One would think that a solid CV and years of research and teaching experience would make one an attractive candidate for an instructor position at a community college. Community colleges wave a large flag of promoting diversity, so it would seem especially advantageous if that experience involved teaching a wide range of students—young, old, male, female, short, tall, round, thin, all colors, from all continents, and more cultures than many professors ever see.
One would think that would be the case, yet it hasn't been for me. Why is that?
I am a senior lecturer in the sciences at Rhodes University, in South Africa, and I love my job. It's probably the best I've ever had. In fact, I'm sure of it. I've been successful in my research, received tenure, been promoted. But that changes nothing. I still need a new job, and in a new and specific geographic location—the western United States. There are personal reasons for this imperative that transcend all professional satisfaction or arrogance. My life as a researcher has been wonderful, but times change.
The concept of working at a community college has become attractive to me for a number of reasons. First, there are a lot of two-year colleges, and many are situated in lovely locations. So it is possible to live in a relatively small and comfortable community, living conditions that I prefer. Some two-year colleges are situated within striking distance of where my daughter lives, which is really the main goal here. Currently we live on opposite sides of the planet.
Second, there comes a time when the constant rounds of writing grant proposals, sweating out the outcome, finding suitable graduate students, picking up the pace of publication, etc., becomes wearing. I feel an urge to step away from all that.
Third, and somewhat related to that, is the cutthroat element of the research university as academics clamor for recognition, students, money, space, equipment, and the like. That gets a bit wearing as well.
Somehow the community-college environment, with its intense focus on teaching, seems a little more relaxed. Of course, I have no illusions about faculty life at a two-year college. I know I would miss being involved in research, and I'm keenly aware that one of my very least favorite activities—grading—would constitute a large bulk of my time. I do not look forward to that one little bit. But nothing's perfect.
So if I am interested in teaching and have lots of experience in the classroom, why do all of my applications to community colleges meet with glaring, conspicuous neglect?
I have a few hypotheses, but I'm not sure of their validity. My career has involved a strong research component, which might lead search committees to perceive that teaching is not so important to me, that I view it as something to be endured rather than engaged with. Community colleges need teachers, not researchers.
Certainly, some researchers couldn't be bothered with teaching and run for the hills at the thought of it, but a large proportion of us enjoy teaching and are fully aware of its importance and the satisfactions it can bring. Search committees at most community colleges can't be oblivious to that fact. Someone who has been actively involved in the production of knowledge is in a good position to be a teacher. That candidate's research experience should have added value from the perspective of the community college.
Maybe search committees assume there is simply not enough teaching experience under my belt. That was certainly true right after I got my Ph.D., when I first began applying to community colleges, but with eight years of teaching a range of courses, at all levels, including (on a part-time basis) at community colleges, that explanation just doesn't seem tenable any more. Are the successful applicants really that much more experienced in teaching than I am? I doubt it.
It is possible that an academic with my background is perceived as overqualified for a position at a community college. Perhaps some hiring committees even fear creating jealousy among faculty members, or that I would be arrogant and feel superior, flaunting my precious Ph.D. That might be grasping at straws, but it may have an element of truth. But what does it mean to be overqualified? It's a term that makes little sense. How can one be overqualified to do something? Does it mean you've flown so high you've forgotten how to do a job? It's not at all clear. Perhaps some committees fear that, if hired, I would be soon dissatisfied with community-college life and would either do poorly or leave rather quickly. But that's a judgment no one but the candidate is in a position to make.
Of course, as someone who entered academe at a rather advanced age, and who hasn't gotten any younger, my age may play a factor in my lack of success on the two-year market. That same factor seems to rear its ugly head in my attempts to land jobs at comprehensive and research universities as well. This is a much broader issue, and bias due to a candidate's age would be difficult to uncover. But why should age matter much at the community college? Perhaps at a research university there could be a feeling that an older person might not have the time or energy to develop a high-powered research program, but no such limitation exists at a community college.
My final problem as a candidate may be that I now live in Africa and seek a position in the United States. It's difficult and expensive to set up an interview, but there are ways. That may explain my not being considered at some colleges, but not all. While in the United States a year or two ago I stopped in at a Northern California community college where I had submitted an application. I had a brief talk with the head of human resources and was told they were intending to do interviews by videoconferencing in any case.
Would I prefer a job at a research institution? Sure I would, but unforeseen events impinge on our ability to get our first choice and force us to consider, and be satisfied with, alternatives. If I can accept, as a candidate, that I won't get my first choice on the job market, I don't see why a community college can't accept that a new hire might view that campus as a second, or even a third preference. Life's like that.
Meanwhile, the fact that I get about as much response from community-college applications as if I had thrown them in the wastebasket continues to mystify.