Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Applying for Faculty Jobs at Community Colleges

Mark Connelly posted a well-meaning, but somewhat off-key, column offering advice to candidates for full-time faculty positions at community colleges.  I’ll assume good faith and ascribe some of the stranger elements of the piece (teaching licenses? really?) to regional or state differences, and instead offer advice based on what I’ve seen on this side of the hiring table in the Northeast.

First, keep in mind that the college is hiring to solve its problem, not yours.  And full-time faculty positions are dishearteningly rare.  That means that you may find subfields or teaching modalities combined in ways that graduate programs typically don’t.  A smaller department may get a hire only when someone leaves, and that may be every ten years.  In that context, the opportunity cost of a suboptimal hire is quite high.  They are looking for someone who can fill in the hard-to-fill gaps, who actually wants to be there, and who looks likely to be a congenial colleague over the long haul.

That final factor -- sometimes called “fit” -- is easy to characterize as sinister or vapid, but I think that’s a copout.  In community colleges with tenure -- yes, they exist -- people often stick around for decades.  The abrasive-but-brilliant tortured artiste wears out his welcome quickly.  In a small department in which you’ll see the same three or four faces for the next ten or twenty years, the ability to work well with colleagues (and students!) counts.  I know that “fit” is sometimes used to naturalize racial or other hierarchies, but in my observation, community college faculties tend to be much more diverse -- certainly much more female -- than you find in the rest of higher ed.  

Second, though, community colleges are colleges.  They focus on teaching, rather than research, but the faculty know the norms of higher ed and came up through the usual grad school route.  They know their stuff, and want to be treated as the college professors that they are.  In that spirit, then, the advice to do a resume rather than a cv strikes me as terrible.  Yes, the cv should focus on teaching and whatever college service you’ve done.  But especially in the liberal arts fields, you should be able to show some scholarly depth.

The real focus, here, is in making difficult material accessible to students who may not be ideally prepared for it.  That requires understanding it pretty deeply yourself, so you can recraft it as your students need.  That’s why the teaching demonstration is so important here.  

What separates a hire from a near-miss is often the second level of teaching.  Okay, you’re good in the classroom.  How are you online?  Have you done course design?  What’s your experience with outcomes assessment?  How have you worked with students with disabilities?  English language learners?  Adult students?  

If you’re in a fairly traditional graduate program that hasn’t offered you exposure to any of those, you might want to find other ways to prepare yourself.  That could mean working in a campus tutoring center, or picking up an adjunct class at a community college, or finding workshops on instructional technology, or whatever else.  The key is to show that you’ve put actual thought into your teaching.  

Doctorates are nice, but not necessary.  I’m told that in some parts of the country, a doctorate will trigger skepticism, but I haven’t seen that myself. Both of the community colleges at which I’ve worked have had multiple Ivy League Ph.D.’s on the faculty, as well as a healthy number of Ph.D.’s from flagship state universities and similar places.  Don’t assume that a doctorate is disqualifying, but also don’t assume that you’d be the first Ph.D. they’ve ever seen.  Particularly in the liberal arts fields, they’re becoming common enough that they don’t raise eyebrows.

Community college teaching positions typically feature higher course loads than most places (other than for-profits), but they usually don’t have significant publication requirements, so you’ll actually have time to focus on your teaching.  The classes are often relatively small, especially when compared to the cavernous lecture halls at large universities.  If you think of teaching as a distraction from your research, then these are the wrong jobs for you.  But if you can see teaching as a craft in itself, worthy of reflection and experimentation, then these can be very congenial places.

Finally, of course, keep in mind that the market, ultimately, is not about you.  You can be pretty good and catch a lucky break, or you can be amazing and stuck on the periphery through no fault of your own.  There’s a tremendous element of luck to it, even more in the last few years.  I’ve seen plenty of searches in which the second-choice candidate was frankly excellent, and lost only because the first-choice candidate fit current needs more closely.  It happens.  Ultimately, you control only what you control.

If you really want to be Professor Kingsfield, weeding out the unworthy, these are not the places for you.  But if you attend to the craft of teaching with as much intellectual vigor and love as you do your subject matter, you may find a wonderful life here.

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