Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Casting Against Type

A new correspondent writes:

I'm wondering if you have any advice for those of us in school in
"abstract" or "theoretical" fields who have seen the light and want to
teach community college.

Me, I'm halfway through a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics, something
that just isn't taught at the CC level. And while the skills involved
— heaps of computer programming, statistics and logic, as well as all
the linguistic background you'd get in a second language education
degree — *are* in demand, I worry about losing work to people who have
those magic words on their diploma. Something tells me that hiring a
computer science grad to teach your intro programming class, or a
second language education grad to teach Spanish I, is a much safer bet
than hiring someone like me. (Meanwhile, Linguistics departments at
major research universities do hire people like me, but I'm realizing
that that line of work wouldn't suit me as well as I had hoped....)

I've seen complaints, on your blog and elsewhere, about the
cluelessness of new Ph.D.s who show up talking about their fancy
theoretical dissertation work to an interview for a job teaching basic
math or computer skills. I'd like to *not be* one of those people.
Thoughts on how?

This is closer to my own experience than I care to admit. Suffice it to say that even in my teaching days, the courses I taught were often only tangentially related to my scholarly training.

This is one of those times when counting backwards is the way to go. You mention computer programming, statistics, logic, and second language education; I've never seen a job at a cc that combined all of those. And you're probably right that if a committee is looking for, say, a statistics instructor, it's likelier to be comfortable with someone with a degree in applied math than someone with a degree in theoretical linguistics. So my first piece of advice would be to envision the cc job that you'd like the most, and then work backwards to the mix of qualifications that would get you there. One way to do that is to arrange for a master's in a second discipline. It would get your hand stamped without making you do a second dissertation. It could also put you in a better position to get the kind of adjunct courses that would make you a more attractive candidate for your chosen field.

Generally speaking, smaller colleges are more likely to value people with several different skill sets than are larger colleges, which can afford to specialize. My oddball mix of skills was part of what got me hired at Proprietary U, since it had to cover huge swaths of curriculum without a lot of people. The good news is that being able to talk across fields can make you a stronger candidate for future administrative jobs, if you choose to move in that direction, since you'll be more able than most to speak to the cultures of different departments. (That's the same reason that former catchers are overrepresented among baseball managers: more than any other position player, catchers have to be able to communicate effectively with both hitters and pitchers.) The higher you go in the organization, the more comfortable you have to be dealing with experts in areas not your own. Having already learned how to do that, you'll be ahead of the game.

Even if you don't choose to go the route of the second Master's, you can certainly try to pick up some local cc adjunct experience in your target disciplines. Colleges that can be absurdly picky for full-time hires are often much more willing to take a flyer on an adjunct, so you may well be able to talk your way into some relevant courses. (Of course, there are also meaningful regional variations in the willingness of cc's to do this, so your mileage may vary.) Since the core of a full-time cc faculty position is teaching, there's really no substitute for teaching experience in a relevant discipline at the cc level. I don't often advise adjuncting, but this is one of the rare cases in which the low wages can actually pay off over time.

Another way to go would be to carve out your own niche. Instead of taking your unusual combination of skills as a deficit, figure out in which setting it would be an asset, and pursue that. For example, with the skills you've mentioned, you'd make a great Institutional Research/Assessment person. It isn't theoretical linguistics, but it's a combination of skills that isn't easily found, and that pays relatively well by cc standards. If you can do that and still teach the occasional class here and there, you could put yourself in line for all manner of good things. The trick is to figure out what you have that others don't, and to use that as your calling card. Lest that sound like 'settling,' think of it as something closer to 'comparative advantage.' You can offer a mix of skills that very few other people can, which means that in the right setting, you should be able to make a contribution that very few other people could make.

Good luck! I hope you're able to find a role that lets you make your unique contribution.

Wise and worldly readers -- any hints for a theoretical linguist with an interest in community colleges?

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