Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Community-College Teachers Don't Need a Ph.D.

Community-College Teachers Don't Need a Ph.D.
Having a doctorate won't hurt you, as long as getting it didn't interfere too much with your education


Having served on hiring committees at my community college, I read with interest the Careers column "Call Me Rube," by Rob Jenkins. He wrote that he was "troubled" by what he saw "as a growing infatuation, among community colleges, with the Ph.D. — sometimes to the exclusion of highly qualified candidates with an M.A., who might be better teachers." So far, my college seems immune to that infatuation, but I understand why its spread would trouble Jenkins.

A Ph.D. represents extraordinary and laudable achievement, and a person who has a doctorate in my field (English) almost certainly has more scholarly knowledge than I. But in the case of youngish job candidates with new or relatively new doctorates, who have spent the better part of a decade and perhaps a third of their lives at one university or another, I would wonder if they know enough to work for a community college. A doctorate signifies an exceptionally high level of education; but it might not signify the right education for the kind of work I do.

I'll try to explain.

My students are: welders-in-training; certified nursing assistants eager to become licensed practical nurses; future administrative assistants; aspiring schoolteachers; future police officers; scores of teenagers planning to study "something in business or management, I guess," in hopes of escaping the kind of factory work that their parents did until the plant closed; future registered nurses and surgical technicians; teenage artists with vague ideas of someday getting paid to design advertisements or catalogs; would-be landscaping entrepreneurs; one or two budding journalists; fast-food workers who want to have CPA after their names in five years; middle-aged folk who wouldn't be taking "Comp I" if the textile industry hadn't evaporated; electricians-in-training; a very few aspiring engineers; and a very, very few future scholars.

Teaching and advising, I've met perhaps 1,500 students over the past five years. I can remember just two saying they'd like to go beyond a bachelor's degree. Most want to get to work, the sooner the better. Many of my young students want to be less poor than their parents. Middle-aged ones hope to be less poor than they are.

Some of my students struggle with the readings in humanities courses but do fine in math. A few need just a little firm coaching from a grouchy old editor like me to write well enough to work for a magazine, but they don't pass "Intro to Statistics" until their fourth try. Some students come to my classes able to read blueprints and build houses, and completely unable to understand a simple short story.

Some students make me crazy and some make me want to cry. All in all, though, they're an interesting bunch. They make me earn my pay. Every semester, a few make me realize all over again how easy I've had it.

My job: Carry a 5/5/4 teaching load with three preps, sometimes four. Be ready to get three different courses into shape on four days' notice. Be ready to teach composition, Homer, research skills, Mark Twain, a little public speaking, Dante, computer skills, T.S. Eliot, grammar, Hemingway, critical reading, Voltaire, business writing, Emily Dickinson, basic prosody, Flannery O'Connor, basic literary analysis, and whatever else needs teaching, off the top of my head if necessary (and yes, I've taught all of those in one academic year). Advise 50 students, 48 of whom are the first in their families to set foot on a college campus, 35 of whom are the first to finish high school. Serve on committees. Tutor students. Do whatever community-relations work the boss needs me to do. Endure enough professional-development activities to keep my superiors happy. Take care of all my own typing and most of my copying. Help students deal with the bureaucracy and our baffling computer systems.

Sometimes I counsel students in nonacademic matters. Sometimes I just listen to them. Some say things like "I'm just a dumb redneck" and "I know I'm too stupid to do this." They apologize for asking for help. The mothers — and half of my students are mothers — never tire of talking about kids and their problems. Sometimes I wonder how the hell a 20-year-old single woman who has a baby and cancer manages to get out of bed in the morning, much less come to class. I've held babies so that students could rummage in diaper bags to find the essays they wanted me to critique.

Since our maintenance department might lose a race with a tranquilized slug, I also fix things. Thanks to me, the door of the faculty men's room closes. I made the campus-safety department a better tool for opening vehicle doors when students lock their keys in their cars. When the wheels of our housekeeper's cart begin to squeal so loudly that I can hear them over the Led Zeppelin playing in my office, I oil the bearings to get her through another few months. I fixed the office labelmaker. When the paper cutter stopped cutting, I brought the blade home and sharpened it with my Dremel tool.

I've changed flat tires for students, jump-started their cars, cleaned and tightened battery terminals, diagnosed c-v joint problems, spliced broken wires, and added most of the important fluids to their vehicles. Some students have no one — or at least no one competent — to help them with such things. So besides teaching them the right punctuation to use with conjunctive adverbs, I also teach them that Toyotas and Hondas don't take the same power-steering fluid and that GM and Chrysler products need different kinds of transmission fluid.

Welcome to community-college teaching.

My academic credentials: A moldy M.A. in English.

My scholarly publications: Does this article count? (No? Well, then, none.)

My nonscholarly publications: Four books, two pieces in anthologies, about 120 magazine articles, and reviews of books and products. Students seem impressed that I got paid to write books and articles; that words can become dollars makes writing seem a worthwhile endeavor. As an editor, I've worked with high-school dropouts and people who had several doctorates. I've edited thousands of articles and a score of books. After processing a few million words under hellish deadline pressure, one learns some of the tricks of writing stuff that gets the job done.

My background: Twelve years full-time editing and writing, making magazines and books and helping manage publishing businesses. About six years in retail sales. A few years as a jeweler. A couple of years as a mechanic. A little work in factories, a little work as an electrician's helper, a little temp work. I've been self-employed, a vice president of a small company, a craftsman, a salesman, a cog in a giant corporate machine, a publicity flack and a marketing hack, and a teacher of academic subjects and of certain crafts. I've worked with my head, my hands, with both. I've made good money and I've gone to bed hungry. I helped raise two girls who have grown up to be fine young women, one of whom is a practitioner and budding scholar in her field. That last item impresses the parents in my courses.

No doubt a real scholar with a doctorate would bring valuable things to a community-college classroom that I cannot bring. But although my strange, unscholarly life hasn't given me great depth of knowledge in my field, it has given me a lot of breadth, and not just academic breadth. Do I know enough about Steinbeck and his work to cover him in a 200-level American-lit survey in which I can afford to give him one 85-minute class session on a single short story? Yep, though I still try to learn more about Steinbeck and scores of other authors every year. That's the highest-level course I shall ever teach.

Meanwhile, all the wacky, trivial, nuts-and-bolts stuff I know helps me help my students in all sorts of ways. Because they have trouble pinning down a topic and fleshing out a paper, and because many students can reach for the abstract only by going through the concrete, I'm glad that my checkered career includes doing valve jobs, setting diamonds, running a hydraulic press, writing advertising copy, editing bad articles in a hurry, and having a number of rewarding, humbling editorial relationships with classicists, marine biologists, oceanographers, biochemists, geneticists, entomologists, poets, professional photographers, geologists, artists, musicians, engineers, and lots of other smart, interesting people.

The kind of education I've had, you can't get in a university. Some colleagues at my college have similarly varied backgrounds. If nothing else, such a life gives you an endless supply of illustrations and analogies with which to explain ideas. It also gives you the soft skills that matter as much in the classroom as on a factory floor. It teaches you how to talk to different kinds of people, and, more important, how to listen to them. Maybe my colleagues and I don't create much new knowledge (in our academic fields, anyway). But we're really good at explaining things and imparting knowledge.

That we are not all career academics, that we have done much of our learning outside universities, and that we have used knowledge and skills in many places other than classrooms make us, I think, a little more human in our students' eyes, and perhaps that makes this whole business of higher education a little less bewildering and alien to people who are the first in their families to try it.

This past year, two female students in a communications class wrote process-analysis papers about changing motor oil. As I critiqued one of the drafts, I pointed out that the student had neglected to mention lubricating the gasket of the new oil filter. "Oh, yeah, right," one said. "Don't you hate it when you can't get the damn filter off? Thanks. You're smart, Mr. Hobson."

Would having defended a dissertation on a tiny facet of an obscure literary figure's work make me better at my job? I don't know. It might have kept me from acquiring a lot of valuable knowledge.

Larry Hobson is the pseudonym of a community-college instructor who would prefer not to blow his cover on a certain online forum for academics where many of these thoughts first appeared. He teaches English at a medium-sized two-year college.

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