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.

I have to be honest, at my CC, your application would probably not make it to the interview stage in any of those disciplines. As a philosopher, I'd even have a hard time hiring you -- because, although you could easily teach our logic course -- your lack of other philosophical training would make teaching other courses a challenge and you wouldn't have input into development of new courses.

Even getting hired as an adjunct would be difficult. The reason for this is that our union contract - -thus our hiring requirements, require a minimum of 18 credit-hours in the discipline in order to even qualify as an adjunct.

So -- you need to be very specific in your CV about your grad work in those areas, or there is no way you'd be a viable candidate.
In the South, the accrediting body (SACS) requires 18 graduate hours in the discipline plus a masters degree in order to be "qualified" to teach. Without going into the definition of "qualified", the credentials are paramount in the hiring process.

That being said, emphasis must be placed on your graduate courses and sadly, course prefixes. When it comes to defending oneself against SACS, many deans want the faculty roster to be as clean as possible. Therefore, STAT or MAT prefixes for statistic courses is much preferred.

I'm not saying it is correct; I'm just saying it is.
I'm so glad to see this letter to DD because it rings true with my situation as well. I'm also a linguist looking for a teaching position at a community college. I'm a sociolinguist and I've been looking at positions in Communications and English departments. But these comments make me worry about the possibility of getting hired in a non-linguistics department with a linguistics MA and PhD. Is it rare to see full-time hires at CCs with degrees in disciplines other than the hiring department? Sounds like there are institutional requirements that constrain this...

And on a side note, are linguistics departments in general a rarity at CCs? I've certainly seen a lot of ESL departments (who hire linguists) and even some applied linguistics departments. I'm wondering what kind of overall visibility the field of linguistics has in the CC world.
Anon 9:12--

In California, an MA/MS is the basic requirement to teach in a CC. A degree in linguistics meets the minimum qualifications to teach English or ESL.

There's a real disconnect here: A degree in English means someone knows all about the history of British and American literature, but most of the work in any CC English department is teaching coomposition--at both the remedial and transfer levels.

I don't know of any lingustics departments in SoCal CCs. But English and ESL departments often hire people with degrees in linguistics--especially applied linguistics.

I'm a CC English teacher, and my degree--and that of several of my colleagues--is in linguistics. Other folks in our English department have degrees in English, and more than a few have an MFA in creative writing.

To anon 9:12 -

Communication"s" is a bit of a pet peeve for most in the field of Human Communication. Typically Communications refers to Mass Comm and Human Communication people prefer no "s" on the end.

Petty? Probably -- but something you'd want to know if trying to get a job in a Communication dept.
to Anon 9:12
RE what Anon 6:35AM said
clarified by Philip at 9:57 ....

I don't know about Western States, but our part of the world there are two requirements that must be met before a person is supposed to be allowed to teach an accredited course at an accredited college in the sort of academic areas we are discussing here: an advanced degree (MA, MS, PhD, EdD) in ANY field whatsoever along with 18 graduate semester hours in the subject being taught. Exceptions to this last point require justification by the Dean for an adjunct position (each time) but are not allowed for t-t hires at our college.

I am told that details vary by region regarding what classes count "in the discipline". For example, someone with only STAT grad courses cannot teach statistics full time at our college. It takes 18 MATH grad hours to do that. A logic course in a math department would count, a math class in a statistics department would not. That sort of detail is why ItPF pointed out the importance of breaking down your CV by topics in the first comment (5:13AM) in this thread, and why you should talk to someone at a target college to see what they require.

A BS or BA degree can suffice when teaching "prep" classes that do not result in college credit.
Know somebody. In my admittedly limited (and very anonymous) experience, most jobs are inside jobs. Minimum qualifications still matter, because that's what gets you past HR. But once the interviews start, who the committee knows and wants in that position is way more important. That's assuming, of course, that the committee is united on the issue, there aren't multiple inside candidates, 'requests' from higher up, etc.

In the interview, foreground your teaching, and if you talk about your research, frame it in terms of what it adds to your teaching. Your training in linguistics should give you lots of different theories and approaches to how language works. More tools for a diverse classroom, more ways to engage across all ability levels.

Finally, everything is an asset if you frame it right. Being handy with technology is always useful, and the previous commentators who mentioned the institutional review stuff were right on the money. When they ask you if you have any questions in the interview, tell them that you're excited about SLO assessment cycle, and ask if you'll have the opportunity to help. You may get a spit-take from the committee, but there's a change they'll hire you on the spot. :-) The statistics and *experience generating reports* could be very useful.
What is it about teaching at a cc that appeals to you?

It looks like you've gotten an up-close-and-personal look at the mechanics of being a professor at an R1, and for whatever reason that's not for you. If you'd wanted to be at a teaching-heavy institution from the get-go, you would have planned your training differently. I think the previous commenters are right: at the moment, your resume peg doesn't fit into the "cc faculty" hole.

My first choice with your background would have been IT management or outcomes analysis in an industry that deals with bilingual clients. If there's something especially attractive to you about the academic environment, DD's suggestions are really spot on. If you go that route, I'd think you'd have the most success either at a small school that's looking for someone who can perform multiple roles, as DD says, or at a very big institution that desperately needs an interdisciplinary project manager/interpreter.

But seriously, good luck, and try to think unconventionally. A lot of the weirdnesses in your background can, as DD says, be turned into rare and valuable assets.
To the linguists who posted comments above: in larger CC's, because what degrees get certified to teach which subjects can get complex and political (in a case I knew, deciding whether to automatically certify people with engineering degrees to teach high-school level math has taken 2 years, if you think that one will be easy), people usually decide to play safe and go with certain prefixes. This leaves people with degrees in exotic areas at a disadvantage.

You may be able to take the insider route in smaller CC's, but there are usually a long line of adjuncts in most urban areas, and most department chairs are too busy to convince their HR people to get you certified, unless they are desperate.

Having said that, I think you still have a couple of options:

1. Find niche programs that do accept linguistics degrees, e.g. specialized areas such as translation come to mind.

2. Get another MA/MS in the area you want to teach at a CC, whether it's WRT, ESL, STATS, Computer Science, etc. To be hired as full-time in this kind of job market, you will definitely need a degree in the same area. Ph.D. is a nice addition, but won't get you the ticket to the interview if it's not in the right field.

3. Bank up graduate credits with the right prefixes. But if you are going for 18 credits like most places require, you might as well just go for a Master's degree. If you already had some units in the area, check to see if you can count those towards the Master's degree.

I hope you don't feel discouraged. I think it will be absolutely fantastic to offer linguistics at CC, but right now we are just overwhelmed with teaching kids who didn't learn anything in HS and lacked basic skills. The long-term trend in CC is that anything other than the absolute basics will be a luxury. We cannot fix the problem with higher education. We just deal with the consequences.

Teaching a class as an adjunct would give you an idea whether cc is the right place for you. Perhaps industry might be a better choice if you are used to dealing with people in R1.
I left my theoretical linguistics PhD. Program after finishing my coursework because it became increasingly clear to me how limited the opportunities in the field would be. I went the route suggested by Dean Dad and started adjuncting, teaching--you guessed it--ESL (and a few native composition courses). After a year, I was lucky to land a full-time lecturer position, and now, two years from when I started the adjunt shuffle, I've just had a promising second interview at one of the CC's I was once a part-timer at for a tenure-track ESL position.
I can't say this is the outcome I was seeking when I began my PhD program, and maybe in a perfect world, I'd be spending my time researching the deep structure of some obscure language while teaching 2 courses a semester instead of fighting to keep up with the grading that my 18 credit hour course load entails, but in general, I am happy with how things ended up.
That said, I think I got lucky. I happen to really enjoy what I do, but I can't say there were many other options available for someone with my background. Linguistics is a discipline that develops exceptional analytical abilities, skills that would be extremely useful in any number of professions. The trouble is, its difficult to explain that to a potential employer. It's all downhill when someone's response to learning I am a linguist is: "How many languages do you speak?".
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