Community Colleges: Canaries in the Coal Mine

MLA’s president Sidonie Smith has posted an article to the MLA blog titled “One MLA Serving All Faculty” in which she explains why the MLA should encourage more community college members to join the organization (there are currently about 800 out of the 30,000+ members). 

She begins by acknowledging the need to articulate with those colleges where the majority of students begin their college educations.  Then she warns her readers that community colleges are the canaries in the coal mine–they foreshadow the horrors that will trickle up to the more illustrious institutions of higher education. At the same time, those community colleges actually have, you know, jobs, so “our” graduate students need them. 

The MLA has been reaching out to community college faculty member since the 1980s;  in the 1990s I was invited to a breakfast for community college faculty. The Committee on Community Colleges was established to provide a forum for our members to become involved in the work of the MLA. In recognition of our minority status, the Delegate Assembly has special interest slots for two community college members so that our perspectives are represented within the governance structure.  The MLA offers incentives for local community college faculty to attend certain convention sessions for free, recognizing that many of us do not get professional development funds. Two years ago, there was a pre-convention workshop for community college faculty members.

We are certainly not being ignored. In fact, we are being courted.

I’ve enjoyed attending conventions for the last 18 years, and have  felt included in the professional organization in which I’ve chosen to invest my time, energy,  and money.  I’ve presented papers, I’ve participated in roundtable discussions, and each year, I take pages (pre-netbook) of notes on new books, new ideas, new classroom activities that I learn at this annual convention.

So, this article surprised and disturbed me.

Professor Smith does attempt to seek common ground with her first reason: we need to work together for the sake of all students.   However, after that,  the article is clearly addressed only to the 29, 200 members who are NOT community college instructors.  It sets a tone that is, unfortunately, not inclusive.  It was written ABOUT us, as if we weren’t in the club.

This is undoubtedly not intentional.  And perhaps, silly me, I shouldn’t have read it until after I finished grading final essays and dealing with stressed out students.  I may, admittedly, have my own inferiority complex.  But this article from the President of my professional organization seems unfortunately condescending when that is not at all her intention.

I need to craft a detailed response with specifics (the article is posted on a blog after all) after I’ve finished dealing with the essay that is 71% plagiarized; after I finished grading the remaining 45 essays on my desk; after I finish some work I have to do for the MLA Convention in LA.  A rational response, that doesn’t ooze with the angst from that chip on my shoulder.

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5 responses to “Community Colleges: Canaries in the Coal Mine

  1. I haven’t gone over to read the linked article yet, but your post is interesting. I have always assumed that there really wasn’t much of a place in the MLA for me as a community college instructor. Then again, that may be because I don’t have a PhD (yet). Perhaps that’s part of the issue. A lot of faculty at CCs don’t have PhDs and the MLA seems to be a very PhD-y sort of organization to me. Maybe that’s part of the reason for the disconnect?

  2. GEW: Yes, that is probably one of the biggest disconnects between cc faculty and the MLA—I don’t have the numbers, but I would think that most of the 800 of us have PhDs . We probably stayed with the MLA after our grad school years rather than “joined” as new faculty at ccs.

    I’m still in #gradingjail, but my public response won’t be as defensive as this bloggy posting, though I will note that most of the cc folks I’ve talked also felt that the essay was condescending in tone. A more productive response would be to ask questions like the one your raise, and offer some suggestions for building connections.

    But one question: did you, GEW, as a non-MLA member, feel that the tone was condescending?

  3. Annieem, Yes. I felt it was somewhat condescending. It also seemed as if it was announcing an invasion–a benevolent invasion. If I were to interpret her ungenerously, I would translate like this:

    “The community colleges have jobs for our PhD grads, so we need to pay attention to them because our PhD grads are getting ready to invade and take over the CCs, which, actually, is a very good thing because we can bring our high level of elite education and save all of the poor minority students that are enrolled at community colleges. And they definitely need our help since, currently, they are being taught by underprepared MAs. And when I talk about building a connection between US and THEM, I’m really only talking about all of THEM who have PhDs.”

    Again, this is obviously a distortion, and I’m sure she doesn’t mean to imply any of those things. Still, it seems like an “outsider” perspective, for sure. And it fails to mention several of the types of students that I see at the CC. It’s a very “clinical” view.

    I don’t know. I wrote this quickly, and right now my kids are tugging at my sleeves, so I can’t be sure I responded well. But this is the quick two cents version!

  4. But that quick response is what I’m talking about, GEW: I love the image of “invasion” and the idea that she is telling the 29,200 other members to suck it up and admit we need “those” people.

    But I hadn’t thought about the implied “they need our help”—that may be what creates the condescending tone. Since it’s unintentional, and amorphouse, I thank you for pointing out where it comes through.

    I’ve now only 27 more essays to grade before I tackle this…thanks, GEW. I will be sure to share my formal response.

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