Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Preparing CC Faculty

(I'll be incommunicado on Monday, so this will serve as Monday's post)

A faithful reader and occasional commenter writes:

I am the grad director of a humanities department at a large state university with a terminal master's program. We have a small but thriving MA program: a few students go on to high school teaching, and a few go into PhD programs. The majority of our students are non-traditional, i.e. when the come to us they are already in the neighborhood of 40 and have done other things in their lives. Like most non-traditional students they are usually bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, and they are a joy to teach and direct.

Now, if the best of these students can get into a PhD program, and can finish it, their odds on the regular academic job market will be seriously limited by their age and other factors of snobbery. I have held up community college teaching as a viable option to them, as I have several friends who do it and love it (when I myself taught at a school with a 4/4 or 5/5 load I was far more productive). I do not know, however, what I should do with these student to prepare them to teach community college. Is a PhD preferred these days, or will a solid master's do it? They will all graduate with experience as independent teachers in a school with almost no undergraduate admissions standards (i.e. they will have taught students just like those at community colleges). Should their studies be more broad than one would get in a traditional MA program?

I'll speak to the Northeast, since that's the region I know. The answer may be different in the Midwest or the South; I'll have to leave it to my readers to comment on those. It will also vary by discipline.

Since you're in a 'humanities' field, I'll focus on that. When we have openings in fields like English or History, we have a strong preference for Ph.D's or late-stage ABD's. (Of course, “the dissertation is almost finished” is right up there with “the check is in the mail,” but hope springs eternal.) Part of it is a sense that somebody with a doctorate has shown extra dedication to the field; part of it is that we market ourselves as having a faculty as academically strong as most of the school to which our grads transfer; and part of it is a cross between snob appeal and 'why not?'.

It may be hard to believe that a college with a 5/5 load would attract a strong pool of doctorally-qualified candidates, but we do. The academic job market in the humanities has been so bad for so long that we get some very impressive people.

Breadth of study can be helpful. Smaller cc's often (by necessity) need people who can teach in multiple disciplines – political science and history, or sociology and psychology, or English and ESL. When the staffing is thin, specialization is an unaffordable luxury. For reasons I can't pinpoint, the magic threshold for being able to pick up another discipline is usually 24 graduate credit hours. So for some smaller schools, someone with a Master's in, say, psychology, might be better served picking up some additional credits in sociology than in psychology. (Typically, it works best when the positions are closely related. Combining English and ESL is likelier to pay off than combining English and Chemistry.)

More generally, from a cc hiring standpoint, you've either taught at a cc before or you haven't. The culture of a cc is palpably different from the culture of even a lower-tier four-year school. That's not to say that you don't face similar challenges there, but some cc teaching experience goes a long way. I'd encourage your students who are interested to pick up an adjunct course or two at a nearby cc and see how/if they like it.

(At my current college, according to a story I've heard from several reliable independent sources, one dean quit after a single day. This was sometime in the 1980's. I learned that on my second day at work, when several people greeted me with a fairly surprised “you came back!” That was just a little unsettling.)

I wouldn't necessarily advise older grad students to consider cc's out of fear of age discrimination. That could happen anywhere. The reason to teach at a cc is that you want to. If I get the impression that a candidate is 'settling,' that candidate is done.

Sorry to fall back on 'it depends,' but it really does. The one really solid piece of advice I can give with confidence is to have them try a few courses at local cc's to see if this is the setting for them. If not, there's not much point in arranging a career around it.

Worldly and sophisticated readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.