Q&A with Faculty Coach: Dr. Katherine Staples

Dr. Katherine Staples

Dr. Katherine Staples

English Professor Katherine Staples, Ph.D., has been teaching at ACC for 33 years. She founded the Technical Communications Program in 1984 and served as chair until 2001. Staples received the Jay Gould Award from the Society of Technical Communication and the Minnie Stevens Piper Professorship. She is co-editor of the textbook “Foundations for Teaching Technical Communication: Theory, Practice, and Program Design” (Ablex, 1999) and co-author of “Technical English” (Longman, 2000).

Why do you think SSI is an important initiative for ACC to undertake?

When I entered the college in 1977, our goal was access. We wanted to provide educational opportunity for underserved student populations who didn’t have access to higher education and therefore didn’t have access to real opportunity. We’ve achieved that goal. Not only that, the college has matured as an institution. We have so many resources and so many innovative programs, but we now have to ensure our students not only have access but that they can complete their goals. Their goals are many and diverse, but to complete the courses and persist to the degrees and certificates they want, or even toward transfer, we have to ensure they can achieve those goals as well. SSI is designed to help students do that.

Who do you believe plays the largest role in determining the outcome of SSI?

Faculty. This is a faculty-driven initiative, which makes it so innovative. At other colleges and universities, success initiatives are dictated by the administration. SSI’s purpose invites faculty coaches and therefore departments to determine the kinds of data that can shape outcomes, curriculum, and instruction. This is altogether new.

How does SSI address the needs of today’s student?

The goals come from the departments. And certainly all the snapshots of data for each department indicate our strengths and our weaknesses. All of us want to see more completion. All of us want to address, in particular, those populations at greatest risk. The question is how to do that.

I think, by looking at our student populations with data, with research, we better understand who they are. For example, are they carrying too heavy a workload, or too heavy a course load – there’s a recipe for failure. Do they have too many family responsibilities? Are their expectations of college coursework realistic? These are all questions we need to ask and address in the entire college. SSI can help us do this.

What does SSI say about faculty’s role in a student’s success?

What helps students succeed is no more and no less than good teaching. And it absolutely cannot compromise the standards of each class. Now more than ever, we need to be the partners of our transfer institutions. We can’t compromise what our students achieve; however, we can learn ways to make them better prepared for success in college. The faculty’s role is key.

What does SSI say about the students’ role in their own success?

Students need to be prepared, and that preparation takes a lot of different angles. They need to be academically prepared. They need to be sure they have the right skills entering a course to complete it. They need to be prepared in their expectations of what college is going to require. It’s not simply a matter of grades at the end but how to earn them. They need to be prepared and realistically thinking what their short-term and long-term goals are for education. The better prepared the students are for every class and for their own education, the better chance they have of success.

What are the community college professors’ biggest challenges?

I think the biggest challenges will be to become partners in interdisciplinary communities with research academics. And that means keeping updated in what’s being published, but at the same time, with our heavy workloads always making teaching our first priority and absolutely insisting that our students’ performance meets standards. We can’t compromise. Between the workload and the priority with teaching, it’s a heavy load to carry. However, colleagues, new colleagues – like Sam Echevarria-Cruz in Sociology and Chris Berni in English – are the generation coming in, and I’m excited about the prospect of this generation of ACC faculty carrying on I think they can meet the challenge and do it well.

In regard to SSI, what do you know now that you didn’t know before?

I have a better idea of all the people involved and all the activities involved. Our first year was pretty much an experiment. We set out to ask faculty to determine what was needed, and in asking faculty coaches to take the responsibility, administration refused to dictate outcomes. That was a wonderful idea, but on the other hand it left many of us at sea. In our second year, I think we’re going to have more opportunities for keeping in touch with SSI as a whole. There’s going to be more coordinated work with research and more subcommittees. And there’ll also be more opportunities for deans and department chairs not only to keep informed but also to have a say about our directions. I think the first year got us ready, but the second year is truly going to have us all working together.

How do you see other areas contributing in a meaningful way that supports your work?

Every single person who works at ACC is involved; that is the exciting thing about SSI. Our campus police, our clerical staff, everybody who has contact with students needs to keep them informed and help them understand they’re welcome here. Advising, counseling, registration, and financial aid all support student success. Without them, students simply can’t move on.

What do you want to see occurring next with SSI?

First, I hope for a kind of collegiality, not just between different academic disciplines but between different areas of the college as a whole. I see this in particular as a challenge for each campus, where people work together as a team. Second, I hope that data will reveal what areas need support. Instead of blaming, we can do such things as propose more funding. It’s too easy for us to protect our own turf. If we stop relying on anecdotal evidence and start relying on factual evidence which data support, we can see which areas need help. And that help needs to come in different guidelines and procedures, perhaps more staff and almost certainly more funding.

How can professors use the new information?

I think the professors can consider the successes in a particular curriculum, or maybe strengths. They can consider alternative methods of curricular delivery such as online or perhaps classroom. They can be better aware of the profiles of students who might be successful in one medium or another. What they can’t do, however, is alter curriculum or compromise on what they’re teaching. That has to remain a constant. But to provide alternative methods, we can do that.

Is there pressure to compromise standards?

Absolutely not. There can’t be. Compromising standards would undermine the goals of the college. We’re working here as a transfer institution every bit as much as one that provides degrees and certificates. We can’t compromise quality. We can’t lie to our students about what they achieve when in fact they haven’t.

How do the new findings change your life or your professional experience?

They keep me busier. (laughter) They force me to consider exactly the ways in which I offer opportunities to work with the learning lab to improve their performance. They force me to consider which parts of the curriculum I’m teaching need strengthening and repetition. They force me to think of ways in which I can help students apply themselves and define their goals. They force me to think about study groups and peer reviews.

What gives you the most satisfaction in this process?

Two things. First, in five trial sections of English Comp II in the spring, I lowered the attrition rate by 12 percent below the college drop rate for that class. That made me very happy. I did it although I raised the standards for performance and required more work. Second, Sam Echevarria-Cruz and I are proposing a gateway survey, the pilot program of which we hope to offer in October. This particular survey can better help us understand who our gateway students are. This is a new initiative; little research has been conducted on gateway courses with high attrition nationwide. If we can design it to suit our ACC populations, we have tremendous potential for adapting what we do successfully.

How does this all connect to initiatives at the college, at the state level?

ACC already has many initiatives such as Achieving the Dream, and we’re involved in these nationally. As far as the state is concerned, we already have a limited number of withdrawals for each student – that’s a state legislative mandate. If withdrawals continue at the present rate, I think we can anticipate even more legislative intervention because withdrawals are costly.

What do you foresee as the future of community colleges?

President Eisenhower in the ’50s passed legislation not for the people who returned to college and university from the GI Bill but for their children and grandchildren. At this point, the number of people entering the community college – not just first-time attendees, but rather transfer students – is showing that the initiative has come true.

We have an increased number of students entering the two-year college for all kinds of reasons. Some of them are economic, some of them have to do with new immigrants, and some of them have to do with people who wish to transfer. Our ability to be the multipurpose community college to serve all those needs with quality, that’s our challenge for the future.

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