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.

My experience is that optimum "fit" for an adjunct means an inability to speak. It's not a matter of style but of "knowing one's place."

Funny but my piece for next Monday also mention's John Houseman's rendering of Charles Kingsfield. Given that we two may be the only ones who remember The Paper Chase, you might enjoy the piece. It will be at
DD... You frequently write about the importance of thinking about students, lesson design, quality teaching, ...

But, how often do hiring committees treat someone with a Masters of Arts in Teaching in X field as a serious candidate for a position when compared with someone with a Masters in X field?

I'm really asking a genuine question here... My rationale: such people should have an undergraduate major plus about 12 or 15 graduate credits in the field, and, they should have had some education courses (I know, people love to hate on ed school courses, but what about a "how to teach X" class? Doesn't that seem useful? What about "this is how people learn X" also seems like it would be pretty useful, right?).

I'm really just curious, I have no idea...

Addressing the two comments first: The regular faculty must be pretty unhappy there as well. Do the education courses in that MAT program allow you to answer all of the questions implied in paragraphs 5 and 6?

Our preference for the PhD degree in the sciences is merely a side effect of depth of understanding of the subject and the knowledge needed to explain subtle concepts. Many MS grads, especially from second rate colleges, just don't have that and getting burned that way is a big problem for reasons that Dean Dad listed.

Agree with DD on the point about c.v. -vs- resume. The key point is that it should not start with scientific research interests and publications. It must start with classess taught as the lead instructor and intersts related to teaching and learning.

I should probably update what I wrote on my blog many moons ago. This article provides a good entry point, but it is part 5 (on CC jobs) from an earlier series that has the most detail.
CCP--> I might buy that for science. I know very little about science...

But, if the course load that the new hire is going to be teaching is 4 sections of Comp 101? Or, 3 sections of Pre-calc and 1 section of Discrete Mathematics? I have trouble buying that a Masters in English or Masters in math is better preparation for teaching that load than a decent undergrad and a couple grad classes coupled with some ed classes.

Maybe I should phrase my question differently; do search committees give preference to people who have taken classes in Educ about learning and teaching in the field (this comment should really be read just about math, I know so little about anything else...)?

But, the question that's really underlying this: if someone comes in and gives a good lecture, is that evidence of "good teaching"? Are candidates even asked, "do you favor lecturing, or, have you adopted any of the research-based undergraduate curricula?" For example, the pre-calc and associated calc curriculum from Arizona that's demonstrating huge gains and is specifically designed for community colleges? (Ironically, the same system in which the researchers designed it has made everything computer-driven).

Everything we know about lecture says that it's good for transmitting information (then again, so are books and the internet) but not much else... Which makes it a decent way to promote memorized facts and skill building. But, even for skill building, things like computer-aided instruction are better.

Good questions, Timfc.

I'm putting my last answer first: If someone comes in and gives a "good lecture", we consider that to be evidence that they have not adopted any of the research-based developments in how to get students to learn physics, no matter what they say. There is no reason that a teaching demonstration cannot include "pair share" or some other active learning exercise if that is what the person does in the classroom.

I've never been on a search committee for comp, so I don't know what they look for at my CC. (I also don't know how far "outside" they go for outside members. We tend to use math and a really different science for our science positions.) I do recollect asking a comp instructor if they look for people with a degree in rhetoric/composition, after reading about that movement on IHE, and being told they would like that but consider learn-on-the-job experience just as valuable.

Among the great diversity of CCs, ours is one where many of those teaching a high school class like trig or pre-calc are also going to teach calculus through differential equations. (The same is not true for those expected to teach only lower level classes, ones that are NEVER taught by t-t faculty at a university.) Our hires appear to reflect an emphasis on (1) maintaining a standard at least as high as at the universities our best students will transfer to and (2) having a pure math MS plus lots of additional teaching experience and sometimes a second degree such as an MA or PhD in math ed. I have not seen any instance where a math ed degree alone would suffice outside of the HS-like developmental classes.

In physics, most of us know what an MAT consists of at an R1 university and consider it inadequate preparation to teach physics to future engineering or physics majors. We'd like someone who can solve Maxwell's equations at least as well as an EE senior designing antennas. Ditto for the person teaching calc 3, I might add.
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