Reflections from a Community College Historian

Amy J. Kinsel

When I went off to graduate school more than three decades ago, I had no thought that I would ever teach at a community college. I had taken classes at a local community college when I was in high school, but these were continuing education courses like the marine safety class my father insisted I complete before he’d allow me to pilot the family’s aluminum fishing boat on our local reservoir. No, in 1982, I was off to graduate school because I loved history, loved researching and writing history, and wanted to emulate the work and careers of the history professors I admired and loved at my private liberal arts college.

But, you know what they say. Life happens. My husband and I wanted to live on the West Coast where we could raise our children close to both our extended families. The job market for history positions at colleges and universities like the private institutions I attended was hardly robust in the 1980s and has not improved since then. I completed my Ph.D. in 1992 and wondered how I’d maintain my identity as a historian.

I have to tell you that the first phase of this effort, trying to be an “independent scholar” while staying at home with two babies who grew into toddlers and preschoolers, was completely frustrating and didn’t help to maintain my identity as a historian at all, never mind whether it is a path to gainful employment. I had excruciatingly limited access to libraries, I had no credentials to present to archives where I sought to do research, and most importantly, I did not have a community of academics to call home.

I came to work part-time at a community college in Seattle, where my husband and I live with our two daughters, because I remained active in the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians and continued to attend annual meetings, hoping as an independent scholar to find a community of academics. Through the AHA and the OAH I became friends with another historian living in Seattle who was a tenured professor at a local community college. She invited me to teach part-time in her department. That fantastic eye-opening experience changed my life and helped me find a community of academics I hadn’t known existed.

It is a very different community of academics than I had been looking for between completing my Ph.D. and beginning my community college teaching career. I am now a tenured faculty member at a college up the road from where I started teaching part-time. My community college career path means I do different work than I would have done at a four-year institution. Community college work means teaching a lot, teaching a lot of under-prepared students, and doing a lot of additional department, division, and committee work that leaves almost no time for scholarly research. I stay active in the OAH and occasionally present a paper at a regional historical conference, but this is challenging given the daily demands of my community college career and while I enjoy this aspect of my current historical identity, the daily work I do at the college is what grounds me now as a historian.

I am content with the daily work that I do, and I don’t pine for the scholarly career that might have been. I know I do important work with the students enrolled at my college. However, I admit that it is very often frustrating and thankless work. Part of this frustration is that my work is not well understood or very highly valued by the public or by academics at baccalaureate and research institutions. The general lack of respect for the work of community college faculty pains me whenever I have time to remember it. Being a public employee during an economic downturn has also been painful. In Washington state, community college faculty are significantly underpaid compared to salary levels in comparable states, and we have not received cost of living adjustments or promotional raises for seven years. That hurts not only my family budget but my self-esteem. Yet, I keep on.

That’s largely because, despite hard work and low pay for tenured faculty, teaching at a community college is extraordinarily rewarding. Students choose to attend community colleges for a number of reasons, but my observation is that the most significant of these are that they are not academically or emotionally prepared to enter a four-year institution, that their personal and work lives are too complicated for them to enroll anywhere as full-time students, or they do not have the financial resources or financial stability to enroll immediately at a four-year institution. My role in the 100- and 200-level courses I teach is preparing students who are not yet ready, for whatever reason, to attend a four-year institution and to succeed once they get there.

My colleagues and I work very hard to maintain academic standards that will allow our transfer students to enroll in upper-division classes at our primary transfer institution, the University of Washington, and perform well. Having sent hundreds of students to the UW successfully at this point in my career, I will happily argue that our transfer program provides opportunities for students to earn baccalaureate degrees that would simply have not been possible for them without the access and support provided by community college preparation. The UW will not admit these students as freshmen as they come out of high school for the very good reason that they are not ready for the UW. The UW will admit these students after I have taught them some basic College 101 skills (yes, you do have to show up to class on time and turn in all your work) and shown them how to read a textbook, how to evaluate ideas critically rather than engage in rote learning, and how to read and write in an academic discipline.

In addition to working with students who are, despite their lack of college preparation, ambitious, hard-working, and so in need of faculty to guide and support them, I work with amazingly talented colleagues. One of the surprising joys for me of teaching at a community college has been the opportunity—the imperative, really—to work very closely with colleagues across a range of academic disciplines. These are men and women, some with Ph.D.s and some with master’s degrees, who teach everything from developmental math and ESL to physics and biotechnology. They are dedicated to students and dedicated to what we call at community colleges learner-centered teaching. I have team taught with English composition faculty to help our students develop their writing skills in history courses. I have collaborated with librarians to embed information literacy instruction in my history courses. I have taken classes in multicultural studies from colleagues and learned so much. The life of the mind, as it used to be called, is alive and well among community college faculty, even though few of them have the time or energy to do the scholarly work that many of them, like me, assumed might be the focus of their careers.

Not only am I not doing the research I’d planned on and not working with the colleagues I’d expected, I am not teaching the students I thought I’d be teaching either. Only about half of the students attending my college identify themselves as transfer students. I teach many students who take my history courses to meet general education requirements for professional-technical degrees or who need history to fulfill high school completion requirements. Yet I find that I am happy to teach these students who are not actually very interested in studying history. I am well aware that for most of these students my 100-level U.S. History survey course will be the only college-level history course they ever take. I have the opportunity, in 10 weeks, to share what I love about the discipline, and to try to instill in these one-shot students some understanding of how to think historically and how to be critical listeners and readers of the bad historical analogies, twisted memories, and downright historical lies that they are likely to run across in their lifetimes as consumers of American social and political media. It’s a big responsibility, and I take it seriously.

Increasingly, I worry about the future of community colleges and the sustainability of open-access policies for students. The withdrawal of public support for higher education has hit community colleges particularly hard because they have relied so heavily on public funds for their operating budgets. Sadly, at my college we have not been able over the past decade to provide the student services that our students need so critically, and this is upsetting to see as a faculty member. Some of my students are homeless. Many of my students are struggling to pay for college. Most of them would benefit from a level of tutoring and counseling and mentoring that our college faculty and staff have insufficient time and resources to provide.

Moreover, a growing reliance on part-time, contingent faculty who sometimes teach a majority of courses at community colleges is a problem, not as some people assume because part-time faculty are somehow deficient or ill-prepared as teachers, but because the system of relying on contingent employees treats these valuable colleagues as expendable rather than as essential to the success of our colleges and our students.

I am constantly amazed that contingent faculty dedicate years of their lives to teaching despite the abysmal pay they receive and their lack of job security. Some part-time faculty are able to survive on the exploitative salaries they earn at community colleges and still do just the sort of intensive thoughtful teaching I do. I suspect that they have personal reasons for preferring to teach part-time, or they hope to work their way into full-time positions. Among these contingent faculty are advanced graduate students from the UW who are putting in their apprenticeships, as it were, and hoping through their efforts to land one of the increasingly-rare full-time community college teaching positions open in Washington state, or, more likely, parlay their Washington state community-college teaching experience into a higher-paid community college position in another state. (California is hiring and pays starting tenure-track community college professors $25,000 more per year than I currently earn as a mid-career tenured faculty member in Washington.)

On the other hand, too many contingent faculty who try to make a full-time living teaching at part-time rates race from campus to campus cobbling together a poor living doing what amounts to piece work. The quality of attention they are able to devote to students necessarily is poorer than the attention students receive from full-time faculty or from part-time faculty who teach part-time because they have career or personal reasons for preferring part-time work. “Freeway fliers” are not as available for office hours, they are not paid to attend department meetings, they are not usually included in curriculum development, they are not as familiar with the policies and procedures at each of the campuses they teach at as they might be, and yet, they must hold at least master’s degrees in their subject areas and they teach the same curriculum as their full-time counterparts. Obviously, this system of exploitation is not good for the exploited faculty and, logically, it must have negative consequences for students. State policymakers justify the exploitation because the alternative is no access for students. The legislature in my state has not appropriated sufficient funds to increase part-time faculty salaries or hire additional full-time faculty in a decade. The choice seems to be part-time faculty exploitation or no classes offered at all.

Increased reliance on contingent faculty shortchanges students and it also leaves more and more department, divisional, and college-wide work to a smaller pool of stressed and overworked full-time faculty. I tell anyone who will listen that the current state of community college funding and the current overwhelming workload for all community college faculty and staff is unsustainable. Unless the funding situation in my state changes, I fear for the future of my institution and for continued access to college educations for the students my colleagues and I serve.

The community college role is to provide access to diverse students who for a whole lot of reasons are not going to enroll in a baccalaureate institution. It is not about being better or worse than other colleges and universities. It is about being the appropriate educational institution for our students.

I truly love working at a community college. This work is very far from what I expected to be doing when I went off to graduate school at the age of 22. It is very far from my idealized vision of becoming a scholar. But it is work I am proud to do and want the public and my colleagues at four-year institutions to understand and value for what it is, rather than pointing out what it is not. All students cannot benefit from attending baccalaureate institutions. What faculty at community colleges would like to hear from faculty at four-year institutions is respect for the important work we do, and an acknowledgement that while what we do is not what they do, it is just as necessary for the education of America’s current and future citizens.

Amy J. Kinsel is a professor of history at Shoreline Community College in Seattle, Washington.