An Open Letter to Graduate Students of English and Foreign Languages

January 8, 2009

The 20-plus-year job crisis in the foreign language and English professoriate has persisted beyond the shelf-life of “crisis.” Simply put, the increasing reliance on adjunct labor, the creation of compromise full-time non-tenure-track positions, and the continued overproduction of Ph.D.’s fall more neatly under the term “reality” than they do “crisis.”

Wandering the halls of the Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco last month brought to mind the two years I attended MLA conventions, waited in drafty hotel hallways for interviews to begin, and, looking back, participated, sadly enough, in an academic ritual Dante could not have imagined in his visions of hell.

And my baptism by fire led to no job prospects.

After considering applying for a paid training program to obtain a bus driver’s license in Ohio rather than work for less money as an adjunct instructor of English, I concomitantly considered applying to the spring two-year college market. Although this is changing somewhat, community colleges’ budget cycles often mean their faculty positions are advertised and filled in the spring. I received four interviews and three job offers, the best of which I took, and the benefit of which placed me at the front of a classroom rather than behind the wheel of a bus.

All this is to say, do not despair. The four-year job market may pass you by, the MLA may be a memory now, and the coveted research-intensive universities may find others for 2/2 teaching loads, but you can pursue a life of the mind in other settings that may not be utopian.

Let’s first look at the landscape of higher education before I discuss the promises and pitfalls of community college faculty life. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s classifications, 4,391 colleges and universities serve over 17,000,000 students. Only 283 of 4,391 institutions are classified as research universities (very high or high research activity), and/or doctoral/research universities. To their credit, these 283 universities enroll 28 percent of students, according to the 2004 IPEDS fall enrollment figures. By contrast, some 1,814 associate’s colleges -- including an additional 32 tribal colleges, which generally offer two-year degrees -- enroll 39 percent of American postsecondary students

In terms of faculty characteristics, full-time faculty degree attainment at the community college level remains heavily tilted toward the master’s, with 71 percent holding terminal master’s degrees while 13 percent hold doctorates. For the adjuncts who teach over two-thirds of community college courses, a definite pitfall of the system, only 5 percent hold doctorates.

Although statistics tend to bore humanists, I offer an overview of higher education to highlight points of interest to the Ph.D.’s in foreign languages and English who imagine themselves laboring only in the academic culture in which they took their doctorate. This spring, 1,814 two-year colleges and 32 tribal colleges may well need your expertise.

I have heard people lament, “As a humanist, I am not trained to teach five courses per semester to the under-prepared introductory student, thereby crowding out time for research.”

My response: “Think.”

To cite myself as an example, the state of New York paid for my master’s and the state of Ohio paid for my Ph.D. My training as a humanist helped me become a public intellectual whose politics and personal ethics demand that I give back to and reform the very system that helped me reach this stage in my career. Higher education is so diverse, two-year colleges themselves so diverse, that I cannot possibly speak in sweeping terms about any of them.

I can say that many of my colleagues are brilliant. I can also say that, as Emily Toth/Ms. Mentor writes, everyone who moves from graduate school to academic positions will have moments where they think, “I am surrounded by idiots.” Usually such moments represent the newly hired faculty member's overreaction to some errant words from the mouths of department misfits, committee losers, or administrative malcontents. Knowing that teaching is a messy prospect, I look for perfection neither from teachers nor students, and, I assure you, I am at my college for the students rather than for the misfits, losers, and malcontents. Proudly under-educated and provincial faculty give higher education a bad name.

My students motivate my research in unexpected ways, leading me to create a nationally recognized preparing future faculty program, to securing a spot at a week-long seminar at the United States Institute of Peace, to publish two books, to take students on grant-funded field trips, and much more.

To be sure, the high attrition of students at my community college demoralizes me. Then again, the ability of students to reach a high bar inspires me. Each semester represents a personal emotional roller coaster, at turns terrifying and fun. The fun should be restored to students’ intellectual lives, as well. Many have experienced schools as sites of degradation, yet they persist. Maybe you can relate.

But myths die hard deaths, and some myths about the community college sector contain kernels of truth. Faculty do teach a great deal. Graduate students may find the prospect of a 5/5 (or higher) load unthinkable. Sometimes I still do. However, I have taught a variety of courses during my tenure -- Critical Thinking, Introduction to Humanities, British Literature I and II, as well as many, many composition courses, online and face-to-face. Dabbling once into a basic skills course gave me enough pause to leave that work to my more talented colleagues. In short, thinking of course topics, of themed composition courses (our faculty regularly offer advertised composition classes in the graphic novel, gender and sexuality, protest literature, banned books, writing for education majors, and the like), rather than of course load mitigates some of the trepidation faculty experience in the face of a 5/5 teaching assignment. Learning communities, team teaching, and special projects may well reduce one's course load, depending upon local administrative policies, as may union contracts that weight composition classes as 4 credits rather than 3 because of the grading required of instructors in writing courses.

Teaching as much as we do can be intellectually stultifying. Community colleges pride themselves on innovation and responsiveness, excellence in education at an affordable price, but even the architecture of many two-year colleges speaks more to utilitarianism than to fostering a life of the mind. Bucking a full-time position in an academic setting for part-time work in a university setting may well be more intellectually stultifying.

Consider, too, the facts of salary, tenure, and benefits when looking beyond myths of the two-year college, one of which holds that faculty do not earn wages comparable to the four-year sector. Given the community college movement's early alliances with high schools, many have graduated pay scales or step systems based upon education and years of experience. I move up a step on the pay scale each year, enjoy adequate health care fully funded by the college, earn 15 sick days and receive 2 special emergency days per year. By law, tenure in Illinois runs on a three-year clock, and the peer-review process is formative rather than evaluative, leaving a pre-tenure candidate feeling more nurtured in her/his classroom practice than harassed. Combine all of this with a generous retirement package, and one invariably concludes: I work a lot and I'm paid for the work.

The adjunct path often leads to the work, sans the pay and benefits. To take concrete examples, of two-year colleges with ranks, the AAUP faculty salary survey for 2007-8 lists assistant professor pay ranging from a high point of $85,000 (Westchester Community College, New York) to a low point of $34,500 (Lackawanna College, Pennsylvania).

Myths aside, I encourage an empowered faculty role in the life of a college. The same should hold true of one's own career path. If the college at which I work has given all it can to me, and if I have contributed all I can to the college, I have no reservations parting ways. Should administration seem like the sector within which I can most impact students, I will pursue administrative jobs -- either at my current college or elsewhere. Tenure involves a college's commitment to employing me for life. I make no such commitment to stay employed at one school for life. More philosophically speaking, I tell my students that education always opens doors, and I believe the same of my Ph.D.

The Ph.D. confers upon a holder a certain cultural cachet. Whether to use this cachet in service of community college students, many of who will be first-generation and working-class, is not a decision to be made lightly. But if said students are to move along to four-year colleges and universities, should they so choose, they need professors with deep capacities for instructional flexibility, critical thinking, political savvy, and communitarian values. That might be you.

Again, do not despair about the dearth of university jobs with 2/2 loads, and, more importantly, do not fall prey to contempt prior to investigation — the surest road to ignorance. Visit community colleges, visit their classrooms, discuss career options with two-year college professors, and let go of the notion that 6,795,850 students gather in America’s two-year colleges to waste faculty members’ time, to dawdle, or to fail.

My faculty position is not utopian, but I defy anyone to tell me I would have traveled the world to academic conferences on subjects ranging from James Joyce to online teaching, encountered 3,600 students over 10 years, gained insight into the ways people’s minds work, contributed to a community, and have a stake in higher education were I in that bus or on an adjunct track, waiting year after year for a university position that may never materialize.


Sean P. Murphy is professor of English and humanities at the College of Lake County.

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