By Kim Leeder
Several weeks ago I attended my first community college commencement. Despite my staff status, I was pleased to be invited to sit among the faculty behind the stage. From this vantage point I was able to watch the ceremony and play a small role in it (faculty, please stand; faculty, please sit) while reflecting upon the conclusion of my first year as a community college librarian. I watched the joyful antics of our students, their families, and the pride in the faces of our faculty and realized truly, for the first time, that our college’s focus on student learning is not just a catch phrase. It is real, and it has helped to change the lives of nearly seven hundred people this year.
This was, to say the least, a transformative year for me. I will admit now that I felt some trepidation last summer in altering my career path from university to community college libraries. It wasn’t because I would now have to drive fifteen miles to work instead of biking two. I didn’t mind a commute. And it wasn’t because this particular community college was only two years old and has not yet been accredited by our regional association, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. I was willing to bet on the success of this new institution and was excited about participating in its creation. Instead, the cause of my concern was something that most, if not all, of you will understand intuitively. The position I was interviewing for was a spectacular opportunity in terms of challenge and responsibility, and it allowed me to leap the typical years-of-experience requirements for a director-level role. It should have been a no-brainer, but at the time I had to ask myself the question: was it a step up or down?
My name is Kim Leeder and I am a recovering snob. There, I said it.
I might mention, in my defense, that I had never even visited a community college before (Seriously? Snob). Or that I only knew a few people who had attended a community college and had not talked to them about their experiences (Why wasn’t I interested? Snob). Or that I was simply a product of a society that devalues the critical role that community colleges play in higher education, such as in the current NBC show, Community (Better, but still a snob). The truth was that my ignorance was complete: until this position was posted and a friend brought it to my attention, I had not even thought about community colleges other than as the place you go for school when you can’t succeed at a four-year institution. Shall we say it together? S-N-O-B.
Rather than continue wearing my snobbish hairshirt, I’d like to use the remainder of this article to share some of the inspiring truths I’ve learned about community colleges in the past year. Some of them may sound familiar, but I encourage you to pay attention because chances are you haven’t really listened before. For most people, something gets lost in the translation. What I’ve discovered is that when my colleagues and I try to share our enthusiasm about our work, our four-year peers just don’t really “get it.” In “What Graduate Students Want to Know About Community Colleges, Part 2,” Rob Jenkins observes, “professors at four-year institutions, and especially at research universities, do look down on faculty members at two-year colleges. It’s very easy for search committees to pigeonhole candidates with community-college experience as not worthy of serious consideration.” To their ears, our joys sound like rationalizations for our underachievements.
Community colleges are often described as uniquely American institutions, or “people’s colleges,” in that they provide an education to everyone without prejudice. As Gail O. Mellow and Cynthia Heelan write in Minding the Dream, “[They are] committed to trying to create success for all manner of students who enter [their] doors…. it might be argued that community colleges are the single point of effective education for thousands of poorly educated poor kids” (10). High school dropouts, military veterans, laid-off workers, single mothers, immigrants, others facing unique personal or social challenges: all are welcome at a community college. The success Mellow and Heelan mention can look a wide variety of ways, too, from job training and professional certificates to transfer to a four-year institution. In this article, I offer you a glimpse of the community college lifestyle as you may not have seen it before. And for my community college colleagues out there, I hope you think I’ve done it justice. Your responses are invited at the end of this article, so please weigh in.
It’s All About the Students
A wonderful thing about community colleges is the fact that they are entirely focused on students and student learning. While faculty and staff have advanced degrees and many pursue research projects and professional service activities, the whole emphasis of our work is the students, their needs, and how to support them. For faculty, this translates into teaching loads that would be considered heavy at a four-year institution, but without research and service requirements. With faculty teaching more, class sizes stay small and students get face time with their professor instead of a graduate student assistant.
For librarians, this focus on student learning means expanding our basic information literacy instruction efforts without any need to address upper-division or graduate course content. Considering the fact that many instruction librarians prize their upper-level instruction, this might sound like a deterrent to prospective community college librarians. However, based on my experience, the opposite is true: although I have taught more introductory information literacy in the past year than in prior years, I have also enjoyed it more than ever before.
The reason for this? I’d like to say that I’m just creative enough to keep it fresh. But the true answer is: it’s the students. The university English composition courses I’ve taught for in the past, for example, have been full of traditional students more focused on texting their friends about the evening’s festivities than on learning about research. The community college English composition courses I’ve taught for, although identical in every other way to their university counterparts (and created so for transfer purposes), are different. The students are different: they’re talkative and engaged. They ask questions. They challenge me to explain why they shouldn’t just use Wikipedia when it has cited references and doesn’t that make it reliable? They debate and they argue. It’s delightful.
There are a number of reasons why community college students are different. The simplest explanation is that they have had to work harder to get to college. Many of them have overcome significant obstacles to attend school, from family obligations to financial challenges. More than half are first-generation college students. As a result they are more motivated to get the benefit of the time and money they’re investing in their education than the average four-year college student. It’s also worth mentioning that community college students also differ widely from each other, so any effort to speak about their overall characteristics must be acknowledged as a generalization.
After a year of teaching information literacy in the community college environment, I now feel a little sorry for my university colleagues who are still stuck wrestling students off Facebook. Where before I felt burdened by so many lower-division instruction sessions and looked forward to the upper-level courses, my viewpoint has rotated one hundred and eighty degrees. When I can count on my class presentation turning into a real conversation about information with curious students, teaching basic information literacy becomes great fun.
Dumb and Dumber (Or Not)
Don’t be fooled by the stereotypes: community college students are the intellectual equals of their four-year counterparts. Those students who have the luck, privilege, or excessive motivation to complete a Bachelor’s degree program immediately after high school are only a subset of those who have the brains and desire to succeed in college. Many intelligent high school students choose or are forced to take other paths due to family, economic, language, or other challenges. Mellow and Heelan assert:
It is essential that America begins to understand the college experience of the majority of its students in context. That context must consider the number of students, especially minority and urban students, who don’t complete high school in their teens, the number of well-schooled and middle-class students who enter but do not complete their studies in four-year colleges, and ultimately the impact of any educational advancement at any level as the United States moves into the future…. The issue is not who is in college, but who should be in college (8-9).
For the students described by Mellow and Heelan, who comprise nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States, community colleges step in to fill the gap. Community colleges are the most democratic of all educational institutions, providing an affordable and accessible education to anyone motivated enough to pursue it. This mission means that community colleges make higher education available to those who are academically accomplished as well as those without much, if any, academic background. As Walter Benn Michaels demonstrates in The Trouble with Diversity that SAT scores, for one, correlate to annual family income, there are socioeconomic implications as well as academic ones (98). The community college mission results in a student body that tends to be wonderfully diverse in every demographic, including age, race, ethnicity, class, physical ability, veteran status, and more.
In “The Myth of Inferiority,” T. Allen Culpepper asserts that students in general are “more alike than different” regardless of what type of institution they attend. Having taught at a variety of different types of colleges and universities, he has encountered poorly prepared and academically gifted students in his classes regardless of the institution. Culpepper admits that the proportion of poorly to well-prepared students tends to differ between institutional types, but the range of student preparation and ability is a constant across the board.
This diversity of students and academic programs translates into libraries in a variety of ways. In reference it means understanding that many students come into our colleges who still need to learn basic study and computer skills as well as critical information literacy concepts. Brand new to academia, these students may not even know where to start when they have questions. The best community college librarians cultivate an open, patient demeanor to help students feel comfortable asking those “stupid” questions and learning the ropes. On the collection development side, librarians use their knowledge of their unique student body to select accessible–but not overly simplified–materials that address the wide mix of academic, professional, technical, basic skills, ESL, and community education programs that their institution may offer.
There’s No Ph.D. in Team
Possibly the most pleasant surprise to be unearthed in the move from university life to community college life is the remarkable collegiality of faculty and staff at the latter. Many faculty and staff members at community colleges hold Ph.D.s, but research degrees are considered to be more in the realm of recreational activities rather than job requirements. With the competitive element of a more “rigorous” institution allowed to fall away, faculty and staff become more relaxed, more open, and frankly more fun to work with. Individuals are judged, if they are judged at all, based on their teaching and service to the college, not external achievements. No workplace is perfect, of course, but overall at a community college you’ll find that everyone is on the same team. As described earlier in this article, community college staff and faculty are there for the students first, and this emphasis brings everyone together in wonderful ways.
When it comes to hiring, community colleges are able to prioritize not just academic credentials, but personality and “fit” in ways that four-year institutions don’t have the luxury of doing. Rather than seeking out the candidate with the most academic credentials, community college search committees look for those with the most teaching experience, the most sincere focus on the students, and the best understanding of what community colleges do. Rob Jenkins in Part 1 of his Chronicle of Higher Education duo sees a dark side to this in that sometimes a search committee made up of Master’s level faculty will hesitate to hire a candidate with a Ph.D. due to a fear of “Ph.D. snobbery.” Jenkins may be somewhat jaded himself; my own reading is that search committees may be concerned, with good reason, that an individual who has attained a Ph.D. may have a research agenda that is incompatible with the teaching focus of a community college. Indeed, Arthur M. Cohen and Florence B. Brawer agree in The American Community College, as they note, “most doctorate holders have been prepared as researchers, not teachers, and…they expect fewer teaching hours and higher salaries” (86). This circumstance in hiring can be reframed as an emphasis on collegiality that allows community college hiring committees to select the most talented and sympathetic candidates without regard for their level of educational attainment beyond the Master’s. As Jenkins explains, “the truth is, at most two-year colleges, your most impressive credential will be your teaching experience, not your degree.”
This holds true for librarians as well. While the Master’s-Ph.D. tension doesn’t generally translate to librarianship, the student focus is universal. Those interviewing for librarian positions at community colleges should not be surprised if hiring committees are less interested in their publications and research plans than in their on-the-ground work with students, their expressed understanding of the community college mission, and their approachable energy and enthusiasm. The heart of the issue is: tell us about your work with students, your great ideas for making the library better for them, and how you’ll partner well with faculty. That’s what matters most at a community college library.
If you look down on community colleges, consciously or unconsciously, you may be surprised to learn that community colleges don’t look up at you. Faculty, staff, and students are proud of their colleges and their accomplishments. An Associate’s degree may seem like a small thing to some, but when an individual has overcome all odds to complete a two-year degree, you can bet they’ll be proud – in fact, just as proud as the faculty and staff will be of them. My particular institution doesn’t even have sports teams, but we wear our logo items with pride, knowing that we’re contributing to and supporting something bigger than ourselves.
One of the best things about community colleges is that they make an impact. This was evident at my college’s commencement: the stories of our students’ achievements and the obstacles they had overcome made me feel that I was truly doing work that was helping to make other people’s lives better. According to most estimates, about half of all community college students require some developmental coursework to prepare them for undergraduate study. Without community colleges to provide such students with a bridge to further study or careers, they would have very little opportunity to advance. Mark Blankenship, in “Is Community College Really College?,” notes, “community colleges are not only enrolling students, but also helping them to become upwardly mobile for the first time.” Community colleges offer every citizen the opportunity to become more informed and to improve their life, in whatever ways they define that improvement, through education. It is completely egalitarian and completely inspiring.
Rob Jenkins (Part 1) ends his article with the question, “What’s it like working at a community college?” If you think it’s somehow a career compromise, think again. Jenkins answers this way:
[A]ll I can say is: I wouldn’t trade careers with anybody. I enjoy the work that I do, I like my students and colleagues, I believe that I’ve been able to make a difference in people’s lives, I’ve found it relatively easy to maintain an acceptable balance between work and life, and I’ve been able to make a decent living. What more can anyone ask from a career?
After my first year as a community college librarian, I find Jenkins understated. Perhaps the shine will fade and the honeymoon will come to an end, but for me the shift from university to community college has been enlightening, inspiring, and fun. My institution boasts warm, collaborative staff and faculty, interesting and committed students, and a creative, agile environment that is more focused on student success than institutional bureaucracy. If the other community colleges in this nation are even half as wonderful as places to work, the rest of you are just plain missing out.
Warm thanks to Ellie Collier, Erin Dorney, Micah Vandegrift, and Eric Phetteplace for their thoughtful feedback that helped to shape this article.