So you’re despairing of your future as an academic research scientist, and looking for “alternative” careers. When I was a grad student and postdoc I often heard my fellow students/postdocs say things like “well, I’ll just get a teaching job” or “I’ll just go teach at a community college”. The implication was that any community college would be so incredibly grateful that such a fabulous research scientists had deigned to come teach at their lowly ranks, they would jump at the chance to hire them.
Admittedly I was a graduate student a hundred years ago, and maybe this kind of attitude no longer prevails. But I am not sure. There is an awful lot of snobbery in the upper echelons of academia about what community colleges are and what they do.
One thing they are not is just an easy place for you to pick up a teaching job without having to do any preparation. In case you are thinking of community colleges as your “safety” academic career, you might want to do some reading up on them to develop your understanding of their unique mission. A good place to start would be the recent Chronicle of Higher Education special issue on community colleges, published October 26, 2007 (the entire Section B of that issue). I’d recommend seeking it out on your campus. The whole thing is available online, but only if you have a subscription, in which case my blog post is not news to you.
Some topics covered in the special issue include:
- How to move students through remedial math more effectively
- The information needs of transfer students
- What it’s like to work with so many students who are living in poverty
- The role rural institutions play in their communities
Also included is a wonderful essay by M. Garrett Bauman, The Double Consciousness of Community Colleges. Bauman discusses the philosophy of education for blacks put forth by Booker T. Washington’s and W.E.B. Du Bois, and uses this to illuminate the split consciousness of community colleges: “between jobs and ideas and between security and esteem”. Bauman’s essay is both heartbreaking and inspiring, and he concludes:
Now that we have the muscle to be more equal partners with legislatures, business, and four-year colleges and universities, we ought to assert ourselves more boldly and move up the hierarchy of needs. We should pursue higher quality in all our programs, from remedial to honors, by refusing to increase our workloads so much that teaching becomes impossible. We should embrace our mixed nature by, for example, requiring students in career-training programs to take more liberal-arts courses and requiring liberal-arts students to take some practical, career-program courses. And we should offer more-advanced courses and enrichment for our talented tenth.
I have more excellent students than ever. They seek us out now. But I am also glad for the hard cases: They stretch my heart. What we have done that few anticipated was learn to truly care about our denigrated students. Each day we help to that first rung a few who were supposed to fail. This is not submission, but fulfillment. We can thank both Washington and Du Bois for showing the way.
It is worth the effort to get your hands on the special issue just to read this one essay.
Community colleges are not a “consolation prize” for not having a research career. Teaching at a community college is a vocation in its own right. You can make a very important contribution to education at a community college. If you are seriously thinking of working at a community college, and/or if you have an interview at one – good luck!