As a graduate student in English in the 1990s, I remember exactly one conversation about community colleges as a place to consider working. The conversation was with a friend in an MFA program who interviewed for a full-time teaching gig at a suburban community college. It was a group interview. I don’t know if that was the norm at this institution, but it’s not a practice I’ve heard of since. My friend wasn’t taking the interview very seriously until her interviewers mentioned the salary. Then she sat right up, aced the interview, and got the job. She described the job later (and often) as “teaching art to lunkheads.” Sigh.
There are more resources now for people who are interested in careers at two-year colleges. The MLA’s Connected Academics site has a section on preparing for a career at a community college. Chronicle Vitae has a series of columns by Rob Jenkins on how to apply and interview for jobs at community colleges and what to expect once you land one. Although not particularly aimed at job searchers, the “Confessions of a Community College Dean” column by Matt Reed for Inside Higher Ed is prime reading for anyone who is in or considering applying for such a position.
. . . new faculty members at community colleges—surprisingly, to some—have access to professional development resources for teaching and research.
What you may not learn from these sources, however, is that new faculty members at community colleges—surprisingly, to some—have access to professional development resources for teaching and research. Much of what I discuss herein is based on my experience working as an administrator at three community colleges (Lake Superior College, in Duluth, Minnesota; College of the Desert, in Palm Desert, California; and the Borough of Manhattan Community College, in New York, New York), but these colleges are not atypical.
Keeping Mum about Community Colleges
Higher education’s stigma against community colleges is strong, particularly since graduate programs and advisers don’t intentionally prepare their students for community college careers. Community college students are seen as, yes, lunkheads who couldn’t get into real colleges. However, community colleges have enrolled as many as forty-nine percent of all undergraduates in the country and currently enroll somewhere in the mid-thirty-percent range, according to the Community College Research Center (“Community College FAQs”). Heads up: community colleges are #realcollege. And jobs at community colleges are #realjobs. So for the rest of this article, I will be using the word college by itself or with a different modifier when it seems warranted.
I recently attended a career fair for those interested in two-year-college jobs and a speed mentoring event sponsored by the MLA. Both of these were in New York City. I also was a virtual guest in a pedagogy seminar for graduate students in the humanities at a highly selective university on the West Coast. Over one hundred master’s and doctoral degree holders attended the career fair to talk to faculty members from various colleges and disciplines about what it was like to work at this type of college. Since these people attended an event explicitly promoting community college jobs, they by and large got what they came for. And they were prepared to talk to current faculty members, department chairs, and human resources professionals about those jobs.
The graduate students at the MLA’s speed mentoring event, through no fault of theirs or the MLA’s, were less prepared. Coming from PhD-granting institutions in the NYC area, some quite exclusive, the students were not particularly interested in talking to a dean about opportunities at two-year colleges. I think one of the seven people I talked to had some community college experience, but all were looking for positions at research-oriented institutions. They didn’t know what to say to me. This is not to disparage those students, and the MLA is to be commended for their inclusion of access-oriented institutions in spaces that were previously the domain of selectivity. It’s simply to say that graduate programs across the country need to start talking to their students about positions across the spectrum of higher education.
Even when graduate students have experience with community colleges, they are often hesitant to share it. I don’t know how many candidates I’ve interviewed who have left their associate degrees off their résumés. It comes out during interviews when I ask candidates how familiar they are with two-year institutions: “I got my AA at Normandale.” Even, “I was a student here.” (This happens.) When I videoconferenced in to a colleague’s seminar at a West Coast university, the students seemed unsure why they should be talking to me. Their questions felt forced. Finally, one student piped up that she had attended a community college and hoped to work there. She had an interview coming up, in fact. What kind of pressure did she face in her program (not from my colleague, of course) to land a position at a large, private research institution like the one she was attending?
The job of a professor at a two-year college is primarily to teach, as you would expect. Vicki Rosser and Barbara Townsend put it this way in 2006: at two-year colleges “faculty members are not expected to conduct research, although participation in outreach/service activities and institutional governance is expected. The primary aspect of community college faculty’s worklife is teaching, with the related components of advising and curriculum development” (127). Around the country, the teaching assignment at community colleges is usually between thirteen and seventeen hours per week, according to Arthur M. Cohen and his colleagues (89); that translates into four to six courses per semester (Jenkins). Definitive figures are hard to come by, but the teaching load doesn’t vary much across states, although some nonunion institutions are on the high end. Two-year-college faculty members are highly unionized, with anywhere between 60% and 78% represented by a union (Rosser and Townsend; Cohen et al.).1 One significant union victory recently was the result of negotiations between the Professional Staff Congress and the City University of New York (CUNY), which lowered the contractual teaching assignment by three hours across the university. Community college faculty members in the CUNY system now teach twelve credits per semester—twenty-four for the year, rather than the previous twenty-seven (“Agreement”).
Collective bargaining agreements often define the supports for faculty members at unionized institutions. According to an analysis of collective bargaining agreements done by Sue Kater and John Levin, 48% of faculty contracts mention sabbaticals and 30% mention professional development (10). Frequently, contracts designate a monetary amount for professional development, either as a per-person entitlement or as an amount to be pooled for distribution annually. The Minnesota State College Faculty (MSCF) has negotiated $250 per year “per each full-time equivalent faculty position at the college during the preceding academic year. The MSCF Chapter shall determine an equitable procedure for the distribution of faculty development funds.” The contract states:
These funds are to be used to support the professional development of the faculty, the development needs of the academic departments or areas, and the planned instructional priorities of the college. Funds provided by this section shall be used for financing expenses for faculty members only to attend conferences, workshops, take college courses and other activities off-campus, or for the provision of on-campus activities for staff development of the faculty. These funds may be used to reimburse the cost of travel, housing, meals, and registration associated with participation in professional conferences, workshops, and similar meetings or memberships” (Master Agreement 68).
. . . many college leaders will invest in professional development for faculty members. . .
This is a pretty broad statement of what the funds may be used for. Similar agreements exist in many other places. In California, where there is no statewide contract, funds at College of the Desert are also distributed by a committee. At BMCC in New York, however, the funds are not pooled, leaving just $450 per year per person. To the extent that the funds are used at the individual’s discretion, many faculty members choose to focus their professional development on their disciplines, attending conferences of their disciplinary associations rather than focusing on broader teaching issues. So ubiquitous is the focus on going out of town for disciplinary conferences, in fact, that at all three of the institutions I have served, professional development funds are generally referred to as travel funds.
Supports for Teaching
The veteran college leaders Gail Mellow and Cynthia Heelan write: “The single most important variable in the academic success of community college students is faculty expertise in teaching and learning. When this is coupled, as it so often is among community college faculty, with a sincere enthusiasm for making a difference in students’ lives, the transformative capability of education is realized” (220). So although associate-degree-granting colleges are often underfunded, particularly in comparison with four-year colleges, many college leaders will invest in professional development for faculty members, often through a center for teaching.
The models for such centers vary: some are staffed by full-time professionals, others by faculty members on full or partial reassignment. Still others are staffed by faculty members as service to the college, sometimes as part of their membership on a faculty development committee. Teaching centers often provide confidential consultations on teaching and learning, an orientation for new faculty members, and workshops on pedagogy, writing across the curriculum, and understanding contemporary students. Teaching centers are also often called on to provide professional development for specific college priorities. I have been involved in initiatives related to active learning, online teaching, and the most current issue facing two-year colleges: improving student success.
Many teaching centers focus on finding solutions to meet immediate faculty needs, such as the one-off workshop. Others have developed semester-long or yearlong professional learning communities: groups of faculty members that meet seminar-style to focus on a specific aspect of teaching, such as instituting culturally responsive pedagogy, developing student learning communities, and integrating global competencies into the curriculum. At BMCC, we have developed a teaching academy for faculty members who are new to teaching or new to community colleges. This two-semester program links a small cohort of new faculty members (teaching fellows) to a mentor teacher. The cohorts visit one another’s classes and provide nonjudgmental feedback. The program allows new teachers to reflect on their practice with colleagues who will not be evaluating their job performance. The new faculty members also explore ideas about the scholarship of teaching and learning, and, after the teaching academy, faculty members may elect to join a two-semester program aimed at exploring and developing a project in the scholarship of teaching and learning.
Supports for Research
In keeping with the idea that faculty members at associate-degree-granting institutions are hired primarily to teach, I find that these faculty members are not often rewarded for research. The most common form of support for research seems to be the sabbatical. Several faculty members I have worked with have produced books while on sabbatical, especially creative writers.
While it is true that faculty members at most two-year colleges are not expected to publish, it is not true everywhere. At the seven community colleges in CUNY—including BMCC, where I am associate dean of faculty—research is expected, recognized, and rewarded. It is also supported in systematic and tangible ways. Tenure-track faculty members receive twenty-four hours of reassigned time in their first five years “in order to engage in scholarly and/or creative activities related to their academic disciplines” (“Faculty Handbook”). That is up to eight courses from which pretenure faculty members are released so that they may devote time to their research or creative work.
Additional supports negotiated by faculty members in New York City include research grants for early-career faculty members and support for adjunct faculty members. Research grants from $3,500 to $12,000 are available for full-time faculty members through a competition administered by a faculty committee. These awards are offered annually. Support for adjuncts is available in the amount of $3,000 for “research, courses, conferences, field studies and other activities that will enhance . . . professional development” (“Adjunct-CET Professional Development”).
In addition to this research support, which is specific to CUNY, several outside organizations offer support to community college faculty members who are active scholars or artists. These include the American Council of Learned Societies, which instituted a fellowship program for community college faculty members in 2018 with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In its first year, the Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowships program awarded $40,000 stipends to twenty-six individuals.
Several of my colleagues from New York and Minnesota have participated in international professional development thanks to the Fulbright Program. Faculty members have studied in Finland, Vietnam, and Taiwan. An English instructor who spent half a year in Belarus explored her experience on her blog.
For strong professional development at a two-year college, faculty members are well served by collective bargaining agreements that guarantee a certain number of sabbaticals per year, a designated fund that they can apply to, and a central organization that can snag big money. Equally important is a strong vision by a provost or president who recognizes that investments in the faculty lead to better student outcomes.
I teach a course on community colleges for the Higher and Postsecondary Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. I share with my students the many rewards and challenges of careers at community colleges, including knowing that you’re teaching students for whom higher education is far from an entitlement and for whom your course might just be life-changing. Newly minted PhDs may not feel prepared by their graduate programs to take on a community college position, but they should know that community colleges want their students to succeed, and so they want their faculty members to succeed. We have our financial constraints, but we welcome new faculty members, and we will do our best to support you.
1. These figures may change in the light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME.
“Adjunct-CET Professional Development Fund.” PSC-CUNY, 5 Sept. 2019, psc-cuny.org/benefits/adjunct-cet-professional-development-fund.
“Agreement between the City University of New York and the Professional Staff Congress/CUNY: October 20, 2010–November 30, 2017.” PSC-CUNY, psc-cuny.org/sites/default/files/2010-2017_PSC-CUNY_Collective_Bargaining_Agreement_upload.pdf. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019.
Cohen, Arthur M., et al. The American Community College. 6th ed., Jossey-Bass, 2014.
Cohen, Arthur M., and Florence B. Brawer. The American Community College. 4th ed., Jossey-Bass, 2003.
“Community College FAQs.” Community College Research Center, ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Community-College-FAQs.html.
“Faculty Handbook.” Borough of Manhattan Community College, www.bmcc.cuny.edu/academics/faculty-affairs/faculty-handbook/full-time-faculty/responsibilities/. Accessed 9 Sept. 2019.
Jenkins, Rob. “Community College FAQ: You Teach How Many Classes?” Chronicle Vitae, 25 Oct. 2016, chroniclevitae.com/news/1590-community-college-faq-you-teach-how-many-classes.
Kater, Sue, and John S. Levin. “Shared Governance in the Community College.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice, vol. 29, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1–23.
Master Agreement between the Minnesota State Board of Trustees and the Minnesota State College Faculty 2017–2019. Minnesota State College Faculty, 20 Mar. 2018, www.mscfmn.org/mscf-contracts.
Mellow, Gail O., and Cynthia M. Heelan. Minding the Dream: The Process and Practice of the American Community College. 2nd ed., Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.
Rosser, Vicki J., and Barbara K. Townsend. “Determining Public 2-Year College Faculty’s Intent to Leave: An Empirical Model.” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 77, no. 1, 2006, pp. 124–47.
James J. Berg is associate dean of faculty at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He is coeditor of Isherwood in Transit (U of Minnesota P, 2020).