November 1, 2021

Spotlight: Debilyn Kinzer

Interview by Jessi Knippel. PFF Fellow. Doctoral Candidate. English. School of Arts & Humanities 

Debilyn Kinzer teaches English at Cerro Cosco Community College in the middle of the Mojave desert.  

“This is the greatest thing I have learned from my students…listening. Just listen, listen to what they need, what their experiences are; they have a lot to offer that makes for a more dynamic, robust, and accessible learning space.”

1. Can we start off with you sharing a bit about your new job and what you are excited about in regard to it?  

What I am so excited about for this particular job is the fact that it’s a smaller school. One of the reasons that I wanted to work at this school is the size; it has about 6000 students. I also liked the opportunity the size gives to possibly utilizing more of an interdisciplinary curriculum to engage not only with English Literature or English Composition boundaries but go into history and cultural studies and so on.  

2.  How does this demographic of students connect with your teaching philosophy and student outlook?  

My teaching philosophy is centered in student engagement and student growth. 

The students and community of this area – in the middle of the Mojave desert – is a more rural and economically poorer population, which means there are not as many advantages for employment or social movement. To reach more spaces of advantage and access they have to commute to Victor Valley and Lucerne Valley or the Lancaster and Palmdale areas. 80% of the student population are part time students who are working full time. That demographic was the draw for me. I wanted to reach the non-traditional students, the student who has been a stay-at-home mom for 20 years and who’s now going back to school to better herself, or the student who has had to work full-time their whole life at an automotive shop for 6-7 days a week for twenty years and wants to go back to school to get a certain certificate that allows them to improve their degree. 

3. Why this affinity and calling to work with non-traditional students? How does your own educational background and experiences factor into your teaching methodology and values?   

I started in a four year university setting at Cal Poly Pomona, and I dropped out. I think my GPA when I dropped out was 1.3 / 1.4 or something like that. So I took some time off and when I went back to school, I went to a community college, with the thought that maybe I shouldn’t have dropped out. It was there that I realized it is okay to not be ready for college. And even then with that growing awareness I still wasn’t ready for college. So once again I completely dropped out of the pursuit of higher education for 14 years. Then I decided to go back to get my AA at the community college level.  

So it’s really my own experience of being a non-traditional student or someone who just doesn’t fit into the assumed box of higher education (SAT / ACT, direct high school to college pipeline) that has contoured my approach and perspective. It’s made me aware of how much Higher Education and American society at large defaults to the notion of placing people in pre-constructed boxes and how counter that is to so many students’ lived experiences as well as my own. So when I became a teacher I knew I wanted to focus on teaching students who didn’t necessarily fit into that traditional education box. And to inspire them, that they can still create their own new tradition and path. That they can be a higher education minded student but be outside of that preconstructed box.   

I am constantly thinking about accessibility for my students. Can they access this information? Not just technology or materials, but can they access it with their own background knowledge and experiences? Everything I do as a teacher is focused on “how can I create content that is meaningful, ethical, dynamic, and accessible?” I want to take what they know and develop that through personal narratives, through their engagement with their culture and with different cultures, their engagement with pop culture, what is going on in the world. But my main goal is really to start with what they know, which is them, and help them explore that from there. 

4. What is the biggest limitation for that exploration, in your mind as educator?  

From my experience so far, it is often the structural limitations that come from a larger school. They often get rooted in notions of what has already been done and codified. It’s been my experience that within that space, I as an educator am limited in my dynamic and flexible engagement with my students, which in turn limits them.  

This is especially true with the limiting of non-white non-male voices, because of the historical dominance of white male voices. In all of my classes, I make a point to include a variety of voices, Native American, African American, Asian American, Latin American, etc. I will recognize that there are dead old white men who have traditionally been held up as the foundations of English literature as the core text, but those in actuality are not the only core text. That we actually have more core text in our cannon like the Joy Harjo poetry, like Tommy Orange, because students need to see themselves, see people like themselves in texts that feature characters and figures who resemble the people and communities they are in. Reading only experiences filtered through the gaze of a straight white male, leads to a disconnect.  

My central goal when building my curriculum is helping students see themselves (and life experiences) in the materials they are studying. To help and create spaces where they can connect more between their academics and their embodied life experiences. Which ultimately helps them to connect more deeply with identity, their own and others. 

5. What are some of the practical aspects you incorporate into the learning space and course elements that allow for that spectrum of accessibility for your students?

Dialogue and Conversation. My main practice and form of teaching is a conversation between myself, the texts we are reading and my students.  

I start every semester with a conversation with my students…”I am Debilyn, this is who I am. Tell me about you?” I ask questions; I teach through dialogue. We have conversations around certain texts, like what it means to Native Americans, to not have their historical land in today’s society but to still be connected with the Native American culture. What’s the significance of that? What’s the significance of the silencing of the Asian American voice from before World War 2 until the present? How has this been exacerbated at different stages in American culture? This brings in their experiences and understanding around and about positionality and privilege and oppression within this context we are all living in. It’s rooted in hearing and listening to what they have to say as a vital and key element of the learning space and process. 

This is the greatest thing I have learned from my students…listening. Just listen, listen to what they need, what their experiences are; they have a lot to offer that makes for a more dynamic, robust, and accessible learning space.  

This is not to say that I don’t have some lecture format, I’m an English teacher so I teach the writing process which does include sections that begin with a lecture. But I constantly go back and forth in a recursive teaching form where I give a lecture and then we dialogue about that content. And if it’s unclear we’ll talk over it again.   

6. As a concluding thought, is there anything you wish academia or education as an institution would be more intentional about or really seeking to transform the way it functions?  

I wish the traditional structures of academia were more flexible, especially in accommodating today’s students. What we used to do in 1974 is not the same as what we need in 2021-22. When I started teaching in 2015-16, my students were much different than they are today even in such a short time frame. So I wish academia was more flexible with the awareness of how fast students and their needs change from year to year. I mean, yes, there are lots of changes, good changes going on in academia right now, but I think that many of them needed to happen a long time ago. And I think we need a consistent ethic of being flexible and accommodating with students, not being so punitive, and have a better outreach system for students who need more help. There are schools that are getting it; the community colleges that I am associated with, they are getting that outreach. But still, it needed to happen before there was a global pandemic. The flexibility component is the big key for me. I wish more teachers and educators were willing to be flexible and work with their students to seek their success.