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by Robert L. Muhlnickel, Ph.D.
After accepting the invitation to contribute a post about teaching philosophy in a community college, I re-read my nearly decade-old dossier to remember what the job search is like. In my teaching statement, I wrote abstractly that caring for my subject, philosophy, and caring for my students were paired attitudes I brought to the classroom. Discussing the requirements of successful teaching in a professional workshop two years ago, I expanded that thought, saying, “We need to care about our subjects or we won’t have anything to teach; and, we need to care about our students or they won’t have reason to let us teach them.” I am more confident today—than I was either of those times—that this pair of cares is necessary for the community college philosophy teacher.
Caring about philosophy and caring about students are concerns shared by many college philosophy teachers besides those in community colleges. However, this care differs in the community college, where the teaching mission is central, while scholarship is peripheral, and the community college serves different purposes. I’ll discuss (A) the primacy of teaching in the community college, (B) some features both of community college students and the community college as an institution that affect caring for philosophy and for students, and (C) how philosophers seeking a community college job can prepare for the job search.
A. The Primacy of Teaching
When I asked Cathy Smith, English/Philosophy Department Chair at Monroe Community College, to comment for this post, she wrote:
At a community college, our primary goal is to find the best teachers FIRST. Scholarship is important and impressive, but show me your passion for teaching and you’ll have my attention. I want to know: have you been on the front lines with students? Do you understand the complexities of their lives? Can you reach them?
Teaching comes first because philosophers and other community college teachers spend more time on average teaching than faculty members at other educational institutions. We teach 15 or more hours per week, compared to 10-14 hours per week at baccalaureate institutions, and less at research universities. The primacy of teaching influences the materials search committees want to see in your dossier.
First, when composing your letter and CV, place your teaching experience earlier than your research or publications. This communicates your awareness that teaching comes first. Search committees receive hundreds of applications, and the sooner you tell search committee members you can meet their needs, the more likely they are to rank you highly, increasing your chance of getting an interview. The later in your letter or CV you place your teaching experience, the more you lower the odds that it will stand out to me among the many documents I read. Worse, the more committee members have to read to find what interests them, the more likely they are to stop reading before they reach it.
Second, your syllabi should reflect the primacy of teaching and the special demands of community college teaching. Community college philosophy teachers teach almost exclusively introductory courses. Submit syllabi for at least two of these three common courses: Introduction to Philosophy, Introduction to Ethics, and Introduction to Logic/Critical Thinking. In your syllabi, I want to see rigorous academic standards combined with the flexibility needed for community college students. I look for enthusiasm for teaching, apt reading materials, audio-visual and digital selections that supplement texts, and readiness to experiment and evaluate whether your course meets students’ needs.
Third, consider your references. Your reference letters should include at least one that discusses your course planning, syllabi, or teaching evaluations. Better is a referee who has observed you in the classroom and can comment on your interactions with students. Still better is a referee with some expertise in pedagogy and who can tell a search committee how you learned to teach.
B. Community College Students and the Community College as an Institution
If you teach at a community college, you will need to collaborate with its students, faculty, and staff during your entire employment there. It will help you to know about the students and the institution in which the faculty and staff work.
Nearly half of U.S. undergraduate students attend community college. That is about 6.5 million students (according to the American Association of Community Colleges), many of whom are first-generation college students, are from low-income families, or are from minority groups. One part of the community college mission is to provide these students with access to college. Another part of the community college mission is to help these students meet academic standards. To meet these standards, approximately two-thirds of community college students take a developmental course.
The community college ethos emphasizes service to students, though the strength of this emphasis varies from institution to institution. You should mention experience serving students or others in your CV, cover letter, and teaching statement. Activities such as tutoring, volunteering as a conversation partner with ESOL classes, leading philosophy discussions in community settings, or civic activities indicate that you have relevant experiences.
Beyond your dossier, prepare your teaching demonstration. It is likely that philosophers will be a minority of the search committee, and that the observers will include faculty and staff who want to know what you bring as a colleague, not as a researcher. Your teaching demonstration should cover a basic topic, distinction, or theory. Incorporate some student activity into your teaching demonstration; do not limit yourself to a lecture. A brief problem-solving exercise, small-group discussion questions, or a group project creating flash cards with basic logical forms are some ways to communicate to the search committee that your teaching promotes student engagement with the material and is not merely a research report. You should expect questions about classroom management and interpersonal relations.
The primacy of teaching in the community college does not only mean that we do a lot of teaching. It also means we want faculty who convey warmth and encouragement in their interaction with students, and who can reach students who are unfamiliar with academic settings and are anxious or hostile about college and your authority.
C. Preparing for Your Community College Job Search
Some philosophy graduate students are confident that they want a position in which teaching is more central than research. Such students can take early steps to prepare themselves for teaching careers and be ready to show search committees their preparation:
- First, most basically, get some teaching experience during your graduate program; this must include having sole responsibility for a course.
- Second, make sure your teaching experience and your goal of teaching is prominent in your CV, cover letter, and references.
- Third, tell the search committee what motivates you to seek a teaching position. The origins of your motives, the significance of teaching to you, and the intensity of your desire to teach are worth mentioning. These help a search committee assess the quality of your motivation and demonstrate your ability to reflect on your experience and learn from it.
- Fourth, participate in courses, workshops, or training sessions on pedagogy, lesson planning, curriculum, or classroom management. This shows search committees that you not only have the desire to teach, but have sought ways to develop skills to become a competent teacher.
- Fifth, try to contribute to research about teaching and learning by giving presentations about teaching at professional meetings or by publishing on pedagogy in professional journals.