• 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.

Title

A Trade Secret We All Know

Did you do your best teaching as a grad student?

November 30, 2022

A reader wrote in with an observation that I’m sure is true. He’s a philosophy professor and a dean. He notes:

If your kid attends a community college, they’re going to take Introduction to Philosophy with me, a doctored and published professor, with (blessedly) hours of graduate training in pedagogy. Great for them.

If your kid attends a university, they’re going to take that same course with (a beta version of) me, a teaching assistant. Great for me.

I’ve been both mes.

How is this absolute backwardness still not discussed anywhere?

It’s true. The times I taught at Rutgers—the most prestigious place I’ve taught classes—were in my 20s, when I was just finding my way as a teacher. That first semester wasn’t pretty. By the time I taught in less prestigious settings, I was a much better and more experienced teacher. And I wasn’t some sort of fluke; that’s actually how the profession is structured.

The ridiculous faculty job market in liberal arts fields over the last several decades has essentially severed whatever connection may once have existed between a college’s place on the food chain of prestige and the quality of teaching. People from amazing graduate programs often take jobs in less prestigious places because it was what they could get. I’ve seen indifferent teaching at Williams College and outstanding teaching at DeVry (and vice versa). For that matter, some of the best teachers I ever had were at my you-probably-haven’t-heard-of-it public high school outside Rochester, N.Y., in the ’80s.

It’s an open question whether prospective students and their families would change their enrollment decisions if they knew how unreliable a guide to the classroom experience institutional prestige actually is.

I’ve long held that if community colleges were properly resourced, and if several internal incentives were realigned, they could become laboratories of teaching excellence. That’s because they specialize in the first two years, and they (mostly) don’t require or expect faculty to publish research to keep their jobs. If you’re hired to teach psychology full-time at a community college, there’s a better than even chance that you’ll teach Intro to Psych over and over and over again. That could be read as drudgery, but it could also be seen as a chance to focus. If you’re going to teach the same course several times a semester for decades, you could get really good at it. Over time, you could optimize it. I developed a few set pieces for American Government over the years; I thought of them as my “greatest hits.” I hadn’t had time to develop any greatest hits in grad school.

Some places have done exactly this. The Accelerated Learning Program was born in the English department of the Community College of Baltimore County, reflecting insights and intuitions born of decades of teaching remedial and introductory English. It changed the way English is taught around the country, to the benefit of millions of students. That wasn’t going to come from Harvard or Stanford. Odessa College experimented with short semesters and achieved results so good that many faculty across the country still don’t believe them. These innovations are possible when you’re in the trenches. When teaching is treated as an afterthought or a distraction to be minimized, you’re less likely to see innovations like those.

Breakthroughs happen with practice. When it comes to teaching, community colleges get the most practice.

The students who took my class at the County College of Morris got a better experience than the ones who took it at Rutgers. The question is how to communicate that to the larger public.

Correction: I got a note from the system office of California State University noting that the CSU system is a separate entity from the Academic Senate. The resolution to which I took exception was passed by the Academic Senate, and not CSU itself. Duly noted.

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