Teaching at a Community College: Some Personal Observations

John H. Ball, April 2010

Given the current state of the economy and the challenges of the job market for historians, it is increasingly necessary for new PhDs to consider broadening their career options. One such career path that is often overlooked is teaching at two-year institutions. My hope is that my own experiences of teaching at a community college can be useful for others who may be thinking about teaching history at a two-year institution.

The first major adjustment I had to make as an instructor at a community college was the shift from the specific to the general. Before taking my first job at a two-year institution, I had just finished my dissertation, and as an adjunct I had taught specialty courses at a university. Most of my prepared syllabi were for upper division courses. At that point, for me, a “general” survey course meant early modern Europe: a topic that made up at most one third of a semester-long Western Civilization course. So a great adjustment was needed when I began teaching Western Civilization I and II, as well as the first half of American history.

Initially, I was worried about how limiting it would feel to be primarily teaching survey courses. I don’t think this question can be answered comprehensively after only a few years of teaching, but it has not felt constraining so far. As the two Western Civilization courses cover vast geographic and temporal areas, I have found them to be an invitation to pursue whatever has struck me as academically interesting. Teaching these courses has given me perhaps the greatest intellectual freedom I have had since looking for a dissertation topic at the start of graduate school. I have read widely this year on topics from ancient Rome to medieval philosophy to World War II, and I have been able to bring most of my research directly into my classes. And it has also become clear from conversations with my colleagues that there are many ways to avoid simply teaching the same two classes for decades. The real joy of the survey course is that it is broad enough to contain just about anything that an instructor wishes to include. My colleagues constantly add to their survey courses based on new readings and research. Many shift the focus of their courses from year to year, depending on their interests at the time, or based upon input from the students at the start of the semester. Most community college programs include 200-level specialty courses for further diversity, and some professors teach as adjuncts at local universities to broaden their teaching opportunities.

The second major transition I faced at the community college was the teaching load. The standard course load for two-year schools is five classes per semester. And most instructors, at least in their first years while dealing with debt from graduate school, student loans, and saving for a house, often choose to teach overloads. This often leads to teaching loads of as many as six or seven classes a term in addition to summer classes. Teaching five or more classes each semester seemed overwhelming at first, especially coming out of a research institution where anything over a 2/3 class load was seen by many to be a “bad job.” But what the 5/5+ load reflects is the central focus of community colleges: that professors are expected to put teaching first, last, and always. So, what did the 5/5 class-load mean for me? Depending on the school, class sizes tend to be capped somewhere between 25–35 students, so I taught roughly 150–175 students per semester at the low end. These five courses will typically be sections of two to four different classes. The load indeed is heavy, but it is manageable. And when compared to teaching at a four-year state university with huge lecture classes, possibly not a much greater number of total students. Where the teaching load really has an impact, however, is in grading. There are no teaching assistants at community colleges; so the professor has to grade every paper and exam. Given this, it puts a real limit on how much an instructor can work on writing with students, and for better or for worse, in many classes (although I am still resisting this), multiple-choice exams become the norm.

Behind the question of how one manages a 5/5 teaching load lurks a more challenging query: Is it possible to maintain one’s own research and ties to the scholarly community while teaching at a community college? While a 5/5 teaching load is certainly manageable, it also clearly means that the focus of the job will be on teaching and not on research. From speaking with my more experienced community college colleagues, I have learned that the teaching load and lack of institutional focus upon research does make it a continuing challenge to carve out time for scholarship. But having acknowledged the challenge, many professors at two-year colleges do manage it. It is not unusual for instructors to have their PhDs, and many of these keep up their own scholarship, publish articles and books, and take active roles in the scholarly community. While resources directly supporting research may be very limited at community colleges, most institutions are serious about providing aid under the rubric of “Faculty Development” for conferences. Overall, I have found that community colleges both expect and support maintaining one’s scholarly interests and connections, even if pursuing extensive research may become more difficult.

Given the focus upon teaching, students take on a central role in the experience of teaching at a community college. From the very beginning, I was told that “community college students are their own group.” What I quickly found was that this did not mean that they are “bad” students. Some are indeed less well prepared, and need more attention to help them develop their skills, but overall they seem to be pretty much the same kinds of students who enter the bulk of the four year institutions. Many of my students chose to do their first two years of study at a community college and then planned to transfer in their third year to finish their bachelor’s degrees. Moreover, many students are enrolled in four-year universities concurrently, and are using the community colleges to fill out requirements for their degrees. Obviously, economics has a great deal to do with this. Given the rising costs of education, it is often significantly cheaper to do the first two years of a degree at a community college before finishing at a university. But many students also choose community colleges because they offer much better support networks, tutoring, smaller class sizes, and more personal attention than can be found at many universities.

What does make the students at community colleges different is the amazing diversity of their experiences and skills. A general class will have people from many ethnic and economic backgrounds, and in many cases from many countries. There will be a significant number for whom English is a second language. Many will have just finished high school, some will have years of college under their belts, and some will be returning students who have advanced degrees and decades of work experience. Most will be in their teens, but many will be in their 20s and 30s, and some will be significantly older. What makes this group challenging is that a good class allows those who are less experienced to develop their skills, while still offering the most dedicated students a chance to pursue their academic interests as fully as possible. I am still working out the best way to address this, and probably will be doing so as long as I am in the classroom. I try to include multiple levels of material, from the basic narratives of history to detailed work on primary sources, to the limited inclusion of monographs. I have found that this allows me at least to give students a taste of where they could go if they choose to study history further, while still engaging the students who will never take another history course.

There is no doubt that such diversity poses special challenges from a pedagogical point of view, but at its best it makes for an amazingly dynamic classroom. Besides the broad variety of their backgrounds, students at a community college are often working full time, they have families, some are retired from the work force, and some are veterans. For most of them, school is something they have chosen to do, and have made significant sacrifices just to get through the classroom door. All of this means that they have a great deal of outside personal experience to bring to a historical discussion. This was deeply intimidating at first, but I quickly realized that the discussions in class were some of the most vibrant and purely interesting ones I have ever encountered. It was discussions like these that drove home to me a real answer to the question of “why does history matter?” In the discussions, my students connected their own experiences to the history they were studying, not as an academic exercise, but as way to talk about very real questions of religion, politics, family, war, and others that they were dealing with as part of their daily lives.

So, in the end, I have found my first year teaching at a community college to be a very rewarding one. It has required a shift away from the world of research and writing, which is a change I am still working through, but it has offered a significant amount in return. I have found a great deal of freedom in the classroom, institutional backing for maintaining my scholarly connections, and interesting and supportive colleagues. Perhaps most important of all, I have found students who have challenged me to rethink how I look at history. And in the end, isn’t that the best thing one can find in one’s classes?

John Ball teaches history at the Dale Mabry Campus of Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida.