During last month’s convention of the Modern Language Association in Philadelphia, I was among the speakers at two sessions for job candidates in English and foreign languages. Looking out from the podium at both large audiences, I saw hope and worry: hope that after years of undergraduate and graduate training, the payoff — a tenure-track position in a four-year institution — might just be an interview or two away; worry that the economic woes facing colleges and universities these days might keep that career forever out of reach.
There’s reason for the worry. MLA predicts a 36.7 percent drop from last year  in the number of English and foreign language positions in its Job Information List (JIL); that statistic can hardly feed a job seeker’s hopes.
In a market as grim as this, are there reasons for hope? What options do those seeking full-time positions have? I see three.
The first is to wait a year for a better market. Another is to shift from a research/teaching goal to a career in a non-academic position field that requires the research and communications skills Ph.D.’s have developed (the new name for such positions is the “humanities workforce”). The third is to seek a position at a two-year college.
I spoke at MLA for two reasons: As an English professor at Diablo Valley College, a community college in the San Francisco Bay area, I have some experience with two-year hiring practices. I had a more personal reason, however: Back in the 70s, I too had my eyes on a career at a four-year college or university, but another bad job market sent me off on a long alternative career search. In the end, like many of my peers, I found a terrific job — but one that had never occurred to me in grad school. In this position I’ve been able to teach a variety of courses: developmental reading and writing, freshman composition, gay and lesbian literature, creative writing, Shakespeare and British literature.
My students range from the exceptionally able — young women and men who regularly transfer to Berkeley and the other campuses of the University of California — to those who struggle to compose a paragraph. A significant number must deal with learning disabilities or develop their command of English as a second language, but many of these students succeed in their goals — whether to transfer or to complete a certificate or just complete a course. Many are older, and a few are very young. They are women and men, gay and straight, Latino, Asian American, white, Muslim, Christian, Native American, African American. Many are far more intelligent than they know, and far more intelligent than I could ever hope to be. My students have many different kinds of needs, and a community college consequently has multiple missions. I’ve found these missions to be challenging but perennially energizing.
I’ve also found that I can stretch my talents with the help of gifted colleagues. The members of my department bring a variety of experiences and backgrounds to our work: some began their careers as high school teachers; others came from university teaching; others arrived right out of grad school. We learn from each other: Our diverse experiences force us to think differently about how and what we teach. And in the last 10 years, as I’ve become more active in our profession at the state and national level, I’ve also come to admire and learn from colleagues at other community colleges. They’ve helped create a sense of “us” — a subset of the English profession who work in two-year colleges, who have a body of experience and knowledge that overlaps with English programs in four-year colleges and high schools but is distinct from them.
The central pleasure in this job comes from the classroom, and I would argue that anyone who wants to teach in a community college must find her rewards in that same place. The primary work of a community college professor is teaching; the primary work of an English professor at a community college is teaching writing and reading. If you enjoy teaching writing and reading, you can be happy as a community college English prof.
In this and an article to follow, I’d like to offer an overview of teaching in community colleges and how to get a full-time job in these institutions. My remarks are geared primarily to new Ph.D.’s and A.B.D.'s in English, but much of what I say is true of other fields.
First, a predictable caveat: There’s no guarantee that community colleges will offer an abundance of full-time jobs. The economic downturn has hit all levels of higher education, and administrations are often tempted to replace full-timers with adjunct faculty. But with retirements and the demand for two-year college education, there will be some full-time positions, and Ph.D.'s and A.B.D.'s would be well advised to consider applying for them.
According to the American Association of Community Colleges, in January 2009 there were 1,177 two-year colleges in the United States; 988 (84 percent) of these were public. These colleges enrolled 11.7 million students -- 44 percent of all American undergraduates; their average age was 29; over half were women. They represent and serve the diversity of America -- for example, most African American and Latino students in higher education attend community colleges.
The two-year college mission is both similar to and different from that of four-year institutions. While many of our students take regular lower division courses and transfer to four-year institutions, some students pursue certificates in fields such as early childhood development, dental technology, or construction. Other students enroll in developmental and basic skills courses that help them move to transfer-level courses, certificate programs, or simply enhance their chances of gaining employment.
Most community college faculty have M.A.'s; the Ph.D. is sometimes preferred but rarely required. Salaries at two-year schools are generally lower than those in four-year institutions, but salaries vary from private to public and from region to region. For example, according to the American Association of University Professors Compensation Survey for 2008-9, the average salary for full-time assistant professors in two-year colleges with academic ranks ranged from $42,555 for the East South Central region to $64,321 for the Pacific region; for institutions without rank, salaries ranged from $51,812 (East South Central) to $68,665 (Pacific). Salaries are generally fixed in a step and column system according to years of service, educational attainment, and sometimes rank; they are almost always not negotiable. Benefits in two-year colleges are generally similar to those of four-year institutions. While this varies from state to state, community college faculty members are more likely than their four-year colleagues to be unionized.
Some two-year English professors teach a five/five load each academic year, the same as faculty in other departments; others have a load that recognizes the demands of teaching composition: they teach four/four. But one significant difference between two- and four-year English departments is the ratio of literature to composition offerings: Most of our departments offer only a small number of literature courses. Similarly, in other liberal arts fields, the teaching load will lean more heavily on introductory courses than specialized offerings.
Two-year college faculty are expected to serve on department and college committees and to take leadership positions. Faculty development is encouraged, but right now funding to support it is shrinking. Sabbaticals are available in many community colleges, as are opportunities for teaching abroad and other forms of international education. Many community college faculty write and publish poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and scholarly articles. Scholarship is generally not required for tenure or salary increases, but it is valued. In fact, our profession, under the leadership of the Two-Year College Association (TYCA), actively promotes the ideal of the teacher-scholar: we believe that our classrooms are rich sites for the study of how language works and how we can best help students engage with it.
Our tenure process is shorter than in four-year institutions — usually four years rather than seven. During this period, peers and administrators observe probationary faculty; student evaluations also play a significant role. In general, two-year colleges base their tenure decisions on evidence of strong teaching ability and contributions to the department and college. The process is rigorous but supportive — we want our newer hires to succeed.
To be sure, we don’t get to teach advanced or graduate courses, nor is scholarship supported to the same degree that it would be in a research institution. But two-year college teaching offers many of the same rewards as work in four-year institutions and a few distinct pleasures of its own. For many job candidates, it can be a most attractive choice.
On Friday: the hiring process at community colleges.
Tom Hurley is professor of English at Diablo Valley College.