From Issues in Graduate Education: CGS Forum on Making the Transition to a Professional Career in the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
Going to a Community College
Natalie Kimbrough, December 2008
The transition from graduate student to professional is not always easy as this requires a fair amount of thought process to find out what lies at the core of one’s professional desires. The assumption often is that once you are a teaching assistant you will remain in the academic arena and become a professor at an educational institution. That in itself sounds easy enough; though as we all know, it is not, because the next questions are: “What kind of educational institution?” and “Why?” However, the decision that has to come next is even more difficult, as finding one’s core is crucial here and not easy given all the demands, perceptions, and ideas of others, often including our mentors. It can be difficult to try and break away from expectations that a mentor or a family member might have, as many of us probably know. Yet, just because a mentor might expect me to do great research, is that what I should do? Should I become focused on research, for example, just so that I don’t disappoint my mentor? Should I do that even if right now or one year into the work I realize I am not happy? If I am not happy my work will suffer.
For me this decision was simple for two reasons: First, I had already explored professional options when successfully completing my doctorate and that put me at an advantage of knowing what I did not want to do. Second: my focus is on teaching; I am a teacher by design—though I love research and being locked into a tiny research room somewhere in the back of an archive. Still, for me, there was no other choice but the community college. I did work at four-year universities as an adjunct so that I can truly say that I know what that experience is like. Yes, often times community colleges are looked down upon, their faculty even more so but if you make the conscious decision and you know why you made it this is really not an issue. Yes, often we hear about the “double consciousness” that a community college may have regarding whether it is involved in “higher education” or “workforce development.” Why does there have to be a distinction? The community college can excel in both areas. I can tell you that community colleges have a far greater impact and role in U.S. society than these three example points try to indicate.
At a community college you teach—you teach a lot, usually about five classes each semester and that too without a teaching assistant. Thus, you have your work cut out for you. The question then possibly becomes: Why? Why do this to yourself?
The answer is easy: because of the rewards. The rewards of teaching at a Community College are multifaceted as they range from doing what one loves (teaching) to providing affordable, quality education to all those who seek it and to thus being the bridge or the gate-opener for many who would otherwise not be able to reach for higher education. These are just the benefits of the first part of a community college professor’s role. Teaching is the focus but there’s so much more that you become part of in a community college environment.
All in all there are three areas of service for community college teachers: teaching or professional assignment, community and college service, and professional growth and scholarship. The community and college service strengthens the ties with the community and gets one engaged in college activities, which leads to interdisciplinary work with colleagues and adds to retention and recruitment from within the community. Professional growth is something that most academics strive for: the exchange with colleagues at conference, publishing, research, and so forth. At a community college, generally speaking, the outstanding thing is that scholarship is encouraged and part of your overall task. But there is no pressure to publish books and articles ever so often in order to remain employed. Yes, there is pressure for development but as a professional you want to stay on top of what is happening in your discipline anyhow as that helps you teach with excellence and that is what a teacher aims for. Professional development in a community college is a little more flexible, which ultimately often benefits you, the professional, the student, the college, and the community much more than publishing an article or a book.
As I indicated earlier, just because to me the community college exemplifies the best of all worlds does not mean that it is easy. Teaching five classes each semester—unless you have re-assigned time for a specific task or project—is not always easy. Each class has about 25–30 students and when you want to be a good teacher, you have to include student-centered learning and written assignments. Thus, time management is a skill to be acquired and developed to succeed in the classroom, in service, and for enhancing scholarship. Those who really enjoy research might be hesitant to join a community college. Carving out time for research is often difficult and usually research activities must take place over the summer or with the support of a grant. Yet, the way I see it—and I am a social and cultural historian: my classroom—my college is my research arena.
Every day I am faced with so much diversity, so many topics to follow up, witness the historical shifts within the population and the community that I cannot help but see that as primary research. I, then, do research every day and every day I learn and reflect and take at least mental notes that will impact my next conversation, my next class, my next conference presentation, my next article, and my next community service task.
To me, as I have mentioned, the community college also presents a prime opportunity for progressive social engagement. Of course, in any educational institution you teach and work with students but one of the most unique and exhilarating aspects of being part of a community college is that here we work with those people who might not have had the opportunity to even consider higher education. At a four-year college or university we mostly deal with those who are expected to have some higher education degree and the difference in motivation and joy is visible and you can sense it. Teaching and learning to me are like building a bridge between people and between issues and if I think in terms of bridges bridging gaps then the community college fits that image perfectly.
Thus, what better place than for an academic to be at a community college, where one is encouraged and supported to teach, be socially engaged, and continue with one’s professional development? The question no longer is why select a community college for your full-time profession; the question really is: Why not? Every single day I have the opportunity to help another person to grow; every single day I help someone open a door that previously might have been closed; and every single day I help someone get a little closer to a dream they may now dare to believe in. Being a guide on that path to achieving a dream that seemed impossible to many to me is the essence of being a teacher and thus, the chief reason to be at a community college.
—Natalie Kimbrough is the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland.