Friday, February 29, 2008

To the rescue!

When I started (technically, restarted) this blog a couple of months ago, I said that I wanted to use it partially to come to terms with a decision I had made to commit myself to staying at the community college level more or less permanently. I really saw it as a way to compensate for the fact that I don't get much real professional interaction here. The blog would, as I saw it, give me an outlet for the part of my life that isn't nourished by my community college career and a chance to take part in larger conversations about the academic life, conversations that few of my colleagues seemed very interested in.

Something weird has happened over the past couple of months, however. Somehow I have turned into a community college apologist, a de facto spokesman for community college faculty. This is a role I have never actively pursued. I've always tried to be honest about the benefits and particular problems of teaching at a CC, and I've rarely felt very dissatisfied with the path I happened to follow, but I've never seen myself as a cheerleader for community colleges. [NOTE: such people absolutely exist, of course. Some of my colleagues see universities as the enemy and see themselves as saving (or at least salving) those students who either have been or will be mistreated by the cold, uncaring world of 4-year institutions. But I digress...] After all, the impetus for this blog was my own failed attempt to break into the 4-year ranks, and I'll admit to sometimes being envious of my friends who inhabit that world.

So I've been surprised recently to find myself writing posts (and especially, it seems, comments on others' blogs) advocating and defending community colleges. Somewhere, somehow, I have become Community College Man. I'm still working on the logo, and the position of sidekick is open.

My main mission appears to be saving community colleges from the low expectations of both students and the academic world at large. In comments to posts by the Rebel Lettriste and by New Kid on the Hallway, I have argued that CC jobs offer a viable alternative to the staggeringly difficult 4-year job market. This is actually a tune I've sung before. I've watched too many friends throw themselves on the mercy of the job market, only to land at an institution far away, geographically, culturally, or academically, from where they really want to be. And, of course, I've watched too many others land nowhere, except in a depressive, self-hating funk. And usually, these friends never even glanced at community college jobs. It's not all their fault, of course. I went to graduate school at a top-tier R1 institution, where all roads were meant to lead to a tenured position at a 4-year, similarly research-oriented school. The option that CCs offer was never mentioned by the faculty or by the students. I landed where I am essentially by accident, and it was assumed by all involved (including me) that it was just a temporary sanctuary on my path toward a "real" academic job. Now that I'm here, essentially tenured (though we have no tenure system) and making a comfortable living, it seems irresponsible not to spread the gospel a bit. Can't find a four-year job? Look at community colleges. Don't like the jobs that you have been offered? Consider a community college job. Secretly wish that you didn't have the specter of publishing requirements hanging over you for the next seven years? Have I got a job for you.

See, there I go again. I don't know where this compulsive desire to preach the virtues of community colleges comes from. I suppose part of it may be that, as a result of wider interaction with the outside world of academia, I'm seeing fresh the kinds of attitudes about CCs that you sometimes forget about in the insulated (and often insular) world of community colleges. Blame the blogs, in other words.

Occasionally, though, I'm reminded of these attitudes even within the world I've chosen to inhabit. Yesterday in class, a student asked me why someone like myself, with a Ph.D. from a respected university, would want to teach at a place like HHCC. My first instinct was to redirect to the material I had planned for class (and I suspected that the question was partially intended to divert me from those plans), but, probably because of the comments I've been making in the blogosphere, I decided to face the question head on. I briefly explained the realities of the academic job market and admitted that I had chosen to work at HHCC in order to be close to my family. But I stressed the fact that I had chosen this job, that until last fall it was the only academic job I had ever applied for. And then I addressed the self-defeating attitude that the question carried with it. It's one thing, I said, when people at four-year institutions or even people in the outside world at large think of community colleges as havens for the not-quite-good-enough. It's something else entirely when those who have chosen to work at or attend community colleges hold the same attitude. By the end of the class, I was in full-blown savior mode. I was offering hope and a compelling vision of student potential. I was Barack Freakin' Obama.

So if you see Community College Man rear his idealistic head, either on this space or in the comments of your own blog, cut me some slack. I'll do my best to remain honest about community college jobs and community college students, and I'll try to keep the preaching to a minimum. But sometimes, duty and the American Way simply cannot be ignored.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

Go, Community College Man! :-)

I think some comments about working at CCs arise out of ignorance - I've never attended a CC, nor worked at one. Honestly, I think I set foot on a CC campus for the first time in the last six months. I grew up in a part of the word frighteningly overpopulated with snooty institutions of higher ed, and in my hometown rankings were everything, so CCs weren't on the horizon. (You can imagine I grew up in a town with a pretty privileged demographic.) I hope I've grown and evolved since then. ;-)

I think the other thing, though, is that it's so hard to get over the academy's insistence that research is the thing that wins you kudos. Even though the vast majority of non-CC jobs aren't going to advance your research *that* much more, it's like if you're not at a CC, even if it's an intensively teaching job with almost no research requirement, you can still pretend you are a Great Researcher.

I have to confess that now that I'm reevaluating what I want to do, what turns me off the CC circuit is the teaching load. I'm burnt out and can't imagine teaching a 5-5 load.

But FWIW I have had friends with PhDs from the traditional R1s apply for CC jobs and get absolutely nowhere. My sense is that this has been because 1) they had no CC experience and 2) they were applying as outsiders for t-t jobs (or the equivalent thereof). Most of the people I know who work/have worked full-time at CCs often start out part-time at an institution and break in to the full time after paying their dues, so to speak. Do you think this is typical? And if so, do you think it affects what you're arguing about the accessibility of CC jobs?

Prof. de Breeze said...

All good points, NK. I think it's especially true that other academics often base their attitude toward CC faculty on the fact that research simply isn't a component of most CC jobs. And to some extent, they're right to. I mean, I consider myself a medievalist, but only because I remain active in scholarship (despite my job). Were I to be content with teaching only, I could still call myself a professor, I suppose, but I wouldn't be an academic in the fullest sense.

You also have a point about the difficulty some Ph.D.s face if they do apply for CC jobs. But there's more to it than lack of experience or of an inside track. There are departments at my institution, for example, that strongly resist hiring Ph.D.s, especially from research-heavy schools, on the assumption that such candidates will not value teaching highly enough, will not be able to relate to our students, or will leave as soon as they get the chance. Stereotypes work both ways.

So it may not be true that CC jobs are easier to get than t-t jobs at 4-year schools. But they are another option, an option that's often overlooked.

theswain said...

I'm a soon to be freshly minted Phud, and I'd love to work at a good CC, but am getting nowhere, even though I stress my teaching. I wonder if my advanced years, comparatively speaking, helps or hurts. Anyway, interesting post, thanks.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Hey Larry,

I'm glad to hear that you've considered the CC world and sorry that you haven't had much luck so far. The truth is that the CC job market is often as capricious and ruthless as the 4-year market. As I said in the previous comment, it may in fact be your imminent Ph.D. and scholarly profile that is standing in your way.

The only advice I can give is the same given by folks at 4-year schools: know where you're applying. If you're applying at a CC, it's not enough to just stress your teaching. You have to turn your back on your identity as a medievalist (at least long enough to get in the door). The search committee needs to feel like you've been planning on a CC job all along, that working closely with students is your raison d'etre, that you already understand the ways in which a CC is decidedly unlike a 4-year school. In other words, you too have to become Community College Man. If you need to borrow my costume, just say the word. :)

Other than that, I can only wish you luck. Remember that the hiring season for CCs is often much later than for 4-years. We regularly hire in the summer around here. So there may be positions still to come.