Monday, February 08, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Is Working at a CC the Kiss of Death in Academia?

A longtime reader writes:

I'm hoping you and your readers can offer some input. I'm on the cusp of receiving my PhD in English from an RI school, having been trained by a well-known and distinguished senior scholar in my field. I went on the academic job market last year and got a couple of nibbles from small regional schools, who were reluctant to make any offers to an ABD when they had equally-qualified applicants with PhDs in hand. I didn't lose hope, though, because my advisor has a 100% placement rating. As things unfolded, my husband and I actually accepted short-term faculty posts at an overseas branch of our school. We planned to get out of some debt, experience a new culture, finish up our dissertations, work on getting published, and then return to the job market after a year or two. The time has come for us to return now, if at all possible, and we have both applied to tenure-track jobs at four-year universities, SLACs, and several community colleges.

In a bizarre turn of events, a tenure-track post has opened in the English department at a cc in my home state (40 minutes away from almost all of my family). My children are the only grandchildren on my side of the family, and they would love nothing more than to live near their grandparents. The cost of living is extremely affordable, and I would easily be happy living there. Would I be happy working there? I'm sure I would for a while...Forever? I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to give it my best shot. I am doing my best to take the advice of many who have commented on the plight of recent humanities PhDs and advised them to alter their idea of what kind of work constitutes academic success. I am willing to do this, and my general feeling is that, as long as I get to teach some literature courses (rather than all composition, all the time), I have some job security, and my family can put down some roots, I'd be pretty happy.

My primary concern, however, is that *if* I decided in the future that cc work wasn't something I could be happy doing for the rest of my career, would a university still be willing to hire me? Or, would I be branded with a blazing CC on my chest and laughed at when I applied for a more research-oriented position? Is there an insurmountable stigma attached to cc work? Have you (or your readers) seen a humanities scholar move from the cc-level to a SLAC or regional state school?

Never having hired at a university, I'll have to defer to my wise and worldly readers for feedback on what they've actually seen and done there. Having said that, though, my initial reaction here is similar to my initial reaction to a reader who was trying to find the perfect time to have a baby: you can control only what you can control.

Yes, I've personally seen community college faculty hired away by four-year public colleges, and once by a second-tier public university. One of the most interesting writers of my generation, Jennifer Michael Hecht, taught full-time at Nassau Community College before moving to her perch at the New School, which ain't too shabby. (I don't know her, but I recommend her book The Happiness Myth to everybody within shouting distance.) Last year my college lost a particularly wonderful junior faculty member to a four-year state college, and it has happened several times over the last few years. I'd be surprised to see a direct hop from a cc to an Ivy, but hops from cc's to state colleges happen with some frequency.

In each case, though, the candidate had something unusual. If you go simply as an accomplished teacher with a doctorate, you'll be one of hundreds. If you really want to make the leap, you'd have to do a kind of double duty while at the cc: do the cc job well, and still build a publication record (or something similar) that would make you desirable at the level you want. It can be done, but there are limits to how much most people will publish with a fifteen credit semester load. For all intents and purposes, you'd be doing at least a job and a half, if not two. Not impossible, but not for the faint of heart.

In any event, though, I wouldn't rule out a job that offers the prospect of a sane and happy life for you and your family on the basis of a hypothetical attack of status anxiety five years from now at some hypothetical university. These things are notoriously hard to predict, and living according to other people's status anxiety is a recipe for misery. If the cc job offers the prospect of doing what you love to do, in a location that works well for your personal life, for a living wage with benefits and security, I wouldn't rule it out. I made a similar decision when I took my nifty academic pedigree to Proprietary U, where it was all teaching, all the time. It wasn't what I had envisioned when I signed up for grad school, but it paid the rent, made sense for my personal life, and eventually opened up an unexpected career path. I couldn't have predicted that at the time, but that's sort of the point.

To my mind, the only convincing argument against applying for the cc job would be if you really don't want it. If the thought of teaching developmental writing, or lots of freshman comp, or fifteen credits per semester gives you chills, then don't do it. But if you can imagine enjoying it for a while, I wouldn't look at it as a life sentence. The world is a huge and unpredictable place.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who have hired at a university or who have made a similar leap -- what counsel would you offer? Is the c.v. stain indelible, or not?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I have to remark on the underlying assumption that the candidate will get the job if they apply... perhaps I'm reading too much into the question -- but, I have to warn that getting the CC job isn't anything like a sure thing. I've been on MANY CC searches and having a Ph.D. with a couple of non-analogous teaching years wouldn't put a candidate on my short list.
I don't get the impression that the candidate assumes the job is in the bag, but rather is trying to decide whether or not to even apply. Part of that decision is always thinking about how well you might "fit" into the role now and, to some extent, in the future, right? Drawing on DD's good points about trying to teach *and* publish at a CC, I would think that course-load might make a big difference. For example, isn't teaching a 4-4 with only one composition course different than teaching a 5-5 of nothing but developmental English and introductory writing?
Here at a regional state university with an MA program, we would look seriously at this person. The advantages - teaching taking seriously and most likely a wealth of assessment experience. On the other hand, we would also look for attempts to publish, present at conferences, and the intangibles of being able to move to a different culture.

Don't underestimate your happiness outside of work with family and friends and familiar territory around. Childcare could be another major financial savings factor (besides the rest of the family being happy to be closer to one another)

I can't speak for a future flagship or RI but ultimately it's your call as to what will make you happy. Academic politics abound and it's hard to estimate the challenges they present until you're in the middle of them. And, graduate school is just not the same in this realm.

Ultimately, it's your call and you won't know until you've been there awhile if you've made the right decision. The blogosphere contains the most progressive in education since there is a slight alignment between technology use and thinking outside the box (ie R1 as the holy grail). Remember most of us don't teach at the "big schools".

Welcome aboard and good luck with the search.
Obviously the person asking the question knows that there is an inappropriate stigma attached to cc experience in snootier parts of academia. Why ask the question? Anything is POSSIBLE, just some scenarios are likelier than others.

The best job seeking advice is to find what's important to you and own your decisions. Also, the competition for a t-t position in English at a cc is going to be surprisingly fierce. I felt like Inside the Philosophy Factory did, there is a subtext that if the candidate applies they will have to decide whether or not to take it. Only apply if you can feel that you would be lucky to get that job, or you won't be able to convince the committee you're a good fit.
I got my English PhD at a R1 in the late 90s. After a good hard look at the job market, I took a TT job at a CC (took me two tries, BTW, even with a bunch of relevant experience) and I've never looked back. There are plenty of ways to keep yourself fresh and engaged at a CC if you're willing to branch out.

If you do apply and get an interview, my best piece of advice is not to give the impression you think you've got a lock on the position or that you're "slumming" to interview with a CC. If the college is in any reasonable area, there will be upwards of 100 applicants, many of whom will have years teaching at the CC level (very important, at least in our hiring process).

In a more direct response to the original question, I've seen very few CC instructors move to 4-year schools. Especially in English, the teaching/grading load is heavy and folks with the best of intentions often end up letting the scholarship fade. (Creative writers are the notable exception to this.) In practical terms, I think it would be a real challenge to stay a viable candidate for a SLAC if you teach for long at a CC. Possible? Sure, but rare.

Good luck in your decision.
The English Ph.D. market is so heinous that I wouldn't turn up my nose at pretty much any good job. In addition, my experience is that family >> job, in terms of life happy.

My 2c.
I had the same impression as Inside the Philosophy Factory -- assuming that one will get any job in the current climate is deadly. I can't place your exact credentials so maybe you are in a unique position, but, even so, the attitude of "I might be happy for a while" is dangerous if the search committee detects it.

I don't want to say one should be glad to have any position, but CC jobs remain competitive. I'd be much more inclined to pick a position you think will work and go with that . . .
As a person who's taught creative writing and literature, I just want to point out that Jennifer Michael Hecht (who is, I agree, pretty awesome) has written several books and is both a philosopher and a poet. Creative writers have a certain amount of mobility across institutions, especially if their books reach a sizeable audience. One of my CW dept chairs had no non-honorary degree higher than a B.A. The current U.S. poet laureate, Kay Ryan, taught in a California community college until her retirement, and if she wanted a post at a major university, I've no doubt she could get one.
How many applicants will the CC get? Why not apply to the CC? There's certainly no guarantee that you'll get the job! (Underscore and in bold, by the way) Apply and do your best on the interview and for goodness' sake, do your research before the interview.
There are a lot of 4-year colleges that don't care a lick about scholarship (except, perhaps, to get students involved in research). teach well at a CC, and the transition to these colleges should be relatively painless. Yes, you won't have a lot of experience teaching upper-level courses, but in many fields, you're teaching 75% lower-level (for majors or gen ed) anyways. My current directional state college has hired CC profs in the past.

Obviously a transition into a m,ore research-intensive location is more problematic.
There's no reason not to apply. I am retired and have in my life applied for all sorts of academic positions I wasn't sure I wanted, and in some cases, was sure I didn't want -- but you should never turn down an opportunity to hone your interview skills and to experience a novel situation and meet people who, even if they don't hire you or you don't take an offered job, can play a future role in your career or life.

Until the position is offered, you have no decision to make, really. I did turn down a full-time temporary position at a community college this year, but that's because I've done it, and I'm old, and I prefer adjuncting at several institutions (the money was actually worse than my adjuncting at several schools).

Why reject a job at a community college with no other job offers, given all the positives in that area (closeness of relatives is an important factor at least to me), and you can deal with the specifics of the job for a few years? For "status"?

On the other hand, do what feels right to you. You will be happiest not worrying what others think.
I suppose it depends on the attitude of the R1 search committee. A friend of mine was a student representative on a search committee once, and the faculty member he was working with threw out applications with community college teaching experience like they were covered with tapeworms. Strangely enough, that particular faculty member's personal crusade was against classism. Other schools probably have different standards, and you might want to ask if you want to work at a school where that's policy. As a student, I wanted an R1 job, but my CC placement ended up being a perfect fit. Plus, the quality of the candidate's performance is a much bigger issue in hiring. Once you're past the resume cut, it's all about your networking and interview anyway.
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