Teaching at a Community College

Teaching at a Community College, Zoom Panel
Event date: November 13, 2020

With Professors Jamylle Laurice Carter, Matthew C. Nelson, and Kathleen E. Urda

From Colloquium Co-organizers Ami Yoon & Diana Newby: A Note about the Event

This wonderful colloquium event featured a panel of speakers who shared their experiences and expertise as community college instructors. Designed for graduate students interested in pursuing teaching careers at Access Oriented Institutions (AOIs), the event focused in particular on the following topics:

  1. the ethos and experience of being an educator at an AOI;
  2. the transition from doing a PhD at a research institution to applying for and securing employment at a community college;
  3. the specifics of job application materials and the interview process for AOI faculty positions.

Presentation and discussion highlights have been paraphrased below. Each speaker included 3 actionable tips and takeaways for current or recent graduate students who are considering this line of work.

From Jamylle Carter, Professor of Mathematics, Diablo Valley College

I earned my PhD from UCLA in 2001, and from 2000 to 2009 I held various postdoctoral and part-time teaching positions. In 2009, I was hired at DVC; I received tenure in 2013 and have been there ever since. It was the first and only community college I have ever worked at.

At community colleges, teaching and service are the main requirements; many if not most positions require little to no research. The job requires an MA degree; with a PhD, you are overqualified to teach at this level! So, why do it?

For some people, it can be a dream job, particularly on the basis of two aspects: the job itself, and the lifestyle.

Teaching at a community college is a community service job! You are serving the public when you work at an access-oriented institution, and the best way to stay motivated is to be invested in that desire to serve the public.

Students run the gamut from those who eventually want a four-year degree to the formerly incarcerated. Not only should you be aware of the different types of people you’re serving, but you should really love people more than you love teaching. The teaching itself is something that you may not see the end result of: the person might not pass your class (the first time, or even the second time…), and it’s a long endgame. So you have to love people where they are—both your students and your colleagues—even if and when that love is unrequited!

How do you sustain your love for your job? You have to sustain your priorities and what you want to bring to your school. The needs at the community college level are tremendous and all over the place, and it’s far too much for any one person or institution to meet all of these needs. That means you also have to set boundaries.

3 tips and takeaways:

  1. Do informational interviews with community college faculty.
  2. Get a part-time teaching position at a community college now. I did not have that before beginning my teaching, but I recommend it.
  3. Volunteer! This might sound unrealistic, given the graduate student life, but the reason relates to public service, because community college teaching is a public service job. Volunteering is a good way to explore how you like that public service work.

From Matthew Nelson, Professor of English, College of the Sequoias

Picking up where Professor Carter left off: Service work doesn’t get brought up enough, and it is so important! I agree with Professor Carter that you have to love people as well as teaching, but I also really love teaching: the challenge of teaching, as theory and praxis. For a lot of PhDs, that excites us.

For many of my community college students, I am often the first person they encounter who has enthusiasm for their learning. Many of my students want a college education but feel like they don’t belong in college. These are students who are fighting for their education, but haven’t had the opportunity to concentrate on their learning.

How did I end up teaching at a community college? After I earned my MA at Columbia, I did a PhD at Tufts. I taught at Tufts, which was good at shaping me into a literary scholar, but not so good at shaping me into a teacher. At Tufts, my students could basically teach themselves, so they did very well even though I wasn’t giving them great prompts or assignments. Eventually I took it upon myself to start reading up on pedagogy. I would have a reading list and every so often go through it as if it were part of my coursework, which helped to shape me as a better teacher and think, what does active teaching look like?

My funding ran out after the fourth year of my PhD, so I picked up a part-time job at Bunker Hill Community College. Part of my work at Bunker Hill involved training student mentors to embed them in classes as integrated tutors. This gave me a sense of the administrative side of the teaching, and it taught me that successful teaching is a team job. 

Community college adjunct work pay is really low, so I picked up another job at Bentley University. After teaching at Bunker Hill, it was tough for me to enjoy teaching at a research university. As at Tufts, the students there could teach themselves, and I missed the emotional and intellectual challenge of teaching students who needed compassionate teachers. So I applied to several full-time community college jobs, but my applications weren’t framed in the right way: I barely talked about composition courses and did not focus enough on teaching in the application materials.

I ended up moving home to Southern California and enrolled in a high school teaching credential program. This helped me to understand how to talk about teaching at lower levels. In my next round of job applications, I applied for both high school and community college jobs, and I was much more successful because I knew how to represent myself in the application materials. In particular, I talked about composition classes more than any research-oriented experience. English 1 is the bread and butter of community college teaching!

3 tips and takeaways:

  1. Learn the field! Start reading pedagogy and publications in composition studies. Attend composition studies conferences.
  2. Know the local education trends in places you’re applying to, because they differ. You want to show that you not only want to teach at a community college, but that you want to teach at that community college.
  3. Build a teaching-centric application and CV. Probably there is no getting around the fact that you’ll have to adjunct at a couple of places. You will often be asked whether community college is just your back-up plan or whether you really want to teach at such an institution. You want to show that this is what you want to do.

From Kathleen Urda, Professor & Chairperson of English, Bronx Community College, CUNY

I received my PhD from Fordham, and my expectation at first was that I was going to apply for a small liberal arts, Catholic college, because that was my undergraduate experience. I entered the job market as a complete neophyte in teaching at a community college. Now, I’ve served as deputy chair of my department for 6 years and chair for a year and a half, and I’ll be speaking today from the perspective of someone who’s sat on a lot of hiring committees.

3 tips and takeaways:

  1. Don’t assume! Do your research into the particular community college environment you’re applying for—the same as if you were applying for a research university. Community colleges are not all the same. Some are very vocationally oriented; CUNY is less so, and is quite diverse in student composition. Often there will be a real difference in emphasis from community college to community college, so be sure to identify what community college you’re applying to.
  2. The key word is community. Community college is a time to be embedded in a very local place. It’s important to understand who you’re serving and will be working with, in your cover letter and other materials. What is the relationship between the college and the community? Also, look at faculty profiles. At CUNY, we do have a research expectation and nobody here gets tenure without research and publications. The publication expectation is less than at a primarily research institution, but it is still there. Survey the faculty members: what kind of degrees do they have? What are their areas of research?
  3. Job materials: I think the job materials aren’t that different from ones for research institutions in terms of required components (cover letter, statement of teaching philosophy, etc.). Where they differ is in emphasis. For community college teaching applications, you will want to emphasize your teaching: for example, rather than starting your cover letter with a description of your research, you’ll want to begin with a discussion of your teaching experience.

In the cover letter, you also want to address the following questions: do you understand what an access-oriented institution might be? Do you have a sense of the unique challenges that students at such an institution might face?  Hiring committees read through applications quickly, so articulating this awareness will be important in catching someone’s eye.

At least one of your referees should be someone who has community college teaching background, and someone who has observed you teaching. If you haven’t already, I would invite a professor (who will write your reference letter) to your classroom, so that they can observe your teaching.

When we invite people to campus, we usually begin with the teaching demonstration, which is generally what makes or breaks the candidate. Successful candidates are all successful in their teaching demo. They generally teach a lesson that is discrete in terms of its shape: i.e., they don’t try to take on too much, they stay within given time parameters, they show awareness of what they want to accomplish within their given time, and they have clear learning objectives.

From the General Q&A

Q: My memory from my time as community college student was that instructors would often start initiatives or programs related to student interests—e.g. model UN, literary magazine, community orchestra. I’m curious whether you could speak to such experiences and the process of putting them in action.

Professor Carter: At DVC, faculty can apply for sabbaticals. In mine, I focused on the needs of African American students taking math classes. I interviewed Black students taking math classes, since math classes tend to be a big barrier, and then I traveled to other community colleges to see what I could learn. There was institutional support with funding for this. (I didn’t get the sabbatical the first time I applied.)

In terms of implementation, I am having gradual conversations with other faculty—some of the change has to be institutional and start from the top, taking an interest in what kind of changes can be made. For another example, a learning community was revived, regarding first-gen student support. I was one of the faculty administrators and we undertook a year-long survey in order to have that community revive.

Professor Nelson: I’m very involved in the LGBTQ community. In Boston I did a ton of work with that, but my current situation in California is more conservative. I do a lot of volunteer work here; during the pandemic, I did a fundraising event that was very successful. I also run educational initiatives for LGBTQ issues. At COS specifically, I haven’t been too involved with student groups yet, but I have been involved in faculty research—I present at conferences, and I do a lot of equity work on the campus. I am on several committees for equity work. This can be difficult, but it is really meaningful work, and there is a lot of behind-the-scenes service that happens.

Professor Urda: I would agree with the behind-the-scenes service! Pre-pandemic, a colleague and I worked to create a study abroad program for our English majors, in joint work with Lehman College. Many people can assume that community college students have such opportunities foreclosed to them. Last summer, we took a group of about 13 students to a college owned by Fairleigh Dickinson and were there for about 2 weeks, in the UK. We did some traveling in addition to having classes. 

Q: I have a workload question—how many classes do you teach per semester, and what are your class sizes?

Professor Carter: The requirement at DVC is 15 teaching hours, per week, per semester. A teaching hour is roughly a unit—I don’t totally understand the formula, but roughly 15 teaching units per semester. For the math department, we can easily teach 3 classes and have a full load. This is not usual—most of my colleagues are teaching 5 classes per semester. For the math department, our class size is 36. Typically, I teach 3 classes per semester for a full load.

Professor Nelson: It’s similar at COS: we also have 15 teaching units. Our courses are capped at 25 students, although I have seen some that had 30, and some that had fewer than 25. If your school has a union contract, you can actually find online the union contract and see not only teaching requirements, but pay scales. In NY and MA that information is public. I think I make ~$95,000 a year. And for Visalia, that money goes a lot further than in New York! You can get release time for some work–I have 20% release time for the union work I do, and if you have a union, you can negotiate for a lighter teaching load. We also get conference funding (2 per year) and can apply for sabbaticals.

Also, before going into the interview, read the college’s master plan and strategic plan. These will give you a sense of what your college’s vision is like for the next few years. It’s really nice if you can sneak that bit into your interview.

Professor Urda: As Chair, I don’t teach, as I have full release time (the college prefers calling it “reassigned” time). The teaching requirement is 24 hours per academic year for us, which works out to about a 3-3 teaching load. Courses are capped at 30 or 22, for electives or required ones, respectively. One nice thing we do at CUNY is we reassign time during your first 5 years—21 hours, I think‚ and that is because there is that publication requirement. Some of my junior faculty save up that time and we try to be strategic about how we use that time for course load reduction purposes.

Professor Carter: Can I ask a question of the other panelists? I’m curious about banking overload or overtime. Is that something that you can do at your schools? For me, we can do overtime and buy your own sabbatical, essentially, but this seems to be a rare thing.

Professor Nelson: We can do that at COS, although I am not allowed to withdraw from that kind of banking time until I have tenure. A lot of faculty members will teach (I mentioned that we have 4-unit English courses) 4 courses and gradually take a year off after accumulating units. We have a strict board, but bank time is a really great perk, and our union guarantees us that. I have a friend who is a novelist, and she saves up her bank time and takes off a semester every couple of years [to write].

Professor Urda: We don’t have the same system of saving up time, but we do have sabbatical eligibility every seven years. We’re on a traditional 7-year tenure clock. Our sabbaticals are 80% usually, in being granted. This is, of course, an unusual year.

Professor Nelson: Also, for us in California, we’re part of the state retirement system, so I don’t pay into a separate retirement system—I get those benefits through what I am secured at my job. You can get something like 70-some percent if you teach long enough here.

Q: Tell us about the ratio of tenured faculty to adjuncts at community colleges. Is the proportion comparable to what it is like at research institutions?

Professor Urda: It’s an ever-changing answer. Pre-pandemic, many more adjuncts—probably around 60 adjuncts and 36 full-timers in my department, a year and a half ago. That number of adjuncts has gone down recently; the union is in a fight right now with the CUNY administration. Right now, the numbers are about the same: 36 full-time and about the same number of adjuncts.

Professor Nelson: Same for us. COS likes to hire, and there are a lot of adjuncts. It’s not easy to be an adjunct at a community college—the pay is low. In Massachusetts, I was paid less than half adjuncting compared to what I got at Bentley.

But your PhD will help you stand out! In my department, we only have 3 PhDs, and 2 of them were hired within the past three years. For a long time, there was only one PhD in the department. So, things can really depend on the institution.

Professor Urda: Trends seem to be changing these days. We seem to be seeing more PhD applicants at BCC in the past few years than in previous years.

Professor Carter: I have a different take. For math, the ratio of adjunct to full-time/TT is about 70% to 30%. We have been hiring like crazy, but cuts are also coming, and I know that part-timers will be cut, but even so, my sense is that adjuncts definitely outnumber the full-time faculty.

Q: At some places, adjuncts have a pathway to full-time status/benefits. Is this the case at your institutions?

Professors Nelson & Carter: Not at our institutions—there is no direct pathway.

Professor Urda: For us, we do sometimes hire from adjuncts.

Professor Carter: It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, but we don’t generally hire from our adjuncts.

Professor Nelson: We do sometimes hire from our adjuncts. You do have a foot in the door, but it’s not a guarantee. If you are an adjunct, ask a faculty member for observations and informational interviews, to get resources.

Author profile

Diana is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature. Her teaching and research interests include the Victorian novel, histories of science and medicine, studies of the environment, and theories of gender and sexuality. She has taught literature and writing classes at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Mills College, and she is currently a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at Columbia's Center for Teaching & Learning.

Author profile

Ami is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature, specializing in American literature. Her research sits at the intersection of nineteenth-century literature, history of science, and environmental studies, with a particular focus on poetry and poetics. A current Lead Teaching Fellow with the Center for Teaching & Learning, she has taught classes in Columbia's undergraduate college as well as in its School of Professional Studies.

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