Monday, February 08, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Is Working at a CC the Kiss of Death in Academia?

A longtime reader writes:

I'm hoping you and your readers can offer some input. I'm on the cusp of receiving my PhD in English from an RI school, having been trained by a well-known and distinguished senior scholar in my field. I went on the academic job market last year and got a couple of nibbles from small regional schools, who were reluctant to make any offers to an ABD when they had equally-qualified applicants with PhDs in hand. I didn't lose hope, though, because my advisor has a 100% placement rating. As things unfolded, my husband and I actually accepted short-term faculty posts at an overseas branch of our school. We planned to get out of some debt, experience a new culture, finish up our dissertations, work on getting published, and then return to the job market after a year or two. The time has come for us to return now, if at all possible, and we have both applied to tenure-track jobs at four-year universities, SLACs, and several community colleges.

In a bizarre turn of events, a tenure-track post has opened in the English department at a cc in my home state (40 minutes away from almost all of my family). My children are the only grandchildren on my side of the family, and they would love nothing more than to live near their grandparents. The cost of living is extremely affordable, and I would easily be happy living there. Would I be happy working there? I'm sure I would for a while...Forever? I don't know for sure, but I'm willing to give it my best shot. I am doing my best to take the advice of many who have commented on the plight of recent humanities PhDs and advised them to alter their idea of what kind of work constitutes academic success. I am willing to do this, and my general feeling is that, as long as I get to teach some literature courses (rather than all composition, all the time), I have some job security, and my family can put down some roots, I'd be pretty happy.

My primary concern, however, is that *if* I decided in the future that cc work wasn't something I could be happy doing for the rest of my career, would a university still be willing to hire me? Or, would I be branded with a blazing CC on my chest and laughed at when I applied for a more research-oriented position? Is there an insurmountable stigma attached to cc work? Have you (or your readers) seen a humanities scholar move from the cc-level to a SLAC or regional state school?

Never having hired at a university, I'll have to defer to my wise and worldly readers for feedback on what they've actually seen and done there. Having said that, though, my initial reaction here is similar to my initial reaction to a reader who was trying to find the perfect time to have a baby: you can control only what you can control.

Yes, I've personally seen community college faculty hired away by four-year public colleges, and once by a second-tier public university. One of the most interesting writers of my generation, Jennifer Michael Hecht, taught full-time at Nassau Community College before moving to her perch at the New School, which ain't too shabby. (I don't know her, but I recommend her book The Happiness Myth to everybody within shouting distance.) Last year my college lost a particularly wonderful junior faculty member to a four-year state college, and it has happened several times over the last few years. I'd be surprised to see a direct hop from a cc to an Ivy, but hops from cc's to state colleges happen with some frequency.

In each case, though, the candidate had something unusual. If you go simply as an accomplished teacher with a doctorate, you'll be one of hundreds. If you really want to make the leap, you'd have to do a kind of double duty while at the cc: do the cc job well, and still build a publication record (or something similar) that would make you desirable at the level you want. It can be done, but there are limits to how much most people will publish with a fifteen credit semester load. For all intents and purposes, you'd be doing at least a job and a half, if not two. Not impossible, but not for the faint of heart.

In any event, though, I wouldn't rule out a job that offers the prospect of a sane and happy life for you and your family on the basis of a hypothetical attack of status anxiety five years from now at some hypothetical university. These things are notoriously hard to predict, and living according to other people's status anxiety is a recipe for misery. If the cc job offers the prospect of doing what you love to do, in a location that works well for your personal life, for a living wage with benefits and security, I wouldn't rule it out. I made a similar decision when I took my nifty academic pedigree to Proprietary U, where it was all teaching, all the time. It wasn't what I had envisioned when I signed up for grad school, but it paid the rent, made sense for my personal life, and eventually opened up an unexpected career path. I couldn't have predicted that at the time, but that's sort of the point.

To my mind, the only convincing argument against applying for the cc job would be if you really don't want it. If the thought of teaching developmental writing, or lots of freshman comp, or fifteen credits per semester gives you chills, then don't do it. But if you can imagine enjoying it for a while, I wouldn't look at it as a life sentence. The world is a huge and unpredictable place.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those who have hired at a university or who have made a similar leap -- what counsel would you offer? Is the c.v. stain indelible, or not?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.