Howard Tinberg - Acceptance Speech

Outstanding Community Colleges Professor of the Year
Howard Tinberg
Professor of English
Bristol Community College

I accept this award with gratitude, not so much for the recognition that it affords of my own work—which is deeply appreciated, to be sure—but for the acknowledgement of the work done by community college professionals. Although receiving, in the last several years, frequent mention in the national press, community colleges continue to be, as the title of one well known study asserts, "honored but invisible" (Grubb), "honored" for their support of community and workplace literacy and for helping to realize for many the dream of higher education; but "invisible" when the good work—in particular the scholarship and research of community college faculty—fails to receive recognition alongside that of colleagues from four-year institutions. I am here to pay tribute to the teacher/scholars whose work, both in and out of the classroom, focuses on instruction within the first-two years of college, but to offer a challenge as well.

I have advocated the views for some time that teaching is a worthy subject for study and that the classroom can serve as a rich and varied site for research. My training as a writing teacher has made me comfortable with the view that learning depends, to some degree, on review, reflection, and revision. In other words, good things can happen to us as classroom instructors when we ask and answer questions such as,

  • What happened in my classroom today?
  • What did I expect to happen?
  • What can I learn from the tension between what I expected and what I encountered on that day?
  • How can I take what I've learned to enhance my teaching practice?

Behind such questioning lies the assumptions that reflective practice must yield change and that teaching requires the ability and the desire to adjust: notions that those who find comfort in the safety of routine—I include myself—might find jolting, to say the least. Like anyone, I find reassurance in the familiar. That sense of the well-worn and well-tried is so comforting. But it is seductive as well, sometimes curbing our ability to see, to really see, what is before us. Why don't our students get it? we so often ask. I happen to believe that we stand a better chance of reaching our students if we place ourselves in the role of novice, if we can recall what it was like to enter our own disciplinary conversations. In commenting on the joys of teaching and receiving knowledge, the feminist theorist and practitioner Bell Hooks once noted, "We have to learn how to appreciate difficulty, too, as a stage in intellectual development" (Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994: 154). Hooks was referring to students but the same might well apply to faculty. We ought to be comfortable with the pleasure that comes from engaging difficult material. I find teaching exceedingly challenging. I've often learned most at the point of failure: I can't claim that the learning has come quickly or easily but when the lesson arrives it is deep indeed.

We need not learn such a lesson on our own, however. How many times have I heard students confide that they don't want to ask questions in class for fear of being ridiculed, out of the mistaken belief that they and only they have such questions? Others are of course thinking the same thing and breathe a silent sigh of relief when one of their classmates has the courage to ask. Faculty as well need to display courage to share their classroom work with others. It is especially vital for community college faculty to engage in such conversations, since, after a day of teaching four or five sections, it is so tempting simply to pack it in and take off. Professional isolation, under such conditions, may be seen as inevitable. I'm convinced otherwise, however, having read the published work of committed two-year college teacher/scholars and having heard them present in seminars and conferences. The pay off from such an exchange is considerable: validation of one's work, renewed intellectual vigor and confidence, the ongoing support of sympathetic colleagues.

But we have an additional motive for going public, we community college faculty. So many misunderstandings about our mission, our job, abound. Some think that we are simply an extension of high school; others that we are merely vocational schools. We need to render our work in a visible and authentic way to those who do not know first-hand what it is we do. We need to construct for them, and perhaps for ourselves as well, an image of our work as intellectually rigorous and, yes, eminently practical. We need to tell our own stories and not rely on others to tell them for us. To do so, we ought not to fear taking on big ideas and reading complex texts. We ought not to balk when deciding whether to renew our subscription to a journal in our chosen field or to respond to a conference call for presentations, nor should we dismiss our own abilities to render our work in writing. More broadly, we ought not to succumb to the easy, yet ultimately flawed thinking, that in so participating in our profession's conversations we are shortchanging our students. They are, in my view, enormously enriched by our professional engagement.

As an editor of an academic journal that seeks a balance between theory and practice and that encourages contributions that ground discussions of teaching in sound scholarship (and the placing of scholarship in a teaching context), I call upon colleagues from four-year institutions to meet us two-year college faculty half-way: let's read each other's work and let's recognize, on both sides, the quality of that work. Let's acknowledge in our usual way—through citation and referencing—the scholarship and research done on either side of the two year/ four-year divide. We, and our students, ought to expect no less.

Thank you for this tremendous honor.