Monday, April 18, 2016

What Gets Said, What Gets Heard

On Monday I met with some folks at Princeton to recruit post-exam graduate students to a mentored teaching experience at Brookdale.  The group was chipper and welcoming, and the discussion was positive.  But I was struck at the difference between what I meant to emphasize and what seemed to strike chords.

The program -- modeled on Paula Krebs’ and Vanessa Ryan’s groundbreaking work with the New England Cross-Sector Partnership -- is meant to give students at a research university some sense of the realities of working at a teaching-intensive institution.  It involves some structured group mentoring in the Fall, followed by adjuncting with individual mentoring in the Spring.  (It’s all predicated on the availability of sections, of course.)  The idea is to give our students access to people trained at the highest levels, and to give the grad students valuable experience that may (twirls handlebar mustache mischievously) win them over to the world of teaching-intensive colleges.

I went in with a brief overview of some of the gaps that students from R1 institutions sometimes have when they arrive at community colleges.  The upper-tier schools often don’t give opportunities for online teaching, for example, but online experience separates one candidate from another at this level.  They tend not to discuss Universal Design for Learning, or to spend much time on outcomes assessment, but those both matter here.  Sometimes they don’t give their grad students the chance to teach their own course before hitting the market, which puts those students at a serious disadvantage.

The group listened politely to those points, but really perked up at two asides that I didn’t even think to put in the handout.

One was the absence of a publication requirement for tenure.  

The other was the presence of a female majority among the faculty, deans, and cabinet.

I didn’t expect that.

I hadn’t put much focus on the tenure criteria, because the program doesn’t put them into tenure-track jobs.  We do full searches for those.  But they wanted to know, so I explained that the upside of a higher courseload is the absence of a publication requirement.  I had thought that was common knowledge, but it wasn’t.  For people with school-aged children, or plans for some, the prospect of being present with them during their summer vacations from school can hold real appeal.  I just didn’t realize how strongly that would resonate.  In retrospect, I probably should have.

The second was a throwaway line.  Someone mentioned that community colleges typically have female majorities among the students, as Brookdale does.  I mentioned that the female majority here extends through the faculty and administration, shrugging as I said it.  I thought it was a fun fact, like learning that there were five eclipses in 1678.  (True.)  But the aside really seemed to hit home for several people there.  I heard the word “refreshing” used several times.  I won’t reveal any names, so as not to cause issues, but I was struck by what seemed a palpable longing for a more welcoming environment.  I hope they don’t just take my word for it, but actually check it out.

Linkages like these don’t solve the issue of too few full-time teaching jobs, obviously.  But they can help to fill in a gap in graduate training.  The elite graduate schools tend to train for jobs at elite graduate schools.  That’s fine for the few who win those positions, but it can leave some very smart people relatively unemployable anywhere else.  For those who discovered that they love teaching more than they love research, positions at places like community colleges are discussed only in secret, if at all.  They shouldn’t be.  

I hope some of the graduate students follow through with applications, so we can get the first cohort going this Fall.  If nothing else, correcting some stereotypes and giving frustrated folks some new options can only help.  And if a few of them fall in love with the place, well, that’s good too.  You never know what’s going to resonate.