Professional norms that put community colleges at the bottom are operationalized in how we present or decide what academic positions are worth considering, which has problematic ramifications.
What kind of academic should I be? This is one of the central questions that is shaping my early experiences as a 2018-2019 Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics. For the past two months, I have been visiting South Seattle College and Green River College, a community college in Auburn, Washington. My faculty mentor, Anthony Ferrucci—a philosophy professor at Green River College and South Seattle College—is acquainting me with the community college context by introducing me to its professors, pedagogies, students as well as the democratic ideals embodied in its institutional practices.
The community college setting does not feel all that unfamiliar. I started out in community college. I was a student at San Diego Miramar College for three years before transferring to a four-year institution. However, it is interesting to reenter this context in the capacity of an aspiring professor.
As a Ph.D. candidate progressing towards completion, I am haunted by the specter of the academic job market. But right now, my stress stems not necessarily from the scarcity of positions (though that is certainly worth stressing about!), but from my realization that some academic positions are granted greater esteem than others.
Community college, to my mind, has a dignified place in our educational landscape. It offers the real possibility of social mobility and empowerment to many underprivileged members of society who are ambitious and determined but face serious disadvantages. Cathy Davidson rightly notes that community colleges rank higher than elite four-year institutions in terms of their social mobility index, which measures the difference between the income level of college graduates and the income level of their families of origin. Further, community colleges are credited for interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline by allowing formerly incarcerated individuals to achieve a college education. Due to their accessibility, community colleges are a place where disadvantaged members of society, such as minorities, immigrants, and women, can get a college degree and gain access to social networks and valuable opportunities.
Despite the concrete benefits they afford to the least advantaged members in our society, community colleges are demeaned as “lesser institutions” in many graduate training programs. This idea is implicitly and explicitly expressed and reinforced in innumerable ways at both the interpersonal level and the institutional level of departments and organizations. One graduate student in another department once told me that when she shared her aspiration to teach at a community college with her advisor, she was advised not to admit that out loud.
Professional norms that put community colleges at the bottom are operationalized in how we present or decide what academic positions are worth considering, which has problematic ramifications. Instead of asking, “What kind of academic should I be?”, then, perhaps I should recast the question to consider, “What kind of academic positions should be esteemed?” There are legitimate reasons why professorships at universities are attractive, such as research support. But it is worrisome when we are drawn by simply status or prestige—built upon the devaluation of other colleges. When we situate the function of community college within the broader context of social inequalities, working at a community college has a compelling moral valence that ought to afford it great (if not greater) esteem, dignifying community college teaching as a worthwhile option.
Paul Tubig is a PhD student in Philosophy and a 2018-2019 Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics.