• 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

Yes, But: Humanities at Community Colleges

Important trends.

June 20, 2019
 
 

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) just issued two reports on the state of the Humanities at community colleges in the U.S. One looks at the proportion of students who major in humanities, and also at the percentage of overall courses taken that fall under what the reports call “HLA” (humanities and liberal arts -- a serious misnomer, given that the liberal arts also include the social sciences, math, and the natural sciences, but whatever). The other looks at humanities course enrollment and performance as a predictor of degree completion, vertical transfer, and completion upon vertical transfer.

The short version is that they mostly convey good news.  While enrollments in the humanities have sagged at four-year colleges, they’ve actually increased at community colleges.  GPA’s in community college humanities courses prove admirably strong predictors of overall GPA at subsequent four-year colleges.  The reports single out the visual and performing arts as the largest gainers over the last decade or so, which I’ll admit surprised me. 

Having said that, though, the reports left me feeling like the point had been missed. 

To be fair, they appear to have been conceived as answers to a different question. They set out to illustrate, with some success, that the apparent “crisis in the humanities” -- at least in terms of enrollments -- is unique to the four-year sector.  Humanities enrollments at community colleges are doing well overall, even though almost nobody outside of community colleges notices. I saw a bit of that myself a couple of years ago when I co-presented at the AAC&U conference with Kate McConnell; although the organization and the conference don’t specify a sector, community colleges were badly underrepresented, and most of the discourse there took the four-year sector as the norm. McConnell and her colleagues recognized that, to their credit, but the national discourse around the humanities is still very much dominated by a narrative of decline.

So, okay.  But why do the humanities feel besieged here, too, if all is actually well?  Why does the narrative of decline resonate so strongly here, if it isn’t founded in the data?

Reflecting my own background in the social sciences -- an important part of the liberal arts, thank you very much -- I think it’s due to which variables you consider. 

For example, the reports acknowledge in passing, but don’t pursue, the difference between general education requirements and electives.  Enrollments in “English” don’t tell us much about “humanities,” to the extent that those English classes are the required composition classes.  At my own college, for instance, engineering and business majors have to take six credits of Engliish comp. It’s a state requirement. Lumping in mandated courses with, say, literature electives doesn’t tell us much.  For instance, one report notes that English is the one humanities discipline with a significant decline over the last few years. That would seem inscrutable unless you connect the dots to degree requirements. If every degree student has to take comp, and overall college enrollments drop, then we’d expect comp enrollments to drop.  What that tells us about literature is unclear at best.

The reports don’t address faculty numbers, either.  Over the last decade, throughout the sector, it has become commonplace for full-time faculty who leave to be replaced by adjuncts.  So even when enrollments are reasonably strong, remaining members of departments feel under attack as the work of coordinating all of those adjuncts falls to progressively fewer people.  An eager grad student in the humanities might see the reports as rays of hope, but the connection between enrollments and the ranks of full-time faculty is increasingly tenuous.

Even the Guided Pathways movement, depending on how it’s carried out, can feel like an attack.  Part of the goal of Guided Pathways is to provide simple, clear, prescriptive routes to degrees.  In practice, that often translates to reducing the number of choices provided for students. Instead of saying “take any one of the following ten courses,” it might reduce the options to two or even one.  If you’re a professor of one of the courses that was streamlined into oblivion, that can feel very much like an attack. On my own campus, part of the resistance to guided pathways has come from a sort of professional courtesy -- arguably misplaced, but still -- in which nobody in, say, the business department wants to irritate anyone in sociology or poli sci by specifying psychology as the preferred social science elective.  Accordingly, streamlining is a hard sell.

That isn’t just a matter of local resistance, either.  One report notes that humanities majors at community colleges often don’t align well with majors at four-year colleges, but it fails to ask the next, obvious, question: do four-year colleges align with each other?  For example, some of our transfer partners require US History and won’t take World Civ, while others require World Civ and won’t take US History. Some require freestanding “diversity” courses, while others allow one course to meet a discipline and a diversity requirement at the same time.  Some have a foreign language requirement, and some don’t. Some business programs will accept “calculus for business,” while others want the “real” thing. In a target-rich environment, such as the Northeast, the presumption that we can just “mirror” the four-year sector rests on a false assumption.  The four-year schools don’t mirror each other. What the reports disparagingly call a “patchwork” is, at least in part, an adaptation to a heterogeneous and fluid environment. Ignore the environment, and that’s easy to miss.

Finally, of course, there’s the sheer weight of the constant external drumbeat of “workforce and STEM, STEM and workforce.”  Whether those drumbeats are well-intended or not, they sound to the humanities (and some social science) folks like nails in a coffin.  To the CCRC’s credit, these reports seem to be aimed at reducing that drumbeat a bit. I hope they work.

None of this is intended to slam the reports.  If anything, I’m glad to see the CCRC turn its attention to a major part of the curriculum that has gone largely ignored up to this point (even if it gets the name wrong).  The reports show clearly that, for instance, good grades in community college courses are excellent predictors of good grades in four-year college courses, putting the lie to the classist snobbery that likes to cloak itself in the language of rigor.  They show that the national discourse around the “crisis” in the humanities is blinkered, which it is. And they provide some good baseline information for the next set of studies that will, I hope, pay a bit more attention to context. First drafts don’t have to be perfect; they have to be done.  I very much look forward to the next round.

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