Monday, November 02, 2015


A Good Idea Gets Traction

In grad school, I remember people speaking the term “teaching college” with a sneer, and the term “community college” not at all.  This was back in the 90’s, when we were still expecting the “great wave of retirements” to open up so many tenure-track jobs that graduate programs were ramping up admissions to address the looming labor shortage.

So, yeah.

The world was already changing, though we didn’t know it yet.  The gap between what we thought would happen and what actually happened was catastrophic.  

That’s why I was happy to see that the Mellon Foundation is funding a program through CUNY to get graduate students exposed to the realities of teaching in community colleges.  The CUNY partnership isn’t the first to do something along those lines.  Over the past couple of years, Paula Krebs at Bridgewater State (MA) put together the New England Cross-Sector Partnership to get graduate programs talking to teaching-intensive institutions in the name of better preparing their students for the jobs that actually exist. She has put together a series of conferences for grad students at research universities to get tips and feedback from people at teaching-intensive places on both the realities of teaching at regional publics and community colleges, and how best to market themselves to them.  When I was at Holyoke, we even co-presented on the partnership at the League for Innovation, along with Vanessa Ryan, from Brown.  The idea is out there.  When I left New England, I couldn’t participate actively in the partnership anymore, though I understand it has had successful followup conferences at UMass-Amherst.

The CUNY proposal takes advantage of geographic proximity, and sheer scale, to formalize something similar.  In CUNY’s case, grad students will shadow community college faculty for a semester, and then teach their own courses in the community college.  The grad students will get exposure not only to students, but to institutional cultures.

From the perspective of someone who has been hiring community college faculty for over a decade, I can attest that candidates who know the terrain have an advantage over candidates who don’t.  It’s one thing to “love to teach,” and it’s another to love to teach five classes a semester to students whose academic preparation levels range widely.  Some people thrive on the challenge, while others can’t wait to escape to something more prestigious or research-focused.  Neither is wrong, exactly, but the fit can be.  

Where the New England Partnership tried to go, and where I hope the CUNY partnership goes, is in taking back the insights gained through teaching and changing the graduate programs accordingly.  Excellent college teachers aren’t second-rate researchers; they’re first-rate teachers.  But too many graduate programs still treat teaching as either a chore or an afterthought.  If the CUNY graduate school treats this as little more than job placement, then it will miss a real opportunity.

I’ll use my own discipline as an example.  Most community colleges in the US have a course like “Intro to American Government,” but I’ve never heard of a graduate class on “How to Teach Intro to American Government.”  That’s a missed opportunity.  And it’s a shame, because a class like that involves as much un-teaching of bad information as it does the teaching of good information.  Most of us had to figure that out on the fly.  There must be a better way.

So, kudos to Cathy Davidson at CUNY for a characteristically forward-looking idea, to Mellon for funding it, and to Paula Krebs and Vanessa Ryan for building something similar with less money and more space.  The need is there.  The idea makes sense.  And I think Mellon should drop Dean Krebs a line...

It is indeed encouraging to hear that at least some research-oriented universities are beginning to recognize the reality of the current academic job market. The primary goal of graduate programs at these research-oriented universities is to train their students in how to do groundbreaking cutting-edge research that can be published in peer-review journals. But the chance of their graduating students being able to obtain tenure-track positions in research universities is going to be pretty small. If they want to continue in academe, they will probably have to settle for teaching-intensive positions at liberal arts colleges or in community colleges. Even these positions are not that easy to get, and they will probably have to serve for a period of time as freeway-flying part-time adjuncts before they are able to land a full-time teaching gig.

And even if they one of the few that are able to obtain a tenure-track job at a research university, they are probably going to be faced with a living hell as they grub for tenure, trying to publish lots of papers and trying to secure external grant support. I have heard of lots of people who just couldn’t take the stress and grind of a tenure-track gig at a research-intensive university, and have bailed.

So it is a good idea for these graduate students to pick up some teaching experience along the way, if not only to discover whether or not teaching is their bag. An applicant with a reasonable amount of teaching experience will be a lot more attractive to a liberal arts college or to a community college than someone who only has a long list of publications to their credit.

I actually left grad school over this issue. I had a real interest in teaching Philosophy. My department had a real interest in me publishing Philosophy and couldn't give two cares about my quality as an instructor. It was a bad fit, so I left and became a HS math teacher (thanks, dual degree!). It has left me pretty bitter and cynical about institutions of higher education, as I know that many- especially the prestigious ones- don't actually consider education a priority.
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