Landing on Track

Shari Wilson considers what she's learned while teaching at a university and why she's happy to be moving to a community college.

May 18, 2007

After adjuncting for six years in California, I landed a full-time contract position teaching at a Midwest university in 2005. After
nearly two years, I will be relocating for a tenure-track position at a community college for Fall 2007. I have the odd feeling of "going home" -- even though I am not returning to the West. After experience in both academic arenas, I can say with certainty that my skills and background are more suited to a community college system.

Most of my colleagues at the university where I am currently teaching consider work at community colleges as either a stepping-stone to better careers, or as a fallback position during competitive seasons. I see them as my past - and my future with no regret.

When I moved out from my mother's place, the community college was the only system that would take me in. At 16, without a high school diploma, much of society had written me off as a failure. Even though it took many starts and stops, I collected units as several community colleges and finally transferred to a state university. I managed two years on the dean's list and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1989. My two sisters had already graduated from college; one immediately went on to graduate school. We were the first in our family to have completed college.

I applied to a master's program at the same university where I'd received my undergraduate degree. When I received a letter of
acceptance, I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't think they'd accept me. I walked away with a master's in English in 1993. In 1998, psychologically weary from a decade in advertising, I started teaching part-time at a community college.

I had finally found my real career. I did everything I could to teach more courses; in 2000, I gave up my day job in advertising and worked for several community colleges and universities at a time to make ends meet. Although I was often physically exhausted, I was never intellectually bored with teaching. And because of my working class background, I felt a close tie to the community colleges that had supported my own education. Although I took part-time positions at universities, I knew that I was simply offering myself as a "bread and butter" instructor. No matter what I did there, I could never be considered as anything other than a fill-in.

Over the years, I started to realize that no matter how much hands-on experience I had teaching at the postsecondary level, there would be times that I felt "less than" the new Ph.D.s working in adjoining offices. I simply did not have the contextual framework to view my own teaching strategies and define what had shaped my beliefs. Luckily, some of the colleges I worked for made professional development a priority; I eagerly attended workshops and training sessions on everything from using rubrics to online grading systems. I was often offered a mentor. I started to make use of them to read up on the profession -- and later, on my discipline. Some of the gaps started to lessen a little. I felt a bit more confident in the classroom. And like
any good instructor, my teaching philosophy shifted and changed as I gathered more information and gained more experience with different student populations in the classroom.

Later, my university contract position allowed me to travel to my first conference. I was startled to learn that this was where some of the real research in my profession was unveiled. I trotted from room to room, taking notes faster than I'd ever done before. I smiled, shook hands, talked to strangers in elevators, and felt exhilarated. During breaks, I would fill a plastic bag full of every bit of paper I could find -- an addendum to the conference schedule, catalogs of newly released textbooks, simple fliers advertising positions-and run back to my hotel room to shuffle through them, empty them into my carry-on and return
for more. On the flight home, my head ached with ideas. Thoughts about long-standing splits in my discipline, concepts that could shape my teaching, and hands-on strategies for teaching. I revised my syllabus for the next semester; although the changes may have looked minimal on the surface, my underlying concepts were shifting.

I'd always been focused on teaching. And now, in the last few years, I'd become more and more convinced that there is more here than meets the eye. Different populations faced different obstacles: developmental students, first-generation students, non-native English speakers, students with families and jobs. And there was overlap. Some students were overcoming multiple difficulties in order to reach their goal. Although I was there to assist, I could not water down the curriculum to reach them all. I had to find ways to appeal to students in what seemed like a widening set of circumstances.

At the community college level, I had faced this before. Here at the university, I was seeing the deeper implications. I was also seeing the end result for many that entered education: the levels of critical thinking necessary to succeed, the ability to write across the curriculum, and finally, the major that would sustain or inspire them. I feel grateful to have seen the future for these students; this will shape my teaching at the community college level.

Because of my background, I am a very pragmatic instructor. I will always be thinking of how to present a concept in a different light, how to break up another lesson into smaller pieces that incorporate a feedback loop, and how to use a different example that might appeal more to my student population. When a university colleague accused me of "pandering" to student interest, I simply smiled and nodded. Yes, it's true that I had supplemented some of the textbook lessons with current news. I had allowed students a choice of three different topics for their first essay. And I had devised some lessons that had incorporated a short three-minute video segment, a handout with exercises, and a set of flashcards. At the university, these techniques may have been seen as a form of overreach -- of not trusting the students' ability to stay the course and learn that concept. At community colleges, however, the ability to appeal to many different forms of learning worked in capturing a student population that was much more varied in background and ability.

During my first year at the university, I realized that I missed this particular challenge. The constant need to evaluate methods and measure outcomes may have seemed troublesome at the community colleges where I'd taught -- yet this same work was what had stimulated me and kept me growing as an instructor. For those with a terminal degree, of course, research at the university and publishing would be the place to stretch one's limits. As an instructor whose primary area of interest was
teaching, I sometimes felt a bit underutilized. Teaching at the university level was challenging -- but I was used to a bigger teaching load, a more varied student population, and an administration and faculty that was often toe-to-toe battling over dollars and programs.

I did miss the variety of students that I worked with at the two-year college. In the first few seats of my classroom, I might have a 22-year-old returning student in a clerical job with no future, a confused 64-year old who'd been let go because of a factory slowdown, and a 33-year old single parent of three who hated anyone knowing he or she was on welfare. And I loved teaching them. I learned about motivation first hand -- and found that many students would rise to the challenge if I approached them in just the right way. Each student seemed to require a slightly different mode of persuasion. The end result was a great deal of success. True, the universities did have students from different backgrounds; but here, the variety was much greater and my skills were tested with every single class session.

In the end, I'm most interested in outcome. Although the journey may be something I reflect on or discuss with colleagues, my main concern is that students leave my courses with the ability to write well. Because I've drawn my textbook choice and syllabus according to my department's curriculum guidelines, I feel confident that have the raw material to deliver what is expected in my courses.

I've been reading a more for myself lately. I picked up Tate, Rupiper and Schick's A Guide to Composition Pedagogies again. This time I kept a notepad close and outlined the eras that shaped my discipline. This made a handy "tip sheet" so that I could talk "smarter" while interviewing and, more importantly, helped me start to fill in some gaps in my knowledge.

While on a plane, I read Erika Lindemann's A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers -- which surprised me with its section on cognitive learning. Since I've read Heiberger and Vick's The Academic Search Handbook and Peters' book, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning an M.A. or Ph.D. until I've shredded their spines, friends have recommended the more general Life on the Tenure Track by James Lang, and Emily Toth's Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. Hoping to be a better instructor and colleague, I've recently read Buller's The Essential Department Chair and The Department Chair's Role in Developing New Faculty into Teachers and Scholars by Bensimon, Ward, and Sanders. I found it eye-opening to realize exactly what my department chairs are responsible for, how departmental dynamics are formed (and influenced), and ways in which I will be assessed as an instructor.

I feel as though I am finally dedicating myself to this profession more completely. I'm not sure why this surprises me. Perhaps I felt that the early 40's were going to be the same struggle that my 30's were. I'm not under the false impression that I am reaching a plateau. Because I will be more invested, I will find some of the struggles even greater than the ones I'm experiencing now. Still, I'm grateful to have found the career to which I'm most suited. And I'm excited about the bar being raised. I sense that these next few years will be both exhilarating and exhausting. I'm up to the challenge.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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