My Life in Higher Education’s Lower Class
Let me confess: I teach at a community college and love it. After 21 years in higher education working as director of admissions, registrar and dean of academics, I took advantage of retreat rights and slid into a full-time teaching position in 2001. I started teaching my first classes one week before 9/11.
As a full-timer, I teach composition and creative writing courses. My base load, the minimum requirement, is to teach 30 credits per year, or ten classes. I most often choose twelve credits in the fall and winter, six in the summer. I could teach fifteen credits in both fall and winter and have the whole summer off. This clearly is a heavier teaching load than professors at universities, but for someone who values and enjoys teaching, it is a modest assignment. With office hours and some committee work, I’m “at work” about 20 hours per week. This is far less than the typical 40- plus hour work week I had as a college administrator. Obviously, as a teacher, there is preparation, grading, and professional development, but I can do that at my own pace, on my own personal timeline.
The community college system, though relatively new by higher education standards, has grown tremendously in the past 50 years. Today, about 7.1 million students attend community colleges; that represents a 53 percent increase in the past 20 years). In fact, 40 percent of all students in higher education attend community colleges, a greater percentage than attend all four-year public universities in the country. The future prospects for growth continue as university tuition increase and financial aid decreases due to the economy and national deficit. Remember, on a yearly basis, the average community college tuition is 65 percent less than the average tuition at a public university.
Why does any of this matter? There are two crucial reasons: 1) community colleges enroll a large portion of future creative writing students who plan to transfer and 2) community colleges provide stable job opportunities for M.F.A. graduates and writers.
If university creative writing programs plan to grow in both quantity and quality, they need to enter into relationships with community college English departments. Articulation agreements can work to attract the best students from the two-year system. By entering into dialogue and personal contact with teachers at the community college, university faculty can enhance the transfer of students. The two-year college faculty can serve as quasi-recruiters by recommending schools to their students. If community college faculty are aware and knowledgeable of the creative writing programs and requirements, they can steer their best students toward those options. This is a win-win-win situation. The faculty at both institutions thrive as do the students who opt to transfer.
However, this symbiotic relationship does not appear to be widespread. On the whole, university faculty rarely engage with writing faculty at community colleges. Few articulation agreements are written. Though there are certainly more, I could only find two agreements online — one between Brookdale Community College and Ramapo College in New Jersey, the other at Arapahoe Community College and Adams State College in Colorado.
I teach at the largest community college in Michigan. In a typical year, we offer 18 sections of creative writing to 330 students. Yet we have no connections or articulation agreements in creative writing with the University of Michigan, Western Michigan University or Oakland University. Maybe the recent $50 million gift by Helen Zell to UM’s creative writing program will encourage greater cooperation; maybe, instead, it will eliminate altogether the need to reach out to new students.
In my best dreams, I envision a close collaboration between four-year creative writing programs and community colleges. Clear pathways for creative students will ease the transfer process, increase enrollment in creative writing, and eventually evolve into a working relationship where writers and teachers at both institutions meet to share ideas, strategies, and maybe even their own creative work. There are thousands of students with great potential willing and waiting to be approached and recruited at community colleges everywhere. It’s high time for universities to move in that direction.
The other main reason why community colleges matter is for the job opportunities for writers. In Michigan alone, there are 30 community colleges. Often, new M.F.A. graduates don’t consider teaching in the two-year system. For some, it’s a prestige bias. Community college jobs do not carry the esteem that university positions carry. For others, it’s a clear oversight, a forgotten opportunity. Yet, more than twenty percent of all full-time faculty in the country teach in the two-year system (MLA).
It would be rare for someone at the community college to teach only creative writing classes. Most writing faculty must teach several sections of composition or developmental English along with one or two sections of creative writing. Sometimes, a literature course is thrown in the mix. To faculty members who enjoy teaching, this is not a problem.
Another advantage to the community college is there is no pressure to publish to receive tenure. The Modern Language Association confirms that “evidence of teaching excellence, not research, is the means by which most community colleges award tenure.” Community college faculty also spend most of their time teaching and only 3.5 percent doing research, compared to four-year faculty who spend 28.2 percent of their time on research (MLA). In the two-year system, the burden to publish a book and several refereed articles is not hanging over writers’ heads. This can be liberating and allow people the freedom to pursue their art at their leisure.
In addition to teaching a wide range of students — adults, minorities, international — there is generally more opportunity for new course development at the community college level. When my college began a cinematic arts degree, I was asked to create some new courses. I created two to serve our students: Introduction to Playwriting and Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting. Both courses now have steady enrollment. Last year, we approved a new Advanced Composition course with an Environmental Writing course currently in development.
Most teachers at the community college feel blessed in their jobs, happy to be teaching and making a difference in people’s lives. One survey indicated that 73 percent of two-year faculty found “joy” in teaching and “71 percent believe their work is meaningful” (MLA). Ellen Olmstead explains this kind of joy in her decision to work at Bristol Community College: “I chose to teach at a community college because it celebrates committed, passionate teachers. You get credit for working intensively with people, not with paper, researching, and writing.
I should clarify that two-year faculty still conduct research and publish and present at national conferences. The difference is they choose to do it out of love and desire, not for tenure or promotion.
I have nothing against teaching at fouryear universities. Many of my best friends teach there, and they enjoy their positions as well as a certain academic respect, a respect generally not awarded to community college faculty. But I would not trade places. I enjoy teaching too much. I enjoy writing, researching, and publishing at my own pace without an underlying threat or expectation. I enjoy my six-figure income and my ability to earn overload if I want it.
Mostly, though, I love teaching.