This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Modern Language Association’s 2016-2017 Connected Academics Proseminar written by Connected Academics Proseminar Fellow Carolyn Ureña. She will be co-facilitating a workshop on connected careers with Tara Coleman on March 30th. You can read her previous post here.
By: Carolyn Ureña
In January, this year’s Connected Academics proseminar visited LaGuardia Community College, where Rutgers Comparative Literature alumna Dr. Tara Coleman teaches in the English Department. She joined a panel of professors and administrators who shared with us their passion for teaching as an extension of social justice and emphasized the ways that teaching in community colleges affords the opportunity to impact the lives of students on a daily basis.
During the visit we learned a number of striking statistics from LaGuardia’s President, Dr. Gail Mellow:
- More than 50% of college students attend community colleges.
- Most low-income, black, and Latino college students attend community colleges.
- Specifically at LaGuardia, 60% of students are foreign-born, and 87% are English language learners.
Realizing that so many college-bound students move through the community college system before attending four-year colleges sheds new light on our own emphasis on student diversity at Rutgers, and suggests that we as teachers should consider the fact that community colleges are for many students an important part of their educational trajectories.
Humanists, Dr. Mellow told us, have the power to create world that people want to live in, and working at a community college afford the opportunity to transform the way these students see their futures. We heard again and again how highly motivated and appreciative students are of their professors. At LaGuardia, service and committee work bring faculty and administrators together to actually implement change and organize programming that impact the entire community. Social justice and equity are not abstract concepts; they are the bread and butter of the every day.
So how does working at a community college count as an “alternative” career? Another way to ask this question might be, why aren’t discussions about teaching at community college more prevalent in graduate programs? One reason, Dr. Mellow suggested, is that as with other alternative careers, faculty may not know much about the work that goes on at community colleges. And yet, as I listened to the panelists describe their experiences I got the sense that many members of our graduate community would actually find this work not only appealing but also very much in line with their commitments to expanding access to high-quality education to diverse student populations.
Teaching is Essential, but Research Remains Important
If you are interested in working for a community college, remember that teaching is paramount. It will be more important to demonstrate your growth as an educator–something you can do by seeking opportunities to teach the same course multiple times–rather than simply a variety of one-off courses. Be proactive and ask a professor to observe your teaching and write you a letter of recommendation well in advance of when you will actually need it.
A common misconception about teaching at community colleges is that faculty research takes a backseat. At LaGuardia they value innovation in the classroom as well as scholarly engagement; professors have a higher teaching load than at research-driven institutions, but they must nevertheless attend conferences and remain abreast of their fields.
Reflect on your Goals
The greatest lesson from this visit was a call to ask ourselves, early and often: What are we actually doing in graduate school? Why are we here, and what is the purpose of getting a doctoral degree? Is the only purpose to become a prominent scholar? Or, are we here because we want to truly democratize knowledge and increase access to quality education?
This is not to suggest that we view the four-year college (or the community college) as a monolithic entity — each school is different. The key is to take the time to reflect and ask yourself, what kinds of institutions and careers will allow me to fulfill my goals? As the Connected Academics initiative is working to make clear, depending on what you aim to accomplish, there are a multitude of careers and paths you should consider, both inside and outside the academy.