Sunday, October 05, 2014

What I Learned Talking to Grad Students

On Friday, I had the chance to participate in a conference organized by Paula Krebs, from Bridgewater State, on preparing doctoral students for positions at teaching-intensive institutions. (It was the kickoff of what we hope will be an ongoing cross-sectional partnership.)  I was one of several community college representatives there, along with several folks from state universities.  The audience was primarily graduate students at relatively elite institutions, along with a few errant graduate deans and directors.

It was eye-opening.  I honestly wonder what graduate advisors are telling their students.

The format of the conference was refreshing; for once, the community college and state university people were at the podium, and the MIT and Ivy League folk were in the audience.  That almost never happens.  We had some concurrent sessions, in which people presented various perspectives on hiring, but the highlight for me was the one-on-one review of application materials.

The grad students I met were accomplished, earnest, smart, and well-prepared for research university jobs.  But they were also lost, when it came to the realities of applying for full-time faculty roles at community colleges.  It became clear quickly that they really had no idea.  I was a little uncertain, going in, about whether I could actually add any value; when I saw the common mistakes, though, I relaxed.  There’s plenty of work to be done.  

I don’t blame the grad students for that.  They know what they’ve been taught, and what they’ve absorbed by osmosis.  To the extent that their programs have official and unofficial blind spots, the grad students reflect that.  (I don’t exempt myself; coming out of my doctoral program in the 90’s, I had no idea about community colleges.  But that was the 90’s.  I would have expected more progress by now.) The short-term point of the conference was to fill in some of those gaps; the longer-term point is to send some wake-up calls to graduate programs.

Some of the tips that seemed to come as news were pretty basic.  For example, if you’re wrapping up your doctorate in a research-intensive program and applying to a community college, you will raise a red flag with a search committee about whether this is the job you really want.  We don’t want to be settled for.  If the letter is all about your dissertation and subsequent research plans, you probably won’t get the interview.  Similarly, if the cv puts several pages of research before deigning to mention teaching, you’ve tipped your hand.  These should be obvious, but apparently are not.  And for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t do your letter in 8 point font.  Some of us have old eyes, and will struggle to read anything that small.  Using 12 point is not that difficult.  

In terms of experience, getting some online teaching under your belt is helpful.  Whatever your philosophical position on online teaching, it’s a rapidly growing area, and we need people who can roll with it.  Similarly, people who understand the concept of “universal design” and the ways to make their courses accessible to people with disabilities (beyond just honoring the request from the relevant office for extra time on exams) have a leg up on people who don’t.  I would think that would be obvious by now, but apparently it isn’t.  

I tried to convey some sense of the realities of teaching in a community college setting.  On the downside, the teaching loads are relatively high, the students’ academic preparation is uneven, and in some states, the salaries aren’t spectacular.  On the upside, there’s no “publish or perish” moment; it’s possible to have both a job and a life.  (I was heartened to see that male candidates reacted as strongly to that as female ones.  Progress shows in the small things.)  And the knowledge that you’re empowering the students who need it the most can do wonders for one’s conscience.  

I’ll admit upfront that even with helpful hints, the job market stinks.  Yes, some searches fail, and to the extent that we can make a dent in that, it’ll help.  But the larger causes of the poor job market are entirely beyond what applicants do or don’t do.  That said, I still find it shocking that graduate faculty -- whose job it is to prepare students for academic jobs -- are so out of touch with what students need at the institutions that actually do most of the hiring.  The fact that the conference even had to happen is surprising.  I hope that some folks will take the helpful hints back to their grad programs and trigger some discussions about just what, exactly, the programs are doing.  

In the meantime, stay tuned for some postings...