Transitions & Transactions: A Pioneering Conference on the Teaching of Literature 

Prof. Manya Steinkoler, Dean Michael Gillespi, Edward B. Fiske, Prof. Margaret Barrow and Prof. Joyce Harte

Prof. Manya Steinkoler, Dean Michael Gillespi, Edward B. Fiske, Prof. Margaret Barrow and Prof. Joyce Harte
May 1, 2012

The first community college conference of its kind, Transitions and Transactions: Literature Pedagogy in Community Colleges featured prominent speakers and lively breakout sessions attended by over 200 participants for a full evening and day of programming, on BMCC’s main campus.

Edward B. Fiske, internationally renown education policy expert and author of The Fiske Guide to Colleges, was the conference’s Featured Speaker, and the Keynote Speaker was Sheridan Blau, Distinguished Senior Lecturer in English Education at Columbia University, and one of the country’s foremost scholars in the teaching of writing and literature.

Class matters

Featured Speaker Edward Fiske opened the conference and referenced his recent New York Times editorial, “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?,” examining the correlation between poverty and achievement, which “nobody disputes,” he said, adding that in the United States, “one-fifth of our children live in poverty,” and “the socioeconomic gap is even greater than the racial gap.” 

Ignoring those realities “is essentially what ‘No Child Left Behind’ is all about,” said Fiske, and described three issues that intersect with poverty to impact students’ success in school: early childhood education, health services, and extended learning time, or learning that continues outside of school—a given, he said, in more advantaged families.

Tying in higher education trends, such as the focus on accessibility and recruitment, Fiske cited Amherst College, where 23% of the students now qualify for Pell grants.

“But that’s only part of it,” he said, pointing to the challenge of retention many colleges face, and cultural factors: In Finland, the teaching profession is highly revered, and “there is no word for ‘accountability’,” he said. “It’s all about ‘responsibility’ to them.”

BMCC English Professor Margaret Barrow, who, along with Professor of English Manya Steinkoler designed and coordinated the conference commented that, “Edward Fiske’s address confirmed for me, that being aware of issues of access and opportunity is not only relevant, but critical to the teaching of literature in an urban college such as BMCC.”

“It’s impossible to build on students’ strengths, and value their responses to literature in an authentic way,” she said, “without understanding the socio-economic factors that have shaped their academic experiences to that point.”

A former Education Editor of The New York Times, Fiske has co-authored books on school reform in New Zealand and South Africa, as well as papers on school finance in the Netherlands. He has traveled widely, researching educational trends in developing countries for UNESCO, the World Bank, USAID and other organizations, and now teaches public policy and economics at Duke University.

From “silly parody” to meaningful prosody

Sheldon Blau, one of the nation’s pre-eminent scholars on the teaching of writing and literature was the conference’s Keynote Speaker, and delivered his comments in the form of a writing workshop, enabling the audience to experience and reflect on writing and teaching concepts as they were being discussed.

A copy of Blau’s widely referenced book for teachers, The Literature Workshop,Teaching Texts and Their Readers, was raffled off and the winner, Professor Jan Stahl of the BMCC English Department mentioned days later, “I have already learned so much that I can use in my teaching.”

A winner of the 2004 Richard Meade Award for outstanding research in English education, Blau has published extensively on the ethics and politics of literacy, the teaching of composition and literature, and other topics. In his conference address, he spoke against teaching that elicits “a silly parody of academic writing,” and advocated for classroom strategies that invite students “to be, instead, a contributor to that academic community.”

“He encouraged us all to dare to move outside the prescriptive forms of looking at students and writing in the classroom,” said Professor Barrow. “When he commented on the ways we approach writing and its debilitating effects, he brought to light many of our challenges—especially those that exist in the academy and have become a familiar and comfortable place. By making the familiar unfamiliar—through his address and the writing activities he led us through—he shook us out of our reverie.”

Blau is a former President of the National Council of Teachers of English, and has served as a member of the English Academic Advisory Committee to the College Board and Director of the National Literature Project. For 20 years, he was a member of the National Writing Project Advisory Board and Task Force and for 30 years, directed the University of California at Santa Barbara’s South Coast Writing Project and Literature Institute for Teachers.

Intelligent design

“Manya and I had been discussing our teaching with each other for about a year,” said Barrow, referring to her colleague, Professor Steinkoler. “The conversations were both invigorating and practical, and by sharing our ideas, we both felt that our teaching was improving.” 

Extending that kind of collegial support and feedback to include educators from the Northeast region of the U.S.—and beyond—was the impetus for the conference.

Barrow and Steinkoler began by issuing a call for papers organized around issues that impact the teaching of literature at the community college level, and those papers became the nucleus of 30 sessions on teaching in contexts as varied as technology, popular culture, psychoanalytic theory, gender, transformational thinking, politics, classical texts, interdisciplinary approaches, race, class and ethnicity, and others.

Each session featured presenters from within CUNY as well as from community colleges in California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maryland, and New Jersey.

“I’d never been around a group of English teachers who didn’t know each other, but appeared to be collaboratively caught up in the power of learning,” Barrow said. 

In one student panel, “There were six community college students, two from Roxbury Massachusetts, and four CUNY students including two BMCC students,” she said. “They were a big hit! Their panel swarmed with faculty filling the seats, aisles and doorway. In fact, faculty had to listen from the hallway as the six presented.”

Steinkoler added that, “The most moving and truly startling fact was the constant, really continuous sense of deep commitment on the part of community college teachers. This was just incredible—and so  heartfelt. I think it made us proud, and this cannot be underestimated.”

Rave reviews

Attended by English professors and teachers from within CUNY as well from colleges in the Northeast region of the United States and as far away as South Africa, the conference ended with written exit evaluations.

Ken Tangvik, a professor from Roxbury Community College, in Massachusetts wrote that, “…. as teachers of literature we have a special, critically important mission in our society, particularly with the rich, diverse urban community college population. As Louis Rosenblatt said, ‘Literature makes comprehensive, the many ways in which human beings meet the endless possibilities that life offers and through literature, students can examine their values, aspirations, and choices as they weave their own personal philosophies’.”

Heather Ostman, a professor from SUNY Westchester Community College commented, “At BMCC, I was so delighted to discover new teaching ideas—things I can actually use—and to meet new colleagues to exchange information with.”

English Lecturer Jessica Rogers of Queensborough Community College remarked that, “as a teacher at the beginning of my career, so much of what I heard made me look forward to the future,” adding that in today’s climate of educational policy, “one can easily become so discouraged, and forget the real innovation and passionate exchange that can take place in the classroom.”

English Professor Robin Lehleitner from Berkshire Community College, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts wrote, “If we want the rest of the academic world to take community colleges seriously (and our students seriously), we have to take ourselves and our own scholarship seriously. You’re making this happen. Looking forward to the next one.”

As for the “the next one,” Barrow says, “I was asked by all the participants at the closing if we would please offer it again. A few professors mentioned to me that they are inspired to collaborate on new research initiatives as a result of attending the conference; others pointed out that they will change their syllabi, use practical suggestions for teaching theory, and engage in more conversations across state lines to help shape their practice. Our department is poised to continue taking a leadership role in the creation of new opportunities for English faculty conversations across campuses.”


Transitions and Transactions: Literature Pedagogy in Community Colleges was sponsored by Pearson Publishing, Cengage Publishing, Bedford/St. Martin Publishing and McGraw-Hill Publishing. Papers on the conference proceeds—publication details are pending—may be submitted to, or by June 15, 2012.

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