• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator: How to Stay Current with a 15 Credit Load?

A different set of opportunities.


November 13, 2015

A new correspondent writes:

I have been pondering the role of research in higher education and what role it plays in opportunity for students.

In graduate school, we train people in research. When hiring to teach higher ed, we (generally) expect people to have PhDs or a similar terminal degree in a discipline because then they should ostensibly be somewhat knowledgeable about not only the history of the discipline, but the current trends, and how new knowledge in that field is constructed (I realize that there are fields that are exceptions to this). And when we take them out of the field of study, that is take them away from research, do we not take them away from this endeavor? That is to say, are we not doing the students that they train a disservice to not have faculty remain current in research? Part of my joy is sharing my research (or heck, other people's research as I come across interesting papers) with my students, even my non-majors. How does this translate to a community college professor teaching 5 classes, multiple preps, not doing research, and (I assume?  Perhaps I am incorrect?) largely unable to keep up with current literature?   What about students who want the chance to actually try the field on (i.e., see what research in a given discipline really is)? Does it matter that early?

I feel like knowledge keeps progressing, techniques change, and I wonder how CC profs are able to keep up, because I really don't know. Sure, Socrates and the first law of thermodynamics aren't going to change, but what we have learned in the past few years has. I suppose the question could equally apply to the increasing reliance on adjuncts at other places as well as lecturers who have no research program; I understand the cost tradeoffs here (and that some people even prefer this path), but my same question applies. I am curious what your wise and worldly readers have to say about this, as well.

Please understand, my goal here is not to make judgments but simply to ask how research informs teaching and whether it factors in at the community college level (and to educate myself). I also understand that at research-intensive schools, there are plenty of faculty who do research yet don't give a rat's behind about integrating it in the classroom ... or really the classroom at all. For what it's worth, I am largely in the SLAC world, and in the sciences, which both color my views.

It’s a fair question.  For a long time, many community colleges were wary of hiring Ph.D.’s to the faculty for fear of them either leaving quickly for another job -- it was a different time -- or growing embittered as they lost the ability to do the research by which they had intended to define their careers. The market has changed, at least in the parts of the country in which I’ve worked, so now it’s entirely normal to hire Ph.D.’s to faculty roles, but the question of research currency remains.

Yes, teaching fifteen credits per semester will put a serious dent in most people’s research productivity. That’s not to say that people don’t write books, but it’s not the norm. That’s one reason why the strategy of “I’ll use a community college gig as a stepping stone to the research university job I really want” rarely works. Very few people can write enough while teaching five classes to be competitive with people who barely teach at all.

In my observation, the folks who are able to be happiest here are the ones who stop mourning what the place isn’t, and instead appreciate it for what it is. Given the lack of a “publish or perish” tenure process, it’s possible to read widely and based entirely on interest. You can’t keep up with everything, but you can pick a few favorites and keep up with them. Your interests can shift, which some of us find liberatory. (Although my training is in political science, I’ve found that left to my own devices, I’m much more likely to read sociologists.)  

On the upside, there’s no better college teaching laboratory than a community college. This is where the scholarship of teaching and learning finds a natural home. If you take “how do I best help students understand x?” as an applied research question, you can achieve things here that your counterparts elsewhere can’t. The best-received presentation I did at APSA was about teaching Intro to American Government to students who were never going to major in it. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Accelerated Learning Program -- a genuine breakthrough in the teaching of entry-level writing -- occurred at the Community College of Baltimore County, as opposed to, say, the University of Maryland.  

One of my prouder achievements at HCC was the development of the “sandbox,” in which faculty were given one-on-one support in experimenting with various kinds of instructional technology. Brookdale has an entire Innovation Center for the same purpose. Colleges that recognize faculty as inquisitive and inventive people, and that grasp the potential of a teaching-intensive setting, can be hotspots of pedagogical innovation. That may not be the kind of research many Ph.D.’s had in mind when they started, but it’s real, it’s valuable, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Admittedly, I’m not entirely objective on this one, so I’ll ask my wise and worldly readers to chime in. Wise and worldly readers, especially those at teaching-intensive places, how do you keep current in your fields?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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