"Why would anyone with a Ph.D. want to teach full time at a community college?" was the question put by a department chair from a two-year college in Texas to a group of chairmen at four-year colleges.
The scene was the Association of Departments of English Summer Seminar in Jackson Hole, Wyo., last year. I was the only participant there who was distinctly not the head of a department, but I had been invited to respond to an employment report by the Modern Language Association and to give a view from the "other side" -- that of a recent Ph.D., now making a living as an overextended adjunct.
The chair's words came to haunt me when I was interviewing for a full-time position at the local community college where I'd been an adjunct for the past two years. The full-time position would have added just two composition courses to my current teaching load, but the psychic leap involved was significant.
First there is the sincerity factor, which the chair explained in his follow-up remarks. Hiring committees, he noted, are quick to distinguish candidates who truly want to work at a community college from those who "merely want a job." And committees may feel a degree of resistance to the Ph.D. applicant who, after all, doesn't really need the degree to teach at a community college.
Yet this resistance can cut both ways: The Ph.D. applicant may feel that such a position is not quite the job she trained for. She may then convey her disappointment during the interview, thus offending her would-be colleagues and guaranteeing an unpleasant experience all around. I didn't want this to happen to me. But which camp did I belong in?
If truth be told, I felt a disillusioning gap between the academic career I once envisioned -- leading stimulating discussions on Victorian literature and culture for eager graduate students -- and one that involved a life of teaching mostly composition. Though I had already decided that the sacrifices needed to fulfill the first scenario were just too great (i.e., moving to a place where I didn't want to live), I was surprised to find that I still had expectations about landing some ideal academic position. I'd have to get rid of these thoughts before the interview.
Part of the resistance I was feeling was not just personal, but almost bred into the discipline of English itself. When you're trained in literature, you usually teach composition as part of your graduate "apprenticeship," as I did for six years. And it's assumed that, if you're lucky, you will land an assistant professorship where you won't have to do this much labor-intensive reading of student essays ever again. By contrast, community-college positions can seem almost like different animals altogether.
Take one university near me that held a day-long seminar on "Alternative Careers" for its English graduate students. For one panel, the institution invited former Ph.D.'s who now work in publishing and in non-profit organizations -- and one who teaches at a community college. That classification speaks volumes.
I like to think that I do not hold the two paths to be so divergent. And I really don't. But putting aside my lingering resistance for a moment, how could I convince the committee that my training fit the job?
Community colleges are first and foremost about teaching, and you have to really like to do a lot of it. I do; it's the primary reason I continue to adjunct at several places rather than work full time in another field. I only needed to think about my students, to imagine why I might enjoy a full-time position.
There's the woman in my remedial class, for example, who comes from Central America and who works as a nanny. She's lived through a war and all kinds of horrors, but her experiences left her not nihilistic but with an insatiable appetite for philosophical and theological works. Her papers read like treatises on the meaning of life, citing everyone from St. Augustine to Simone de Beauvoir; it's fascinating to read how her mind works.
Most associate-degree students, like this student, are older than traditional college-age students, and they usually bring quite varied educational and cultural backgrounds into the classroom. It's this diversity that helps make community-college teaching so singularly fulfilling.
While I thought I did a good job of conveying my genuine enthusiasm for teaching (and thus my sincerity) in the interview, I didn't get the position. Another Ph.D. did, and it sounded like the choice was a good one. For me, it would have been like wearing someone else's shoes, and I believe we all saw this during the interview.
Aside from the typical questions about best or worst class ever taught, I was repeatedly questioned on how I deal with people whose native language is not English (who make up a very large percentage of the student body at the college). Do I hold them to the same standards as native speakers, for example? How exactly do I help them? committee members asked.
I said, truthfully, that I let all my students revise their papers as often as they wish, and non-native speakers seem to take me up on this policy the most, but that didn't seem to be the answer the interviewers were looking for. I have no theoretical training in English as a second language, and that is a weak spot, especially for community-college teaching.
After the interview, I had to write an essay and grade a student paper. The student paper was obviously written by a non-native speaker, and the essay topic seemed designed to draw out who would best fit in with the philosophy of the department.
While my own ambivalence may have been a factor in not getting the position, I think more to the point was that the job wasn't the perfect fit and it showed. I would advise other Ph.D. candidates who are thinking of applying for community-college jobs to "immerse fully in the culture of the college," as a member of the hiring committee put it.
That means attending faculty meetings (although part-timers do not get paid for this), working extra hours as a writing tutor or something similar in a student-learning center (this would be paid work), and generally getting to know full-time faculty members and students as much as possible.
Ask questions of your colleagues, the committee member told me. Make yourself visible. In other words, show that you are genuinely interested in what goes on at the community-college level and not just punching a time clock. It's not a culture that is so entirely different from one you'd find at a four-year college, but there are enough real distinctions to make retooling necessary.
I didn't realize, until I applied for the position, how I hadn't quite made those adjustments myself. Part of me applied because I did just want a full-time job.
Since getting my degree, I have found much part-time work that is very satisfying: Teaching at the local jail (where my students are technically part of the same community college) tops the list. I just wish that all these disparate parts added up to one full-time whole with benefits and tenure. Is that so very wrong?