Community College Instructors, Hollywood Style

There’s a new movie coming out (with the very uninspiring title, Larry Crowne) that features a community college speech instructor who clearly doesn’t want to teach, who pours vodka into her yogurt shake, and who falls for a student.

Oy vey. Alcoholism. Anti-intellectualism. Sexual Harrassment. Covers it all.

See for yourself:

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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.

A Real [Community] College Professor

There is a fascinating discussion going on over at Flavia’s place about a former-M.A. grad student who was just hired at the last moment by a community college to teach a few developmental writing classes and who now supposedly sees herself as “a real college professor”.  Flavia is a bit annoyed, not that the student has given herself a title that takes most of us many more years and much more than teaching a few courses for the very first time to claim, but because, alas, the state of the profession is such that yes, MOST college “professors” (and that is the bugaboo word here)  teach  a few classes at a college (or at several colleges)  for less money than can be earned at, say, Starbucks: the majority of college professors today are part time or contingent and very poorly compensated.

I know that at many community colleges, there is no rank, so the term “professor” itself means nothing–everyone is the same rank, and even if their title is officially “instructor” everyone is effectively a college “professor”.  At community colleges with rank, however, there is much more awareness that the title “professor” takes years to earn.

What intrigues me, however, is the direction of the comments to her posting.  While some explicitly include community college assistant professors as “real” some of the comments tippy toe around (and then literally squash) the idea that the only “real” college professors are those with a PhD who do research in addition to teaching and service.  Even the sweet ex-community college student who praises hir former English professor seems to be defending an exception.

But I’m being sensitive, I know, and I may have even misread the comments in my heightened sensitivity, which is why I’m writing here rather than there (tho I really am in sympathy with Flavia’s original point as you shall see).

Last week, when I was getting a massage from a fabulous masseuse (I literally feel the pain in my hip pushed out through my toes), I told him I was a teacher and that August tends to be a stressful month for me with all the prep work I still haven’t done, the research I still need to review or draft for fall/winter conference presentations, and the usual un-done house projects that are weighing on me (damned that unfinished painted hallway).  He, naturally, assumed I taught public school and went on about the horror of dealing with “kids’ parents”.

It’s not that I don’t claim the title “college professor”—I certainly use that title in other situations. But yes, often when I’m meeting or talking to people I don’t know well, or in situations when “professor” just feels pretentious to me, I’ll say I’m a “teacher” rather than “college professor”.

Now why is that? I certainly fit the standard criteria discussed at Flavia’s: PhD; 22 years teaching college classes (upper and lower division), 15 of those years as a tenure track/tenured full timer. I do a bucket load of service (college and community). And I do research and writing that I share with my peers, as well as my students and the community,  in the form of conference presentations and articles.  I am considered one of the handful of experts in my dissertation subject (called by a journalist last year who wanted to know more for an article); I attend conferences, at least two a year. I apply for and attend professional workshops (like the NEH Seminar I attended this summer).

What I don’t do is write books (I have no interest in such torture); nor do I teach graduate students (though I’ve taught upper division courses for state universities offering programs in our neck of the woods).  [I actually don’t teach developmental writing, but that subject requires another posting… .]

So if one’s vision of a “real” college professor is any of the professors I had in graduate school, or any professor who rarely/never teaches a first year course, or a general education course, or a professor who is an acclaimed researcher and writer who teaches once or twice a year, or almost EVERY film and novel depiction of a college professor**, then yes, I suppose I am slightly “unreal”.

But of course I AM real, and no matter where you are in the academic hierarchy, there is almost always someone who is less “real” than you are.

For example, last year, our first department meeting was held in the newly renovated building where my brand new office was relocated. After the meeting, I gave a little tour of the new offices and work space for anyone interested and one new part timer, assigned to teach a single course for her first term, stuck her head in my office and whined under her breath, though loud enough for me to hear, “Why do some professors get their own offices when I have to share!?”

My immediate reaction was to feel defensive, and I almost responded to her by explaining the very, very real distinctions between our two positions, but I held my tongue, and thought nastily to myself, “Get real, girlfriend.”

Instead, what I DID do was to lead the effort to finally create a faculty achievement award specifically for part time/adjunct/contingent instructors, and I agreed to start a long overdue mentoring program this fall for our department’s new part time faculty.

Of course neither action solves the ultimate problem:  that we are fighting each other over for those last few crumbs of respect. 

**As noted at Ink’s House a few week’s ago, there are very few depictions of community college Professors in film or novels–with the notable exception of that horrid sit com, Community.

Waltzing Toward Literary Analysis

At the start of any introductory literature class I teach, I usually raise several questions that we’ll return to throughout the term, and that I hope will engage those students (usually a good 25 out of 50) who are in the room because there was a seat left, as well as those students, usually about 10 out of 50, who are possible English majors, or the others who are not Lit majors, but who have read an entire book sometime in the last few years: What is Literature? Why do we study literature? Who decides what IS American Literature? How does studying literature in a classroom differ from discussing literature with friends or in a book club? What is literary analysis and the varieties of literary analysis?

All of the questions lead to interesting discussions, except, usually, the last one. For that, I get dead silence.

During class two, we do what Kathleen Yancy calls a “pop up” exercise, slightly altered.  I have students read and annotate Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” using blue or black ink. Then, after discussing their responses with a partner, I ask them to add to their annotations in another color. Then, after discussing the poem as a class, they add more notes in another color, summarizing how their responses to the poem changed, and discussing the varieties of responses, from personal to psychological, for example.

I then show them how I’ve annotated the poem, giving them another model of what they can do to read actively, and usually filling in some other varieties of literary analysis that may not have come up during class discussion.

Then I ask them to do the same thing to the opening chapter of whatever novel we are reading.

We return to the “close reading times three” exercise many times during the quarter. I love this exercise because it allows all students to engage in the literary work, from whatever level they are at, in a nonthreatening way.  And I’ve always started with ‘My Papa’s Waltz” because it so easily leads students to two divergent interpretations–the trompe l’oeil I try to draw on the board usually makes them laugh, too. We discuss why some students are drawn toward one interpretation at first, and while others see the other. We discuss biographical criticism, close reading (so many students see “romp” as a negative word these days, I’ve noticed), and new historicism.  We discuss point of view and setting and character.  It’s a quick tour of literary analysis, without emphasizing any of those terms (though they leave class with a handout overview of those terms, and we’ll discuss them throughout the quarter).

And then, I almost always get an email like this one after class discussion:

Dear Professor:
 I wanted to comment on this poem, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so in class. My father was a verbally abusive drunk. But I loved him dearly. This poem hit real close to home. I saw it as the waltz of a drunken father with the son who loves him unconditionally, but it was the fun side of my dad that I saw in the poem.

This from a recently unemployed 50 something year old man who is both excited and nervous about being in the class.

I love teaching literature classes. Our classes are too big (I think I’m down to 43 students rather than 50 now, having scared off at least 7 with the reading list), but what a rush I get when such a large class of students seems actively engaged for the full 100 minutes, and students don’t start packing up early, even though it’s nearly 7:30pm and the rain outside is icy. And, when I get e-mails like the one above.

No Parking

As Dead (good lord, Annie, get some sleep) Dean Dad has noted, the enrollment boom at community colleges is fairly widespread.  Despite creating/enlarging two parking lots, and partnering with a church down the way to allow for overflow parking (with a shuttle bus running back and forth), parking is more abysmal than ever.

On the upside, I’m getting lots of walking in since I can walk from home while the weather stays summery.

On the downside, snow is in the forecast for tonight. Yes, snow. Ok flurries that won’t stick, but still….

So, yes, we are swamped with students, and this is affecting us all. The Advising Center, despite hiring 2 new non-faculty, full time advisers, stayed open 10 hours a day the week before classes began to accommodate the rush of new students. Faculty were asked to to do an extra day of advising that week, too.  But since literally NO new tenure track faculty were hired for this year, that means all of these new students will be assigned to the existing full timers, and we must meet with each student one-on-one sometime between now and mid-November.

In our department alone we’ve hired so many new part time faculty members, that we’ve run out of mailbox space (not to mention the overcrowded part timer offices).  Many of our new part timers are relatively new to teaching (we don’t live in a big enough city to draw on a limitless pool of experienced part timers), thus in addition to the dozens of new student advisees, we are also being asked to mentor several new part timers, each.

Those saints who are working for less than minimum wage, but that’s another story.

So, are there ANY benefits of this massive (I’ve heard 40% increase bandied about) surge of students?  Ya betcha.

  • The students are highly motivated: so far I’ve found the percentage of students still engaged after week 1 of the term is much higher than usual. Perhaps because they are still so thankful to have gotten into the class (I had wait lists of up to 20 students), or perhaps because they are truly inspired by the motivation of others around them.  They are the usual diverse group (high school drop outs, honors students, veterans, returning adults, native born locals, and those who have lived and traveled widely), but they seem to be more motivated and engaged as a group than usual.  It’s wonderfully energizing for me.
  • The possibilities: when enrollment dropped at the turn of the century, we cut the variety of humanities courses we were offering (when only 4 students enroll in a course, it’s immediately put on the chopping block), and focused on offering more sections of composition.  Now, we figure we can offer a course on, say,  Milton (no offense meant) and we’d have 50 students registered in no time.  The Curriculum Committee is already flooded with new course approval forms for next year.

So, as of the start of week 2, I’m mostly happy with the changes.  Students who were on mostly wait lists did manage to get some classes (maybe not the ones they wanted, but still…) and we are a lively campus for more than the peak 4 hours a day now, with students everywhere, all the time, 7am to 9pm, hanging out on the quad, streaming into the tutoring center, the library and the cafeteria, and already popping in during office hours.  I love it.

Now let’s hope the energy, on both sides of the prof desk (do any profs actually sit down at “their” desks in the classroom?)  is sustainable.

Summertime Blogging

The Academic Blogosphere (the blogging world in which I live) seems to go on semi-hiatus once classes end—or at least once they end for you semester system schools. We on the quarter system are still plugging away for 2 more weeks. Interestingly, I’ve found few community college instructors who are bloggers (as is also true with the academic novel—there are few that focus on community college faculty and students—another interesting gap to explore).

But I’m finding that the relatively light blog-reading the last few days has allowed me to get more done. I’m also less writerly these days myself: I have a list of blog ideas, but little time or inclination to pursue them right now. Instead I’m doing the usual end of term/start of summer chores:

  • Reading research paper drafts—in fact, this activity should take every waking moment of the next week despite the high attrition in those classes. Most intriguing fact from this term’s papers: I have THREE papers on “evil” and one intriguing paper on women who choose to be exotic dancers.
  • Reading my online literature class’s weekly postings—this week, they are on Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, two of my favorite writers, so I’m looking forward to reading their postings. Yet, unlike the research paper classes, this class has no attrition, so I have 40 postings and responses to look forward to….so far, they seem to be getting O’Connor’s wicked sense of humor (and, as always, critiquing the hapless grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”). So far, no one has taken me up on my prompt asking for an analysis of why “Everything That Rises Must Converge” appeared in the season finale of “Lost”.
  • Fine tuning the big speech I’m giving this weekend. I have the meat and bones nicely organized, but now I need to work on wording and delivery, and I should time myself, I suppose. Anyone know how long 1700 words should take to read in a New York-velocity accent?
  • Choosing textbooks for fall—yes, it’s ridiculously early to even think of such a thing, but I’m already a month late on my fall book orders.
  • Planning the summer vacation—this summer, it’s hubby’s turn to plan our vacation in August (itinerary, hotels, etc etc), but I suspect he’ll need a little pushing. Yes, I’m obviously the pushy one in this relationship….
  • Gearing up to teach two back to back online classes this summer—luckily, both are graduate level, small classes, focused on researched writing.
  • Training for two half ½ marathons in June
  • Assorted social gatherings every weekend for the next few weeks (funny how mostly introverted faculty start becoming social and extroverted as the term winds down). One gathering is a “Pure Romance” event: think Tupperware-type party with dildos and edible panties.
  • Still reading “light and uplifting” fiction each week in the endless task of finding a community read book. Has anyone read The Help by Kathryn Stockett? That was has been added to the list. Right now I’m reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: a beautiful novel, not unlike Jewett’s The Country of Pointed Firs in terms of structure (each chapter focuses on a different character in this small Maine town), but so far, I wouldn’t call it “light” fiction.

I suspect in a few weeks, once the grades are submitted, the speech is done, and the gatherings are over that I will be able to do a few meaty blog postings. Till then, I’ll probably just do hit or miss links to interesting stories and sites, which I hope are at least mildly amusing (well, they are amusing to me, and perhaps that’s all that counts in the Daily Me world?).

Community: College for Losers?

Big news in the community college world: loser struggling station NBC has announced a new sitcom for the fall called “Community” starring Chevy Chase as an older, lecherous, student in a Spanish study group. 

You can watch a 4-minute preview here 

If you watch the promo, note the gorgeous cafeteria with all the windows: this is a community college with swag.

I laughed, a little, and felt slightly ill at the inevitable “community college is for losers” joke, but it looks like NBC will try to emphasize the tagline, community colleges are for those who want a second chance, in an attempt to redeem themselves (and prevent cc presidents from taking their Harley’s across the country in protest).

Alas, from the clip at least it looks like the series missed the greater opportunity to mock cc instructors and is, instead, focusing on students (which are, admittedly, a potentially more varied group). 

As someone who has been mentally drafting my own cc-centered academic novel for years  (try finding one: the only one I found was written in the 50s and is terrible–can’t even remember the title right now, but I’ll dig for it), I’m thrilled that at least some sitcom writers have recognized the satirical wealth of such a setting. But, I’m also well aware of how such a satire can backfire on the professors who dedicate so much of their lives in support of the community college mission, and to those students who make incredible sacrifices to get an education.

I’ve spent my entire 20-year academic career teaching at very different community colleges: it’s often impossible to generalize about them. Some serve mostly traditional-age students; others mostly retraining adults–most serve both populations. Some hire PhDs for their transfer programs; others refuse to hire PhDs. Some are fairly well-off because of high property tax income; others clearly struggle with uneven state funding each year.  Some are one of many colleges in urban areas; others are the only college for 100s of miles. I can go on. Dean Dad has written about all of these issues, and more….

Here’s the press release summary: 

From Emmy Award-winning directors Joe and Anthony Russo (“Arrested Development”) comes “Community,” a smart comedy series about higher education…and lower expectations. The student body at Greendale Community College is made up of high-school losers, newly- divorced housewives, and old people who want to keep their minds active as they circle the drain of eternity. Within these not-so-hallowed halls, “Community” focuses on a band of misfits, at the center of which is a fast-talkin’ lawyer whose degree has been revoked (Joel McHale, “The Soup”), who form a study group and, in “Breakfast Club” fashion, end up learning a lot more about themselves than they do about their course work.

Obviously, I have many future blog postings on this topic…but right now I have some supposed “misfits” to teach.