Report from the Field: Teaching at a Community College

Volume 4, Issue 1, Fall 2013

By Sarah Markgraf, M.A. ’86, M.Phil. ’89, Ph.D. ’94, English and Comparative Literature

Tenure-track positions at community colleges offer valuable job opportunities for people with graduate degrees in the humanities. In the early 1990s when I was looking for a job, it seemed that taking a position at a community college wasn’t normal for those with Ivy League Ph.D.s. It didn’t initially occur to me, either. Having taught part-time for four years—and after interviewing at four-year colleges to no avail—I had largely given up the search for a tenure-track position in English and was working as a legal secretary when I saw an ad in The New York Times for an opening teaching college composition at Bergen Community College (BCC) in northern New Jersey. Once I joined the BCC faculty, though, I found that a few of my colleagues also had degrees from GSAS in English and Comparative Literature, including Bonnie MacDougall, M.A. ’70, Ph.D. ’82 and the late David Kievett, M.A. ’70, M.Phil. ’74, Ph.D. ’75.

However, since joining Bergen in 1994 I have served on a number of search committees, and in that time very few GSAS graduates have applied for tenure-track or lecturer positions—somewhat odd given the paltry job offerings for those with Ph.D.s in the humanities in the past few decades. The dearth of applicants for positions at BCC is particularly surprising, since the school is located only eight miles from Manhattan (in fact, many of my colleagues live in Manhattan and Brooklyn).

Another professional consideration to note is that there is no “publish or perish” culture at the typical community college. Tenure, usually granted after five years of good service to the college, does not depend on getting a book out. This frees up those who wish to publish to work on whatever they want, at their own pace. It also provides more time to focus on the college’s core mission: teaching.

* * *

Previous to BCC, I taught Logic and Rhetoric (the introductory writing course now known as University Writing) at Columbia and First-Year English at Barnard. Teaching at BCC has been a different, and in many ways more satisfying, experience.

Most books about pedagogy seem to be written for people at elite universities. For example, at BCC there is little need to challenge a student’s sense of privilege—the college has open admissions, and many of our students are part of the working class, new immigrants, and members of traditionally understood minority groups. We don’t have to push the institution toward a more student-centered classroom, since that is already the law of the land. We also don’t have to convince students that professors are not distant authoritarian figures, since few see us that way to begin with. There is no academic “star system,” or anything precious about the college environment. To illustrate the latter: one rainy spring day, the BCC commencement was held on the ground level of the parking garage.

My greatest hope as an instructor is to create an opportunity for pleasure in discovery during each class. I work in an academic environment that could seem generic and rudimentary, a force that pushes against unquantifiable or even improvisational aspects of teaching. But over the years I have carved out my own special classroom space in the area of Cinema Studies.

Most of my students come into class with the view that school is a burden. I’ve found that teaching “critical thinking skills” does little to help that situation. In fact, I’ve had greater success deliberately ignoring those very skills at times. (Any self-satisfied teaching of these “skills,” as if in a list, defeats the purpose of this approach anyway.) Quite wonderful bursts of ideas can emerge when students experience moments of chaos and surprise, such as when they watch Paul Sharits’s T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, or Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon.

My students at BCC generally feel not only burdened but also tired. I teach evening classes, and many of them have worked a full eight-hour day—often involving physical labor—before coming to class. Why should a college class make a person even more burdened and tired? In the world of open admissions (compared to Columbia and Barnard), pleasure is generally thought to be unrelated to classroom experience. One way I try to address this problem is to encourage students to become interested in new and unusual things, such as the discontinuity editing at the beginning of City of God. Energy can be created from that interest. Exposure to unanticipated—even bizarre—ideas has the potential to move a student into a fun and exciting place, a place where truly original thinking can take place.

These moments I’ve described are rare and unpredictable, but when they arrive—what a great class it can be. (And I feel happy on my end.)

* * *

Community colleges these days are gaining popularity with the rising expense of private colleges and universities. But community colleges are still outsiders to the Ivy League and most four-year colleges. Maybe someday we won’t seem so alien. Ironically, one of the strongest imperatives of my graduate study at GSAS was to pay attention to suppressed voices, repressed populations, and underrepresented viewpoints. Community colleges are a repressed population in the world of higher education. It’s surprising that more GSAS graduates wouldn’t be interested in exploring this world of the Other!

As I was writing this short piece, I received an email announcement for the 2014 annual meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society: “Invisible Work: Exploring the Invisibility of Teaching, Learning and Researching at the Community College.” The précis reads as follows: “Community colleges—their students, faculty, and role in higher education and American society—remain largely invisible, despite growing national attention and swelling numbers. In academia, we continue to talk about ‘traditional students’ and ‘college’ as if most students are between the ages of 18 and 21 and attending residential four-year institutions. They aren’t. . . . What are the consequences of this invisibility for those at community colleges and for higher education itself?”

Apparently I’m not the only one thinking about such issues.