Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Positioning For a CC Career

A new, young correspondent writes:

I seem to share your goal of teaching, and eventually filling an administration role, at the community college level since its seems more helpful and effective to the students, since I have little aspiration to achieve a doctorate degree and since I believe in equal opportunity for all having come from a low-income family. My plan for now is to achieve a Masters in Political Science or potentially one in various social sciences I'm interested in (I'll graduate with a dual major in economics and political science). To build experience, I plan on meeting with CC professors and hopefully serving as a free tutor for students during my Senior undergraduate year. Having said that, I was wondering if I could ask for you a few questions. 1) What departments/subjects, in your experience, do community colleges have the greatest demand for? Which, if any, departments do administrations have difficulty filling positions in? Simply put, which Masters degree would make me most valuable as a candidate: Political Science, Economics, History or an MBA? 2) What venues for gaining experience exist for an undergraduate student? Or a masters student? 3) Is there any advice you have to help me on my career path? Are there any career mistakes you see candidates frequently make that I should avoid?

I’m a little struck at the idea of picking a discipline based on market demand.  Usually, people pick a discipline they find fascinating, and then try to figure out market demand.  But there’s no a priori reason you couldn’t do it this way.

Among the disciplines you listed, we typically have the hardest time hiring for economics.   There isn’t a huge demand for economists at the cc level, but when openings occur, they’re remarkably hard to fill.  Political scientists and historians are far more plentiful, so even though spots for historians are more common, they’re harder to get.  In the business area, you probably wouldn’t get hired without years of real-world business experience on top of the MBA, so if you don’t want to do that, don’t.  Like history, that’s a field with many more candidates than positions.

In grad school, the usual training is through a teaching assistantship.  Being a t.a. usually covers your tuition and offers a modest – cough – stipend that will almost cover very basic living expenses.  Ideally, it gives you a first experience in which you’re teaching with a net; the professor for whom you’re assisting is supposed to be there to mentor you.  (Warning: graduate faculty are not uniform in the seriousness with which they approach this role.  Prior to my first semester as a t.a., my entire training consisted of a single statement: “you’ll be fine.”)

If at all possible, I’d recommend finding the campus tutoring center and getting training and experience there as well.  Seeing the ways that students struggle can be revealing.  In my time at the campus writing center, I recall a student who came in complaining that she just couldn’t write, and her class paper suggested that she was right.  But she could tell a hell of a story.  So for lack of any better ideas, I asked her to write me a letter telling one of those stories.  She did, and it read beautifully.  I showed her the letter, showed her the paper, and asked if she could see the difference.   She could.  I suggested that she try writing her papers like she wrote her letters; freewrite first, and edit later.  Once she turned off the editor in her head – the one that said “that’s stupid” at every new sentence – she attained the clarity that she had when she told stories.

That experience came in handy later as a professor.  If you’re in economics, you may find yourself tutoring math rather than writing, but the same principle applies.  If you can see the common ways and places that students make mistakes, you can inform your own subsequent teaching accordingly.

Administration is another matter entirely.  First, get your land legs as a professor.  After a few years of that, if administration still holds appeal, take baby steps and see what happens.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you advise?

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