Rethinking the History MA Degree: The Community College Case

Lawrence Baron, September 2008

Since the PhD constitutes the highest degree awarded in history, professors traditionally have regarded the MA either as preparation for doctoral work, a continuing education degree that raises the rank and salary of primary and secondary school teachers, or the fulfillment of an avocation among history buffs. The common wisdom insisted that if you wanted to teach at the community college level, you must possess, or be in the final stages of completing, your doctorate.

But do the experiences and goals of our current and former graduate students confirm what the professorate thinks is the purpose of an MA? To find out, I drafted a seven question survey and sent it to the 126 recipients of a history MA from my university, San Diego State University, from the last 10 years. I also consulted a poll I conducted with our graduate students last year and the report Retrieving the Master's Degree from the Dustbin of History, issued by the American Historical Association in 2005.

From the latter, I learned that between 1981 and 2001, San Diego State's program ranked 12th in the United States in the number of MA students who subsequently were accepted into doctoral programs. Moreover, it ranked 40th out of 371 universities and colleges granting an MA history in the number of degrees it awarded annually. The department averages around 12 MAs per year though the number has increased to 18 over the last two years.

So far I have received 30 responses from MA alums. Although it seems like an eternity as a graduate student, the average time it took them to finish the MA program was seven semesters. Two-thirds of them, however, completed their degrees after five semesters. One-third attended part-time, enrolling in only one or two courses per semester. Some stopped to do other things before completing their degree. Others took more than a year to complete their thesis.

The overwhelming majority of our past MAs wrote a thesis. Last year's Graduate Bulletin still described the thesis track as "the normal option" and stipulated that comprehensive examinations can be taken only "in special circumstances." Researching and authoring a thesis remains a valuable opportunity to analyze primary documents, interpret their meaning, and make an original contribution to the field.

At the American Historical Association workshop for graduate directors I attended last year, the heads of prestigious doctoral programs concurred that the single most important part of an application is the writing sample. Nevertheless, they qualified this by saying that a sophisticated seminar paper can impress a selection committee as much as a chapter of a thesis. They admitted they simply do not have the time to read entire theses. Many added that they often chose candidates who had demonstrated a mastery of their intended field of research and study by passing comprehensive examinations.

Last year San Diego State's history department reformed the examination option to provide a greater breadth of expertise. Those choosing the exam track must read broadly in two comparative, global, or national fields instead of having one major and one minor field as had been the case under the old system. The new policy clarified the responsibilities of both the faculty examiners and those taking the exams. Students can expect to read 40 major books in each of their fields and to receive sample study questions for the exams from the professors chairing each exam at least a month prior to when the test is scheduled. The Graduate Bulletin now places the exam system on a par with the thesis. Although most graduate students still choose to write a thesis, a rising number have decided to take the exams. Plans are afoot to organize peer study groups to prepare for the exams. This may alleviate one recurring complaint about the program, namely, the lack of a sense of community among graduate students, the majority of whom commute to campus.

Among our alums, approximately 27 percent went on to history doctoral programs. About one-third of our current students intend to apply for admission to a doctoral program in history. Two of the MAs responding to my survey have attained tenure-track history positions at universities. Yet the department needs to be sensitive to other career trajectories. 13 percent of our MAs have become lawyers; another 20 percent switched fields and enrolled in master's or PhD programs in educational administration, geographic information systems, international relations, library science, and sociology. 10 percent teach at the middle or high-school levels. One MA recipient serves as a park ranger at a national historical monument. Our current graduate students have similar aspirations with 20 percent planning to get a credentialed to teach high-school social science and 17 percent expecting to enter professional degree programs like law.

The most striking trend in both the alumni and current graduate student surveys is securing a post as a history instructor at a community college. 30 percent of our alumni have accomplished this; half of them hold tenure-track positions. One of these success stories discussed his experiences with our current students at a forum I organized. He noted that procuring adjunct teaching assignments had not been difficult. He usually had held part-time appointments simultaneously at several different institutions. He attributed his landing of a tenure-track line to the varied experience in teaching survey courses in American history, western civilization, and world history which he gained as an adjunct instructor. He stressed how crucial it was for him to broaden his expertise beyond the narrow focus of his thesis in order to get hired for a permanent position.

One-third of our current students plan to teach at a community college. Although I encourage those among them who want to pursue a thesis to do so, I increasingly advise members of this group, as well as those contemplating getting a teaching credential, to consider taking the exams. The master's program should provide them with a breadth of knowledge they can draw from to teach survey courses at either level.

According to a 1999 OAH report on the status of history faculty at community colleges, 77 percent of the part-time history lecturers and 49 percent of the full-time history faculty at two-year institutions has a master's degree; whereas 92 percent of the full-time history professors at four-year institutions possess a doctorate. 57 percent of their part-time instructors have a master's degree.1

Behind these figures lurks a challenge. The community college is becoming the preferred path for first and second year students who either fail to get admitted to four-year colleges, lack the financial resources to pay their higher tuition for four years, and know that articulation agreements guarantee them acceptance into four year-public universities after completing their associate degrees.2

While the exam system can impart the content MA students will teach at the community college, it does little to train students to teach to survey courses to diverse student bodies. Currently, serving as a teaching assistant in large lecture courses provides the only experience graduate students obtain The College of Education at San Diego State already offers a graduate certificate in community college teaching. The graduate committee of the history department is currently drafting a proposal to enable MA candidates to enroll in two of the courses from the certificate program: one deals with the pedagogical challenges they will encounter in a community college setting, and the other is an internship teaching a survey course at a community college.

Offering a community college teaching track will require the history department to develop a new graduate course devoted specifically to assessment of learning outcomes, the use of new information technology, syllabus design, and teaching methods for the main types of history survey courses offered by community colleges. Under the California Faculty Association's contract, lecturers who teach survey courses for the history department are guaranteed employment if there is sufficient enrollment after teaching at San Diego State for three years. Since most of our lecturers possess extensive experience at the community college level, I have approached them to design the new course. If it gains approval, it will be taught each semester by the most effective teachers among them. This is a win-win situation: our graduate students will learn from historians with a wealth of experience in teaching at community colleges; and our lecturers will have an opportunity to work with graduate students. When it becomes possible to hire tenure-track faculty in the future, the department should consider creating a position for someone whose specialization is in the teaching of history.

An external team of reviewers who recently evaluated the history department expressed skepticism about whether MAs who have completed the proposed teaching track could successfully compete with PhDs and ABDs for tenure-track positions at community colleges. Their report recommended that I survey the history or social studies department chairs at the community colleges in San Diego county about hiring practices and I did so. Only one of the seven chairs felt that hiring ABDs or PhDs was preferable, and all indicated that state law mandated that the minimum terminal degree for community college positions was the masters. They emphasized that teaching experience was the great equalizer in the hiring decision. MAs with a solid teaching record as adjuncts were just as competitive as applicants who had done doctoral work or received their doctorate.

Here is a representative sampling of their comments:

  • "Applicants having training above and beyond the master's degree in fields for which we may be hiring have distinct advantages precisely because of the extent of their academic training. Other applicants holding terminal master's degrees, who have deep knowledge in the fields in which they teach, as well as teaching experience, may be competitive."

  • "In my career in higher education, I have been frequently disconcerted by the lack of formal teacher training, and, it has been my experience that many profess too much and teach too little."

  • "Personally, since we're teaching freshman/sophomore survey classes, I think it is sometimes a handicap for someone who is ABD or who has a PhD to come into the community college setting without experience. Bottom line: A knowledgeable historian with community college experience has a chance with us."

  • "We don't hold the doctorate as the foremost element when we screen applicants and rank candidates for full time tenure positions. We look for teaching ability and commitment to the community college. We don't want to hire someone who sees the position as a short term stepping stone while they continue to search for a tenure track position at a 4 year university or college."

The current budgetary crises facing California and many other states threaten both state universities and community colleges. The governor has proposed a 10 percent reduction in funding the California State University system, while applications for new and transfer admissions to the system have been rising sharply. For example, last fall San Diego State accepted only 16 percent of its applicants. The proposed budget cuts will curtail the university's ability to accept even that selective percentage in the coming years. The system-wide trend of increasing selectivity will channel more students who had hoped to attend four-year institutions into community colleges. Although community colleges will sustain reductions in their budgets as well, they are likely to accommodate larger enrollments by relying more heavily on part-time instructors and hiring master's degrees for temporary and permanent positions because their salaries are lower than those for holders of doctorates. Projections from the California Community College Chancellor's Office anticipate that by 2010 "over 8,000 new full-time faculty will be needed to teach the estimated 500,000 new community college students and replace the thousands of existing faculty who will be retiring from the state's community colleges." The prospects of employment at community colleges for historians with a master's degree may be one of the few bright spots in what is an otherwise grim job market for them and recent PhDs at four-year and graduate institutions.

—Lawrence Baron is professor and graduate adviser in the Department of History at San Diego State University.