Sunday, June 16, 2013

What if Ph.D. Programs Actually Prepared Students for Community College Jobs?

What if Ph.D. programs prepared students for the academic jobs that actually exist?

First, there would be a lot fewer Ph.D. programs in the liberal arts, and the ones that did exist would be considerably smaller.  But what about what the programs actually do?

William Pannapacker, Sherman Dorn, and Rebecca Schuman (@PanKissesKafka) had a fascinating exchange on Twitter on Saturday about what it would look like if Ph.D. programs made a point of preparing their grad students for the jobs that are actually out there -- alt-ac, community college, and the like.  It got me thinking.

From this side of the hiring desk, I can offer a few suggestions for doctoral programs in liberal arts fields that would like to prepare their students for options in the teaching-intensive sector.  I’m sure that some programs are already doing at least some of these, but from what I’ve seen, they remain exceptions.

First, recognize that smaller teaching-oriented places have little use for a one-trick pony.  We need people who can cover multiple fields.  For example, a political scientist who has at least 18 graduate hours in, say, history or sociology is far likelier to get hired than one who doesn’t.  Particularly outside of English and math, where nearly everybody needs critical mass, there’s a premium on utility infielders.  Doctoral programs tend to reward depth and specialization, rather than breadth, but this side of the market rewards breadth.

Second, candidates who can speak intelligently about outcomes assessment and all that goes with it -- universal design, say -- have a leg up.  I don’t recall a single word about any of that when I was in grad school.  Candidates who can speak from experience about how they’ve adapted their teaching styles to meet the needs of students with disabilities will be far more desirable than candidates who can’t.

As it happens, that brings up a dissent from the latest round of blogs.  It’s becoming part of the bloggy catechism that brand-spanking-new doctorates are highly prized, but that candidates with teaching experience are considered damaged goods.  I can’t speak to most places, but I can say that where I am, some level of teaching experience is preferable to none.  Incumbent adjuncts have been a majority of my own full-time faculty hires, and I don’t think I’m freakish in that.  This may be a case in which a perspective that’s largely true at the R1 level is falsely attributed to higher ed in general, when in fact, the needs of the teaching-intensive sector are different.

Finally, some level of familiarity with colleges as institutions above and beyond collections of academic departments would help.  Some kind of “service,” even if attenuated, at least suggests that the candidate won’t just be a teach-and-go-home professor.  

I don’’t offer these in the spirit of adding yet more stuff to the list of things that graduate students have to do.  Rather, I’d like to see them form the basis for practical discussions of what to supplant.  Doctoral programs in the evergreen disciplines generally try to clone themselves.  They brag about the students they place in R1 institutions, and try to pretend that nobody is trying to adjunct together a living.  But the reality of the market, as we well know, is that tenure-track R1 jobs for new Ph.D.’s are the exception.  From reading the blogs and looking at the stats, you’d think that R1’s and adjuncting are the only options out there.

But they aren’t.  Community colleges, teaching-oriented four-year colleges, and even for-profits can provide outstanding opportunities for people who are prepared for them.  (As regular readers know, my first full-time academic job was at a for-profit; the experience I gained there positioned me for a move into community college administration.)  

None of these will solve the basic supply-and-demand issue, obviously.  And I’d hate to see them become excuses to make doctoral programs in the liberal arts take even longer than they already do.  But to the extent that they help some programs focus on the possibilities that actually exist, and thereby prepare their students better for the market that actually exists, I hope they do some good.  If nothing else, they might result in better teaching by new hires at community and state colleges; if that’s all it achieves, that’s good in itself.