Graduate Students Forum: Teaching History at a Community College
Emily Sohmer Tai, February 2004
From the Graduate Students Forum column of the February 2004 Perspectives
Brenna Lissoway, member of the AHA's Committee for Graduate Students and who helped to arrange this forum for publication in Perspectives, writes: The following essays-by Emily Sohmer Tai and Louise Pubols-were originally presented during a session entitled "Careers in History" at the AHA's 2003 annual meeting in Chicago. Sponsored by the AHA's Committee for Graduate Students, the session highlighted only a few of the numerous careers open to those earning higher degrees in the field of history. As historians practicing outside academic four-year institutions, the authors offer pragmatic insights into the merits and rewards of their chosen occupations. The articles discuss the career opportunities available at community colleges and museums and should thus be particularly helpful to students and recent graduates contemplating their future in the discipline.
Across the United States, nearly 50 percent of all history courses required of students enrolled in postsecondary degree programs are completed on the campuses of America's community colleges. Yet few doctoral candidates in the field of history fully consider community college teaching as a rich career option. This article will offer a few reasons why historians with research training might wish to consider joining the faculty of a community college.
America's Community Colleges: Missions and Demographics
The core mission of every community college is to serve the community. Community colleges do this principally by offering "associates degrees," the equivalent of two years of postsecondary general education, in the liberal arts and sciences. Many community colleges also offer various nonacademic degrees in science and technical proficiencies customized to regional economic needs. Some community colleges also host local civic, cultural, and arts organizations.
Most community college students come from low-income backgrounds. Many are in the workforce. Some are recent immigrants, often struggling to master English. Many support families or wrestle with chronic health problems. These individuals enroll at community colleges because community college tuition tends to be lower than tuition at four-year institutions. Many community colleges offer evening classes for working students, and developmental education for students who are poorly prepared for college-level work. Community colleges also tend to be more forgiving of transitional enrollment patterns, such as part-time course loads, and high mid-semester attrition rates, both often arising from economic circumstances.
Despite these conditions, many two-year liberal arts programs require a component of 3 to 9 credits from an eventual 60 in history. Although individuals with master's degrees in history, or PhDs in history education, are eligible to teach at many community colleges, nearly 45 percent of those teaching history held PhDs in history, as of 1998. This represented a higher proportion than in other subjects taught at community colleges, where generally less than 25 percent of faculty held doctorates in academic subjects.1
These numbers may increase. Nearly two-thirds of undergraduates enrolling in post-secondary education across the United States are currently beginning at community colleges, hoping to save on the high cost of a state or private four-year university, but planning to earn baccalaureate degrees. Moreover, several are completing their education at distinguished institutions-9 percent of Smith College's junior class, for example, are transfer students from two-year colleges.
Community colleges are interested in serving these students by offering rigorous introductory courses and sophomore-level electives in the humanities, especially history. Several, including my own institution (Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York), have begun "honors programs" for advanced students. Community colleges want every credit a student earns at their institutions to be what administrators term portable-that is, course work that will satisfy requirements on a four-year campus. Some community colleges offer articulation agreements and scholarship programs that track promising students into neighboring four-year institutions, with full credit for the courses they finished at a community college.2
The Community College Historian: A Job Description
Historians with a PhD contribute crucially to the success of these programs, as it is our doctorate and our ongoing commitment to research that renders our courses demonstrably at parity with those on four-year campuses. Historians at community colleges are generally required to teach multiple sections of introductory, or "100-level" courses in American, western European, or world history, and to develop "200-level" electives in areas of their interest or specialty. Most community colleges expect full-time faculty to teach four to six courses per semester, with anywhere from two to five preparations. Each section will have 20 to 40 students who are usually heterogeneous in age, goals, and academic abilities. A community college faculty member should accordingly expect to spend 12 to 16 hours in the classroom each week, and work with approximately 150 to 175 students each semester, many of whom will require individual tutoring and advising. In addition, community college faculty members are expected to supervise student organizations and serve on faculty committees. While such a workload may seem daunting, community college teaching affords unique opportunities to develop professionally in several key areas.
The breadth of curriculum development required of a community college instructor allows historians to transcend not merely the boundaries established between area studies of European, American, and "non-Western" histories, but even the disciplinary limits of history itself. Community college historians investigate broad historical problems-such as the history of religion, racism, or attitudes towards death and dying-across boundaries of time and space that may have constrained their doctoral training. On many campuses, faculty are encouraged to collaborate with instructors in fields such as literature, anthropology, and art history, to develop interdisciplinary courses and "learning communities" that help our students make human as well as intellectual connections on our commuter campuses.
Interdisciplinary courses are only some of the innovative approaches to classroom learning being pioneered on community college campuses. Community college instructors are constantly seeking new means to realize their instructional mission: to meet the needs of every student. Community colleges have consequently been at the vanguard of several pedagogical initiatives that have applied research on varied learning styles. Cooperative learning pedagogy, for example, looks to assist the estimated 83 percent of students who, as "visual" or "tactile-kinesthetic" learners, do not always profit from a traditional college lecture. Community college faculty are also developing assessment strategies that endeavor to measure what students are learning in our classrooms.
Because junior college students require flexibility, community colleges were among the earliest institutions to promote "distance learning." For example, Queensborough Community College inaugurated a "homebound program" in the 1970s that utilized conference-call speaker phones to provide class-attendance possibilities to disabled students. Over the past few years, community college faculty have significantly adopted new technologies such as web-based images and readings; online class assignments, tutorials, and discussion boards; fully online asynchronous courses; and learning style and career-advisory diagnostic software. Historians on community college campuses aren't just applying this technology-they are developing it, often with the support of prestigious grants.3
Community college instructors are also leading the way in establishing protocols for mentoring, which educators are increasingly recognizing as key to student success at every level. On many community college campuses, historians are asked to mentor students who plan careers in elementary and secondary education. Community college instructors also provide instructional support to less advanced students as they struggle to develop "transfer skills" (the ability to apply a learned skill set to a new task). Mentoring may also require faculty members to deal with individual, nonacademic impediments to student success, although institutions will often provide counseling staff to assist with more complex cases.
Writing, Research, and Travel
Community college historians often find their own specialized research projects enriched by the wider spectrum of fields they need to master for developing broad, introductory curricula. Yet, community college historians are able to range beyond traditional scholarship, as they pursue projects in web site development, textbook and encyclopedia writing, pedagogy research on history education, and even the composition of articles for trade publications in history. Community college historians can also look to the Community College Humanities Association, an American Council of Learned Societies affiliate that works in partnership with such organizations as the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Historical Association, to organize research and travel opportunities for research-oriented faculty at two-year colleges. Community college faculty are also invited to participate in Fulbright international exchange programs, particularly as recipients of teaching grants.
Conclusion: Could You Be a Community College Historian?
If you choose to interview at a community college, you may be asked to comment upon a perceived distinction between "teaching" and "research," as some community college staff are skeptical about the commitment those with research training may have to teach community college students. Yet such distinctions may well be artificial. As researchers and community college historians we model the craft and sweat of academic work for our students, and apply the empathy we've acquired in our own quest for knowledge by teaching our students to cultivate their own sense of possibility. It has been suggested that the ethos of a community college, with its ideal of community service, is at odds with that of a research university. Yet, both institutions are dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge. Research universities accomplish this by training future scholars. Community college historians have also launched young scholars, but even when we teach students who will never be part of the historical profession, we build the ranks of a historian's audience by inviting students to discover the enriching difference an understanding of history can make in their lives. To teach history at a community college is to empower students with the tools of analysis that confer authority in discourse and comprehension of one's world; to help students acquire the skills through which they become mature participants in American democracy. For students across the United States, what is rendering enrollment at a community college a richly positive choice is the attention, care, and support they receive as they learn. If you enjoy furnishing students with that support, a community college may be the place for you, too.
—Emily Sohmer Tai, who received her PhD in 1996 from Harvard University, is an associate professor of history at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York and is a member of the AHA's Teaching Division.
1. Robert B. Townsend, "New Data Reveals a Homogeneous but Changing History Profession," Perspectives (January 2002). Townsend cites research available from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Study of Post-secondary faculty, 1999, available at http://nces.edu.gov/surveys/nsopf. For the general composition of the community college professorate, see Tronie Rifkin, "Public Community College Faculty," at the web site of the American Association of Community Colleges, http://www.nche.edu.
2. For these trends, note Greg Winter, "Junior Colleges Try Niche as Path to Top Universities," New York Times, December 15, 2002; Jamilah Evelyn, "An Elite Vision: Ronald Williams Wants Community Colleges to be Intellectual Hubs," Chronicle of Higher Education, October 4, 2002, A31–32; and "Making the Leap: With Support, Community College Graduates Succeed at Competitive Private Colleges," Chronicle of Higher Education, February 28, 2003, A36–A37.
3. Note the programs described in Advancing the Humanities Through Technology at Community Colleges: Reports on the Community College Humanities Association Project Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Community College Humanities Review 23:1 (2002).