December 14, 2017

Success Despite the Odds – AELP Credit versus Non-Credit

There had been a taxi-ride in D.C. rush hour, a two-hour security check and wait, a seven-hour flight to Frankfurt, a six-hour lay-over, another seven-hour flight, and another taxi ride. All in all, about a twenty-four-hour trip without sleep. I feel nauseous and disoriented, but I have to put on my hijab and abaya, the black cloak that women must wear by law in Saudi Arabia. I must continue to be alert because I don’t speak Arabic and I don’t want to commit a cultural blunder that could land me in jail. I feel completely illiterate because I cannot even read the signs.  As if to make the situation somehow okay, I remember that I have experienced this before when I was in China, where I ended up in the middle of nowhere and I had to walk an hour to get back to a place that I recognized because I couldn’t even distinguish four from six characters on the bus – “Just take the bus with the six characters”…… Right. “Dr.” van den Berg, alias Dr. Dummy was completely at the mercy of strangers.

Why do I bring this up? Because this is exactly how our non-native students feel. They have to overcome tremendous odds –culture shock, home sickness, poverty, war and trauma even- and in addition, they have to learn another language in a ridiculously short amount of time. If you have ever lived in another country, you know that even the “standard” seven years in too short to learn a foreign language adequately[1]. Therefore, the fact that the AELP/ American English Language Program of Montgomery College prepares students for academic classes within a few years despite all those extra obstacles is quite amazing. Instead of asking, “How does the AELP accomplish such an astounding feat?” non-AELP folks at MC often seem to ask “How can we make the AELP look better to the outside world regardless of  whether that is beneficial to the students or not?”

There are many enthusiastic supporters of the AELP, who do nothing but encourage us in our endeavors. However, lately, it has become apparent that there is also a group who doesn’t understand the AELP and what it does. I am always surprised by complaints that the placement process is “not transparent enough,” that the students “take too long,” and that AELP classes are merely “remedial tutoring” by another name. What strikes me though is that those who are least in the classroom seem to have the most outspoken and in my opinion misguided perceptions. – I would like to say to those people: Have you ever taken the trouble to see what the placement process involves, have you ever visited an AELP class, or perhaps learned another language from scratch well enough to dream in it? Probably not!

Maybe you should. Maybe that would diffuse the tension that has been building now for quite a while. Wouldn’t it be nice if the storm that has been brewing over AELP country would just blow over? Wouldn’t it be grand if AELP and non-AELP folk (including administrators and counselors) would live happily ever after? I think it would be very nice indeed. The problem is that there is a long history of good AELP folks who have been fighting for their students and possibly equally well-intended administrators and counselors who have disregarded their expertise. 

It all started with a review of the first ESL program on the Rockville campus in 1990. At that time, the college-wide AELP didn’t exist yet, but faculty in the new Rockville department of -what was then called- Reading and ESL undertook a review of the ESL program, looking at what type of ESL classes were offered at other colleges, best practices per current research in the discipline, and per professional organizations with regard to skills, number of levels, length of time needed to master English etc. In addition, ESL students were surveyed whether they wanted their classes to be credit or non-credit. An overwhelming 97.5% of all the students wanted their ESL classes to be credit. Despite some protest from four TP/SS faculty members, the ad hoc committee formed to deal with this issue recommended in March of 1992 that institutional credit (counting the grade on the transcript, but not applicable toward the degree) was the way to go for a college wide ESL-program.

In 2004, after a “battle” of twelve years with AELP folks pitted against an unwilling administration, the much needed Speaking/Listening track finally became a reality when  the course proposal was approved by the Curriculum committee. Why the same people who now often still complain that they don’t understand non-native students had to oppose the very program that at least addresses some of those issues is a mystery to me. Just like I am completely baffled by the convenience of calling us ten-month employees, while I know of two instances when AELP faculty were asked to do AELP placements throughout the year without compensation. I know so because I attended the CAPDI meeting in my capacity as Chair person at the time; I had a faculty member who had been doing AELP placements without compensation. Again, as Chair person, I was and still am fully aware that full-time faculty members have many obligations besides teaching. However, contractually, it is simply not right to demand that a faculty member who is not compensated be available during every break to read writing samples and do placements of non-native speakers. Why the faculty member and I had to “fight” to get the required compensation is beyond me. But wait….these are just minor incidents leading up to the grand finale – The AELP credit / non-credit debacle! And let me be clear; I am in no way vested in the outcome. Whether AELP should be credit or non-credit is almost beside the point; the point is that the AELP credit / non-credit debacle seems to be the culmination of a long history of disregarding the expertise and commitment of the AELP faculty. 

When in 2008, Federal laws changed, jeopardizing Financial Aid for AELP students due to their non-credit bearing courses, the administration took no action, which impacted over a hundred students. By fall 2009, this issue –which could have been fixed by a small editorial change in the catalogue- as well as the fact that TP/SS students raised a concern about the negative impact of institutional AELP credit on their GPAs was brought to the attention of the AELP faculty members. As a result, the AELP/IC (American English Language Program Institutional Credit) workgroup was formed, consisting of faculty, counselors, and deans to address these concerns.

From the summer of 2010 till the release of its report in April 2011, the AELP/IC met many times. Looking at overall and “adjusted” grade point averages of all students who completed EL104 in FY2007 (and were tracked for two years), it turned out that when AELP courses were removed, the GPAs increased only by .017. However, 64% of EL104 TPSS students would have benefited from the removal of institutional credits from the calculation of their GPAs compared to that of students completing EL 104 at the other campuses. Therefore, the AELP/IC Workgroup recommended institutional credit be maintained, but further data collection and analysis was needed regarding TP/SS. 

Late October, 2011, V.P. Paula Matuskey sent out an e-mail to AELP faculty members asking them to come to a meeting at 5 p.m. on November third, at Germantown. Since no agenda was provided, no one knew what the meeting we had been summoned to was about. We only knew that the deans, provosts, and AELP/IC workgroup was supposed to meet an hour before all AELP faculty were supposed to meet. When we were kept waiting in the hallway for half an hour, we decided to walk in. The mood was adversarial to say the least. To show my allegiance, I sat down next to a highly-respected faculty member who was irate and very vocal about the fact that the recommendations of the AELP/IC were disregarded. She pointed out that it was not only demoralizing but also simply a waste of resources and time. To my utter shock, in response, I heard things like “we must fix this broken program” and “council members wonder why we take so long to teach international students English.”  Had I missed something because we had been forced to pace the hall for 25 minutes? Since when was the program “broken”? The last Outcomes Assessment report I had read had indicated that AELP students did very well in subsequent classes….. Whatever council member it was, must have been joking. I speak four languages of which I speak two fluently, but to get to that point took me about 25 years. Talk about unrealistic expectations and not being well informed! This was a very strange meeting indeed, which made me feel slighted. Before I had to leave to go teach my evening class, it became clear that V.P. Matuskey was planning to make the AELP non-credit despite the recommendations from the work group. Before I left, I glanced over at my colleagues who had spent a year apparently on a wild goose chase. They looked distraught.

The next few days, the halls of MC were abuzz with whispered conversations about how people felt physically sick, sad, or at least ill at ease after the meeting. Then V.P. Matusky sent out an e-mail stating that she supported the “recommendations of the task group with the exception of the recommendation relating to institutional credit” and that “by the end of this academic year…courses [would have to be changed] from institutional credit to no credit” by a small subgroup led by AELP lead dean Hawkins and Professor Berman.   The same day, Professor Berman answered this e-mail confirming he would form a new committee that would gather more data and then, “based on the data, recommend a system that serve[d] students best…”

 On November 16, Laura Gardner, a TPSS counselor, sent an e-mail stating that “the decision to eliminate credit for the AELP program ha[d] been made,” and that “twenty years ago the English department abrogated the curriculum process to put [the AELP] in place” and that “this travesty [needed to be] rectified.”  On November 17th, Rick Penn (AAUP chair) met with Dr. Pollard to express concern not with the decision itself, but with the processes by which these decisions were made and communicated. Dr. Pollard answered that no decisions had been made. 

After that, the AELP credit versus non-credit issue kept surfacing in e-mails zinging through cyberspace, floating in whispered gossip behind closed doors, and drifting aimlessly down the hallways poisoning our working environment. 

What is the end result of this debacle?

We don’t know yet, and honestly, in my opinion, the end result cannot be more earth-shattering or devastating than the way this was handled. I am a reasonable person who can adapt to circumstances and even a flawed system, so I am sure that I will learn to live with whatever the decision is. What I find much harder to live with is that a growing sense of discontent -of a feeling that those who do not teach don’t respect me or value my professional opinion – has been growing deep inside me like a cancer, weakening me and sapping me of the energy and strength that my students deserve. 

What was that again?

I remember something vaguely of the students “being the center of our universe,” or that our mission was to “empower students”….. Forgive me if I forgot what I was here for; my mission was buried in a quagmire of paper-pushing, busy-work, and committees that apparently don’t always matter. No, joking aside now; the only reason that someone in his or her right mind would invest a tremendous amount of time and money to obtain a Master’s Degree or Ph.D., teach at a community college, and put in 60+ hours every week for a salary that is far below what anyone with those credentials would make in other fields is because that person loves students.

I do.

I stayed at Montgomery College when life almost took me elsewhere because I love particularly those non-native students I started my story with. I want to teach precisely those brave, unique, intelligent, diverse, and amazing human beings from other countries who teach me so much each and every semester about myself and the world I live in. If Montgomery College would just let me. 

I appreciate the efforts of Deans who make sure that we comply with MHEC. However, I do think that ultimately, AELP people should make the decisions that affect them and their students. The person who was so angry when I walked into that infamous meeting said it best: “Why cannot the AELP, as a discipline, be left alone to make its own decisions?”

Why indeed?  

By Jorinde van den Berg, Ph.D.
AELP / EN – Germantown

February 5, 2012


 

[1] ESL-expert J. Cummings states that children need five to seven years to develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Adults, however, take much longer.