"Paddy High." That's what students called the college behind our backs. As a new faculty member at Alabama Southern Community College in the mid-1990s, I wondered about that strange epithet. Then a veteran colleague clued me in: After the campus was founded as Patrick Henry State Junior College, in 1965, local wags lost no time dubbing it Patrick Henry High School, or Paddy High for short — a commentary on the fledgling institution's perceived lack of status.
Thirty years and a name change later, the label still stuck — along with the community's misconceptions about two-year colleges.
The reality, of course, is quite different. Alabama Southern was recognized by the Ford Foundation in 1994 as one of the nation's most innovative community colleges. In 2005 it won a National Bellwether Award for Instructional Excellence. Other two-year colleges where I've worked, including my current institution, have earned similar accolades.
Yet I've heard students disparage them all, referring dismissively to their first-year experience as "13th grade": a bit more demanding than high school, perhaps, but nothing like a "real" university. Or so they imagine, most of them having never set foot on a university campus except maybe to attend athletics events.
Since those of us who work at two-year colleges know better, we tend to bristle at such ignorant and callous remarks. Yet we may be the very people whose actions and attitudes unwittingly reinforce the negative stereotypes. That's been my observation as I've visited various two-year colleges and corresponded with colleagues across the country.
One thing is certain: If the public perceptions of community colleges as mere extensions of high school are ever going to change, the responsibility for bringing about that change rests squarely on our shoulders.
Let's start with administrators (since I've been one, in some form or another, for the past 15 years). If some community colleges seem to be little more than glorified high schools, perhaps that's because administrators tend to think of them that way. They have what I refer to as a "high-school mentality."
To understand that mentality, and the problems it poses for a college, consider the main difference between high school and college from a faculty point of view — namely, the degree of autonomy.
Typically high-school teachers are bound by a rigid schedule and a strictly mandated workweek. They must arrive by a certain time each morning and stay until a certain time each afternoon. In between they're required to be at their various "workstations" — classroom, cafeteria, bus line — for specified periods. Only teachers who conform to those expectations are "doing their jobs." Others risk disciplinary action.
College professors, on the other hand, often gravitate toward postsecondary teaching precisely because we seek to avoid that kind of stifling work environment. We prefer to arrange our schedules around our personal and professional needs. We want to teach classes, keep office hours, attend committee meetings, and then leave when we're done — usually so we can go home and grade papers or work on other projects — rather than stick around until 5 p.m. to satisfy some administrator's notion of a standard workweek.
At many community colleges, however, the 40-hour week, meaning 40 hours on the campus, is the administration's main tool for gauging faculty productivity. Those administrators apparently don't take into account that many faculty members at two-year colleges actually work 50 or 60 hours a week. Nor do those administrators seem to care that, in many cases, we can get more work done at home than in the office. In their minds, if faculty members aren't standing in front of classrooms or sitting in their offices, they're not working.
That's the high-school mentality at its worst.
Another area in which high-school teachers have little or no autonomy is in choosing textbooks and making other decisions about the curriculum. Usually curriculum at the secondary-school level is developed by systemwide "curriculum specialists," with books chosen by administrators or, at best, by large committees. Individual faculty members have little or no input, and the concept of academic freedom does not apply.
For college professors, though, teaching is all about academic freedom. We prefer broad course outlines, which leave a great deal of latitude for each instructor to decide how to approach topics in class. And we like to choose our own textbooks or, if textbook selection is a departmental decision, we at least expect to have a say in which books are used.
Unfortunately, at many community colleges, the trend among administrators is toward standardizing the curriculum to "ensure quality" — even though taking those decisions out of the hands of faculty members probably accomplishes exactly the opposite. Some administrators also mandate textbook choices to accommodate students (they say) and, increasingly, to accommodate booksellers (something they don't say).
The problem is that when administrators treat professors like high-school teachers — checking up on us during the "work day," insisting that we adhere to antiquated schedules, usurping our authority over the curriculum — those not-so-subtle signs are not lost on students. It's no wonder they think they're still in high school.
Conversely, when administrators acknowledge community-college faculty members as professionals, that has a trickle-down effect on students. Eventually, as the attitude of the institution toward its faculty members becomes apparent, students come to view their professors — and by extension the college — with more respect.
But let's not place all of the blame on administrators. Sometimes it's faculty members who behave as if we work at a high school. And again it's no wonder students don't regard us as real professors when, all too often, we fail to live up to the title.
Consider professional development. How many faculty members reading this column — and exclaiming "Right on, brother" every time I criticize administrators — have engaged in any serious professional-development activities in the past year? How many have done more than just attend a conference or two? How many have presented a paper, written a journal article, reviewed a book?
More to the point, how many of you have taken serious inventory of your own teaching, perhaps exploring new technologies and methodologies to improve your performance in the classroom? How many of you regularly peruse the journals in your field, keeping up not only with developments in the discipline but also with new ideas about pedagogy?
As a group, community-college professors don't always approach such activities with enthusiasm. We're busy. We teach five or six classes a semester. We have loads of papers to grade, meetings to attend, committees to chair. And so we let the extras slide.
Yet those so-called extras form the very definition of the word "professor." Sure, faculty members at community colleges teach a lot — we work at teaching institutions, after all. But a professor is more than just a teacher. A professor is a lifelong student, not only of his or her field but also of teaching itself. A professor is a writer, a researcher, and a scholar — even if only in a small way.
In truth, faculty members at two-year colleges who merely put in their time before going home at 5 p.m. (OK, 4 p.m.) are little different from high-school teachers. They're not behaving like professors, so why should students regard them as such?
On the other hand, faculty members who are visibly engaged with their subject matter are more likely to gain the respect of their students. So are those who take time to learn the newest classroom technology and stay abreast of the latest pedagogical developments, identifying what works best for them and adapting it to their teaching.
That's what students expect when they come to college, and what they have a right to expect: not 9-to-5ers, but true professors, living the life of the mind, even if much of their time is spent on mundane tasks.
By changing our own attitudes and behaviors, administrators and faculty members can begin to alter the perception that two-year colleges are less rigorous and intellectually stimulating than four-year institutions. We can help students appreciate more fully the value of a community-college education, whether they plan to enter the work force or transfer. Most important, we can develop a sense of pride in ourselves and our institutions that will carry over to the communities we serve.
Because the fact is, we're not the 13th grade. Community colleges open the doors of higher education to students for whom those doors would otherwise be closed. And that's something no high school, and very few universities, can say.