Tuesday, November 10, 2015

 

Tips for Faculty Job Seekers at Community Colleges


It’s hardly news that the job market for prospective full-time faculty is brutal.  Yet even in this climate, searches sometimes fail.  In hopes of reducing frustration on both sides and making more and more successful hires, I’ve prepared a non-comprehensive list of tips for candidates.

The faculty search season has started.  Typically, the timelines for institutions follow roughly along lines of prestige; the elites go first, then the less elite, followed by everyone else.  Part of that has to do with custom, I expect, but much of it has to do with money.  When you don't have to worry about getting the funding approved, or about what the state or county will do to your appropriation next year, it's easier to plan with certainty.  For colleges with thinner margins and more exposure to the political winds, it's common for searches to be postponed until late in the cycle because they often don't have a usefully clear budget picture until then.

Rob Jenkins has done some good columns at the Chronicle for people seeking faculty positions at community colleges.  I'll add a few things, based on what I've seen over the last decade-plus.

A community college gig may not have been what you had in mind when you went to graduate school.  That's okay; life happens.  But if you convey, either in person or in your materials, that you're "settling for" a cc, you'll be dead in the water.  Yes, community colleges may be largely absent from most discussions of "the university" that occur in graduate programs, but they account for almost half of the undergraduates in the United States.  That's a larger portion than every flagship university in the country, combined.  Treating the sector as an afterthought is both offensive and really distorted.

And those of us who work here work hard, and take our work seriously.  The work may look different from the work at a research university, but anybody who has taught a fifteen-credit load to students of uneven levels of academic preparation can tell you that it's not for the faint of heart.  Doing this work well is worthwhile, but really hard.  If it's not for you, there's no shame in that, but don't apply.  These jobs are not stepping stones -- the teaching load is too high for that -- nor are they jokes.

That said, what can you do to improve your chances?

First, if you haven't had exposure to the community college world as either an adjunct or a student, pick up a class.  Get a firsthand sense of the reality of the place.  T.A.'ing at a R1 is simply not the same experience, and if you try to suggest that it is, you'll convey that you have no idea what you're talking about.  I know that any administrator recommending adjuncting is likely to get blasted with righteous internet rage, but candidates with community college experience consistently beat candidates without.  And there are valid reasons for that.

Second, tailor your materials to a teaching-intensive place.  That means moving the discussion of your dissertation and/or research to the end of the letter, to the extent that it comes up at all.  Lead with teaching.  This should be basic, but every year I see candidates violate this one.  It's a huge red flag.

Third, get some online teaching experience.  As with community college experience, online experience is a valuable box to be able to check.  If you're still in graduate school, and your program offers some sort of certificate in online teaching, get it.  If you're already adjuncting or "visiting," pick up an online class or two.  Over the last five years, on-campus enrollments have dropped at community colleges across the country, but online enrollments have grown.  It's the one consistent growth area.  Given that many faculty were hired well before online teaching became an expectation, new hires are often expected to be willing and able to step in.  To the extent that you can address knowledgeably what's involved in teaching well online, you will improve your chances.

Fourth, get some familiarity with "outcomes assessment."  I know it's not a popular topic among many faculty, but it's here to stay.  To the extent that you can speak fluently in that language, you will outshine the others in the final round.  I've seen it happen.

Fifth, any experience or familiarity with "universal design for learning" and innovative ways of improving accessibility for students with disabilities can only help.  At both my current campus and my previous one, more than ten percent of the student body is registered with the campus disability services office, and that counts only the students who self-report.  Yes, it's fine that you comply with approved requests for extra time on tests, but what have you done proactively to create a more inclusive environment?  Have you changed your handouts or presentations?  Have you adopted or adapted class activities to be more inclusive?  I once saw a faculty candidate brush off accommodation requests as "whining" -- and there went his frontrunner status..  

Sixth, remember that your teaching demo isn't a research presentation.  It's not about impressing the faculty with how erudite you are.  It's about showing how effectively you can engage students.  Lecture at your own peril.  

Seventh, do NOT come in with an attitude of entitlement.  You may honestly believe that it's obvious that the job should go to you, and that any fair-minded person would have to agree.  And maybe it is.  But if it is, the attitude can overshadow your merits.

Finally, assume that the folks on the committee can read.  That means proofreading, obviously, but it also means addressing us as professionals.  I've seen multiple -- multiple! -- cover letters start with "My name is..."  Don't.  Just don't.  We'll figure it out from the signature line and the resume.  And you may not believe this one, but I swear it's true: I once got a cover letter and resume on pink paper.  (No, I'm not channeling "Legally Blonde."  It actually happened.)  Don't do it.  It's not cute or endearing.  It's insulting.

It's a brutal market out there, even for folks who do everything right.  At least being prepared and avoiding some self-inflicted wounds can help.  

Comments:
But if you convey, either in person or in your materials, that you're "settling for" a cc, you'll be dead in the water.

You've mentioned this a few times over the years, and it's definitely excellent advice. It seems so obvious - don't slam the place that's trying to hire you - but I think there's a kind of explanation for this approach from candidates. It's partially due to generational reasons.

In the classic movie "Mr Holland's Opus", the title character starts off the movie taking a music teacher job at a local high school because he needs a job to tie him over before making it as a pro musician. He takes the job and sort of hacks his way through the early days before become a beloved teacher of many decades. I feel like it was like this years ago: teaching positions were open to anyone who had some kind of interest and needed a job. This held for high school teaching, and was probably true for some community colleges and smaller universites. A teaching role pops up, some chap takes it, and the rest takes care of itself. Some faculty in some places might even believe hiring still happens this way.
 
First, if you haven't had exposure to the community college world as either an adjunct or a student, pick up a class. Get a firsthand sense of the reality of the place. T.A.'ing at a R1 is simply not the same experience, and if you try to suggest that it is, you'll convey that you have no idea what you're talking about. I know that any administrator recommending adjuncting is likely to get blasted with righteous internet rage, but candidates with community college experience consistently beat candidates without. And there are valid reasons for that.

Respectfully, I view this as the strongest possible implicit advice against going to grad school. Four years in college, somewhere between seven to nine years in grad school, then "picking up a class" for experience... and congratulations: You're in your early thirties and maybe, if you're lucky, get to relocate to teach four classes a semester and be completely geographically isolated from everybody you know. To the extent there are any bright college students reading this, if you haven't gotten the message, stay away. Stay far, far away. Grad school is a terrible idea.
 
Learn the language of teaching by engaging in some conversations about teaching (that don't involve whining) with people who are not only currently in the classroom, but expected to actively engage their students. HS teachers and CC professors are going to be more familiar with the language that CC administrators may use and want to hear (flipped classroom, guided inquiry and open inquiry, formative assessment, active pedagogy, etc.) than might a professor at a R1 or flagship.

A bio prof at a research university is expected to be a biologist who keeps up with research in their field and can use the appropriate common language to communicate with other biologists. A bio prof at a CC is also (and with a greater emphasis) expected to be a biology educator who keeps up with research on teaching biology and can use the appropriate common language to communicate with other educators.
 
Anonymous @6:52AM is certainly working at improving the odds!

I had to relocate and become geographically isolated from everybody I knew when I took a postdoc, and every faculty job I applied for would have required relocating to a third place -- just as most people also relocate far from family and HS friends just to go to to college, and again to go to grad school. That issue is not unique to teaching at a CC. Explicitly viewing such a move to teach 12 hours (more likely 15 hours) per week at a CC as a negative message is what disqualifies people who think like Anonymous from consideration for many jobs. By the way, a very large fraction of universities are teaching intensive and offer a similar "negative", and Dean Reed's advice applies to those as well.

And here is a hint: You can make new friends and old friends also move.

And another: A good job near a decent airport will allow you to travel and visit those old friends -- wherever they are -- or the cool museums or symphonies or whatever you left behind or never had time to visit after HS.

I would say, don't go to grad school if: (A) you don't want to go into industry in your field, if it is one where an MS or PhD is essential for that work; (B) you imagine that all jobs are like the "life of the mind" of faculty at the R1 or private school you attended; and (C) you don't want to teach. The rest is research. Do the CCs you might apply to hire mostly MA/MS or PhD faculty? What about 4-year teaching intensive universities? You might need a PhD to keep your options open, but don't waste time building a research resume if your ultimate goal is to teach rather than beat out someone from Europe for that great job at a middling R1 research university.
 
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