The Challenge of Teaching and Learning at a Community College!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday’s New York Times had a featured article about teaching and learning at a community college. The article provided insights from Eduardo Vianna, a professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, and a student, Mike Rifino, who was required to take remedial courses to start his higher education. Here is an excerpt:

“After having spent an entire semester without speaking in class…the following semester Mr. Rifino turned up in Dr. Vianna’s developmental psychology course. This time he took a seat closer to the front of the room. Taking that as a positive sign, Dr. Vianna asked him to join a weekly discussion group for students who might want to talk about big ideas in economics, education and politics, subjects that might cultivate a sense of intellectual curiosity and self-understanding among students whose backgrounds typically left them lacking in either.

“The group met on Friday afternoons,” Dr. Vianna said, “and Mike’s friends were asking him why he was wasting his time; the students who came weren’t getting any credit.”

At the time, Mr. Rifino was working as a cashier at a Gap in a mall on Queens Boulevard, and feeling despondent about it. Dr. Vianna then introduced him to Erich Fromm’s writing on Marx, and something in Mr. Rifino ignited, as he began to examine his own sense of alienation. He quickly finished his work at LaGuardia, and transferred to Hunter College in 2012. In the fall he began a doctoral program in psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.”

The article provided this perspective from Dr. Vianna:

“As a specialist in developmental psychology, Dr. Vianna has spent much of his career examining the way young people from disadvantaged backgrounds acquire knowledge and use it, the way the identities they have forged in the face of myriad deprivations can influence and impede the process of learning. At LaGuardia, where some of the city’s least-prepared students land, and where he has taught for 10 years, he is, in some sense, involved in a near-constant project of professional development. His classroom is his laboratory.

One enormous challenge for community college instructors is that many students arrive with the notion that a college education is essential, but remain unconvinced that what they will learn during the course of their studies is equally so. To create a world of young people skilled at analysis you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said, “cringe at complexity.”

“There’s a mistrust and antagonism between teachers and students because authority hasn’t traditionally been good to them,” he said. “Their experiences in the education system have been coercive. It’s not really clear to them what the value of academic knowledge actually is. If they come here with the goal of doing something very specific — to become a stewardess, or a makeup artist — they may think, ‘What’s the point?’ ”

The article provides a number of other gems about the life of a teacher and student in a typical community college. Well worth the read!




  1. Thank you for your post, Tony. You selected some of the best passages in the article. I just would like to add that as great as I thought the article was, obviously the deeper educational and developmental theoretical underpinning of my work, especially its foundation on the ‘transformative activist stance’, was not addressed in the article. This is important because theory is a very practical to develop good pedagogy and curriculum.

    Thank you

    Eduardo Vianna