Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lost Potential

When I told my graduate advisor I was hoping to teach at a community college, he asked me why I wanted to throw my career away.

“I want to teach someplace where everyone can go to school and where people are a little more equal with each other,” I said. “I don’t like all the hierarchy at the university.”

He gave me a pained look, like he had had this conversation before. “Everyone comes to a point in life when we must let go of our youthful ideals,” he said. “We need to make certain sacrifices in order to live a comfortable life.”

I’m embarrassed to say, these might have been somebody's youthful ideals, but not mine. In my youth, I loved the hierarchy of the university. Everyone has their rank and everyone knows their place. Tenured professors are at the top, then untenured ones, lecturers, graduate students, then undergraduates. And under them are all those who serve the academics: the poor janitors and cooks and security guards and secretaries who don't even know just how lowly they are, on the fringes of the real business of generating knowledge.

When I was an undergraduate, professors were nothing less than rock stars, amazing lucky bastards who had defeated insurmountable odds to achieve my dream job. I longed for the day when I would become one, when I would write the great, barely-comprehensible works of esoterica that would revolutionize literary studies for its rarified cadre of devotees and make me a household name in a very small, elite number of households.

As this dream became closer to a reality, it began to lose some of its luster. During graduate school, I worked as a cashier in a grocery store on weekends, and I found myself more comfortable with my coworkers than my graduate student colleagues. Many of my closest friends never finished high school. It didn’t matter. In the store, they were judged by how well they worked, how reliable they were, and how kind, how funny and clever. By the standards of the university, these workers would be off-the-charts low. If they enrolled in college in their mid-twenties, they would be “re-entry” students, the most marginalized sorts of undergraduates. They would never be the kind of people who really mattered at a university, the rock stars, recognized experts in their fields, people who demanded awe and respect.

A lot of my grocery store friends attended school at the local community college. There they paid affordable tuition to take classes with other students who were as varied as the workers at the store: young, old, parents, retirees, people starting over after layoffs or divorces, people from other countries. No one judged them because they hadn’t taken the traditional route straight from high school to college. All of them were untraditional in some way, and they all treated each other with respect. It sounded like a utopia to me: you mean you could take college classes without all that hierarchy? You could just pay your tuition, go to a class, study, all without being above somebody and below somebody else?

But once I started teaching at a community college, I saw that the students do have a sense of hierarchy, a hierarchy of institutions of higher learning, and they are at the bottom. My school is called Las Positas, but the students call it College Behind Costco, Thirteenth Grade, Lost Potential.

Having experienced both prestigious universities and community colleges, and having taught at both, I think the students get as good, or better, educations at the community college, where undergraduates are at the center of the institution instead of at the bottom.

When I taught at the university as a graduate student instructor, I was told repeatedly: don’t focus on your teaching. There were cautionary tales about young associate professors denied tenure because they had succumbed to the temptation of prioritizing their classes. There were the lessons we received in our single pedagogy course: don’t get too involved with your students. Don’t let them talk to you about their problems. They will try to suck your energy; don’t let them.

Talk to anyone trained to be a professor, and this ideology is evident. People in Ph.D. programs considering community college employment often say to me, “So, to get tenure in a community college, you don’t really need to publish that much.”

“You don’t need to publish at all,” I say. “All they care about is your teaching.”

“So, like, publications would look nice but that’s not their priority,” they say.

“No,” I say. “They don’t care at all about publishing. They would think of it as okay as long as it didn’t interfere with your teaching.”

They nod in understanding, but I can see that they are still perplexed, maybe even skeptical. How could they not care about publishing, I imagine them thinking? What else is there?

Community colleges are like bizarro universities. When I tell my colleagues that working at a community college was seen as throwing away my career, they are incredulous. But you’re still in academia, they say, baffled.

“They don’t consider community colleges to be academia,” I say. “They consider them to be teaching.”

For an academic researcher, our students would be the worst kind of distraction, teeming with the needs and demands that my pedagogy teacher warned me about. There are students with learning disabilities who flourish with some extra time and attention from their teachers, and there are students with such severe disabilities that some of their teachers question whether they should be in college. A high percentage of the students have lived through horrible trauma: medical crises, the death of siblings and parents, acute poverty and homelessness. Students come to my office hours with complaints ranging from family quarrels to mental health issues to car troubles to domestic abuse.

I remember similar students in the university. I would deflect their complaints, create distance, give them some canned speech about how everyone has personal troubles and we can’t allow them to interfere with our education. Now I can’t avoid these students and try not to get involved. Getting involved is part of my job description.

The worst part about teaching at a school that accepts everybody is that we have a large proportion of students who don’t care about their studies. Their parents are making them go, or they need to go to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, or they don’t know what else to do with themselves. They treat their studies as a chore and their teachers as bossy parents. They tell you that the reading assignments aren’t interesting, and when you ask them what topics would interest them, they say, “None, I guess.”

I always considered these students to be the major downside to teaching at a community college. But lately, many of my well-educated friends have confessed to having been these students in the past.

“Oh, that was me,” said a friend who is now working on a Ph.D. “When I was eighteen, I didn’t care about my community college classes at all. But later, when I was a little older and ready to go back, I knew where to go.”

That’s why I love community college. It is the opposite of the university, where everything rides on our performance for four years, where there’s no time for confusion and illness and insanity and waffling, where we will waste thousands of dollars if we mess this up. It’s not rock-star college; it’s garage-band college. It’s college for whoever wants it, whenever they want it, and if they need to leave for a while, it will still be here when they get back.

By the time I finished graduate school, I had even convinced my advisor of how great community colleges are, and he supported me in my new career. For me and for my students, it’s exactly the right place to be.

The illustration depicts a cover story from Las Positas College's Naked Magazine.


infoangel said...

Love this post, Karin. This is why I choose community college vs. university librarianship, hands down.
-Angela Amaya

Karin Spirn said...

And that is another reason to love community colleges, because people like you who love community colleges work there, and I love people who love community colleges.