Being a philosopher at a community college

I read a post about interviewing at a community college on The Philosophy Smoker last night. Several days ago I had an email from a philosopher who is a friend of a friend asking me for advice on applying for a job at a community college. It isn’t surprising given the job market this year. Newly minted PhDs who had thought that they would be going to research institutions or liberal arts colleges are looking at places that they hadn’t thought they would look before and so are considering community college teaching. I have been at a community college for 17 years now. They aren’t all the same of course, but I think I have some understanding of the pros and cons, particularly as someone who has tried to continue doing research while working at an institution that all but actively discourages it. So, I thought I would write a little about what it is like to work at a community college.

Here’s a little of my history. This is a case study in a way, and whether or not the case is relevant might depend on knowing the specifics so here they are.

I drifted a bit after graduate school taking and then leaving a tenure track job at a small liberal arts college. I didn’t really want to write any more after my dissertation, feeling shell-shocked from the whole graduate school experience, and I toyed with giving up on philosophy entirely. I had children. But philosophy was the only thing I really knew well and so while my children were small I continue teaching as an adjunct for 9 years. I was lucky, because my teaching was all upper division, challenging, and in my area of specialization. Financial pressures and a renewed interest in research led me to pursue full-time employment in the early 90s. At that point, I had been out of graduate school for over 10 years but had recent publications and so I looked interesting enough to people to be a finalist for several positions, was offered one, but was ultimately unable to take it for personal reasons.

During that same year, I applied for a full-time temporary position at a community college, primarily driven by financial concerns. It was a revelation. I had students who were excited about philosophy, thrilled to be exposed to new ideas, and striving for something other than the lives that they saw around them. I felt like my teaching mattered and as though philosophy was important. The general excitement of that semester also fed my energy to write and even with all the teaching (5/5 at the California community colleges), I felt as though I could do everything. When I saw a full-time opening at a community college in the area I applied.

I got the job. Yes, the interviews are odd and very unlike the sorts of interviews that I had experienced at the APA. Though, I have to say I had some extremely odd interviews at the APA. There was one that took place in a hotel room (pre-APA prohibition), where the three men who interviewed me had clearly been drinking, and one was wearing the plastic Groucho Marx glasses and mugging a bad Groucho. I believe that they did ask me some questions that were relevant to philosophy but not many. It was humiliating. I’ve interviewed four or five times at community colleges and never felt humiliated. Of course, that sort of thing does not happen at the APA any more.

Community college interviews, at least in California, tend to be very regimented. They conform to rules and regulations that are designed to be defensible in court. Questions are the same to each candidate. Each candidate is required to do exactly the same set of tasks. I remember in one case our overhead projector did not work for the first interview and so we had to force all subsequent interviewees to use the non-working projector. Completely bizarre at one level but conforming to a preverse logic at another. So, if you are given instructions that seem not to make sense to you, you are at least assured that everyone else is being given those same instructions.

Do community colleges frown on PhDs? Community college search committees will frown on anyone who thinks that they are bottom trawling by applying for a position at a community college. That should be obvious. Why on earth would you want to work with someone who thinks that you are beneath him or her? The job is hard enough without having colleagues that think they are slumming it hanging out with you. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with having a PhD however. Most of the search committees that I have served on have preferred PhDs though only those who they thought understood the role of a community college instructor. This varies depending on the college however and so I am reluctant to generalize.

Community colleges are very secure employment. Tenure is generally granted as long as one is a good colleague and successful teacher (in California, after 4 years). Retirement and health care are good and in urban areas in California (I am sorry that I do not really know about the rest of the country) starting salaries are generally higher than for the CSUs and one advances relatively quickly. PhDs are frequently paid an additional stipend or at a higher starting salary. These are strong positives. Given the nature of these jobs it is not surprising that they are hard to get. I think that this suprises some graduate students who apply thinking that they are over-qualified and ought to be snapped up. Community colleges are looking for teachers however, and if you are a researcher primarily and a teacher coincidentally, search committees are likely to see that and so see that you are not appropriate for the job.

So, there are good things about teaching at a community college, but there are hardships as well. There is a lot of teaching and it is painfully redundant. In California, it is five classes per semester. Again, that can be good in some ways, because it means less preparation time after the first few years and so in principle one could devote more time to research, but since there are no TAs and classes tend to run somewhere around 50 students (that’s 5 sections with 50 students so roughly 250 students a term), there is a lot of grading and maybe not so much time for research after all.

There are, of course, ways to spice things up so that you are not doing the same class exactly the same way over and over again. But this again leaves less time for research. Then there are ways to get release from teaching by becoming involved in various types of service to the college. This can be interesting, if you have interests in education more generally, but also eats away at research time.

I do not want to be too negative about this. I have been at a community college for 17 years now and I have managed to continue my research though it is at a relatively slow pace. I am not happy with it however, I have to confess. I am critical enough of my own work to see that I have not always worked out the arguments as carefully as I might. I have not always done the level of research that I ought to have. Is this because I am at a community college and I just don’t have the time? Maybe. But maybe I am just not as good a philosopher as I had hoped to be. Overall though, I consider myself very lucky. I love philosophy. I have made a living being a philosopher, something that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to do. I attend conferences and workshops, deliver papers, publish, and interact with philosophers in a way that I find satisfying. One can do all that while at a community college, at least, I have done that.

So what is the case and is it relevant to you? I am a woman philosopher and so some of my story is about that aspect of my life. I am someone with a PhD who teaches at a community college so maybe that’s what’s relevant here. I am not a terribly ambitious philosopher so maybe that is what’s relevant. Or maybe none of it is relevant at all.

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3 Responses to Being a philosopher at a community college

  1. Noumena says:

    Thanks very much for this post. I think the prevailing attitude — that anything other than an endowed chair in a department rated in the top-ten on the Philosophical Gourmet is, in the long run, the same thing as failing as a professional philosopher — does immense harm, especially to the optimism and enthusiasm of young philosophers. I don’t think that a community college job is going to be the best fit for everyone, but we certainly should think of it as a legitimate career path, especially for those (and I would put myself in this group) who are more interested in teaching than writing.

  2. There are many ways to be a philosopher and many ways to make contributions.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I also very much appreciate your post. I'll be looking for jobs in a few years and have thought often that teaching at a community college would solve certain problems: more choice of locations, more stability, etc.

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