Over the past five or six years, as I walked the halls or stepped into the faculty mailroom, copy room, and faculty/staff lounge at the community college where I teach, I have been struck by the noticeable absence of faculty. And I don’t mean part-time faculty, who -- despite making up nearly 70 percent of all community college faculty -- have always been nearly invisible on campus.
I mean full-time faculty. Simply stated, they’re just not around as much anymore.
What’s changed? The growing number of full-time faculty teaching courses offered entirely online.
At my college, several faculty teach entirely online and, other than professional development days, are rarely on campus. More typical is the full-time faculty member who now teaches one, two or three courses of his or her five-course teaching load online. (I myself don’t teach online, for reasons I’ll explain later.) While not completely absent from campus, these faculty aren’t nearly as present as they were when I began teaching 28 years ago.
The connection between teaching online and being off-campus hit home when I asked a friend who teaches full time and entirely online at a community college in Illinois about a department colleague. He replied he hadn’t seen his colleague in a year and thought perhaps he was on medical leave. It turned out that the colleague wasn’t on medical leave, but rather was teaching entirely online. The two never saw each other and were now more like independent contractors than department colleagues.
Whether community college faculty is teaching online effectively and students are learning remains open to debate. In its “Research Overview: What We Know About Online Course Outcomes,” the Community College Research Center reports that ”online course taking was... negatively associated with course persistence and completion”; and that “lower performing students” — the very type of students enrolling in community colleges — fared worse in online courses as compared to face-to-face courses. Faculty who teach online at my college report similar findings.
But it’s not higher attrition rates that worry me about teaching online. What worries me, and what’s not open to debate, is the dwindling presence of faculty on campus, which is particularly troubling for community college students, who now have even fewer opportunities to interact with faculty and students inside and outside the classroom.
Why does faculty presence on campus matter?
Community colleges are typically commuter schools. Students arrive on campus, attend classes (often scheduled two days a week), and leave. Yet research on community college students finds that student engagement with faculty and fellow students inside and outside the classroom is crucial to student retention and academic success. The 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement found that “[d]ata consistently show that students are more engaged in the classroom than anywhere else” (my emphasis).
According to Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, “[r]esearch shows that the more actively engaged students are — with college faculty and staff, with other students, and with the subject matter they study — the more likely they are to learn, to stick with their studies, and to attain their academic goals.” The Pearson Foundation’s 2010 Community College Survey found that “[t]wo-thirds of students believe that in order to succeed in community college, it is extremely or very important to have access to academic advisors and to establish relationships with professors.”
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that community colleges that rely heavily on part-time faculty have higher attrition rates and lower graduation rates — part-time faculty have (even) fewer opportunities to engage with students. In short, student engagement with other students and faculty on a community college campus promotes retention and academic success.
One of my students described the importance of classroom-based interaction in a course evaluation. “My mindset was that it was just going to be another English class, and I was not going to try my hardest or get much out of it. I was taking it as a class that I needed to get out of the way for my program of interest. As time went on I realized how into teaching you were and that the people in the classroom really wanted to learn and to get something out of the class. I then decided that maybe I should apply myself and that was the best choice I made the whole semester.”
It’s highly unlikely this student would have had a similar realization in an online course that offered no face-to-face interaction.
When I reflect on my undergraduate education, face-to-face interaction with faculty had profound effects. I can’t imagine James Woodress, my American literature professor, having such a powerful and positive influence on my life, if, as a student at the University of California at Davis, I hadn’t taken his English courses in a classroom, and if I hadn’t gotten to know him inside and outside the classroom. I have watched the poet Gary Snyder on YouTube, and as good and as interesting as that is, it doesn’t compare to the experience of being in a classroom with him.
Community college students often state they take courses online for the sake of convenience and/or because of a harried life -- two reasons accepted without debate -- in order to get done with school as quickly as possible. The course becomes merely an obstacle on the path to accumulating credits.
And community colleges -- driven by convenience, economics, and, ironically enough, the completion agenda -- are quick to respond to “customer demand” by offering more and more online courses.
But instead of promoting an online model of education, community colleges should be doing more to keep faculty and students on campus and to foster a classroom and campus-based culture built upon a sense of academic engagement and community. That may sound outdated and unfashionable, but it’s a model of education that, as research supports, actually increases community college students’ chances of being academically successful.
I will never teach online. As Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “I have no wish to learn distanced methods of teaching simply to satisfy students who do not want to relate to me: teaching from afar would violate my own identity and integrity and only worsen the situation.”
I want to be part of an academic community and to teach in a classroom with students whom I get to know so that (as has happened in the past month) when I walk into my local pet store I know the cashier, a current student; or into the pharmacy and I know the tech, a former student; or attend a local concert and I know the musicians, most of whom are former students. I smile every time my wife tells me “we can’t go anywhere without bumping into one of your students.”
To engender that sense of community requires being present on campus and interacting face to face with my students. That’s not possible with the invisible lives of the online world.
Keith Kroll is an instructor in the English department at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
Welcome to the U of All People campus tour, which should be super-awesome. Anyway, thanks for showing up, as my American history prof last year used to say.
My name is Loftis Wei, but you can just call me Loft. I’m a junior majoring in sociology, at least this semester, and I was told this job would look good on my résumé. Ready for the spiel? Cool.
We’re starting here at Bovine Hall, which is now the admissions building. Historically -- not that U of All People has much history, I mean, not compared to a real school -- but back in the 1930s, the building was a slaughterhouse, and you can still see bloodstains on some of the floorboards. They turned the killing floor into the school’s first seminar room. That’s why the school was once nicknamed Moo U.
Anyway, if you’re looking for leafy green quads and Gothic architecture, you’ve come to the wrong place, but if you’re into concrete and slit windows, take a look at Dayzin Dorm on the right, which sort of looks like a maximum security prison if you see it from the wrong angle -- not that anyone ever wants to leave. We’ve got wifi in the bathrooms and vending machines on every floor. One even sells toilet paper.
Over here is Kent Reade Library, which -- let me check my notes -- at one time, in the 1980s, had over 200,000 books. But books take up a lot of space, y’know, so they, um, deaccessioned a lot of them and installed new research facilities. Over 50 internet terminals in these alcoves. Printers if you can get one that’s working. The espresso bar is pretty awesome. The books are over there, I think.
The building that looks like a smashed spaceship is the Bai O. Kam Science Wing. What? No, we’re not a research university, not really, but we’ve still got some of that going on. You hear about it, y’know?
Check my notes... some weird plastic was accidentally discovered here in 1956 by Professor Paul E. Murr, but they managed to detox the whole lab and the surrounding area. That gray gunk -- don’t touch it -- is what’s left, and it’s now a nature preserve or something. Anyway, it’s not so much research here, like I said. We’re into teaching. A lot of the professors here have been here, like, forever, so you know they really love this place. I overheard someone in the history department say that it’s really, really hard to go somewhere else.
This football-shaped building is the B. A. Jacques Athletics Facility, which you can see is the biggest structure on campus. When you get tired of studying, and that can happen pretty easily, there’s always sports. U of All People’s women’s -- lacrosse, maybe? -- team is nationally ranked. It’s really cool to watch them run around the field with those sticks in their hands.
You can also get on an intramural team or join a student organization. Anime World, Under-Achievers Association, Burrito-Eating Club, Future Baristas -- actually, that club was disbanded after a nasty caffeine poisoning incident last semester. Anyway, get involved, y’know? Be quirky.
Was that a question about academics? Whether you’re a math geek or a psych type, we’ve got a major for you. Like it says in our brochure. U of All People offers over 17 majors, including a few that no one’s ever figured out. If you need help, we have a bunch of academic advisers, and some are actually available during the hours posted outside their offices. I think a lot of them are maybe just shy.
No, we’re not on the quarter system, but on something called the 24/7 system, which means something’s always happening on campus, even if it’s just someone throwing up in the bathroom at 4:00 a.m. Did I mention that the bathrooms have wifi? Anyway, if you get sick of the place, which happened to my roommate in his sophomore year, we’ve also got study abroad programs in at least two places, I think in Mexico. You don’t even have to know Spanish. And with all the online courses, you don’t even have to be on campus all semester. One girl I met on Facebook has taken only virtual classes. I’m not sure she really exists.
What about financial aid? Good point! I know we offer some, but we don’t encourage it. That’s why we have the Junior Entrepreneur Organization on campus, which sometimes gets confused with the Marijuana Growers Co-op, but it’s just a tiny overlap. What else... let me see. We do have internship programs at the Dollar and a Quarter Store and Burger Boy. We also have Career Services, where they can, like, help you with your résumé. You can do a lot with a college degree! That’s also in our brochure.
Anyway, here we are, back at Bovine Hall. There’s the old holding pen, which means that’s the end of the tour.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).