Prepping for a Community College Career

Doctoral education doesn't necessarily prepare future faculty members for the jobs they're likely to get at teaching-intensive institutions. A new grant program takes aim at that problem.

February 5, 2020
 

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If you were drawing up a list of the biggest impediments to improving the quality of college-level teaching and learning, near the top would have to be what I'd call higher education's replication problem.

I'd define it this way: most professors earn their Ph.D.s at research universities, where they are trained primarily by faculty members who see themselves (and generally are treated by their universities) as researchers first and teachers second.

That was probably never good, given that it contributed, arguably, to the second-class treatment of how teaching is recognized and rewarded vis-à-vis research on the road to tenure. But it may have been more acceptable in eras when many of those doctoral students would go on to get jobs at colleges or universities with a similar research-first focus.

Today's new faculty members, however, are far likelier than they were previously to end up working at the large and growing number of colleges and universities that are teaching- rather than research-focused, making that mismatch in preparation all the more problematic.

Changing the nature of doctoral education to better prepare faculty members for the classroom portion of their jobs, and to work at community colleges, regional public universities and other teaching-intensive institutions, is the sort of big, knotty problem that won't be solved overnight. But as with many issues I'll be exploring in this column, just because the macro-level solution may take a generation doesn't mean that it's not worth writing about some more targeted efforts.

One such approach is unfolding at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, to which the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has just given a second grant of $3.15 million to expand and deepen the work of CUNY's Humanities Alliance. Mellon's initial grant to CUNY, in 2015 (which Matt Reed explored in his “Confessions of a Community College Dean” blog), funded two dozen-plus fellowships to embed doctoral students in CUNY's humanities programs at LaGuardia Community College, where they could get up close and personal with the challenges and opportunities of teaching at a community college.

The second iteration of the grant, which gets under way next fall, will expand to three more of CUNY's community colleges and, perhaps more importantly, expand the work that the fellowship recipients do to more fully recognize that "education and instruction don’t only happen in the classroom," says Katina Rogers, co-director of CUNY's Futures Initiative, which helps to oversee the grant program.

Instead of being placed into direct teaching roles, as the fellows were with the first Mellon grant, the 28 fellows supported by the second grant will slot into curricular design, instructional technology and other staff roles that support instructors and students alike.

"We want to expose them to the range of spaces within institutions that nurture a sense of belonging, of purpose, and that filter through into the learning goals and experiences of undergraduates," says Luke Waltzer, director of the CUNY Graduate Center's Teaching and Learning Center.

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If there was any place in higher education that you might think wouldn't need a program designed to fight bias against community colleges and other open-access institutions, it would be the City University of New York, with its immigrant-heavy student body and its beautiful, messy mix of two-year and four-year institutions.

But in an academy where prestige still rules, "there remains a certain stigma against more access-oriented institutions even at CUNY," says Rogers.

"It's fair to say that community college careers and pedagogies and experiences have been underrepresented in conversations at the Graduate Center," Waltzer says. When he got his doctorate in history a decade ago from CUNY's training ground for the future professoriate, he and his peers "weren’t really aware of the community college experience" as a possible landing spot, and "I hadn't taught at a community college." Things hadn't changed dramatically, he says, by the time he returned to lead the Graduate Center's Teaching and Learning Center in 2015.

But that year was the first for the initial Mellon grant, which placed 27 doctoral students over three years into humanities programs at LaGuardia Community College, where they received intensive one-on-one mentoring from LaGuardia faculty members, developed pedagogical strategies designed for a community college student body and helped undergraduate students become peer mentors for their fellow students.

As the term of the initial grant neared its end, and CUNY and Mellon officials contemplated how to build on the momentum it had created, they "saw opportunity to expand and improve on it, both in terms of the needs of community colleges and in broadening the kinds of work [the doctoral students] do," Rogers says.

The CUNY Graduate Center has ramped up its support for good teaching practices in the last few years, so "there are other spaces where [doctoral] students can get some of the concrete support around project-based learning" and other curricular innovations, she adds.

What the second grant recognizes more directly, Waltzer says, is that "teaching and learning doesn't just happen in classrooms, and students don't just engage with the humanities in classrooms."

So building on the strong mentoring that characterized the first round, the fellows participating in the second stage of the Mellon grant will be, for instance, learning from instructional designers and instructional technologists to help faculty members at Hostos Community College inject public humanities projects with experiential learning components into freshman seminars and capstone courses.

At Borough of Manhattan Community College, which has incorporated undergraduate research elements into its STEM courses, fellows will help build capacity for doing the same in the college's humanities courses.

And at Guttman Community College, which has built a series of team-taught, interdisciplinary, experiential courses about New York City, the fellows' work may focus on examining those courses to better understand the extent and nature of the learning that is happening.

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Waltzer and Rogers seem hopeful, even confident, that the several dozen fellows who will participate directly in the Mellon grant programs will, as a result, be better prepared to work (either as faculty members or, for example, as instructional designers) at a community college or open-access university.

But $6 million in grant money is an awful lot to spend influencing the career arc of a few dozen emergent academics, however beneficial for them, Waltzer and Rogers acknowledge.

"Katina's and my role is to figure out ways to take those lessons [that emerge from the grant program] and infuse them into other parts of our graduate training," Waltzer says.

"It can't be only the group of 25 graduate students who benefit," Rogers adds. "We want to see how the model and ethos of the program, of this type of mentoring, is built into our more traditional fellowship packages," to help sustain the momentum and direction of the program after Mellon's grants run out.

Only by injecting some of the lessons and principles drawn from the grant program into CUNY's overall doctoral training, Waltzer says, can the system aim to ensure that all (or at least more) of its graduates are "prepared for the reality of the marketplace, and prepared to nimbly move" in today's higher education landscape.

And the fellows involved in the Mellon program may influence "a couple thousand undergraduates," he adds, but CUNY has 244,000 undergrads.

"The challenge of CUNY" -- and, it might be said, of all of higher education -- "is that whatever project you're working on," Waltzer says, "you run into the problem of scale."

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