The Great Mismatch

Paula Krebs writes about the need for graduate programs at research universities to learn about the colleges that will actually employ their new Ph.D.s.

October 15, 2014
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Most folks at doctoral institutions don't have a clue what goes on in community colleges. The departments don't, the individual faculty members don't, and it would be a rare graduate adviser indeed who had ever set foot on a community college campus. 

Few folks at the R1s know much about the public regional universities either, unless they attended one. Chances are they never worked at one -- people just don't slide from sector to sector in faculty jobs, or even in many administrative jobs. It's tough to get a job at a community college if you're working at a four-year institution, and for logical reasons -- there's so much condescension toward the community colleges from the four-years that it's not hard to assume that someone from a four-year couldn't possibly understand what life would be like at a two-year. As for moving the other way, forget it. When's the last time you saw a faculty member from a community college move into a job at a four-year?

Almost everyone who teaches at a two- or four-year teaching institution has spent some years at a doctoral institution: that's where we earn our degrees. We know what life is like there -- the publication pressure, the department politics, the research funding, the teaching load. We know it from the perspective of a graduate student, but at least we've been there. Not so the other way.

So what is the impact on American higher education of the fact that the majority of teaching jobs in this country, full-time and adjunct, are at institutions that may be completely unfamiliar territory to the people who are training the doctoral students?

I'm part of a group of representatives of colleges from all across higher education in New England that has been working together since May to try to bridge that gap. Faculty members and deans from community colleges, public and private doctoral institutions, regional comprehensives, Roman Catholic colleges, and liberal arts colleges are trying to put together a network of connections amongst the sectors, with the aim of getting better-prepared instructors into the classrooms of the teaching-intensive colleges.

Of course we are not the first people to tackle the issue of preparing doctoral students for teaching positions -- the Preparing Future Faculty Initiative was sponsored for a decade by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities and now is funded by individual campuses. PFF is an important reference point in our work. Likewise pairs and small groups of campuses have begun to make their own partnerships for teaching preparation -- arrangements such as that between Stanford and San Jose State Universities.

What we're hoping to do in New England is to build a network that is region-wide, with many kinds of professional development opportunities for adjuncts, doctoral students, and postdocs to get exposure to and experience at the teaching-intensive colleges. Before you rush to point out that adjuncts already have too many opportunities to teach at such institutions, I note that adjunct teaching is all too often an isolating experience, with little chance of participating in professional development and little chance to learn about one's institution beyond how to find parking and how to submit grades. The opportunities we seek to provide range from workshops to mentoring to shadowing faculty members, guest lecturing, and part-time teaching. We hope to get doctoral students and Ph.D.s a better sense of who our students are, what our campuses are like, and how they might be able to make a career with us.

Rather than wait for a major grant to fund our activities, we decided to get started on our own, with an event we billed as Teaching at Teaching-Intensive Institutions, held on Oct. 3 in Massachusetts. We raised enough money to hold it at a central location mid-state, so people from eastern and western Massachusetts, as well as from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, could attend. We wanted it to be free, so the doctoral institutions and a few of the regional comprehensives picked up the cost, mostly at a few hundred dollars each, and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education helped out. We ended up with more than 150 attendees, some from as far away as the University of Vermont, five hours north.

The event featured a session on balancing teaching and research, as well as life and work, at our institutions. It had a workshop on teaching and doing science when you're not at a research institution. It offered hands-on training in culturally inclusive pedagogy --– the kind of universal design that enables a teacher to reach all of her students by learning who they are and what they bring to the classroom. Workshops on what potential job applicants need to know about community colleges, about how one can make an entrepreneurial career at a non-research university, and about working with students, as teacher and as mentor, only went so far, however, toward meeting what revealed itself to be a huge need in higher education.

The attendees' needs, as we could have predicted, were at least twofold: they wanted to learn how to be the kind of teacher that teaching-intensive institutions need, to be sure; but many had trouble focusing on that message of the event in light of the real issue pressing on them: How can I get a job, period?

The focus on the practical at the event seemed to really strike a chord with the attendees. Dozens of them thanked the organizers at the end of the day and later in emails -- I've never had my hand shaken so often or so enthusiastically in a professional context! They loved the practical syllabus-revision skills they could take with them; they loved learning about our first-generation students and their needs; they loved the networking tips and the advice about how they could conduct research with undergraduates. Mostly, I think, they loved being allowed to feel hopeful.

And that’s what worries me. As a professional at a regional comprehensive institution, I want to help us get to hire faculty members who come to us knowing who we are and what our students need. I want to feel that there are strong connections amongst the sectors of higher education, acknowledgements of our interdependencies, a sense of our mutual obligations to our region and each other. 

But I worry that we are promising more than we can deliver. My institution is adding tenure lines every year, but we may be the only one in our state doing so. And all of us over-rely on adjunct teaching. The majority of the teaching jobs in the U.S. are at teaching-intensive institutions, certainly, but there are so few tenure-track jobs. 

And I worry about the extent to which I'm really actually helping out the teaching-intensive institutions. In initiatives such as ours, are we simply doing work that the doctoral institutions should be doing for their students? Still, they are not the experts on our institutions -- we are. And the doctoral universities and their students knew how valuable this event would be. Both graduate deans and the students they serve came to the event and asked for more.

Finally, I smile when I remember what presenter Matt Reed, Inside Higher Ed's own Dean Dad, said when he looked at the big crowd of doctoral students and administrators who were eagerly attending to what was on offer at Teaching at Teaching-Intensive Institutions: "It's nice to see the R1s in the audience and us at the podium."


Paula M. Krebs is dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University, in Massachusetts. On Twitter, she is @PaulaKrebs.


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