How can doctoral education more effectively prepare humanities Ph.Ds for careers in two-year colleges? We’ve explored that question since 2015 from our respective positions in a community college and a research university. And our collaboration—a cross-institutional partnership made possible with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—has yielded important insights into it.
In this article, we’ll share what we’ve learned about how Ph.D. Programs can be reimagined in relation to two-year colleges—which serve 40 percent of undergraduate students in the United States. We’ll also discuss how graduate students interested in faculty positions at those access-oriented, diverse institutions can best prepare for one.
Two-year colleges are dynamic institutions. They serve their immediate communities, so each college is different, even across campuses within the same city. And their distinctly intensive focus on student success puts them in alignment with the concerns of people across the full range of the fraught American political spectrum—from a focus on workforce readiness to a commitment to social justice. Moreover, this professional pathway is, contrary to the misconceptions of some people, an intellectually rewarding one, as our programmatic work and the relationships on which it is built have taught us.
Over the past seven years, we have introduced 36 doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences to the community college setting through an immersive fellowship program. The program has enlisted two-year college faculty members to mentor those students in their disciplines, as well as provided students with a wide range of engagements on community college campuses (and, during the global pandemic, in virtual classrooms).
Our faculty mentors, based locally in these community colleges, have observed their doctoral student mentees to be excited, curious and ambitious in their goals to contribute to higher education. But they have also perceived a persistent sense of disempowerment among them. The students have shared stories of being rebuked or disregarded by professors in their graduate work, and they often seem to assume that tenure is a universally cutthroat process and that institutional leaders are distant, unapproachable figures. In fact, we’ve found that many doctoral students being trained at the highest levels of the research university system have had a scarcity mind-set that’s been hammered into them by that system—in terms not only of material resources and job prospects but also of what is ultimately possible for them, their own students, the higher education system and our society at large.
In contrast, we’ve found the community college ethos to be one of free exchange between colleagues and with the community. Community colleges thrive on people’s access to every level of the power structure. What we have tried to convey to the doctoral student fellows in our program is that open-access institutions, where every student who walks through the door has a place, offer the opportunity to adopt a postscarcity mind-set, and that those who do so can effect real change.
This fact may be truer in this moment than ever before. The pandemic has fundamentally shifted the higher education sector, and community colleges are distinctly positioned to respond to the multivalent crisis our nation faces. As faculty mentor Larry Cushnie, professor of political science at South Seattle College, has noted, “We are seeing a renewal of the culture wars that animates an antagonism toward higher education, specifically universities, among significant numbers of partisans in this country. Yet this does not seem to extend in the same way to community colleges. While progressive, urban areas move towards tuition-free two-year education, funding for workforce development in predominantly red counties will go to community colleges for job retraining. These are still the spaces where humanities education and workforce training can happen as a community good, in some regions and state systems with funding that makes tuition free, regardless of the divisions in the country. As a result, a diverse community of interests lead to unique, vibrant spaces to teach within.”
Anthony Ferrucci, mentor and philosophy faculty member at North Seattle and Green River Colleges, agrees. “Community colleges are one of the best examples of institutions that are truly nonpartisan,” he says. “If you want to see workforce development and jobs programs, you can invest in two-year colleges. They are on the front lines retraining people for jobs we are going to need. But these institutions also offer, quietly and consistently, excellent humanities education and therefore a space for reimagining what is possible.”
This moment requires all of us to reimagine higher education and how each of us is situated within it. When we view higher education as an interconnected ecosystem rather than a hypercompetitive hierarchy, it opens endless possibilities for the ongoing enrichment of students and faculty members. Our higher education system understood in its entirety—rather than with a narrow focus on elite institutions—has expertise everywhere, and people are constantly making contributions across all its various sites. If we choose to ignore that reality, we lose sight of the interconnectedness of our expertise and the potential of our distributed. And for those who are called to the community college classroom in all its complexity, that shift in perspective is the necessary first step to understanding that community colleges are a viable, and possibly primary, direction for their careers.
Reimagining the Ph.D.
The most important change that must happen in doctoral education is greater focus on pedagogy, not as a means to an end but for its own sake. Too often, pedagogical training is treated as vastly subordinate to a research agenda, and doctoral students are offered little professional development in their formation as teachers in their fields. As long as graduate student cohort cultures and the larger cultures of departments regard teaching as something one must do to fund the “real work” of research, doctoral students will continue to overlook the potential that community college positions offer. They will not fare well in faculty job searches at community colleges and will be ill prepared for the role of two-year college professor, even if they successfully land a position.
Moreover, faculty who advise doctoral students, and doctoral students themselves, must actively work to fill the knowledge gap that currently exists inside Ph.D. programs about community colleges. It is not enough that many students and faculty members have attended community colleges as part of their academic journeys. Rather, we must all deepen our awareness of these institutions and the role they play in our society—including their challenges and their opportunities—with as much intimacy and nuance as possible. We hope to see this fundamental cultural change in medical programs going forward. Some actionable recommendations for faculty in doctoral programs include:
- Learn about community colleges. Explore community colleges around you and nationwide. You’ll quickly see that each system, and each campus, are different.
- Connect with faculty members in a two-year college in your region. Building relationships with colleagues from different institutions creates space to talk together about excellence in teaching, your discipline and student success. Teaching is a common ground across institutional types, but too often, we do not go or think beyond our own campuses.
- Cultivate a sense of your doctoral students as whole people. Consider each student holistically. Rather than asking them to narrow their focus, ask them to think in diverse ways and work to become the “Swiss army knife” educators they will need to be at a two-year college with more intersectional diversity than they are likely to have encountered in their graduate studies.
- Observe the classrooms of the doctoral students whose dissertations you advise. This will prepare you to speak directly to their teaching in your letters of recommendation and allow you to have enriching discussions on pedagogy.
- Assess the messaging your department currently has around community colleges and the resources for job seekers. Does your placement committee address the specific institutional distinctions of community colleges? Does it encourage doctoral students to pursue career opportunities at community colleges?
Taking Your Ph.D. to the CC
The Mellon fellowship program at the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington opened up opportunities for doctoral students to better understand the community colleges—and to imagine themselves taking what they have gained from their doctoral studies into faculty positions in those colleges. A number of the fellows, and other doctoral students who engaged in campus programming made possible through the partnership, have since followed this path.
The program was never intended as a pipeline from the Ph.D. to the community college, nor was it designed to place students into specific positions. Yet we have taken inspiration from those students who have successfully navigated their careers in that way. Our advice for students is based on decades of experience of the two-year college faculty mentors affiliated with our program who have built their own careers in community colleges, served on job search committees for new hires and led job-search preparation workshops for current Ph. .D. students. We have also drawn insights from University of Washington doctoral students who have recently taken positions at community colleges.
Some actionable recommendations for doctoral students preparing for community college position include:
- Bring yourself into alignment with the values of community colleges. Above all, know that the idea “if I don’t get a job at a top research institution, I can get a community college job” is neither a reality nor an ethical approach to your job search. Community colleges are not a good fit for all Ph.Ds, but they are also not an afterthought or a fallback. Becoming a community college professor is a career path and a professional context all its own. Don’t bring the R-1 mentality into your community college job-search process.
- Pursue authentic engagements in diversity, equity and inclusion. Develop your strengths in these areas, with particular attention to intersectionality. The diversity at a community college is on every axis of identity, from age to race to class and more.
- Consider how you are reflected in your teaching. Whether you want it to or not, the person you are as an individual always walks into your classroom and into your pedagogy. A crucial aspect of professional development at a community college is an ever-deepening self-knowledge of why you are in the classroom and how what you do in the classroom is an extension of that.
- Seek out environments where you can work with as many different people as possible. Those opportunities can be in many diverse spaces well beyond the classroom. Volunteer in parks, museums or camps, and serve in roles where you communicate, teach, train and explain concepts to various audiences. Work part-time as an athletic trainer or in a tech-support role. Tutor students in any area of your expertise, or serve in other situations where you help people understand and learn something. Reflect thoughtfully on what works, what doesn’t and why. Incorporate those experiences into your teaching philosophy, cover letters and job interviews.
- Practice self-care. Graduate school is hard. Understanding how to best take care of yourself is a skill you will also surely need in a community college.
Finally, ask yourself the following: Do you want to spend the better part of your career in higher education in diverse classrooms, having intellectually ambitious discussions on questions of core importance to your field—questions that also have immediate connections to the lives of your students and to the pressing concerns of the moment? Do you want to support your students in the fullest sense of who they are, where they’re coming from and what they’re up against? Then consider what we’ve come to deeply recognize and honor in our work: there is no better place to do that work than in the community college system.