Publication Date

May 1, 1996

History teaching in community colleges has been receiving more attention within the profession in recent years. James Lorence (Univ. of Wisconsin Center at Marathon County) conducted a limited-sample survey of community-college historians in 1993 when he was a member of the AHA Teaching Division. The AHA has held several conference sessions, most notably in San Francisco in 1994, to discuss the problems and rewards of community-college history teaching. And the Organization of American Historians' (OAH) council of chairs Newsletter devoted its December 1994 edition to the topic “history in the community colleges.” Guest editor Evelyn Edson (Piedmont Virginia Community Coli.) and four other historians examined a variety of issues, including the heavy reliance of community colleges on part-time faculty, the difficulties of continuing one’s scholarly pursuits while teaching the 15-unit-per-semester course load common in the two-year institutions, the particular problems community-college historians face as “specialists” in teaching the survey course, and the challenges and joys of teaching an extremely diverse student body.

It is not surprising that community-college history teaching is now a topic of more professional focus. After all, many, if not most, Americans who take college-level history courses take them at a community college. Nevertheless, community-college historians often have labored in isolation from the mainstream of the profession. It sometimes seems as though community colleges exist in a world wholly separated from the rest of higher education. Relatively few community-college historians have been, for instance, active in the two major national professional historians' organizations, the AHA and the OAH. But as both Sandria Freitag, executive director of the AHA, and Arnita Jones, executive director of the OAH, have begun to prod their organizations to devote more attention to the teaching of history in the community colleges, that situation has started to change. In recent years, more two-year college historians have become active in both the AHA and the OAH and have participated more fully in the organizations' efforts to improve history education at all levels.

The OAH Survey

In early 1994 the OAH appointed an ad hoc task force on community colleges. The group was composed of community-college and university faculty from around the country. In addition to Nadine Hata (El Camino Coll.), who chairs the task force, and me, the group included Elizabeth A. Kessel (Ann Arundel Community Coll.), John M. Mcleod (Miami Dade Community Coll.), George Stevens (Duchess Community Coll.), Myron Marty (Drake Univ.), and Lawrence W. Levine (George Mason Univ.). One of the first rea1izations of the community-college historians on the committee was that we knew remarkably little about our Colleagues teaching in colleges other than our own. Consequently, the task force set several preliminary goals, the first of which was to gather as much information as possible on the present composition of the community-college professoriat.

In October 1994 the task force sent out an ambitious survey to community-college historians across the nation. It asked for responses that would provide a coherent description of the community-college historian and his or her institutions, programs, and responsibilities. The survey also attempted to find out what community-college historians liked about their professional lives and what particular problems they faced. Since there is no central or even regional listing of community-college historians, and since most historians are members of multidisciplinary departments whose composition and designation vary widely, we simply sent multiple copies of our survey, along with a cover letter, to the presidents of the nation's community colleges, asking them to pass the surveys on to their institution's historians. The response was gratifying. By early January we had received completed surveys from 512 faculty representing 264 institutions, or about 18 percent of the 1,469 community colleges in the United States. The regional distribution of the sample was excellent: we received responses from 46 states and one territory (American Samoa). Some of the respondents teach in large multicollege systems, while others teach in small and intimate single-campus settings. Although we did not specify that the surveys should be directed only to United States historians, both the title of the sponsoring agency and the nature of several of the questions doubtlessly limited the participation of non-Americanists.

Faculty Profile

The first three pages of the survey elicited information on professional background and career path, areas of interest, institutional factors, teaching loads and conditions, professional service, scholarly work, and professional development. Forty-three percent of all respondents hold Ph.D.'s, with another 5.2 percent holding D.A.'s or Ed.D.'s. Very few (only 1.8 percent) characterized their educational status as "ABD." The largest single cohort, 46 percent, listed the M.A. as the highest earned degree. A closer look at the first 78 responses revealed 39 Ph.D.'s, 30 (77 percent) of which were granted by major research universities (those categorized as such by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching).

When asked how many years they had taught at their present institution, 44.2 percent of the respondents reported 20 years or more, while 22.7 percent answered that they had taught at their institution fewer than 5 years. The polarized distribution of those responses suggests a generation gap among community-college historians, a probability supported by the written comments made by many. Regarding security of employment, 77.5 percent of the faculty surveyed are tenured, 12.8 percent are on the tenure track, while only 9.7 percent hold part-time, temporary positions. One alarming statistic, at least to me, is that 14.1 percent of the respondents teach in systems that do not grant or recognize tenure.

Department Structure and Course Offerings

A majority (58.5 percent) of community-college historians who replied to our queries teach in institutions that have academic rank, and most are members of interdisciplinary departments: only 35 percent reported that their college has a history department as a separate unit. Department size tended to be small, regardless of the size of the institution-over 71 percent teach in departments or subdepartments consisting of five or fewer tenured or tenure-track historians, another 13.1 percent of the departments have between 6 and 10 members, while 13.3 percent of our respondents teach in departments with no tenured or tenure-track historians. Similarly, most departments regularly employ 5 or fewer part-time faculty members, while only 3.1 percent offer classes taught by 15 or more part-time faculty.

The number of history sections offered by the community colleges in our sample seemed to average about 30. That number seemed to represent the average class size as well. Our respondents wrote that only 9.8 percent of the classes they teach enroll more than 40 students, while 13.4 percent typically have fewer than 20 on their rosters. The standard teaching load in the community colleges is 30 units, or 10 classes, per year.

Professional Activity

Community-college historians, as indicated by those responding to our survey,spend most of their professional time teaching or in closely related activities. Most of our informants teach the introductory U.S. history survey, usually both halves. In fact, 43.6 percent teach nothing but the survey, and 79.3 percent devote less than 20percent of their teaching time to more specialized courses. Most do not teach non-history classes, though a significant minority, roughly 38 percent, spend some of their time teaching outside the discipline of history, usually in related fields like political science. Forty-four percent of the survey participants have two different teaching preparations; 33.9 percent have three. The majority, 66.7 percent, teach summer classes; 46 percent of those teach two, while 23.5 percent teach three or more. The practice of teaching “overload” classes during the regular academic year seems to be common: nearly half (45.6 percent) of our respondents reported teaching additional classes, usually one per semester.

As for nonteaching professional activity, most of the historians in this survey reported some committee responsibilities and other kinds of college service. Relatively few spend more than 10 percent of their time in research and writing. Still, 49.6 percent reported that they had published some work within the last five years, most often an article in a professional publication (55.7 percent), though 29.7 percent had published a book. More than half (55.8 percent) have presented papers at professional conferences, and 56.9 percent are currently engaged in research projects.

Sources of support for research projects undertaken by community-college historians are limited. Sixty percent of our respondents teach at institutions with regular paid sabbaticals, but most (57.9 percent) have not had any financial support for research since they completed their graduate education. One of the most recent surveys of the attitudes and activities of higher-education faculty indicates that the community-college historians responding to our survey are only slightly less engaged in research and scholarship than are most faculty in all colleges and universities. The American College Teacher: National Norms for the 1989-90 H.E.R.I Faculty Survey, published by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, reported that the largest cohort (27.9 percent) of the nearly 36,000 faculty they surveyed spent no more than 10 percent of their weekly professional time in research and writing. The average teaching load in all institutions is between 9 and 12 hours per week, compared to 15 for community-college faculty. Only 55.7 percent of all college and university faculty published professional writing in the two years prior to the UCLA survey; the percentage of our community-college informants publishing within the last five years was just under 50 percent.

Roughly one quarter of the historians we surveyed belong to the OAH, with a similar percentage listing membership in the AHA. Much smaller numbers belong to several community-college organizations (like the Community College Humanities Association), while even smaller numbers belong to special interest organizations and state and local history societies. Most reported some regular journal reading: the Journal of American History (220), the American Historical Review (1%), the OAR’s Magazine of His/Dry (58), and the History Teacher (58) attracted the largest blocks of readers. Many also read regional, state, and local historical journals, like the Journal of Southern History and California History. Several OAH executive board members expressed surprise when informed that our sample of community-college historians much preferred reading the scholarly journals to the teaching-oriented magazines. The data suggest that community-college historians are most interested in remaining conversant with the latest scholarship, not in reading about pedagogical issues after 15 hours of teaching survey courses each week.

In selecting from among four kinds of professional development opportunities they might find most helpful (individual research grants, faculty seminars, master-teacher seminars, and other), our respondents overwhelmingly identified individual research grants as first on their wish list. When asked to rank several-kinds of services a national professional organization might offer to community-college faculty, participants showed much interest in regional meetings of community-college historians and in the establishment of an "information clearinghouse" (including information on funding possibilities). There was moderate interest in a teaching alliance of university, college, and precollegiate historians and in the production of a directory of community-college historians. Very few people supported the suggestion that there be a regular community-college column in the OAH newsletter.

Positive Aspects and Chronic Problems

On the last two pages of the survey form community-college historians were asked to respond as expansively as they wished to two questions: (1) What are the most positive aspects of teaching history at community college? (2) What are the most pressing problems/needs facing you as a community-college history professor?

The most positive aspects of teaching history at a community college, according to our informants, are the absence of pressure to do research and to publish, along with the fact that these institutions emphasize teaching above all other professional activities. Almost as frequently, respondents wrote that they enjoy consistent interaction and close relations with students, and that such contact allows them to encourage student success. Many reported that the community-college environment enables them to awaken an interest in history in those who either dislike it or are poorly prepared to understand it. Community-college historians praised the diversity of their student populations, expressing a particular satisfaction in teaching "nontraditional" and returning students, and often noted the rewards for working with "talented, dedicated colleagues." One professor wrote that she loved teaching in the community colleges because they are the only "democratic, proletarian institutions of learning."

Survey participants identified three main problems related to student characteristics, professional conditions, and the academic culture of the community colleges. Many historians complained about the poor preparation and attitudes of their students. Several stressed that their ability to find a comfortable teaching style is complicated by the wide range of abilities they find among their students.

Far more problematic for most of our respondents are the conditions under which they work. Many argued that teaching loads are so heavy that they make scholarship nearly impossible and are counterproductive to truly effective teaching. Insufficient time and support for research, writing, and general professional development were cited often. In fact, a number of faculty argued that community-college administrators (and some senior faculty) see scholarship and teaching as being opposites rather than complements. In addition, many complained of the drudgery of teaching mainly survey courses and the lack of opportunity to teach electives. Several noted increasing administrative responsibilities, poor physical plants, and little or no secretarial support as other problems damaging their instructional effectiveness.

Last of all, many of our informants criticized the academic culture of the community colleges. They wrote of administrators insistent on high class-enrollment minimums, increasing class sizes, and retention at any cost (including the lowering of academic standards). Many complained of the recent emphasis on models of "efficiency" and "productivity" that are ill suited to educational enterprises. Additional difficulties mentioned were the overreliance on part-time faculty, an anti-Ph.D. bias among some colleagues and administrators, the overly deferential attitude of many faculty to administrators, and some administrative and faculty incompetence. A few of the younger faculty criticized what they saw as the racism and general prejudices of their seniors, while several older faculty bemoaned the imposition of "politically correct" standards by their junior colleagues. Many complained of a general sense of isolation from the historical profession.

Indications and Recommendations

The results of the OAH Survey of Community College Historians indicate that there is a large body of our colleagues teaching in the community colleges whose training and interests are very similar to those historians teaching in four-year colleges and research universities. Many want to function more as historians without diminishing their commitment to teaching. Nevertheless, their positions are so focused on teaching that most feel they have insufficient time and support for the kind of scholarship essential to teaching history at the college level. In addition, they feel marginalized within their profession and harassed by administrators (and some colleagues) who fail to recognize or endorse the connection between scholarship and teaching.

On the other hand, respondents expressed their sense of freedom from the rigors of publication expectations and from an overemphasis on traditional methods of evaluating their professional worth. Comments throughout the surveys revealed appreciation among community-college faculty for the difficulties facing their students, along with a celebration of the special joy of instructing those who, more because of social circumstances than for lack of ability, will never grace the campuses of this nation's elite universities and colleges. Community college historians are dedicated to teaching history to the most diverse and most poorly prepared student population in American higher education.

Based upon my analysis of the OAB survey results, there are several recommendations I would like to make to my colleagues teaching in two-year institutions:

  1. List your departmental historians' names and your history program's information in the AHA's Directory of History Departments and Organizations. Every spring, the AHA solicits entries from all U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities. Yet, very few community colleges are represented in the Directory. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Listing requires an institutional Services Program membership and that does cost money (but a relatively small amount). Those of us at the two-year institutions know that requests for funds of any amount for any purpose can result in considerable aggravation. Nevertheless, most community colleges have the resources to support at least a limited number of professional memberships. The problem has been that most of the available funds have been consumed traditionally by administrators. But they are available for faculty as well, and historians need to be more aggressive in claiming them. In addition, some community-college faculty may be put off by the Directory's title reference to “history departments,” since few community colleges have separate history departments. The nomenclature, however, should deter no one. The departmental profile forms filled out by institutions submitting Directory entries include questions that, with two or three exceptions, are fully applicable to community-college history faculty, regardless of the way they are organized within their institutions. For example, the Directory entry for San Diego Mesa College, where I teach, is headed “History Faculty, Social Sciences Department.” Last of all, the paperwork involved is minimal, a fact to be appreciated by overextended community- college faculty. Listing in the Directory is a simple statement of membership in the broader profession. I strongly suggest that two-year college historians insist that their institutions pay for and submit entries to the AHA’s Directory. If an AHA solicitation doesn’t make it to your college, call (202) 544-2422 and request the appropriate information and materials.
  2. Remain active in the profession. Community- college historians should attend professional conferences whenever possible, knowing that they will not be regarded as anything other than fellow historians. Moreover, in recent years sessions on teaching in general and on teaching survey courses in particular have become increasingly popular at both the AHA and OAB annual meetings. Though many of our colleagues at four-year institutions maintain far more active research programs than we are able to, they also teach, and often they teach at least one section of the basic survey course. The survey course is the specialty of the community-college historian. In other words, community- college historians should attend professional gatherings prepared not only to draw new ideas from presentations of ongoing research in specialized fields but also to bring their special expertise to the entire profession.
  3. Accordingly, community-college historians must engage in scholarship, whether in the traditional sense of original research or in the broader sense of the integration and application of knowledge-especially the transformation of knowledge through teaching. Submit the results of your work to conference program committees for consideration with the assurance that it will be judged on its merits and not on the fact that you do not hold a position at a major research university.
  4. Scholarly work and conference attendance, of course, require institutional support. Community-college historians need to become more active in lobbying their college presidents, trustees, and state legislators, urging them to endorse the importance of scholarship to effective teaching and reminding them that they cannot approach excellence in education without increasing the commitment of financial resources to our schools and colleges. Explain to them how community-college students, like all college students, benefit from the increased involvement of their teachers in the larger concerns of their professions.
  5. Last of all, I urge those community college historians who have yet to do so to unionize. Unions in higher education are or at least ought to be, both labor organizations and associations of professional educators. Thus their goals should be, both to protect faculty rights and advance faculty rewards and to foster instructional and scholarly excellence. Faculty unions should be encouraged to bargain not only for higher salaries and better benefits, but also for professional enhancements like reduced teaching loads and more funding for scholarly work. Professional organizations like the AHA and the OAH must work in concert with faculty unions to prevent further reductions in community-college funding, to protect tenure at all levels of public education, and to restore the promise of opportunity once heralded as the primary mission of this nation's community colleges.

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