PhDs Teaching at Community College?

Note: A revised version of this post, titled “Not a Consolation Prize,” appeared in Inside Higher Ed in April 2010.

I’ve got mixed feelings about Tom Hurley’s article in today’s IHE suggesting that recent English PhDs ought to seek teaching jobs at community colleges. On the one hand, he’s got a point: the job market for English PhDs is terrible, and only likely to get worse. On its surface, Hurley’s point seems to be that “teaching at community college ain’t that bad, really” along with a more submerged thesis: “look, you’re not going to get that job at a doctoral intensive university, so you need to lower your expectations.”

I don’t dispute either of these claims, but because I teach in the Composition MA program at San Francisco State, where our primary mission is to prepare our MA students to teach specifically at community colleges, I see some potential problems with the notion that we ought to be flooding community college departments with newly-minted English PhDs.

Hurley hints at one of the problems as he explains, for the benefit of English PhDs who haven’t looked into two-year college teaching yet, how it’s different from teaching at a four-year school:

But one significant difference between two- and four-year English departments is the ratio of literature to composition offerings: Most of our departments offer only a small number of literature courses.

In other words, don’t be disappointed by the fact that, although you spent six (seven, eight, or ten) years getting an advanced degree in 20th-century American literature, you’ll end up teaching a five-five load of composition. Or rather, don’t be surprised. One thing this statement makes clear is that Hurley’s audience is not just any English PhD; instead, he’s addressing English PhDs who specialized in literature.

Before you ask: yes, there are other kinds of English PhDs, like those of us who specialized in composition studies (or writing studies, or rhetoric and composition, or whatever you want to call it). There are also different kinds of English MA programs. Ours at SF State has a specialization in composition. Along with a few literature requirements, students in our composition MA program take classes specifically aimed at how to teach writing to college-age students. And because many of our students go on to apply for jobs in community colleges, our students do coursework that focuses on teaching in that particular context.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this, but I’ll go ahead and spell it out: I would argue that students coming out of an MA program with a composition specialization are likely to be better prepared to teach composition at a community college than a PhD student who studied literature. I would never say that this is an absolute or universal truth, since I’ve known lots of literature PhDs who were terrific comp teachers. And I acknowledge how this argument might come off as self-interested, since I would like to see my own students getting the jobs they were prepared for. However, I am simply pointing out the fact that the former group receives domain-specific training in teaching composition, while the latter group (typically) does not.

And it’s not just that literature PhDs typically don’t receive much formal training in teaching composition (aside from the typical proseminar during the first year of TAing); it’s that there are all sorts of ways in which being in a literature PhD program involves active suppression of the ability to imagine any career paths beyond the one followed by your professors (despite the fact that the jobs your professors got are currently occupied by, well, your professors, and they aren’t giving them up any time soon). Thomas Benton sums up the situation in his gloomy Chronicle piece, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go“:

[D]octoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.

What I see Hurley’s piece doing is adding another option for literature PhDs to remain within the “periphery of academe” — teach community college. I am most emphatically not saying that community colleges are “peripheral” to academe, but instead I’m acknowledging that a great number of literature PhDs, because of the culture of grad school, are likely to perceive it that way.

Still, I think it’s a good idea for all those lit PhDs to be reminded by folks like Hurley that they have options. I would caution community colleges, however, against seeing the terrible job market as an opportunity to snatch up lit PhDs. Many of those applicants are likely to feel overqualified to teach composition at a community college, and yet the very opposite may be true.


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