Making Sense of the Community College: Interrogating Belongingness

By Hougaard, Naja Berg | Outlines : Critical Practice Studies, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Making Sense of the Community College: Interrogating Belongingness


Hougaard, Naja Berg, Outlines : Critical Practice Studies


Abstract

Drawing on the transformative potential of critical-theoretical learning grounded in the CHAT framework of recognizing the bi-directional relationship between learning and development, the present paper is an investigation of how nine American community college students participating in a critical learning community (Peer Activist Learning Community) make sense of and position themselves towards the pursuit of higher education. The paper has two key findings: (I) students primarily draw on vocational discourse paired with a conceptualization of learning as rote learning (i.e. memorization and acquisition of skills) in making sense of their pursuit of higher education, and (2) students embody a transitional positioning toward the community college, which poses the ontological challenge of belonging to an academic institution while seeking to negate this belonging. The findings are framed and discussed in particular through the lens of the transformative activist stance (Stetsenko) with an emphasis on the recognition of education as the process of becoming human as well as with a focus on the transformative potential of meaningful learning experiences. I conclude by suggesting the need for transforming the aim of retention studies as well as put forward the suggestion of re- conceptualization the concept of belongingness in educational psychology in light of the CHAT framework.

"Viewed by one segment of the community as a chance to achieve the American Dream, the community college is viewed by another segment as a stigmatized, second class institution - a college of last resort." (Dietrich, 1996, p.l)

Introduction

American community colleges are continuing to struggle with high rates of student dropouts (Seidman, 2005; 2007). The reasons for the high dropout rates seem to be a complex issue, however the vast retention literature indicates that among the reasons that students report are the lack of support by professors and administrative offices, financial strain and work (York, 1993, Seidman, 2007). Particularly low-income first generation students seem to be facing serious challenges in completing their either two or four year college degrees (Engle & Tinto, 2008). Several recent initiatives (Braxton, Milem & Sullivan, 2000; Rodgers & Summers, 2008; Osterman, 2000) focus on the notion that social integration defined as 'sense of belonging' is crucial in the process of increasing student retention.

Building on socio-cultural approaches to learning and identity that establish synergies between these processes (e.g., Lave, 1991, 1996; Wenger, 1998; Sfard & Prusak, 2005; Stetsenko, 2010, Vianna & Stetsenko, 2011), the core assumption of this study is that it is important to provide students with support and cultural tools that make learning meaningful by drawing connections between students' evolving identities and their academic pursuits (Stetsenko, 2010). The goal is to investigate the gaps between learning and identity in minority and first generation community college students in an urban American context as one of the possible mechanism behind high dropout rates and, through a design-based action study, explore cultural mediators that help to close these gaps. The rationale is that the need of increasing retention rates in community colleges can be achieved by critically interrogating and expanding the notion of belonging based in the theory of transformative practice as the grounding for learning and development.

Drawing on the notion of learning and development as co-constitutive processes this study is based not only on the well-established recognition of the bi-directional relationship between learning and identity processes (Lave, 1991, 1996; Wenger, 1998; Nasir, 2008) as always situated and thus growing out of a social practice (Nissen, 2012), but additionally based on the notion of the transformative potential of critical-theoretical learning (Vianna, 2009; Vianna & Stetsenko, 2011; Freire, 1970) as a tool that allows students to develop meaningful and activist life agendas aimed at contributing to and transforming ourselves and societal practices (Stetsenko, 2008, 2010)

In order to fully understand the challenges of the community colleges today we must investigate how the students make sense of the pursuit of education and see how this affords the students' learner trajectories and processes of becoming, and thus successful academic pursuits (Nasir, 2009a, 2009b). …

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