I spent a good part of today in a meeting with some senior leaders of community colleges in our general service area discussing ways that our graduate program in higher education might better meet the needs of their institutions. One of the people in attendance said that their strategy for the past decade or so has been to hire faculty right out of their MA programs, “Before they learn all those bad habits.” Bad habits? What bad habits?
In the ensuing discussion, in which a number of the others in the room offered concurring opinions, it became clear that the bad habits he was referring to include an over-emphasis on the importance of content at the expense of teaching and learning strategies for diverse student audiences. As those of us who teach in research intensive institutions are painfully aware, very little time and attention is given to teaching our graduate students how to teach or how their future students learn. Right now only a handful of PhD programs in history (GMU and Indiana are two exceptions) offer three credit courses on teaching and learning as part of the PhD program in history.
So what, you might ask as you shrug your shoulders. After all, PhD programs are there to train future historians, right? Well, yes. But those future historians also want to eat and have benefits, which means, of course, getting jobs. And where are those jobs going to be? Although a recent report by Rob Townsend at the American Historical Association suggests that the job market for historians with the PhD is improving (at least based on 2005 data), those data are much more comforting to those with specialities in high demand with a low supply of PhDs (African history, South Asia history, etc.).
The reality is that more than half of all undergraduate students in the United States are enrolled in community colleges and as recent data are suggesting, the mushrooming cost of a four year degree is driving more and more highly qualified students to obtain the first two years of their college degree from the local community college (thereby saving many tens of thousands of dollars) and only after accumulating 60 credit hours do they move on to the four year institution. Ask anyone you know who works at a community college and they will tell you that they are hiring, hiring, hiring right now to deal with surging enrollments.
All this means that if we want to be good stewards of our PhD students, we ought to be doing more to teach them how to teach and how their students learn so that our students won’t have those bad habits that may disqualify them from excellent jobs in community colleges–jobs that pay well, have excellent benefits, great job security, put them in close contact with diverse, interesting, and highly motivated students (often way more motivated than the typical freshman at a four year institution), and offer lots of upward mobility within the institutions themselves which are currently starved for talented chairs, deans, and program directors.
Of course, if we’re going to admit to ourselves that some of our students will end up having very rewarding careers at community colleges, we’ll have to stop looking down our noses at these institutions. But that’s another story for another day…
PS: Barack Obama spoke on our campus today in front of a very enthusiastic crowd of something like 500-600 students and others. As someone who was born in Virginia when the state was still segregated it was something else to see an African-American presidential candidate drawing an enthusiastic crowd on a cold, damp, and rainy Friday. Virginia, at least, has come a long way in my lifetime.