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I lost track of the number of times on Friday I heard someone use the word “refreshing.” The context was the Bringing Community Back to Community Colleges conference held at Bergen Community College last week. The conference was co-sponsored by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the N.J. Council of County Colleges, and it included over 100 people from around the state. Its unapologetic focus was the state of the humanities in community colleges.

It’s fair to say that many of the humanities faculty and deans at community colleges are feeling neglected at best, if not attacked. It comes from all sides. The dominant discourse around higher education in the U.S. now—the “motivating narrative,” to use Bettina Caluori’s term—is an instrumentalist focus on jobs. In that discourse, the humanities are reduced—and here I’ll steal from Paula Krebs—to either frills or skills. With STEM and/or workforce programs getting most of the attention and funding, the humanities are increasingly left to their own devices. And although the conference didn’t address this directly, with both AP and dual-enrollment credits gaining traction, humanities classes are increasingly outsourced.

After decades of that, simply spending a day with people who don’t need to be sold on the idea that, say, literature matters, was refreshing. It was affirming. Nobody took issue with the importance of STEM and/or workforce development, but they weren’t the focus.

Paula Krebs gave the keynote. She’s the executive director of the Modern Language Association and the president of the National Humanities Alliance. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of the NHA.) In her talk, though, she came across as the former English professor that she is, and I mean that approvingly. She opened by noting that community colleges are the one sector of higher education in which humanities enrollments are actually growing. She offered the “frills or skills” line, noting that skills only matter when they’re situated within larger values and perspectives. That’s where humanistic education comes in. She went on to attack directly the “you’ll never get a job with that” assumption with unemployment figures for four-year degree grads from various fields. (Business majors: 3.7 percent. Physics: 3.4 percent. Language/lit: 3.7 percent. History: 3.6 percent.) Thoughtfully, she followed that with stats on self-reported underemployment; there, English majors were better off than majors in biology or business. In light of those results, it’s hard to write off the humanities as frills. The real challenge is that too many people assume that there’s an inviolable one-to-one relationship between majors and jobs, and there just isn’t. Employers need people who can communicate effectively and work well with ambiguity; whether they developed those abilities in studying business or studying fiction is of less interest.

The rest of the conference consisted of panels and breakout sessions, interspersed with folks from different community colleges catching up with each other. Those moments are less common than they should be. For folks in smaller programs, just seeing other members of the same discipline is a rare treat.

A few highlights:

  • Bettina Caluori, an English professor from Mercer County College (and a former DeVry colleague) illustrated the idea of “motivating narratives” with a Garfield strip from 1980. I thought it worked brilliantly. The idea of the villain swooping in on a vine and absconding with treasure is so well-worn that we often forget to ask where the vine came from.
  • Karen Gaffney, an English professor from Raritan Valley Community College, led a thoughtful breakout session on handling controversial subjects in class. The bulk of the discussion revolved around issues of race. One panelist whose name I’ll withhold for the sake of discretion brought up a class discussion about racial profiling and young Black men wearing hoodies; apparently a student in the class responded that she’d “rather be safe than sorry.” Handling a moment like that takes top-notch teaching and diplomacy, but it could also be a real breakthrough; the student put it all out there. Moments like those can be make-or-break for the entire semester.
  • Peter Dlugos, a philosophy professor from Bergen, mentioned that Bergen is renaming “general education” as “essential learning” to help shed some unhelpful baggage. As part of the rebranding effort, Bergen is putting existing gen ed courses through a “course renewal process.” This struck me as a terrific idea, and one well worth exploring
  • Cory Homer, the student affairs VP at Sussex County Community College, mentioned that Sussex partners with local high schools that offer AP courses to have students present their AP projects publicly at the college. They’re also working on what he called a “thinking lab,” though I didn’t have the chance to find out quite what that means.

Afterward, we adjourned to a reception at the Bergen Community College art gallery, which featured an excellent exhibit by the artist Faith Ringgold.

“Refreshing” was the right word for it. Folks teaching in the humanistic disciplines at community colleges may often be overlooked, but they’re also often terrific at what they do. Treating the humanities as a frill essentially relegates them to a playground only for the wealthy, but the wealthy have no monopoly on talent or insight. If the humanities are about what it is to be human, well, there are lots of humans at community colleges. They deserve to be taken seriously. It was a wonderful way to spend a Friday.

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