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Paula Krebs, the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State and a partner-in-crime with the New England Cross-Sectoral Partnership, asked me a great question. She noted that only 7% of the MLA membership is from community colleges, and she asked what would make membership more attractive to community college faculty.

I thought about my own, lapsed membership in the American Political Science Association. When I was in grad school, APSA was the can’t-miss conference of the year, and not only for interviews. It was a place to see what the hot new trends were, to catch up with friends, and to build and maintain networks.  

But when I moved from grad school at Rutgers to teaching at less prestigious places, APSA became first irrelevant, and then toxic. I was sort of aware of nametag-checking when I had a reasonably respected name on my tag, but when I showed up from an institution that carried no prestige, I actually saw people physically recoil when they read it. Many of the issues discussed there were beyond the scope of any course I’d realistically teach, and I had neither the resources nor the incentive to focus on cutting-edge research. I found my way to the Undergraduate Education section, and even won an award there one year, but after a while it just didn’t seem worth the expense.  

And that was back when travel funding was less scarce than it is now.

To its credit, the MLA seems more aware of community colleges than APSA was. (I’ve only attended the MLA once, so this is just a surface impression; commenters who know it better are invited to shed light.) But to the extent that it’s primarily about the production and allocation of prestige, community college faculty may peg it as irrelevant. I’m told that the 4 C’s conference is often of greater resonance for community college faculty, given its focus on teaching composition.

Something similar was true of the Council for Undergraduate Research when I attended that a couple of years ago. I had the chance to address a plenary session, which probably had a couple hundred people in the audience.  When I asked for a show of hands for how many attendees were from community colleges, the total was in the single digits. The people at CUR could not have been warmer or more welcoming, but the cc numbers were low.

Community colleges tend to have very little travel funding, and it’s often the first thing to get cut when budgets get tight. Faculty are rewarded for teaching, but not for research. And the teaching loads are heavy enough that significant travel becomes logistically prohibitive.

I’ll offer a few suggestions, and ask my wise and worldly readers to help.

First, any efforts to defray costs of attendance could only help. Yes, membership doesn’t necessarily entail attending the annual conference, but most people don’t join disciplinary associations for the journals. Discounts on registration fees are nice, but most of the cost of travel comes from transportation and hotel stays. Regional conferences can get those costs down to more manageable levels. From Holyoke, for instance, it’s much easier to send folks to Boston or New York than to Washington or Chicago.  

Second, a clear sense of a relevant purpose matters. If the regional conferences focused, say, on the scholarship of teaching and learning in the courses that comprise the bulk of a community college professor’s workload, it would be much more appealing. Math does something like that with AMATYC, the American Mathematical Association of Two Year Colleges. Obvious relevance makes for an easier sell. The last time I attended the Northeast PSA, it didn’t have a distinct identity; it just seemed like a sadder and smaller APSA. (To be fair, that was in the 90’s; it may have changed since then.)

It might be worthwhile to team up with, say, the AACC or the League for Innovation and jointly sponsor something. This Spring the League conference was in Boston, so HCC was able to jump on home-field advantage and send its largest-ever contingent. Most of the attendees had never gone before, and they absolutely loved it. It spoke to their reality. A version of that that was more specific to a cluster of disciplines could be powerful.

I’d de-emphasize the job interview element of conferences. Rebecca Schuman made a cause recently of highlighting the cost to candidates of conference interviews, and she had a good point. From the perspective of non-candidates, it’s largely irrelevant. Let Skype do its work, and focus the conference instead on what Skype can’t do.

Some first thoughts, anyway. Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest? Are there realistic ways to make national disciplinary conferences more relevant to community college faculty?

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