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We spoke with one English professor about her role as an “academic coach”

Over the summer, Dr. Filiz Turhan presented at an internal ProQuest event on “Teaching, Scholarship, and Service in the Community College.” Turhan earned her Ph.D. from New York University in English Literature, with a focus on English Romanticism and the related areas of Romantic Orientalism, Medievalism, and the Gothic. She teaches in the English department at Suffolk County Community College, part of the State University of New York system, on Long Island, New York.

Suffolk County Community College has the largest population of undergraduate students (22,000) in the SUNY System. It offers about 90 different Associate degrees and certificates, ranging from mathematics to cinema studies to nursing, but the most popular major is Liberal Arts: General Studies.

For the Fall 2019 semester, nearly 8,000 students are enrolled in the approximately 372 courses run by the English department. This means a heavy teaching load for instructors.

After her presentation, we followed up with Turhan to learn more about the challenges and rewards of her role as teacher and mentor.

The value of basic writing and literature courses

First, we wondered how Turhan keeps her students engaged and invested in the value of what she is teaching since most of them are not humanities majors.

She told us that English studies can be compared to exercises that contribute to emotional, mental and physical fitness.

In isolation, each lap around the track or weightlifting rep might seem pointless, she explained, but over time, the benefits of working out accrue, leading to improved strength, cardiovascular health and athletic endurance. Likewise, she encourages students to think of coursework that is designed to build skills in information management and critical thinking as exercise for the brain, which will have long-term benefits outside the classroom.

In other words, literary study and critical writing are worthwhile in and of themselves and also as the foundation for students’ journeys, whether they are transferring into a four-year program, pursuing a trade or preparing for other areas of their lives.

“Skills developed in English classes, like accessing and organizing information or analyzing a work of literature are skills students use, or will use, whether they’re talking about a movie with a friend, being an informed citizen or if they go through the process of becoming a homeowner,” she explained.

Turhan also noted that many students who might not otherwise have an opportunity to read and discuss literary texts find pleasure and relevance in the material she assigns them.

“Poetry is particularly suited for college students,” she said.

The subject matter of poetry frequently speaks to their issues and experiences, according to Turhan. “Like love,” she explained. “Big human experiences expressed in a tight, formal structure and condensed language, like in a sonnet, can inspire new insights into what is happening in their lives.”

But her best poetry students, she revealed, are often those enrolled in the allied health areas, like those from the nursing program.

“Qualities like empathy and interest in human lives which have inspired these students to pursue healthcare also make them receptive to the material. They understand how the different perspectives they are exposed to in reading poetry will benefit them in the work they will be doing,” she said.

Research challenges in the digital age

One of the outcomes for ENG 101 Freshman Composition at Suffolk is students learning how to “access, evaluate and use different types of information and resources to support and strengthen writing.”

As students are exposed to (often questionable) information online, Turhan described new challenges in teaching these skills. It’s become more important than ever that students learn to find and vet sources for themselves. As a result, more class time is devoted to recognizing erroneous “facts” and data.

Part of the difficulty is that while students are encouraged to consult the school library’s holdings to discover reliable and authoritative information, most library search platforms are not as engaging as Google. And this isn’t a challenge only for first-year writing students.

Turhan gave an example from her Contemporary Global Literature course where students are required to research different cultural and historical aspects of a text using only library sources. In the case of Ha Jin’s novel Waiting, a student seeking content about the Chinese Cultural Revolution can instantly access an exciting variety of sources using Google – related books, scannable articles (including Wikipedia) and colorful images, all on the first page.

In contrast, the typical library platform is comparatively stark and utilitarian, and the first search results don’t always seem particularly relevant (for the key term “Cultural Revolution,” the first hit is a cookbook).

This can be frustrating for a novice researcher seeking information, especially under the pressure of a tight deadline. But Turhan sees this as a valuable opportunity to demonstrate how finding insightful, trustworthy sources takes effort. Just because it might be eye-catching or easy to find, “the first Google hit might not provide the best information,” she explained.

Digging into library sources to discover credible information “can be time consuming,” she admitted, “but it’s a process that gets students into the habit of thinking critically about the sources they use, not only for class assignments, but also for the rest of their lives.”

Supporting success for students with varying needs

For Turhan, one of the challenges in teaching such a heavy course-load with so many students in each of her classes is getting to know them one-on-one. She frequently gives in-class writing assignments to assess their progress and discover where they might be struggling.

As open access institutions, Community college student populations can be highly diverse – not just racially and ethnically, but also economically and academically. This means students are not all coming into the classroom with the same level of prior education and they might need help catching up; or they might be further along and eager for more advanced and complex engagement. Sometimes students have obstacles like learning impairments, or lack access to resources such as computers or transportation.

These needs are not always immediately apparent, so for Turhan, “every point of contact” with her students is meaningful.  

In one example, Turhan recalled working with a student who started out the semester doing great on her assignments and turning them in on time. But as the school year progressed, Turhan noticed that the student neglected to participate in two required online discussions in the Blackboard forum.

When the student was asked, it turned out she’d been doing all of her classwork using a mobile device. Because the Blackboard phone app didn’t have the same capabilities as the web app, the student was not even aware of some of the online assignments.

To preempt situations like this, Turhan makes it a priority to be accessible to her students– even after they move on from her classroom. Because it can be difficult to admit they need help, let alone ask for it, it’s imperative that students know the faculty is on their side, and are a resource for their success.

“I’m here for you. Come and see me,” she tells them. “Don’t think of me only as your English professor. If you need help with the technology or understanding an assignment or knowing where to find information, even for another class; I’m your coach.”

Learn more about Dr. Filiz Turhan and her work as a writer, professor and researcher.

16 Oct 2019

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