Teaching History at a Community College

James G. Newbill, April 2004

Having taught history at a community college for several decades, I was interested in and definitely impressed by Emily Sohmer Tai’s article, “Teaching History at a Community College,” in the February 2004 Perspectives. Many observations can be made and a few disagreements can be expressed, but I will make only two points.

Graduate students, especially those finishing the painful rigors of a PhD program should keep in mind the fact that the range of abilities of community college students is great and that a large percentage of students will not be transferring into a four-year program.

The range of abilities is both a problem and a blessing. The problem is obvious—how to structure the course, lectures, assignments, and so on to pull the student out of the mediocrity of many high school programs but not overwhelm him or her with a mini-graduate seminar approach. That can be a difficult balancing act.

The blessing comes from almost always having some older students in the class who may not have been especially good at academics when they were 18, but now, at 40, are really determined to do well. In addition to these mature individuals, there are “Running Start” students (in Washington State at least) who take college classes to satisfy both high school and college requirements. A few of these 16 to 17-year-olds may be too immature to organize their work properly and thus may not do well, but the majority of these young students are both bright and motivated. They often surpass recent high school graduates.

The second thing I would stress is that a majority of the community college students will not transfer to or certainly will not graduate from a senior institution’s academic program. So one is obligated, of course, to give the serious transfer students a college experience, to expose them to the basic details of the historical story and to the subtleties and complexities of history, while at the same time keeping the needs of the nontransfer student in mind as well. What should we emphasize for them that might create a curiosity about history? What can be done to pull these students out of the intellectual apathy which can be so comforting? Can the student who is so focused on the delineated steps of a nursing program, say, be persuaded or even inspired to think less provincially about politics, to look with some interest at a Fra Angelico fresco or to appreciate the robust vigor of a Teddy Roosevelt? It is possible in some cases, but it is not an easy task of persuasion.

Graduate students looking to community college teaching should be prepared, therefore, for both the wonderful benefits and the frustrations of teaching in a community college.

—James G. Newbill
Yakima Valley Community College