherent unrelated thoughts, jumbled letters, and incomplete sentences. His hulking frame lumbered in late and he sank into his place in the back of the classroom. Week after week, he avoided my gaze during class discussions until I introduced Gene Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese (

As Jim Keller, Director of the Bard College Learning Commons, writes, Yang’s text “visually evok[es] emotion and an awareness of social forces through the portrayal of first person experience” (21). Yang’s perspective complemented the History section in which the students studied Chinese immigration. American Born Chinese connects the individual experience to history. His text uses images to highlight stereotypes, create tension, and communicate the main character Jin’s experience of isolation and alienation.

On the day we discussed American Born Chinese, Jon’s hand shot up with each question I posed. He raced his classmates to the answers. He leaned forward in his desk and called out in response. He had shifted from the role of “passivity and consumption” to “action and creativity” (March, 17).

In “Teaching Bartleby to Write: Passive Resistance and Technology’s Place in the Composition Classroom,” Gregory Palmerino writes, “Our students’ lives are the first texts that we must read as closely as the compositions they write” (286). Their responses offer clues to new strategies, those that are more inclusive of the diversity of texts and students.

Jon’s transformation in the Learning Community occurred because of this more inclusive vision. As Gunther Kress argues, “The exclusive focus on print and written language ‘has meant a neglect, an overlooking, even suppression of the potentials of representation and communicational modes in particular cultures, an often repressive and always systematic neglect of human potentials in many… areas…’” (Anderson, Atkins, Ball, Millar, Selfe, & Selfe, 60). As the populations of our classrooms change, we must take this into account and change the content accordingly.

Pace’s CAP Program is designed for first-year students “who have the potential to achieve academically and to be successful at the university level,” but their academic record has not met the university’s admission criteria (Pace University, n.d.). The students arrive in the classroom, like all first years, with a variety of skill levels and aptitudes. While Jon slipped into a tangle of academic and personal challenges that would later lead him to leave school, his classmate Suzy developed into one of the best writers in the class. Initially, she too resisted the course materials, sat in the back of the classroom, and communicated boredom through her body language. The switch went on for her when I introduced the work of Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad via YouTube (

Suzy came from a bilingual home and while the content of this excerpt was likely as resonant to her as the medium, the video clip, allowed for an emphasis on the oral and embodied aspect of poetry. Our interpretation shifted as we incorporated these visual modes.

Once students gained confidence in analyzing visual texts, they approached subsequent texts in both history and English with greater awareness of the multiple layers of textual meaning. Rather than a stepping stone to the printed texts, the graphic novels expanded the students’ literacy as they learned to interpret the interaction between visual codes, symbols, and representations.

This approach to teaching multimodal texts moves beyond viewing these texts “as a debased or simplified word-based literacy” and into an understanding of “a complex multi-modal literacy” (Jacobs, 19). In the CAP Learning Community, these texts motivated and developed the students’ abilities to tackle complex analyses. As Jon revived from his slumber and Suzy migrated to the front of the class, their body language showed why “we need to talk instead about multiple literacies, both in terms of diversity in human cultures and diversity in message formats” (Elmborg, 195).

2. Deborah Poe’s Neglected Landscapes: An Interdisciplinary Learning Community

This team-taught course combined the experience and analysis of film with the practice of responding to film through creative writing. The thematic focus of viewing and writing was “neglected landscapes”–those environments that have been ignored, overlooked, forcefully abused. Areas that were explored were El Paso/Juarez, the Great Plains, Monument Valley, and New Orleans/the Gulf Coast. Part of the course’s goal was to seek a definition together for “neglected landscape” throughout the semester, even looking at the term as potentially problematic or limiting. Dr. Rebecca Martin brought expertise in film studies. Dr. Deborah Poe offered expertise in contemporary poetics, as well as creative writing. Both faculty members offered expertise in contemporary fiction.

Dr. Martin and Dr. Poe were driven by the following tenets of student-centered learning (Lea, Stephenson, &Troy). They placed an emphasis on deep learning and understanding through repetition and thoughtful engagement. They relied on active rather than passive learning through reading, writing analytically, writing creatively, and lively discussions. They increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student through assignments that become increasingly more demanding in terms of asking students to synthesize information from multiple sites. The faculty encouraged an increased sense of autonomy in the learner by way of affirmation and validation of students’ ideas and responses to these texts (both traditional and film). Drs. Martin and Poe also created interdependence between teacher and learner where faculty and students defined together exactly what neglected landscapes might mean and what connotations the term might carry. Lastly, the professors took a reflexive approach to the teaching and learning process on the part of both teacher and learner, where learning together was constantly reinforced.

This multi-layered student-centered approach was further complicated with a range of text and film choices, which reinforced institutional emphasis on diversity. Required reading included: Teresa Rodriguez’s Daughters of Juarez, Teresa Jordan’s essay, an excerpt from James Galvin’s Fencing the Sky, Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song, Megan Burns’ memorial + Sight Lines, Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, and Judy Pasternak’s Yellow Dirt. Students watched the following films, television shows, and video clips (students were assigned to watch some of these on their own): Touch of Evil (1958, 1996); The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936); Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie (2001); Days of Heaven (1978); Badlands (1973); The Searchers (1956); The Return of Navajo Boy & Epilogue (2008); The Burrowers (2008); Treme, Season 1 Episode 1 (2010); Louisiana Story (1948); Edison; and 101 Ranch clips.

Dr. Martin and Dr. Poe each acted as the primary professor for two of the areas. Dr. Martin’s areas were the Great Plains and Monument Valley. Dr. Poe’s areas of focus were El Paso/Juarez and New Orleans/Gulf Coast. Dr. Poe conducted the craft lectures and creative writing exercises for all four units.

A sample “lesson plan” illustrates Dr. Martin and Dr. Poe’s student-student and student-faculty interaction. Dr. Martin and Dr. Poe agreed they would always start a unit with a talk on their personal investment in the topic and what was at stake for them. They would generally begin the course with a lecture with discussion interspersed. For example, for the New Orleans and Gulf Coast unit, Dr. Poe first talked about her own personal connection to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Then she showed a video by local artists Bill Lavendar and Megan Burns. Afterwards, the class talked a bit about the video in conjunction with Brad Richard’s “Poetics of Disaster”–an essay about poetry on Katrina. Dr. Poe gave students an outline of Katrina literature (both fiction and poetry). Students were put into small groups with discussion questions around Megan Burn’s Memorial/Site Lines & the narrative film Louisiana Story. After small-group discussion Dr. Poe proceeded to conduct a mini-lecture on craft in terms of summary and scene in writing fiction. Then she led a creative writing exercise. Pace University’s diverse student body and the diversity of readings chosen (both film and text) allowed for engaged and lively discussion, including discussion that posed difficult questions of race and ethnicity.

The course used various disciplinary tools to cross-examine a variety of primary texts, images and other sources, in order to comprehend in depth such topics as: writing about personal difficulty; the analysis of multiple genres of work; the representation of historical moments and place through creative expression; and art and literary forms as cultural representation. The professors’ aim was to enrich students’ national perspectives by helping students to become more familiar with creative expression within and beyond their own perspectives. By studying these texts, students could better understand the very diverse ways in which craft is engaged.

Through comparison and contrast, students developed their ability to make judgments about the nature of artistic expression and its significance. Because students became more familiar with historical, philosophical, artistic, linguistic, religious, political, and literary traditions of areas and people in this country, they expanded their awareness of the value of altruism and activism.

3. Jane Collins’ “Learning Community Faculty Talk About Underprepared and Nontraditional Students”

At Pace University’s Pleasantville campus, most Learning Communities include a writing course taught by faculty from the English and Modern Language Department. Here are their responses to a recent survey:

Does a thematic focus that relates to the students’ lives or concerns improve student success? 86 % said yes.


  • Helps students relate to the material.
  • Students pay closer attention and “own” the issue.
  • Permits students to think out of the box of the classroom.
  • Improves discussion proficiency.
  • Allows students to immerse themselves in a topic more deeply.

Do you think that Learning Communities benefit under-prepared students? 89% said yes.

Do you think that Learning Communities benefit non-traditional students? 81 % said yes.

Do you choose different kinds of texts to engage underprepared and non-traditional students? 64 % said yes.

What kinds of texts?

  • Newspaper articles.
  • YouTube videos.
  • Shorter essays/readings work better.
  • Texts such as first hand accounts.
  • Texts that are clearly written with good illustrations, graphs, and captioned tables.

Are the following kinds of texts useful to engage underprepared and non-traditional students?

  • Videos/Films 90% agree 10% neutral
  • YouTube 60 % agree 40% neutral
  • Skyping 20% disagree 80 % neutral
  • Twitter 40% disagree 60% neutral
  • Newspaper/magazines 90% agree 10% neutral

How likely are you to use new texts and technologies to engage students?

  • 84 % Likely to use new texts and technologies!
  • 8% Neutral
  • 8% Unlikely


Anderson, D., Atkins, A., Ball, C., Millar, K. M., Selfe, C., & Selfe, R. (2006). Integrating Multimodality into Composition Curricula: Survey Methodoloy and Results from a CCCC Research Grant. Composition Studies, 34(2), 59-84.

Blown Deadlines Productions (Producer), HBO Entertainment (Producer), Overmyer, E. (Creator), & Simon, D. (Creator). (2010). Treme [Television Series]. USA: Home Box Office (HBO).

Cox, M. D. (2004). Introduction to Faculty Learning Communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 97, 5-23.

Cox, M. D. (2001). Faculty Learning Communities: Change Agents for Transforming Institutions into Learning Organizations. To Improve the Academy, 19, 69–93.

DeMocker, M. (2012, August 10). Abdulrahman Zeitoun charged with soliciting ex-wife’s murder. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Evergreen State College. (n.d.) The National Resource Center for Learning Communities Retrieved from

Hammad, S. (2006, April 26). First Writing Since on HBO Def Poetry Jam [Video file]. Retrieved on November 11, 2012 from

Hocks, M. E. (2002). Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments. College Composition and Communication, 54(4), 629-656.

Hoover, S. (2012). The Case for Graphic Novels. Communications in Information Literacy, 5(2), 174-186.

Jacobs, D. (2007). More Than Words: Comics as a Means of Teaching Multiple Literacies. English Journal, 96(3), 19-25.

Keller, Jim. (2012). Introduction to Graphic Novel Section. In The Fourth Genre: Creative Nonfiction in the Classroom. Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking Conference Anthology. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Bard College, 21-22.

Lea, S. J., Stephenson, D., & Troy, J. (2003). Higher Education Students’ Attitudes to Student Centered Learning: Beyond ‘educational bulimia’. Studies in Higher Education, 28(3), 321-334.

March, Tom. (2005-2006). The New WWW: Whatever, Whenever, Wherever. Educational Leadership, 63(4), 14-19.

Pace University. (n.d.) The Challenge to Achievement at Pace (CAP) Program. Retrieved November 11, 2012 from

Palmerino, G. (2011). Teaching Bartleby to Write: Passive Resistance and Technology’s Place in the Composition Classroom. College English, 73(3), 283-302.

U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). American Born Chinese: Video Interview with Gene Yang. Retrieved from

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Spring 2013: New Faces, New Expectations