Publication Date

October 1, 1996

The room was crowded with anxious grad students who had come to take part in the mock interviews. Mock they might be, but in an era of scarce job opportunities the students could not help thinking about the terror of the real interview-if they could get one. To my assembled circle I announced that I would interview "candidates" as though they were applying for a position at a community college, such as Piedmont Virginia, where I work. Two rose hastily, apologizing, and left. To those remaining I began by asking if they were prepared to teach both semesters of Western civilization. How about Western civilization and American history? How about world history? They stirred uneasily. The correct answer was, of course, yes. Appalled expressions on their faces. How about course design? What books would they choose? The lone member of the group who had been teaching part time at the local community college was the only one who could begin to answer. Finally one of the others burst out, "Don't you want to hear about my dissertation?" "No…

Half of all American students now begin their college education in community colleges, which enrolled 5.5 million students last year.1 Many of these students will take a history course, and despite the vagaries of legislative and local government funding, history teachers are being hired. In a recent edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, five history jobs listed: two at four-year schools, one abroad, and two at community colleges. So, what are these jobs like? Should you actively seek—or be willing to settle for—a teaching position at a community college?

Teachers, Above All

The primary focus of the community college is teaching. Class loads are heavy. In most systems full-time teachers have five classes each semester. In a small college, where one teacher may be the entire "history department," he or she may have multiple preparations. In a larger institution one can wind up teaching five sections of the same course. It's hard to say which is more challenging. As a compensation for the heavy teaching load, classes may be relatively small, averaging 25 to 30 students. In my college there is only one large lecture hall-most of the classrooms hold no more than 40 people. The rationale is that the community-college student needs individual attention and will not do well in the anonymity of the large lecture class. For the same reason, teachers are expected to be available in their offices for up to 10 hours each week to work with students individually. And faculty are evaluated and promoted on the basis of their teaching, using a combination of student evaluations, peer review, and classroom visits by department chairs. While research is not ignored in the evaluation process, it does not have the importance it enjoys in universities. The students are diverse. Big-name, competitive colleges may have to dig to find a diverse student body, but community colleges don't even have to try. Inevitably, the students reflect the community. The diversity is not just ethnic either—it includes age, social class, and academic background. The age range is from 17 years to over 80, with an average of about 30. Students walk into the classroom with a staggering variety in levels of preparation. "Everyone from Einstein to Bozo," says one of my colleagues. Some were good high school students, some seem to have learned nothing at all in high school, and some never even went. Others may be "reverse-transfer" students, who already have college degrees but are returning to school to study new subjects.

As a community-college teacher one learns not to be surprised at what students do not know. Halfway through the first semester of Western civilization a young woman shyly pointed out an error I had made on the board-wouldn't Socrates have died before he was born, if he lived from 469 to 399? I had to point out gently that the dates in S.C.E. run backwards and draw a timeline on the board to clear it up. One’s mantra in such a situation is that no honest question is a stupid question. A sarcastic retort or a shocked expression might have sent that student, or one of her peers, tiptoeing quietly out of the classroom never to return.

Community colleges are relatively inexpensive and accessible to people who would never dream of attending a four-year school. The open door means truly that anyone can enter, though passing scores on assessment tests in math, reading, and writing are required for most academic courses. A significant number of the students are the first in their family to attend college. Graduations are emotional affairs, with large numbers of family members in attendance, bursting with pride and into tears. At our college even the architecture is proletarian-neofactory with exposed insulation and air ducts. I used to think it was hideous, until I realized that it made our students feel comfortable. "It's unfinished," one of them said, "like me."

No Ivory Tower

The four-year liberal arts college is sometimes called an ivory tower, but the community college is in the middle of Real Life, for better or for worse. Nearly all the students work-a fair percentage do so full time-and the types of jobs vary. You might have your dentist or your garbage truck driver in class, not to mention your next-door neighbor's cousin or your ex-husband's new wife. Most students also have family responsibilities. When they miss a class, it is probably not because they got too drunk at a party the night before. Instead there may have been a midnight trip to the emergency room with an asthmatic child or a boyfriend with a bullet in his chest. Juggling jobs and family and trying to make finances stretch, my students could use a sojourn in an ivory tower. Once, in an attempt to stem the loss of students, we were asked to call everyone who had dropped our classes during the semester. The stories were poignant. "My grandmother has cancer and I need to stay home to nurse her." "My husband lost part of his hand in a factory accident and can't work." "I just found a full-time job and couldn't afford to turn it down." "My car needs a valve job and I didn't have the money to fix it." "My child had pneumonia for two weeks, and I just got so far behind in the reading." Uniformly the students were touched that I had called, and they all promised to return to college one day, as soon as things got better.

Your First Choice?

If the idea of teaching is exciting to you and you are committed to equal opportunity in education, the community college could be your first choice. When I have taught at elite institutions in the past, I sometimes imagined that the students could easily learn history without me: At the community college you are definitely needed, and it is a continual challenge to think of how to organize and present 'the material in ways that are meaningful to your students. "Think, think, think!" groused one of my students. "My father used to say, 'Don't let me catch you even thinking your mother might be wrong,’ but ever since I got here, it’s think, think, think!”

Course development and design has provided a great deal of intellectual stimulation for me. Years ago I decided not to use textbooks; every year since then the task of selecting books has brought to mind interesting questions about the study of history and the themes I choose to emphasize. I pick a new topic every year for the last unit in my Western civilization course. One year it was AIDS in historical perspective; another time it was the breakup of the Soviet Union, with each student researching and reporting on one of the republics.

Real-world students bring a perspective to a history class that may be lacking in a group of 19-year-olds. For example, last year when we were studying the Iliad, I mentioned the book, Achilles in Viet-nam, having heard Jonathan Shay speak at the American Historical Association meeting. One of my students, a man in his 50s, who had served in the army in Vietnam, read the book over the weekend and came to my office to talk at length about his reaction, which was thoughtful and profound. A favorite class some years back included an outspoken Orthodox Jewish woman and an equally extroverted African American Baptist minister. When it came time to study the Old Testament, I turned the class over to them and they happily quoted chapter and verse at each other, comparing interpretations, while the other students looked on, spellbound.

These are the stories community-college teachers tell each other, when we are feeling good about our choice. But there is the downside. If your primary focus is on research—and it's hard to think otherwise when you are in mid-thesis—you will find it difficult to pursue in the two-year college environment. Between classes and office hours your time is pretty well occupied. Sabbaticals may not be available in your system, and if they exist, they are likely to be competitive. Grants are also hard to come by for community college faculty. Once, as I was giving my mailing address to a grant-giving foundation, a secretary interrupted, "But these grants are for scholars!" American historians may have an easier time, particularly if they can orient their research around the community in which they live and teach. Historians in other fields may find it hard to explain why they need to travel to China or to Italy to do research. The administrators, trained in departments of higher education administration, are more sympathetic to research projects with a pedagogical focus than to academic history.2

Isolation is a serious issue. The departments in the smaller colleges are multidisciplinary. Instead of a history department you will find yourself in a social sciences department, or, in my case, in the Division of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Fine Arts. You may be without a fellow historian on the faculty. Conferences, and now the Internet, will be your lifeblood, if you aspire to keep in touch. It would be idle to deny the amount of snobbery that exists in our field. Telling a new acquaintance at a conference that you are from No-Name Community College and that you teach the survey may result in glazed eyes and a quick retreat. Our professional organizations, the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and the AHA, are now trying to be more inclusive in their governance and their policies. A new report on the state of community-college historians in the United States is due out next year, the joint product of the OAH, the AHA, and the Community College Humanities Association.3

Administrators are different in community colleges than they are at four-year schools, where I remember sweetly vague philosophers and eccentric English professors serving as deans and being bullied by the faculty. Community-college administrators are professionals with degrees in higher education administration, and they have power. Between them and the liberal arts faculty there may be a serious cultural gap. When I first arrived at Piedmont in 1972, with my brand-new degree from the University of Chicago, I literally could not understand what the administrators were talking about—and vice versa, I suppose. We historians have our own jargon, but "eduspeak" was a foreign language to me. It took several years for me to get off my lofty perch an, learn it as a matter of survival.

TQM-and You

Community colleges are swept by waves of administrative theory, from which Ivory Tower U. may be better protected. First, it was goal setting, then TQM (total quality management), then "quality circles," and so on. Some of these waves seemed to end with a mere retitling of administrative positions—the counseling department and the copy center seem most vulnerable—but often one needs to stay alert to find out what the implications are. For example, the-student-as-customer concept (one of the more recent trends) sounded fine until we thought about it for awhile. After all, taking an academic course is not like buying a new outfit. If the customer not satisfied, you cannot exactly eliminate World War I, because it's too depressing, or the scientific revolution, or slavery, because it's politically incorrect.

Quality and standards are such buzzwords that it is difficult to remember that they really stand for something. Over the last two years the faculty at our college worked hard on a position paper on academic standards. A community college is particularly vulnerable, for if its students cannot make the grade at the local transfer institutions, its faults are all too publicly revealed. In our case, the majority of our transfer students move on to the University of Virginia, which is in the same town. Most of the Piedmont students who eventually go there would never have been accepted if they had dared to apply there first. So our (impossible?) job is to take an unqualified student and bring him or her to a competitive level with students who have attended the university all along. We are proud of the fact that our transfer students have a rate of success equal to that of the "native" students.

In schools that were founded as technical training colleges, the occupational curriculum may still hold pride of place. This is changing as more careers demand a liberal arts background, but it may be an assault on your pride to find yourself marching in the graduation lineup behind a full professor of cosmetology. And it may hit even harder to find this year's library budget going for instructional videos on such topics as "how to insert a catheter" or a set of motivational tapes for use in business.

Salaries vary from state to state. As a general rule, starting salaries are competitive with four-year schools, but there are no very high salaries for full professors or richly endowed chairs. The invisibility of community college faculty was underscored by a recent article in Perspectives on faculty salaries in which we were not even mentioned. A phone call to the College and University Personnel Association confirmed that the study did not include two-year colleges.4 The American Association of Community Colleges was eager to be helpful, but does not break down its statistics by discipline.5

If I haven't succeeded in discouraging you, your first step is to go down to your local community college and apply to teach part time. Community colleges rely heavily on low-paid adjuncts to fill their classrooms and jobs are shamefully easy to get. Your purpose here is to get some real, live community-college teaching experience to see if this is really what you want. Make contact with your colleagues on the faculty, particularly those with reputations as outstanding teachers, and learn from them. If your graduate school education was like mine, it has done nothing much to prepare you for teaching, except in the area of subject matter. There is a lot to learn. There are now special graduate programs for those who want to teach in community colleges. In Virginia there is such a program at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia, which offers a Doctor of Arts in Community College Education.

Community-college positions are advertised nationally, though representatives are not very likely to show up at AHA meetings. There is quite a variety among colleges-from large cosmopolitan schools like Miami-Dade, in Florida, to small, rural ones like Eastern Shore, in Virginia. Some are primarily technical and others primarily liberal arts-they take much of their character from the surrounding area. Most states and large cities have community-college "systems," which are more or less centralized, but hiring is still done by the individual college. You will need to make direct contact with the college that interests you.

Don't be surprised if you get hooked on community-college teaching. Although the frustrations and the looming threat of burnout are there, there are also moments of absolute satisfaction. I am thinking of a trip I took with my humanities class to the Virginia Museum to study the Greek vase collection. As improbable as it may sound, this trip is always a tremendous hit with the students, some of whom fall hopelessly in love with their vase. I had given "the tour" and the students were each involved with the individual vase they had chosen for their essay, when Adelaide turned to me, her expressive eyes wide. "Do you know," she exclaimed, "if we hadn't come here today, I would probably just be hanging out, watching television or something, and all these vases would be here, and I wouldn't even know it!”


1. Figure from the American Association for Community Colleges, in Washington, D.C. See the association’s booklet, Pocket Profile of Community Colleges: Trends and Statistics, published annually. For a copy, call (202) 728-0200.

2. George B. Vaughan, “Scholarship and the Culture of the Community College,” in James C Palmer and George B. Vaughan, Fostering aClimate for Facility Scholarship at Community Colleges (Washington, D.C.: American Association for Community and Junior Colleges, 1991), 1-10.

3. The December 1994 issue of the Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians’ council of chairs was devoted to the situation of historians in the community college. A report on a survey of community college historians by Charles Zappia of San Diego Mesa Community College appeared in the May/June 1996 issue of Perspectives. These items will be updated an joined with other material in the upcoming joint report on community-college teaching, which is being edited by Nadine I. Hata of El Camino Community College in Torrance, California.

4. Robert Townsend, “History Salaries Show Continued Improvement—for Some,” Perspectives (March 1996), 7-9.

5. The 1995-96 figures put out by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) include community-college teachers (17 percent of the total), but the statistics are not broken down by discipline. The AAUP shows an average salary for all ranks of community-college teachers of $40,000, not including benefits while the average for doctoral-granting institutions is $58,000 and for all four-year schools and universities about $49,000. Academe, Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, (March-April 1996), Table 4 (p. 26) and Table 13 (p.35).

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