Community College Teaching: A Closer Look

I recently took a couple of opportunities to learn more about teaching science in the Los Rios Community College District – a group of 4 community colleges that serve the Sacramento area. The first opportunity was the result of an email I sent several weeks ago to a friend of mine who teaches chemistry at Sacramento City College (the oldest and second largest Los Rios campus) asking for suggestions of biology faculty that might be open for an informational interview. He suggested that I contact Dr. Ken Naganuma, who agreed to meet with me and let me sit in on a session of his Cell and Molecular Biology course.

On Wednesday morning, I drove to Sacramento, found the Sac City College campus, and parked on the far side of campus from where Dr. Naganuma’s class was being held. My remote parking spot meant that I got to see most of the campus on the way to class. The campus is fairly compact and features a well-maintained quad surrounded by brick buildings with stucco roofs and covered walkways. The campus was bustling with people – not surprising given the enrollment of 24,000 students. I found the classroom and settled in for what turned out to be a lecture on transcriptional regulation. During the 90 minute class, Dr. Naganuma used both the chalkboard and the powerpoint, generally starting with a simple idea on the board and then building upon it until reaching the complex “full” picture on the powerpoint (typically a figure from the textbook). His approach seemed calculated to avoid overwhelming students and to make sure that they see the connections between each part of the system in question. After class, I sat down with Dr. Naganuma for a discussion about teaching biology at the community college level and how to go about breaking into the profession.

Coincidentally, two days after my visit to Sac City College, Dr. Naganuma, along with American River College chemistry professor Dr. Chris Meadows, spoke at a workshop entitled “Careers Beyond Academia in the Sciences: Perspectives on Teaching at a Community College.” Here are some of the major take-aways from both my meeting with Dr. Naganuma and Friday’s workshop (note that these points are from the perspective of teaching biology in Northern California community colleges – your mileage may vary based on location or subject):

On the importance of teaching experience:

  • Having a Ph.D. is no guarantee of getting even a part-time community college position. The focus of the job is teaching, so hiring committees want to see that an applicant has extensive teaching experience.
  • While having done a lot of TAing will certainly not hurt you in applying for a community college position, it is not enough to be competitive.
  • To be competitive for an adjunct position, you need experience leading a classroom as a guest lecturer or through a program like the Los Rios Faculty Diversity Internship Program.
  • To be competitive for a tenure-track position, you need to have at least a year of experience as a lead instructor. This could be as either a part-time (adjunct) faculty at a community college or as a lecturer at a university.
  • The substantial teaching experience requirement means that many faculty work as part-time adjuncts for several years before landing a full-time position.

On the current job market:

  • The current job market is very competitive, due to a number of factors stemming from the recent recession.
  • The recession meant that a number of professors that might have retired could not afford to do so.
  • The recession also caused many community colleges to stop hiring full-time faculty. The lull in hiring full-timers has resulted in the build-up of a pool of people with years of part-time experience, who will be competing for full-time positions with people fresh out grad school.
  • Being able to teach more specialized classes (for example, botany) may make you more competitive in areas of the country that don’t produce many Ph.D.s with that expertise.

On teaching at community college:

  • Most community college professors love their jobs and tend to not leave full-time positions once they get them
  • Community colleges serve the entire population – there are no admissions requirements
  • The lack of selectivity means that community colleges serve as a “second-chance” track for many students who have not previously been very successful in school. This means that community college teachers need to work with these students to develop academic skills like studying and writing essays.
  • In addition to serving previously unsuccessful students, community colleges also serve outstanding students who cannot afford to start college at a 4-year school. Therefore, community college teachers must recognize that their students come a wide range of academic starting points and plan accordingly.
  • Community college teachers are not expected to work during the summer, though they may if they want to earn more money.
  • During the school year, community college teachers (especially new faculty) put in long hours developing lectures and labs, teaching, and grading. There are no TAs at community colleges, so faculty must handle all of their grading and classroom/lab setup.
  • While the workload can be substantial, most of the work is flexible in terms of where and when you do it. This means that you can do much of your prep work and grading at home or at a coffee shop.

Many thanks to Dr. Naganuma and Dr. Meadows for a very informative workshop! I’m looking forward to learning more about Los Rios’s Faculty Diversity Internship Program at the informational meeting on May 22nd. I’ll leave you with some resources recommended by Dr. Naganuma and Gwynn Benner, one of the workshop organizers and coordinator of grad student services at the UC Davis Internship and Career Center:

The California Community Colleges Registry

The National Association of Biology Teachers

The National Center for Science Education

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One thought on “Community College Teaching: A Closer Look

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges” | The Prospective Prof

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