Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Community College Gig

There have been a couple of discussions over at Dr. Crazy's blog and at New Kid on the Hallway's blog with which I have become somewhat entangled. And I thought I would share just a bit here at my place.

Warning: This is a long post, but even if you don't want to read the whole thing, please at least skip down to the bottom where I quote someone who says that my degree has "no point" to it.*

Okay. So. It started when Dr. Crazy (who has a great academic blog that I read on a regular basis) posted a detailed analysis of her thoughts about the best way to advise her undergraduates who express an interest in pursuing grad school, particularly with the PhD in mind. The crux of the issue was whether one should encourage or discourage said undergraduates from pursuing jobs in academia, the realities and challenges being what they are. In the post, Dr. Crazy discussed her advising process, and in the course of that discussion, she mentioned high school teaching, university professorships, and non-teaching jobs--but no mention of the community college (CC) option. The comments also omitted the option of teaching at a CC. So I entered the fray and made a comment about CCs being an option.

(I will mention, however, that in a follow-up comment, Dr. Crazy explained why she didn't talk about CCs in her post, and I understand her explanation.)

That said, the issue got taken up by New Kid, but the topic shifted a bit after what I think was a misreading of my initial comment to Dr. Crazy's post. New Kid took up the question, "Why don't PhD job seekers look for jobs at CCs?" But I didn't ask that question. I know why PhDs don't (typically) seek CC jobs. But I do think that it might be valuable for some undergraduates to know that the CC option is there.

My Story:

I went to a big R1 school, and though I loved English, I was intimidated by the idea of going into a PhD program. I wasn't sure I was good enough. So I got an M.Ed. first and worked in student affairs for three years. Alas, this was not the place for me. I missed literature terribly, and decided to go back to grad school. I had the PhD in mind, but I wasn't sure how competitive I'd be since it had been five years since my graduation. So I applied to a couple of MAs so I could bone up for the GRE and get my foreign languages going again.

I loved being in my graduate program. Loved it. We took classes. We wrote papers. We drank lots of wine. We had a lot of gin and tonics at the local Irish bar while we talked about books. I worked at a hip, used bookstore where I earned a decent hourly wage and store credit. It was idyllic.

I was also living in a beautiful place in California that felt like paradise, so I started thinking about staying local rather than going to a PhD. But everyone said, "If you don't get the PhD, you'll teach basic writing (part-time) at the CC for the rest of your life, and it will be terrible." That didn't sound good, but I wasn't sure I believed them.

When I finished the M.A., I took a part-time job at the CC, along with another job as a writer, so I could work while I put out my PhD applications. But then a funny thing happened. A full-time job came up at the CC. And I thought, "Hmmm. Do I want to apply to PhDs and go to the best one that accepts me, wherever it might be, and then be there for 5-6 years, and then maybe (but maybe not) find a tenure-track (t-t) job somewhere, mostly likely somewhere I don't really want to live. Or, do I want to go for this t-t CC job in this beautiful place and start making a pretty good salary right now?" I was 30. I decided to stay in paradise.

Granted, there are times that I wish I had gone for the the PhD then (which is why I am now in a PhD program), but I'm not really sure if I'd rather be teaching at a four-year school or not. Truth be told, the more I read the blogs of faculty at four-year schools, the more I'm glad I'm not in that mix. The opportunity to do research would be great, but it seems as if many of them teach almost as much as I do and have to write their articles and books on the weekends. I don't know how they get it all done, especially if they have kids as I now do. (BTW, Outside Voice, how do you get it all done? You amaze me.)

Okay. So. I teach a CC. And I don't teach only basic writing. In fact, though I do teach comp, I teach quite a bit of lit, including Brit lit (my passion) and lit by women. The doomsayers were wrong.

Now, I know that a lot of people get stuck in the part-time community college thing. It is a competitive market, and in bad budget times, there are no jobs. But it really is, for some people, a good gig if you can get it, so it's important for undergraduates and beginning grad students to know it's there for students with MAs. This is especially true in California, where I live, because the CCs are such an integral part of the education system here.

*Okay. So. What most amazed me about the whole thing was when Bardiac, in a comment to Dr. Crazy, says, "I always wonder what the point of an MA in English is. " Bardiac also says, "Except for some K-12 jobs (where an MA can mean a pay increase), there's little career benefit to doing an MA."

Huh? Just for starters, there are about 500 faculty at my CC, and most of them need and have MAs. And there are over 100 of these colleges in California alone. No career benefit?

Bardiac also says, "AND, the great thing about English literature is that you can read, write, and talk about it without a degree of any kind. You don't need a university library, a lab, or a major museum. You just need a decent public library (and by 'decent' I mean a library whose librarian knows how to access interlibrary loans), and bonus if you have some friends who like to talk about literature, too. Even in fairly small communities, there's community theater, poetry readings, and people talking about books."

Okay, yes. You can do all of these things without an M.A. But does that mean that we should tell students that an M.A. is useless; therefore, they should either get a PhD or else just skip graduate school and go get a job as a sales rep and join a book group?

Perhaps I am just being sensitive since my career is based on an M.A. (and because I loved, loved my M.A. years), but I am shocked by these notions that there is no point to an MA. And I am alarmed that students would be advised on the basis of said notions.


Contemporary Troubadour said...

Great post -- I'm getting my MFA, fully intending NOT to go for the Ph.D., and hoping to teach at a CC. This gives me much encouragement about my decision! I've been teaching basic writing/lit in the gen. ed. program at my university this year as a grad student and I've loved it. Absolutely loved it. It's nice to know there are even more ways to branch out at a CC if I decide I'm brave enough to go for that.

baxie said...

I can understand how someone focused entirely on 'academia as career' might turn up their nose at an MA since (presumably) the metric they judge it by is "how much extra money does it get you?"

If the answer is "none", of course they're going to pooh pooh it.

Likewise the CC option- from that perspective, if it doesn't deliver the maximum possible salary what's the point?

This kind of thinking is a direct result of the American habit of considering college as a kind of mental trade school, where the only value in a degree is how large a salary it gets you.

Also, internet discussions in general seem to drift inexorably toward absolutist thinking. I see it all the time on forums- things are the best ever, or the worst ever, things are either awesome or pointless, etc etc. If you're an Alpha Academic with a job at a "real" school the temptation to dismiss those below you on the ladder must be great.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy teaching undergrads far more than teaching grads. I don't have a phd (started and stopped several times) but have enough grad courses over and above the MS to teach six different subject areas on graduate and undergraduate levels. No I'm not a tenured anything anywhere but I much prefer online adjunct teaching because I can pick and choose what and where I want to teach. One thing's for sure, I'm never bored. I love my career and it suits me not to have to go to committee meetings or any of that other crap that goes along with t-t jobs. I set my own hours and work when it suits me. I write what I want to (and have published both fiction and nonfiction books). I can take on extra consulting jobs and instructional design work whenever I want to (or not if I so choose). A career doesn't get any sweeter than this (and no phd required).

Good Enough Woman said...

I've heard two different types of advice in the world of academia:

1. It's so hard to get a job that you have to pick and area that's not impacted regardless of whether you like it or not. There are so few jobs in academia that you can't worry about doing what you love.

2. Since there are so few jobs in academia you have to just do what you love and hope for the best.

I have taken option #2.

CT and Prof. S, it's great to enjoy what we do, n'est-ce pas?! I often envy my husband's position as a lecturer because he has NO committee work. He teaches, he does office hours, and he comes home. Sweet.

Baxie, I'm not sure it's ALL about money. I do think some of the PhD'ers are not interested in CCs because they really and truly love research. And I get that. I like research, too, and wish I had more time to do more of it. But I'm just blown away that someone would suggest an M.A. is useless. That notion seems both utilitarian and unrealistic. But you make a great point about Internet discussions. They seem to invite the kind of pronouncements that might not be made F2F.

Bardiac said...

I'm sorry. That was a stupid comment, and I apologize. There are very few CCs in my area, and our MA students aren't able to get those jobs because they're largely hiring phuds. But, of course, I was thinking in very limited ways.

/hangs head in shame

Good Enough Woman said...

Bardiac, Kudos to you for apologizing after I paraded your comments around the blogosphere. I really appreciate that. Thanks for coming by. Apology accepted!

The Steel Magnolia said...

Thanks for this discussion. As a recently ousted PhD without a t-t position--well, now I'm without ANY position--I was starting to feel deflated by my prospects. Someone suggested CC as a viable, but "step down" option. I responded that this wasn't necessarily the case, but I didn't really believe it. Your responses have helped me to reconfigure my thinking. Of course, I'm also thinking of getting a divorce from academia all together. She has not been the best companion. I think I like the "little of this, little of that" way to put together a career.