Advice for the Community College Scholar

Sean Gerrity suggests five steps to take to maintain an active research agenda.

February 21, 2019
 
 
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In the interest of full disclosure, before I offer any advice or you decide if any of it is worth taking: I am on the tenure track at a community college that is part of a larger research university network, the City University of New York system. Even though I work at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx, peer-reviewed publication, presentation at national conferences and the development of a professional reputation are a part of my tenure requirements.

As such, the college -- and the greater university system -- provide some measure of support for us to achieve those things. At CUNY community colleges, our teaching load is 27 hours per year, which generally translates to a 5-4 teaching load -- though, at least at Hostos, we have six-hour developmental English courses that don’t reduce teaching hours but do lessen the number of students and grading we must manage in a given semester.

All new CUNY faculty members are allotted 24 hours of junior faculty release time to be used for course releases from teaching during our first five years on the tenure clock, which is seven years. We also have the support of a strong union, the Professional Staff Congress, that has been responsible for obtaining this release time, fighting for a future reduction in yearly teaching load from 27 to 24 hours for full-time community college faculty and providing both competitive summer grants for research and travel money for presenting at conferences. Thus, I recognize that I am in a somewhat distinct and privileged position as far as community college faculty members go when it comes to institutional support for research and publication activity.

All that said, however, I hope the following recommendations can still be applicable in some ways to people working at different types of community colleges across the country.

No. 1. Make the best, and most realistic, use of winter and summer recesses. For most of us, these are the only times that we can really get any sustained reading and writing related to our research agendas accomplished. As such, my (ineffective) plan has almost always been to overestimate how much I can or will actually get done, which inevitably leads to recurring feelings of guilt, inadequacy and failure as these recesses progress. I thrive when I have one major research task to focus on and have clearly articulated that to myself before a winter or summer break begins. I’ve been trying to become more realistic about those goals, too. For instance, I’m not going to write an entire journal article manuscript over winter recess, but I might over the summer. I might be able to revise an entire journal manuscript in the winter, however, depending on the depth of revisions.

The other thing I have to consistently remind myself of during breaks: stop reading and write! That’s not to say that we shouldn’t, of course, be reading, which I always find inspirational for my writing. But hard as it may be, we have to avoid the trap of falling into trying to read everything -- especially since we are often playing catch-up because we don’t get as much time to stay current on scholarship during semesters.

No. 2. Find time, if possible, to read academic books and articles in your field. Do it before bed, on your phone. Do it when you might otherwise be scrolling through social media for half an hour. Carry a book around when you’re going for a doctor’s visit or to get your driver’s license renewed.

I have a relatively lengthy commute -- an hour at best, an hour and a half or more at worst -- via bus and subway, so I have come to use this time to slowly work through one academic monograph related to my research at a time. I adopted this strategy from a colleague at Hostos who has practiced it religiously for years and just published his first book. It seems simple, and probably somewhat obvious, but if you commute on public transportation, it’s a great way to get in some academic reading, remain up-to-date on what’s happening in your field and keep your mind sharp and attuned for research.

No. 3. Make time to write during the semesters, even if it’s just notes or freewriting, or recording voice memos on your phone. This is, without question, the hardest thing to do as a community college professor: to actually engage in academic writing during the heat of the semester. For some of us, it might be downright impossible, and that’s OK. I’ve had semesters when I’ve accomplished zero writing, and while it was anxiety inducing to be sure, I tried to accept it and focus on my teaching and service.

But as we tell our students, writing does not only consist of the high-stakes production of a final product. It is generally possible for us to engage in some aspect of the writing process during the semester, even if we’re not “actually writing” -- a concept many, myself included, consistently reinforce, very much to our own detriment -- or revising an article or manuscript. I keep an open-ended note on my iPhone’s Notepad where I collect my own rambling thoughts, links to things, copied and pasted text from all types of articles, and just general miscellany related to my research. Then I’ll write out very informal reactions to the various materials.

Sometimes I’ll record voice memos, too. I used to use the voice memos more when I was commuting by car as a graduate student to teach at the College of Staten Island. I’d start a voice memo at the beginning of my commute and just talk, ask myself questions and try out different ways of articulating ideas I’d been tossing around related to arguments I was developing at the time for my dissertation.

No. 4. Find like-minded colleagues -- whether in your department or outside, whether in person or via academic Twitter -- and involve yourself in research accountability groups. Chances are, even if it’s not required of you at your institution, certain colleagues in and outside your department are trying, or would like to be trying, to actively pursue research and publication. Seek them out, network, find out who’s doing what and see how you can collaborate through a writing group, accountability group or whatever works for everyone. Twitter also offers excellent opportunities for networking with other academics and for virtual camaraderie during the research and writing process. Check out the hashtags #amwriting and #team500 for starters.

No. 5. Consider SoTL (scholarship of teaching and learning) as an avenue for pursuing research and publication.

I first learned about SoTL during my yearlong new faculty orientation program at Hostos. The essential philosophy behind SoTL is that we can use our teaching -- our primary responsibility as community college professors -- as a source of research and peer-reviewed publication.

The good news for humanities folks like me is that you need not know how to work with data sets or perform quantitative or qualitative analysis to do work in the realm of SoTL. Many SoTL journals (and conferences) are interested in work that articulates and reflects on questions of pedagogy, andragogy, high-impact practices and distinctive assignments and activities in the classroom -- on the basis that the classroom itself and the students we work with every day are a generative source of vital research.

I had never written anything on teaching or pedagogy before getting hired in my current position, but since then I’ve begun keeping an active list of peer-reviewed journals -- not only SoTL-based but also those related to the teaching of writing, as that is what I spend the majority of my time doing at a community college. I’ve also tried to focus on locating journals that look for shorter submissions -- say, 2,500 to 5,000 words as opposed to the more familiar 8,000- to 10,000-word articles I’d been used to reading and writing. If you haven’t heard of it, check out the excellent online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal Prompt, which publishes just that: innovative assignment prompts from across the disciplines, accompanied by a reflective essay by their creator.

By no means is this list exhaustive, but I hope some of these strategies might help fellow community college professors to begin pursuing or to continue to pursue an active, fulfilling research agenda at their own institutions. And if you want to connect on Twitter to talk more about any of this, please follow me at @g3rrity.

Bio

Sean Gerrity has been assistant professor of English at Hostos Community College, CUNY, since 2017. His research on slavery, freedom and marronage in antebellum American literature has appeared in MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States and been featured on WAMC Public Radio’s The Academic Minute program. He is at work on his first book project, A Canada in the South: Marronage and the Geographies of Freedom in Antebellum American Literature.

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