How I Learned to Quit Whining and Started to Enjoy Teaching at a Community College and Why You Might Want to Consider Doing the Same
David Arnold, November 2005
It took a trip to the AHA annual meeting in Seattle last January to realize how much I've changed since the last time I attended, in 1998, when I was still on the job market. There I encountered three things that I found troubling. First, I witnessed, as many AHA attendees did, the latest cadre of newly minted PhDs (and probably more ABDs) experiencing the stress and paranoia brought on by taking part in the Job Register. Second, I ran into old friends and made new acquaintances, most of whom would never even consider employment at a community college (and some who offered me their genuine sympathy for what they believed must be the drudgery of my teaching load). Finally, when I returned home and read the latest issue of Perspectives, I discovered that my tenured history position fell into the category of "troubling," because my employer is not listed in the Directory of History Departments, Historical Organizations, and Historians.1 Like 63 percent of the people who have received their PhDs in history over the last 15 years, I have fallen from the Directory's radar screen, which consists primarily of history-baccalaureate-granting institutions.
While I realize that the AHA does not mean to suggest that my job as a community college history instructor is worthless to the profession, the Association's overwhelming concern for employment at four-year universities, as reflected in the Perspectives article, is emblematic of the narrow and unrealistic impression that many history professors and aspiring graduate students have concerning employment beyond the university. Given the state of the academic job market, the economy, and the growing inaccessibility of postsecondary education for all but the most privileged students, it is time for the history profession, and especially the mentors of PhD students, to take a more inclusive view of employment at the community college level. The AHA has made strides in the last decade to promote public and "nonacademic" history.2 The profession also needs to recognize the critical role that historians can play—and are playing—within academia at community colleges, and perhaps begin encouraging and preparing PhDs to take jobs at two-year colleges, just as they prepare them for life in the increasingly inaccessible ivory tower.
Eight years ago I had just completed my degree at a large research university known for pumping out multitudes of aspiring history professors in every specialty. The culture and academic preparation of this PhD factory was decidedly geared toward the unrealistic goal of producing specialists who would spend their lives churning out cutting-edge monographs, pulling together anthologies with former grad-school colleagues, and teaching a few classes in their chosen field. It was no wonder, then, that by the end I too desired a research position at some state university—the fabled job with the 2-2 teaching load that so many job candidates pined away for in Seattle.
My first year on the job market yielded few interviews at such places; my second year even fewer. By the spring of that second year, when desperation set in, I sent off an application to a community college and, remarkably, given my overly specialized training, I landed the job. When I did, my wife reminded me that I had once wanted to teach at a community college. That was not, however, how I felt by the end of my graduate education. It's shameful to me now, but after I accepted the job, instead of feeling jubilant, I actually felt like a failure. I was more inclined to agree with one of my professors, who encouraged me to consider not taking the position, since a community college job—with its teaching workload and lowly status—would permanently banish me from the ranks of respectable academia. My academic training had insidiously convinced me that working at anything but a four-year institution meant that I had not really made the grade. My rational self told me that there were many others in my position, or worse, and that the arbitrary nature of the job market certainly was not an indictment of my own abilities, but I couldn't help shaking the feeling that my position somehow reflected my own inadequacies. This lurking sense of inadequacy was re-enforced by the reactions that I received from my four-year colleagues. If only I had listened to my professor, I might still be holding down multiple adjunct positions while chasing that elusive academic position. Or perhaps I'd be one of the lucky ones, a low-paid assistant professor sweating tenure, hurriedly trying to transform my dissertation into a publishable manuscript.
My views about community colleges began to change when I realized that most of my colleagues, even without those precious three letters behind their names, knew a heck of a lot more about history than me or anyone else I had encountered in graduate school. Perhaps their knowledge was not always packaged neatly within the wrapping of the most recent academic fads—you can know, for instance, volumes about nationalism without ever reading Benedict Anderson—but it reflected a broad engagement with big ideas and historical trends that were often lacking in graduate school. My colleagues read the New York Review of Books and talked about history books that the rest of the educated world was reading, but are somehow overlooked in most grad school seminars. My colleagues were also experienced teachers who actually thought about student learning styles and the art and theory of history pedagogy, something which had been altogether absent from my teaching apprenticeship, where TAs were left on their own to sink or swim in the classroom with very little or no formal guidance from their mentors. Further, I found that the 3-3-3 teaching load was not as oppressive as it first had seemed and, after a short, three-year probationary period, I was a tenured instructor with job security and a comfort level in the classroom that liberated me from my notes and allowed every survey course to proceed down its own unique path. Moreover, my breaks and weekends were not filled with the angst of having to work on the next article or manuscript, which many of my four-year colleagues were experiencing. I continued to give conference papers, write book reviews, and even work on articles—and, yes, much of this did happen during breaks—but I did it by choice, knowing that my livelihood was not dependent upon it, and that was a liberating realization.3 Financially, I was doing as well as, if not better, than most of my four-year colleagues because of the opportunity to teach extra classes for extra pay, something that university professors are prohibited from doing (because you should be working on that manuscript!). Teaching overloads can be, of course, a double-edged sword, but in my case, my family has benefited tremendously.
For all of these reasons, I began to relax, enjoy life, and shake my sense of second-class citizenship within the history profession—a task that still requires me to constantly overlook the narrow snobbishness that pervades higher academia. For open-minded graduate students who are now, or will soon be, pursuing that elusive tenure-track history position at a four-year college or university, I humbly submit the following reasons why you should seriously consider expanding your search to include community colleges:
- Social Impact. The most idealistic of us entered graduate school because we sought the opportunity to reach and inspire students through teaching college-level history. Although that vision was beaten out of us in graduate school, as we learned that publishing articles and monographs, not a passion for teaching, was the path to academic advancement, community colleges—when they are at their best—allow that spark to be rekindled by placing teaching at the center of our academic responsibilities. Moreover, as growing tuition costs and economic insecurity push more students out of the university system, community colleges are becoming the hub of democratic higher education, the only place where diverse students from lower socioeconomic levels can find access to the American dream of a college degree. While university professors are privileged to work with history majors, community college teachers are privileged to educate the much more abundant numbers of students who might take only one college history course in their entire lives—yours. And who knows, you may even inspire a few of them to become history majors.
- Professional Development. Many of us fear that if we take employment at a community college, our teaching load will prevent us from producing the book or article that defines us as a "legitimate" practitioner of history. But community colleges offer ample opportunity to continue research and writing, without the strictures of university publishing. I am just back from a sabbatical, working on a manuscript—yes, one with footnotes—and I've been supported in my efforts to attend conferences, publish, and remain current in my field. I also teach upper-division courses at a local university (yes, for extra money). In other words, teaching at a community college does not mean that you have to quit researching, writing, or engaging with the scholarly community. At the same time, opportunities for professional development and creative productivity are much more broadly defined than university standards for academic scholarship, and the unexpected luxury of being an "outsider" at academic conferences can also be invigorating.
- Peace of Mind/Job Security. I can assure you that it is cathartic to realize that you don't have to revise the dissertation or churn out a monograph. You might want to anyway, but your motives and timeline will be your own. It is also reassuring to know that the baby-boom bubble will provide an ever increasing supply of students to fill your classrooms. While this may be true for universities as well, community colleges offer even more job security for a couple reasons. First, there is very little room for cuts at two-year colleges, while four-year programs are constantly being winnowed. Second, community colleges are better situated to survive the vagaries of legislative politics. They are economically more "efficient" than research universities, thereby passing the primary litmus test of conservative legislatures and critics of government spending. Finally, as four-year universities continue to promote research agendas that are overly specialized, their isolation from the general populace will grow while their support will diminish. Community colleges, on the other hand, will gain increasing legitimacy with the vast population who benefit directly from their programs.
The nature of graduate training, the tenure process, academic awards, and scholarly publishing all ensure that "real" historians will continue to be defined primarily as academics working in four-year universities. Despite the AHA's efforts to promote public history and other "nonacademic" careers, as long as history scholarship is defined as the monograph and graduate schools continue to focus on specialized research rather than teaching or public history, historians outside universities (including public historians) will continue to be second-class citizens within the profession. Short of redefining the entire structure of academia, university historians and graduate students should at least begin to consider the many possibilities that community colleges offer for rewarding and socially constructive careers.4
—David Arnold teaches history at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Washington.
1. Robert B. Townsend, "Job Market Report 2004," Perspectives 43:1 (January 2005), 15–16.
2. See, for instance, James J. Sheehan, "The AHA and Its Publics—Part II," Perspectives 43:3 (March 2005), 5–7.
3. I even realized that I could actually create something without footnotes if I wanted! Maybe a novel? A cookbook? A song? A book of poems? A painting? The opportunities for creative expression were boundless, and not only would I not be punished for such activities (when I really should working on my next academic manuscript!), I would be rewarded, as "professional development" at most community colleges is broadly defined to include all kinds of personal enrichment activities.