Incubating Scholarship and Smart Students: Teaching and Publishing at Community Colleges amidst the New Realities of Academia: Best of AHA 2014, Part 4

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For Part 1 of ToM AHA 2014 coverage: Bed-Stuy, the Illuminati, and the Importance of Fungus Identification – click here

For Part 2 of ToM AHA 2014 coverage: Transnational Protest, Media Bias, and Monopolized Airwaves – click here

For Part 3 of ToM AHA 2014 coverage: Radical Politics, Disgruntled Veterans, Internment, and the Fear of Dependency: The Military and Social Welfare Reform – click here

For coverage of other conferences like UHA 2010/2012, AHA 2012, and others –  click here.

“It’s like explaining something to a bright ten year old,” Emily Tai, an Associate Professor of History at Queensborough Community College told the audience. Tai, speaking to fellow historians, and university and community college professors was referring to teaching at the community college level. Community College students, Tai pointed out, are frequently active, engaged, bright listeners but, whether immigrants, Americans just coming out of high school, or older individuals enrolling later in life, many often lack the scholarly vocabulary or a background in a field’s literature, both necessary requirements for successful undergrad and graduate students. Using 45 minutes of class time to help students into a topic, thereby giving them a background through which they might dig further, stands at the center of community college instruction, Tai argued. Maureen Murphy Nutting, Professor of History at North Seattle Community College, agreed. “Too many students of color see community college as last stop … we need to change that so it is more like a transfer center.”

Yet as George D. Sussman, Professor of History at LaGuardia Community College in New York can attest, many students enroll with deficient skills or, at the very least, need to sharpen underdeveloped ones. Unsurprisingly, reading and writing abilities among many students fall well below what is needed to succeed at higher levels. This necessitates, as all three speakers pointed out at this year’s AHA panel “The Two RR’s at the CC: Are Historical Research and Writing Compatible with Teaching at a Community College,” greater efforts by instructors.  The kind of efforts that, gasp, might cut into one’s research and writing. Murphy Nutting, Tai, and Sussman spoke to an engaged audience at this year’s AHA conference and though the panel was aimed at discussing the challenges of publication at institutions where teaching loads can be obscene, no discussion of CCs can ignore the intersection of teaching and scholarship. As Murphy Nutting pointed out several times, research remains a vital part of pedagogy at the CC level: scholarship informs one’s teaching and teaching informs one’s scholarship.

First, it helps to have a grasp of where community colleges stand in terms of finance, students, and enrollments, in the present.  Today community colleges enroll over 40% of the nation’s college students and increasingly serve minority populations. Between 1994 and 2006, the percentage of white students dropped from 73% to 58% while African American and Latino students increased their numbers to 21% and 31% respectively. Compare this shift to four-year institutions in the same period where white enrollment dipped slightly, from 73% to 71%, but black and Latino enrollment remained static, 11% and 12%.   Many community college students hail from economically impoverished backgrounds.  In 2006, 28% of community college students came from the bottom economic quartile, an increase of 7% from 1982. Often, though certainly not always, this means many attended under performing high schools in places like New York, Chicago, and Seattle or in inner ring suburbs just outside city limits.  In contrast, only 16% of CC students came from the top quartile, down from 24% over the same period.

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Though the nation may have stumbled through recession (depression?) these past six years, community colleges have witnessed an increase in enrollments.  On the plus side, more and more community college students are making the jump to four-year institutions. “There’s been a major acceleration the last few years,” Rod Risely, Executive Director of the community college honors society known as Phi Theta Kappa, told the New York Times two years ago. “These students are choosing community colleges with the intention that this is their path to selective institutions.”

Still, it should be noted that though roughly 81% of new students profess a hope to transfer to a four-year school and more and more anecdotal evidence attests to this, only 12% are able to do so within six years. If one looks only at the State of New York University system (SUNY) and reduces the number of years to graduation from six to four, the numbers aren’t much better, notes Murphy Nutting. Based on data accumulated up to 2006, 70% of SUNY students transferring from a CC to a four-year college failed to graduate within four years.

Paradoxically, despite these increasing enrollments, a student body hailing from more marginal economic backgrounds, and the increasing utility of CCs as a bridge to four year colleges, the CC system has experienced a declining share of federal education funding over the past decade. As Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, told the New York Times this past May, “[m]any community colleges end up receiving minimal federal support . . . The kids with the greatest needs receive the fewest resources.” Four-year colleges experienced declines also, but as you probably already know they simply hiked tuition rates. CCs have largely eschewed such tactics, but if federal funding continues to diminish, they might also be forced to raise tuition.

As already pointed out, reading and writing abilities among many students fall well below what is needed to succeed at higher levels, which of course necessitates extra effort from instructors.  Large classes stand as one obstacle; Sussman noted that for LaGuardia CC professors the number of students per class is not dictated by pedagogical insights but legal fire codes. The need to take extra time with students to focus on primary sources, while also conveying the research and analytical skills necessary for not only college but gainful employment represent two more challenges facing CC professors.  Yet with that said, all three speakers have been productive scholars, publishing articles and books on subjects like immigration, the social history of medicine, medieval piracy, and pedagogy.

Undoubtedly, in addition to heavy teaching responsibilities, obstacles to publication at the CC level exist. Snobbishness among editors and publishers lead some to ignore professors working at community colleges. Moreover, many CCs maintain a somewhat ambivalent stance regarding publication, though this ambivalence also enables teachers to publish as their own pace.  Yet, as Sussman noted, the latter might be changing.  With fewer and fewer tenure track positions, one report estimated that the number of positions had diminished by nearly 75% over the past two decades, more and more PhDs are seeking CC employment.  As pointed out by Tai, currently 1/3 of all history PhD’s are CC professors. In response, institutions have begun to reassess the importance of publication. Moreover, because community college courses lean heavily toward surveys of US, European, or global history, professors at two year schools are uniquely positioned to reflect on comparative and transnational history.  In this regard, community colleges might be harboring the next Thomas Bender or Robin D.G. Kelley. Finally, the emphasis on instruction at the CC level gives instructors more insight into what Sussman labeled “the scholarship of teaching,” or writing about pedagogy. CCs do value these sorts of publications, and instructors at this level accumulate more experience than most of their counterparts in higher education.

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All three speakers promoted National Endowment for the Humanities Summer programs (NEH).   Murphy Nutting took advantage of NEH summer programs aimed at community college professors to travel and conduct research on immigration in South Asia and Brazil. Likewise, Sussman participated in a six week Fulbright seminar that took him to South Africa.   Such experiences, they argue, proved invaluable for research and teaching.   The efforts of David Berry and the Community College Humanities Association (CCHA) also received attention, particularly the organization’s efforts to provide workshops, like this summer’s  “From the American Revolution to Jubilee, 1776–1826”, for educators to deepen their understanding of history and teaching.

Structurally, Sussman, Murphy Nutting, and Tai all advocated for a reassessment of PhD programs. Too many newly minted PhDs, even from elite programs, lack any teaching experience or grasp of how to incorporate their own research and skills developed while dissertating into a classroom setting. “We need to understand the role of the dissertation from transitioning someone from being a consumer of knowledge,” reflected Tai, “to making them into a producer of that knowledge.” Murphy Nutting concurred, pointing out that more and more PhDs do not secure “ivory tower” employment but rather increasingly are taking positions in government, think tanks, policymaking, high school education, and community colleges. “We need to think more about the PhD [process] and how we prepare our doctoral students,” for the new employment realities they face. A recent survey conducted by the AHA confirmed Murphy Nutting’s observations.

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In the end, the panel provided useful and valuable perspectives on, let’s be honest, a field and discipline in the midst of great transition.  The high cost of college, the shrinking number of tenure-track jobs, the increased importance of community colleges in higher education, and demographic changes at the national level all point to real and permanent shifts in post-secondary education.  Like deindustrialization in the 1970s, which removed manufacturing jobs from metropolitan America, the tenured positions that have evaporated are not coming back.  The importance of community colleges for both students and newly minted PhDs will only increase and discussions like this one will only grow in significance.

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