Liberal Education

Symposium on Contemporary Challenges

Why Teach the Humanities at a Community College?

David A. Berry

So you are thinking of teaching the humanities at a community college? Choose your college carefully.

Do you want to teach in an urban, suburban, or rural area? Do you want to teach primarily developmental students (not college ready)? Primarily transfer students? Honors students? What is the ratio of full-time to adjunct faculty? Will your teaching load include distance education courses? What percentage of faculty holds the PhD or EdD? What flexibility will you have to select texts and primary source readings? To develop new courses?

What opportunities are provided for professional development, including active involvement with professional associations? Are sabbaticals contractually awarded? A five-course-per-semester load is common, with an average class size of thirty to forty students (indeed, small classes are a hallmark of community colleges). Some colleges have four-course loads or options, and some require an outrageous six-course load. Many faculty members teach overload courses and in the summer to boost their income. Some colleges pay an adequate salary and excellent benefits. Some boast high salaries, but these are often in areas with expensive housing and high living costs.

Make certain that you love teaching and that you have a self-sustaining engagement with your discipline—perhaps more than one or even with interdisciplinarity—and the academic life in general. Not all colleges will provide a nurturing, academic environment. You may be on your own. Your options for research will be limited, and the reward structure of the college may not sufficiently recognize the value of research.

If you do choose to teach at a community college, you will soldier on despite all of this because the rewards are extraordinary. You will have the opportunity to transform the lives of students. Many are often the first in their family to attend college. Many will be (by current definitions) minorities, older (the average age nationwide is twenty-seven and dropping), and most (typically 60 percent) will be women. You will discover the honors student, the ESL immigrant, the seasoned mom or dad, and the developmental student—all in the same classroom. Your teaching strategies will evolve as you confront rapidly changing student demographics.

In my own case, the intellectual rewards of teaching history in exciting and academically rigorous ways have been substantial. You will be able to knock the socks off of students who arrive poorly prepared and cynical, burned by low-level jobs and life's diminished prospects. You will be astonished by students who juggle family obligations, full-time work, and four or five college courses—some performing at the highest levels of academic achievement. Your students will leave you and move on to top colleges and universities. This is the bittersweet aspect of community colleges: you do not continue to serve students as they move on to their future academic, career, and professional lives. You will write letters of recommendation for them as they continue at senior institutions (including top universities and liberal arts colleges) and later for graduate and professional schools. Many of your students who transfer will have taken virtually all of their liberal arts and humanities courses at the community college. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that your efforts were truly significant components in their achievement. Some will come back and let you know.

In the end, it is really all about our disciplines, our knowledge and creative teaching, the students and, for all of us, lives worth living.

David A. Berry is professor of history at Essex County College, and executive director of the Community College Humanities Association.

The Costs of Runaway Disconnection Have Come Home to Roost

Gerald Graff

Many academics today explain the financial crisis of higher education as a symptom of "the corporatization of the university," its reduction to a business model in which cost-efficient "content delivery" replaces good teaching and research as the dominant value. The traditional idea of liberal education, we complain, is being pushed aside in favor of training a competitive workforce to compete in the global marketplace.

There is some merit in this complaint about educational corporatization, but it also betrays our habit of blaming external forces for problems that we've helped bring upon ourselves. The complaint ignores inconvenient facts, particularly that the traditional organization of universities that is now threatened by the managerial ethos has been not only inefficient in market terms, but also deeply flawed educationally. You don't have to be a fan of Total Quality Management and other market-driven models to see that universities are organized in ways that prevent students from learning.

In today's fiscal crisis, American higher education is reaping the consequences of bad organizational habits it got used to during the massive expansion of universities after World War II. In the post-Sputnik era when generous government support was flowing into higher education, a university on the make could advance itself by simply enlarging its playing field, proliferating new courses, research fields, subfields, and intellectual theories and methodologies while giving all parties enough separate space to ward off supposedly unproductive turf wars. Universities had the luxury to better themselves by simply adding new components without bothering to think about how to integrate and connect what was added. The result was a notoriously incoherent college curriculum that leaves it up to the student body to connect what the university itself does not.

This failure to help students cope with college is now recognized by educational critics from Margaret Spellings on the right to Mike Rose on the left. As the 2006 Spellings Report puts it, "most colleges and universities don't accept responsibility for making sure that those they admit actually succeed." A similar diagnosis had been made in detail by Rose's 1989 book, Lives on the Boundary, which depicts the college curriculum as a "litany of misdirection" that all but ensures failure for the underprepared students from poor backgrounds who manage to get admitted.

This incoherence has also been a product of democratizing forces that made the academic curriculum more intellectually and culturally diverse but also more difficult to make sense of, since it exposes students who go from one course or discipline to the next to confusingly mixed messages about how intellectual work is done. Interdisciplinary programs have made useful connections, but interdisciplinarity has itself reproduced curricular fragmentation rather than overcome it, since inter­disciplinary programs tend to be disconnected from each other as well as from the disciplines themselves. The more we idealize "the classroom" as a space disconnected from other classrooms (and the more we glorify the small, intimate course), the more we fragment the curriculum and reproduce cluelessness in academe.

The problem is that the expansion and redefinition of the liberal arts that date from the upheavals of the 1960s were absorbed in the form of courses, fields, subfields, texts, cultures, and theories—a structure of separate spaces that has become unaffordable in the face of current financial exigencies. In short, the runaway expansion by addition of disconnected units that higher education got so accustomed to a generation ago has become unsustainable both economically and educationally.

To put it more positively, now that higher education no longer has the financial luxury to continue proliferating separate units, it needs to learn how to put its disconnected components into dialogue. We need to seriously explore alternative models—learning communities, paired courses, integrated curricula, the use of the Internet to connect classrooms instead of reinforcing their isolation. This would also be a good time to dust off the 1991 AAC&U report, The Challenge of Connecting Learning, to which I contributed when I served on the national advisory committee in the late 1980s (it was just the AAC back then).

In short, higher education can't win the fight against corporatization by circling the wagons and protecting a system of isolated courses and teachers that should never have been allowed to take hold.

Gerald Graff is professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and former president of the Modern Language Association.

Will the Humanities Be Dehumanized?

Cary Nelson

Although some humanities disciplines help bring in significant tuition revenue, their historical inability to obtain grants with indirect costs makes them second-class citizens in the corporate university nonetheless. Meanwhile, they are easy targets for the nearly forty-year trend of increasing reliance on contingent faculty, whether part-time or full-time off the tenure track. Contingent faculty, frequently concentrated in the humanities, not only often work without a living wage but also have little or no academic freedom or job security and no role in shared governance. If their use comes to dominate an institution, faculty members lose what the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has emphasized is their traditional authority over designing the curriculum and hiring their colleagues. If contingent faculty exist alongside tenured faculty, a two-tier system with the two groups sharing few values or interests evolves that can eliminate any vestige of collegiality or consensus about institutional mission.

The number of factors pushing us in this direction is considerable. Why, for example, require a book for tenure if fewer and fewer presses can afford to publish them? And if traditional outlets for major research projects are disappearing, why not increase teaching loads and eliminate research expectations? At the same time, conservative participants in the culture wars often endorse a model of the humanities that emphasizes transmitting a stable and ideal cultural tradition, not adapting approaches and interpretations to contemporary social and political conditions. The reality that the material character of the past continually changes, as new facts and documents are unearthed and forgotten texts are rediscovered, is often lost when it seems convenient to deny part-time faculty time to stay current in their fields. The end result is that independent-minded humanities professors can come to seem an unnecessary luxury.

Like the willingness of both parties to support cost shifting to tuition for public education, some elements of this pattern show depressingly bipartisan political support. Even President Obama's plan to begin refinancing community colleges emphasizes job training without crediting the broader aim of educating students to be critical participants in our democracy. Nor has any NGO spokesperson concerned with degree completion rates, so far as I know, pointed out that hiring a stable workforce of tenured faculty with the time to advise students—whether at a community college or a research university—helps students complete their degrees.

In No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (New York University Press, 2010), I analyze these trends in detail and offer numerous suggestions for how to resist or modify them. Yet the task will not be easy. I urge faculty unions, for example, to commit themselves to the social good, not just their members' more narrow self-interest. I urge colleges to grant long-term part-time faculty tenure and commit themselves to hire no more contingent teachers. I recommend the creation of research communities that embrace the dissemination of new knowledge in the classroom—at all postsecondary institutions—as a fundamental part of the research agenda that we can evaluate and reward. I urge the AAUP to open a broad dialogue with all faculty members about the standards it promotes and the violations it investigates.

I do not believe we can preserve the humanities and interpretive social sciences as we now know them unless we develop more effective forms of community that bridge the differences between types of institutions and hiring categories for faculty. To do so we will have to promote faculty identities that balance careerism with community responsibility. That means reversing two generations of character formation pointing in the opposite direction, toward isolation and individual gain. Yet a faculty member can be both intellectually ambitious and socially responsible, concerned that all community members earn a living wage and enjoy fair working conditions.

Cary Nelson is professor of English and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and president of the American Association of University Professors.

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