Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Forgotten Fields

I was heartened to see that the MLA spent some time discussing the realities of teaching English at community colleges.  The discussion sounds like it was a good and honest first-level attempt to deal with some basic realities.  I know that math, as a discipline, does much the same thing; AMATYC exists precisely to give community college math faculty a venue in which their concerns get center stage.

But what about the faculty in smaller departments?

This one’s close to my heart, as a lapsed political scientist.  The poli sci department at Brookdale is two people.  At Holyoke, it was one, and he also taught history.  English and Math are both well into double digits; even if they don’t go to conferences, people at least have colleagues facing the same issues they’re facing.  But in poli sci, or history, or sociology, or many other fields, there just isn’t the critical mass of faculty on campus to form really good discussion groups.  Travel funding being what it is, relatively few community college faculty routinely attend, say, APSA or the AHA.  And if they do, I’d be surprised to discover that there was much there for them.  

(To be fair, APSA did have an “Undergraduate Education” section for a while.  It still may.  But I don’t recall any poli sci equivalent of CCCC or AMATYC.)  

When I arrived at CCM in 2003, the poli sci department was one person, and he was hired during the Nixon administration.  Any professional development was entirely up to him.  He was smart and capable, but entirely without colleagues.  (I counted it a personal victory when I was able to double the size of the department by hiring someone.)

That’s not unusual.

English, Math, and ESL do good jobs, as disciplines, in giving community college faculty attention and venues in which to discuss issues of common concern.  But they’re the exceptions, largely because they deal with uniquely vulnerable populations -- either students with developmental needs or students whose first language isn’t English -- and because they have critical mass.  Faculty in many other disciplines are relatively ignored.

Until fairly recently, there may not have been a practical way around that, given the realities of travel costs, teaching schedules, and low numbers.  But in the age of the interwebs, it seems like there should be options.  I’m not generally a fan of webinars, but I could see, say, a set of simultaneous regional conferences simulcasting to each other.  What are the best ways to teach Intro to Psych to community college students who don’t intend to be Psych majors?  What are the most effective ways to teach Intro to American Government to students who will never be poli sci majors, and whose academic preparation -- reading comprehension and historical background -- are uneven?  

Those conversations around Intro to Composition or Basic Algebra are happening nationally, and they should.  But students take more than English and math, and many of the same issues around reading, writing, and quantitative literacy show up in those other areas.  

Wise and worldly readers, are there green shoots in the forgotten fields?  Are there places that folks who populate departments-of-one can go that will acknowledge the institutional realities they face?