In my first article I described the work of two-year college faculty members, especially in English, and I argued that a teaching career in community colleges is an attractive alternative to a research or teaching position in four-year institution. Here are some pointers on the two-year hiring process and how to prepare for it.
First, know what we do before you apply. Our English departments look for candidates who understand the mission of community colleges and two-year English. My earlier article is just an introduction; go to the Web sites of several community colleges near you and study their organization and programs. Check out the English Department pages. Find out what courses are taught, how they’re similar to and different from what you’ve taken and/or taught. Find out what basic and developmental courses in reading and writing entail. Learn about the backgrounds, needs, and goals of community college students.
Explore current issues in our profession by visiting the Web site of the Two-Year College English Association — an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English. The association is our primary national organization, and it includes seven regional groups that cover the United States and Canada. On the Web site, check out the “Guidelines for the Academic Preparation of English Faculty at Two-Year Colleges” -- a great overview of what the ideal community college English professor brings to our work. The association also publishes a scholarly journal called Teaching English in the Two-Year College; my regional, the English Council of California Two-Year Colleges, publishes its own journal, inside english. Both periodicals offer engaging articles on classroom practice, professional concerns, and rhetorical and composition theory. Finally, the MLA Committee on Community Colleges offers a number of useful resources. There are similar community college groups for many other disciplines.
Second, make sure you have the minimum qualifications for teaching in your field. These standards vary from state to state. For example, to teach English in a two-year college, according to the California Community College Chancellor’s office, you need a master’s degree in English, literature, comparative literature, composition, or a bachelor’s degree in one of the above and a master’s in linguistics, ESL, speech, education with a specialization in reading, creative writing, or journalism, or the equivalent (to be determined by the college, usually after reviewing a application form that comes with the job packet).
Third, get the right training. If you haven’t taken a course in the teaching of composition, do so (this is almost a must). Postsecondary reading training is a wonderful addition (programs like the Certificate in Teaching Postsecondary Reading at San Francisco State University, or California State University-Fullerton’s online Postsecondary Reading and Learning Certificate). Courses in ESL are also a plus. Traditional literary study alone is less impressive.
Fourth, teach part-time to get experience. Serve, if possible, on department and college committees. Teach a variety of courses; teach online as well as face-to-face. Think versatility. Even if you have experience as a teaching assistant at the university where you are earning or earned your doctorate, try to teach a section at a community college, so that your interest in the sector won’t be theoretical only.
When it comes time to apply for a full-time position, you’ll find some two-year job listings in the fall issues of the MLA Job Information List (JIL), but many community colleges don’t announce full-time openings until the spring semester. Look for other announcements in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Many states also have job registries — master lists of positions.
As you review the listings, study what each position actually requires: never assume all jobs are alike. Read each set of application directions carefully. Tailor each cover letter so that it addresses a particular college (generic letters, or letters that address Big Canyon CC when you’re applying to Little Arroyo CC, get eliminated quickly). Answer all questions, especially supplemental questions, which require short essay answers, in appropriate detail. Make sure you have not said, “see my cover letter” in answer to any of these questions — departments often eliminate candidates who do not answer each question in detail. Proofread all your documents. Mail the complete application packet.
The hiring process varies from college to college, but here’s the general pattern:
The college human resources office screens the packets to make sure each is complete; incomplete packets do not go forward.
The English department screening committee reviews the forwarded applications.It checks to see which candidates meet the minimum qualifications, eliminating those who do not. Next, the screeners rank the remaining candidates and select a small number for interviews. This group is invited to the campus for department interviews.
A second English committee then holds the department interviews (assume that travel to this interview will be at your expense). Unlike those at four-year institutions, department interviews at two-year colleges are usually highly structured:
- The committee agrees on a set of questions in advance.
- All candidates hear the same questions, in the same order.
- There are time limits for answers.
- In their deliberations, committee members may not use information they’ve gotten elsewhere.
Note the last point: if you’re a part-timer at a college to which you’re applying for a full-time position, or if you know one of the interviewers, work all points that strengthen your candidacy into your answers; in fact, address the interviewers as if you had just met them, even if you had coffee with one of them the day before.
Dress appropriately. While many community college faculty wear casual clothes while they teach, dressing formally for an interview shows respect for the work and the institution. Be on time; in fact, arrive early; sometimes colleges can arrange for campus tours. Don’t worry about being nervous -- your interviewers were all in your position at least once, and two-year college interview committees tend to be supportive and encouraging.
Answer the questions asked; avoid digressions. Remember that strong answers are specific answers. Remember also to smile, make eye contact, and shake hands.
At the end of your interview, you may be asked to tell the committee anything else you feel is significant about your candidacy. Here’s where you may discuss your interests — academic, professional, personal — and what they will bring to the college. This is not the place, however, to bring up salaries, which ordinarily are not negotiable. The human resources office can give you a salary schedule.
Some interviews include a teaching demo. You’ll know in advance whether you’ll do one, what topic it will cover, and whether it will be with a real class, a selection of students from various classes, or a class composed of faculty members acting as students. The demo might be short (say, 20 minutes), or it might be for a full period. Develop a lesson plan, and prepare an explanation of how it fits into the general structure of your course. Stick to the plan in general. Do, however, pay close attention to students’ questions. Answer them politely, and prepare to modify your agenda if a question calls for it. This is particularly important if the faculty are the "students" — their questions may be intended to test your ability to deal with different teaching situations. Find out in advance if you can use technology, but be prepared to go on without it in case there’s an equipment glitch. Bring handouts (find out how many you’ll need in advance).
The department interview committee selects the finalists, who then move to the next stage: the administrative interview. This meeting is almost always with a senior administrator beyond the department level – sometimes the president – and colleges usually pay for travel at this point. Unlike the department interview, this interview is freewheeling. You can be certain, however, that administrators want to know how you might fit into the larger college community -- what contributions you can make beyond the classroom and the department. Presidents and administrators may also invite your questions. Here’s where you show that you’ve studied this college and explain what you can bring to it.
Next, the administrator or person in charge of the search makes her final choice(s) and checks references. Assuming the references are positive, the offer is made. Upon acceptance, the president sends the name(s) to the college governing board, which has the ultimate authority to make an appointment.
This is undoubtedly a difficult year to be seeking a career in higher education, but two-year college teaching can offer a new Ph.D. or A.B.D. a challenging and satisfying alternative to the research/teaching track. With appropriate preparation and careful attention to the application and hiring process, you can hope that final offer will be to you.
Tom Hurley is professor of English at Diablo Valley College.