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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Talking About It: Recognizing Community College Teaching as Valuable Professional Development

Photo of the author, a white woman with dark hair.

by Anna Bates

June 1, 2021

As one of the Mellon Fellows for Reaching New Publics, I’ve been researching the experience of UW graduate students in the humanities who chose to teach at two-year institutions during their graduate studies. My fellow cohort member, Joe Wilson, has also written about graduate students teaching at community colleges on the Reimagining the Humanities PhD Blog. He argues that departments should “compensate and otherwise support the cross-institutional labor of graduate students working as community college instructors,” which is an area of exploration I elaborate in this post.   

My discussions with current and former graduate students in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington haven’t uncovered anything surprising. Teaching classes at a different institution turns the already demanding schedule of a graduate student into a nearly impossible balancing act. Committee members frown on the “extra” or “distracting” work of community college teaching. Fellow graduate students may be more sympathetic, but still view community college teaching as, if financially driven, professionally unnecessary—even unwise, in that it amounts to time spent teaching that should be spent writing the dissertation or preparing a paper for publication. 

Yet if graduate students are expected and encouraged to spend time on professional development, shouldn’t that extend to teaching at two-year colleges? We present at conferences, we publish in journals, we work as teaching assistants, and we apply to fellowships, summer institutes, and so forth. All of this labor is recognized as commendable rather than distracting. If the career goals of a graduate student include teaching at a community college, then gaining the opportunity to teach at a community college during graduate school is a good thing. But few people undergoing or advising doctoral training think this way.

Interpellation is powerful: even I have hesitated to pursue community college teaching, though I hope to teach at a two-year institution someday. My faculty mentors know about and support this plan. Even so, I’ve absorbed the message that I probably shouldn’t talk about it too much around the department. I’m fortunate that I am receiving instructive and affirming mentorship from community college professors as a Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics. However, this fellowship will no longer be available after this year, and, ultimately, a limited opportunity like a fellowship is not able to structure graduate education to include community college career pathways. If teaching at a two-year institution is a meaningful and commendable professional development goal, then what could departmental commitment to this goal look like? What small changes might be a good place to start? 

Beyond the first step, which is simply to openly and officially recognize students who are preparing themselves for community college careers, departments might foster new opportunities for professional development that are similar to what the Mellon Fellowship has offered, but on a smaller scale. For instance, the philosophy department already hosts a weekly lunch meeting where faculty and graduate students can practice upcoming conference presentations or receive feedback on papers they want to publish. This venue could easily serve graduate students who need to perfect a lesson plan for a teaching demonstration—a standard component of a community college job application. The normalization of such professionalization activities would lessen the stigma around community college teaching, which can be just as prohibitive as policies themselves, even more so for underrepresented graduate students.

Departments could also reflect on what department resources are committed to graduate student career development, and talk to graduate students about how those resources could be used to support community college teaching. For example, the UW Department of Philosophy supports conferencing by compensating students’ travel expenses. These funds could also support graduate students teaching at community colleges if used to reimburse their costs of commuting to a community college, such as gas and parking. 

Finally, departments could also consider drawing on the insights of graduate students who have already taught at or have other relationships with local community colleges. Those relationships could be further developed, and reap departmental benefits in the process. For example, departments might consciously cultivate contacts at local community colleges (building upon graduate student networks). From there, departments could find ways to equitably involve community college professors in ongoing efforts to prepare graduate students for community college teaching or strengthen pathways for transfer students.

While graduate students will have to weigh the pros and cons of pursuing some community college teaching while at the same time pursuing graduate training, graduate students will only invite advisors into their decision-making process within an environment that respects community college careers. Within a welcoming department culture, I think graduate students might start conversations about creative ways to pursue this professional preparation while still meeting the demands of their disciplinary training, e.g., by taking a quarter of leave to pursue a quarter of community teaching, or finding opportunities during the summer months. 

In any case, it's critical to remember that the culture of silence around community college teaching is counterproductive: it isn’t true that every graduate student aims to become an R1 professor. Graduate students want to pursue community college teaching for many reasons, because these institutions helped to shape their own paths, because the experience and networking can help them discern which community college might best fit their long-term professional goals—one thing I’ve learned in this fellowship is that every two-year college campus is distinct, reflecting its local community—or because they need to supplement their meager incomes in order to live in the increasingly expensive Puget Sound region. A departmental environment that respects and recognizes graduate students who pursue this work is the only one in which authentic conversations about the requisite professionalization for particular career goals can occur.

Anna Bates is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Philosophy, as well as a 2020-2021 Collaborative Mellon Fellow for Reaching New Publics with Paul Tubig, who is also a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Philosophy.