Image: Kevin Van Aelst
Amonth ago on these pages, I offered a ringing endorsement of the faculty career path at community colleges, highlighting all the advantages while acknowledging only one relatively minor disadvantage: a perceived lack of prestige.
As readers no doubt suspected, there are more disadvantages than that. In general, two-year colleges are indeed great places to spend a career and make a life, but no job is perfect. Each has its downsides, and community-college teaching is no exception.
So now I turn to some of the drawbacks I’ve observed in my 32-year career as a community-college faculty member and administrator. My purpose is neither to negate my previous points nor to discourage anyone from applying to (or remaining at) a community college.
I just believe that people are better off going into a career with their eyes wide open, cognizant of the negatives as well as the positives. I wish someone had been this candid with me, lo, those many years ago. That wouldn’t have changed my mind about working at a community college — not in the least — but it might have better prepared me for some of the following harsh realities:
This isn’t a meritocracy. We can argue all day about whether higher education in general is a meritocracy, a good-old-boy network, or a cosmic crapshoot. But the sort of people who want to become college professors are used to advancing in life based on common measures of academic success — high grades and test scores that led to admission, scholarships, fellowships, and other rewards. When those same smart people start a full-time faculty position, they expect their career to continue progressing based on their abilities and performance. They imagine they’ll do objectively good things — teach passionately, publish regularly, present papers frequently — and be rewarded commensurately with tenure, promotions, pay raises, and perhaps even exciting new job opportunities.
All of that might be true, to some extent, if you’re teaching at a four-year college or a research university. Community colleges, however, don’t operate as a meritocracy.
At two-year colleges, tenure and promotion (note: not all community colleges offer either of those things) are typically based more on longevity than on job performance. If you just show up and do your job for a certain number of years — usually three to five — you’re virtually guaranteed to receive tenure. If there are any promotions to be had, you will probably progress through the ranks on a fairly predictable schedule and with a minimum of box-checking. Taught your classes? Check. Served on multiple committees? Check. Attended a couple of conferences? Check. Get promoted.
Tenure-and-promotion standards vary from state to state, and from one campus to the next, but what I’ve just described is the norm at most community colleges around the country. (A handful of two-year colleges, especially in the Northeast, have much higher tenure expectations.)
And by the way, teaching at a community college means you are unlikely to get any exciting job offers from better-ranked institutions or hear from headhunters trying to lure you away, no matter how awesome you are.
You might want to keep quiet about your career successes. The minimal box-checking I described defines an ordinary community-college career. I encourage you to be extraordinary — just don’t make a big deal about it.
Several years ago, I took my sons canoeing in the Canadian Boundary Waters. Riding in a boat, as our Minnesota outfitter ferried us and our gear across the lake to the Canadian port of entry, I noticed that the surrounding trees weren’t nearly as tall as I expected in an old-growth forest. When I asked the outfitter about this, he explained that the winds in that region are occasionally so strong, trees that grow too tall are blown down.
Teaching at a community college can be a little like that. If you do something extraordinary — say, publish a scholarly article or write an op-ed for a widely read national publication — you might receive a public pat on the back (like being mentioned in the campus newsletter).
But if you do too much of that sort of thing — defined as significantly more than anybody else on your campus — you can expect blowback from certain colleagues who are, shall we say, less successful on the scholarship front. They will: (a) accuse you of not devoting yourself to teaching and service and/or (b) imply that you think you’re too good for a community college.
The truth is, they’re just afraid you’re making them look bad. Academic culture at community colleges tends to frown on faculty members who seem too far ahead of the pack.
Don’t expect much institutional support for your research. If you do wish to maintain an active research and writing agenda — not too active, perhaps, but enough to keep your mind from ossifying — don’t expect your dean or department chair to support you in any concrete way.
About the best you can hope for is occasional travel money to attend an academic conference (only in "good" budget years, which are generally distinguished from bad budget years by the fact that there’s a little bit of money for faculty to attend conferences). But beyond that, you won’t get money for equipment or supplies. You won’t get any release time from teaching. You certainly won’t have a teaching or research assistant, those being nonexistent at two-year colleges.
The truth is: Administrators really don’t care if you publish anything or not. As far as they’re concerned, that’s not part of your job description. If you want to do it, fine — but do it on your own time and at your own expense. (Even with all of those roadblocks, I encourage you to pursue some form of research and writing, anyway.)
Take care who you tell about your classroom innovations. When I was a young faculty member, excited to try new things in my classroom and ecstatic when they worked, I occasionally felt moved to share my successes with older colleagues and supervisors. All too often, their response was, "You can’t do that."
So you used peer editing groups in class? Students must do their own work. Assigned a supplemental novel? It’s not on the approved departmental list. Early in my career, when computers were still in their infancy, I even ran into trouble for allowing students to write essays on a word processor rather than by hand.
Eventually I learned: Do what you think best for your students, but keep your innovations to yourself. That went on for years, even after I became a department chair. Now, of course, I tell people about my classroom strategies all the time in the pages of The Chronicle and elsewhere. But at this point, I have tenure and plenty of seniority. On occasion, certain people still tell me, "You can’t do that." I just ignore them.
You don’t have to salute, but you may have to genuflect occasionally. Perhaps even grovel a bit every now and then.
Seriously, if you’re coming from a large research university, you may be shocked at how authoritarian your "supervisor" seems (or maybe not, if your graduate adviser was controlling). But at community colleges, some department chairs run their departments like little fiefdoms. You may get lucky and have a chair (like mine) who is humble, collegial, and faculty-focused, but you’re just as likely to have one who is egotistical, irrationally demanding, and self-aggrandizing.
The same thing, by the way, applies to deans, vice presidents, and presidents at community colleges. In fact, if anything, it seems that the higher people rise on the organizational chart, the more likely they are to become petty tyrants. It’s just that you probably won’t have to deal with those folks for a few years. Surviving your chair is the first order of business, and that can be easily accomplished by following the advice I’ve offered here.
There are pros and cons to working at any type of institution and in any profession. The saving grace of dealing with all of the downsides of faculty life in the two-year sector is that, after the first few years, you will likely have tenure — or a continuing contract, or whatever your college calls it — and you won’t have to be looking over your shoulder quite as much.
In the meantime, you can enjoy teaching that subject you’ve worked so hard to master for so many years (and still continue working to master). You can enjoy your students, most of whom you will find delightful, humble, curious, and determined. You can enjoy your colleagues, many of whom will become lifelong friends. You can enjoy your town, which probably values its community college very highly and, by extension, you.
Because, in the long run, the advantages of teaching at a community college far outweigh the disadvantages. So by all means, apply — especially now that you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.