Tuesday, May 16, 2017


The One Thing Never to Say

This one is aimed specifically at community college faculty job candidates, though it applies to staff and administrative positions as well.  Without betraying any confidences, I’ll just say this is based on more than one case in more than one place.

Let’s say that you’re changing careers.  You’ve had a good run in your industry, and you’d like to switch to teaching.  A nearby community college posts an opening for a teaching position in that field, and you apply.  You get the interview.  You get asked why you want to change careers and start teaching.

What don’t you say?

“I’m at a stage in my career where I’d like to slow down and do something less stressful.”

No.  Just, no.  Don’t do it.  

Do you know what that sounds like on the hiring side?

“I’m terribly self-impressed, and I won’t lift a finger, except to complain about other people.”

It’s instant death.  It implies that what we do isn’t actual work.  Anyone who has taught a full load for a semester knows that it’s work.  

The first time I saw someone say something like this, it gave me pause.  I’ve seen it a few times now, so I think it’s time to say something.

Teaching in a vocational field, having come from industry, is a very different kind of work.  But it’s work.  Doing it well requires time, effort, forethought, practice, and follow-through.  It’s not just telling war stories.  And that’s just the teaching part; the faculty job also involves service to the college in a number of ways, many of which take significant time.  Outcomes assessment, curriculum development, observing adjuncts, professional development, governance committees, and (in some places) student advising all take time.  You can’t just kick back and opine.  That’s not how this works.

Faculty work is widely misunderstood in the culture.  That’s annoying, but endemic.  But I’m certainly not going to hire faculty who think that the entire job consists of kicking back, telling stories, and passing judgment.  

If that’s what’s drawing you to the field, step back and give it some more thought.  Teach some classes as an adjunct for a bit, and find out what the full-timers there do.  If you still want to make the leap, knowing the reality of it, go for it.  But if you think you’ll be recollecting your career in tranquility while adoring undergrads listen worshipfully, well, you won’t be doing it here.

I'm not at a CC, but I am at a primarily-undergraduate institution, where we have a similar sort of issue with people saying that, and I want to offer a half-defense of the people who say that:

At a primarily-undergraduate state institution we have a research expectation, though not as heavy as a research university, and a heavy teaching expectation, though not quite as heavy as a CC. So we're in this weird in-between place and we know it and inferiority complexes develop. And a lot of people spend a lot of time saying "Well, you know, at a place like this, we can't..." And a lot of people say (I think reasonably) that in addition to liking teaching for its own rewards they also prefer focusing on teaching to the insane competitive pressures of research institutions that want you to be a leader in the field.

So there's a lot of talk going on that sounds dangerously close to "We have a slower pace and less pressure here." That's not quite what's said, but it sure comes close to that.

And sometimes we even say stuff like that in interviews, ostensibly as a way of filtering out candidates who are looking for a more research-driven type of job that we don't actually offer. There will be a lot of reminders of how coming here will mean less time spent on research and lesser research infrastructure and more time spent teaching freshmen, and sometimes it will be presented in a way that sure sounds like a step down in the world.

But if at any point somebody responds to the constant talk of "You'll be taking a step down, and not able to do as much high-powered research stuff..." with something like "That's OK, I want to slow it down a bit..." everyone is shocked and scandalized.

I get why they're shocked and scandalized. I'll be the first to say that teaching isn't light work. I'll be the first to say that this is important work. But at the same time, teaching really IS less competitive than trying to publish in the top journals. It's hard work, but not competitive work, and maybe some people genuinely find it an invigorating and satisfying alternative to the competitive research rat race.

But God help the person who says that.
“I’m at a stage in my career where I’d like to slow down and do something less stressful.”

I've heard this at interviews, too. Unbelievable.
Many people who work at teaching-intensive institutions have never worked at research-intensive institutions.

I've worked at both. Teaching is hard work. It requires dedication, discipline, and energy. HOWEVER, as a community-college instructor, I have never come anywhere close to working a 90-hour week like I did at every research-intensive institution I've worked at. Likewise, I have never been in my office at 2:00 am on a Sunday finishing a grant proposal.

To someone coming from that environment, 40- or 50-hour work weeks feel like working part-time.

Some of us are just smart enough to keep our mouths shut.
Up top, I want to highlight something you had at the end of your article: "Teach some classes as an adjunct for a bit, and find out what the full-timers there do." That last part. Find out what the full-timers do.

Teaching in a vocational field can mean a job that is part management. On top of teaching a bunch of classes, you will probably have to hire, train, mentor, and evaluate a large team of adjuncts. That is certainly the case in some of my college's vocational (AS) programs. IMHO, it is harder than my purely teaching job. So (although I've never been involved in a search like that) I can imagine a probing question asking about management experience and spiking any candidate who says "oh, I don't want to manage a lot of people any more".

Our interviews in the science areas usually have a question intended to start a conversation about teaching versus research. We get plenty of tone-deaf answers! In addition, we sometimes get odd answers from people who assume our majors classes aren't very big or that we will have grad TAs to help with grading when they are big classes. Oops.

PS - Have you seen Sally Forth, with the saga of her former boss teaching business classes at a CC? (A highlight was having the same kid in the same class for several years running.) He has just decided to retire from that rat race. Running this week.
Another thing that you don’t want to do when interviewing for a full-time teaching position at a community college is to give them the impression that what you really want is a position at a research-oriented college or university, but because of the tight job market for research-oriented positions you are being forced to settle for what you perceive to be a less-desirable teaching-oriented position.

Don’t spend a lot of time talking about your research interests at the interview, since all they really want is someone who can teach elementary subjects to a classroom of students. The interviewers might fear that if you started working at that community college, you would immediately jump ship as soon as a position at a research-oriented institution became available. Best to hide any sense of disappointment at being forced to lower your expectations. You have to be a good liar--don’t give them the impression that you regard teaching as a lesser career goal than research. A teaching-oriented full-time gig may not be what you really want, but it sure beats freeway-flying for the rest of your life.
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