Peer-populated resources for art history teachers
[Ed. Note: This post is a part of AHTR's series on community colleges.]
Guest author: Caterina Y. Pierre
As a full-time associate professor at a large community college, I have served on two national search committees for tenure-track positions, and numerous searches for adjunct positions in art history. I have thought often about what makes a great community college professor, and I have tried to use what I have learned over my eight years of service in seeking out the best candidates to teach our students. I also continue to work to improve and expand my own teaching based on what I believe exemplifies excellence as a teacher and scholar.
There are many misconceptions about community college teaching and these are often based on outdated ideas regarding the mission and purpose of two-year institutions. These misconceptions need to be dispelled, and I was very happy to learn that AHTR was planning a series of blogs on community colleges, and was elated when the editors asked me to submit a post. In planning this blog post, I queried a few colleagues and former students to find out what qualities they felt were important for a community college professor to have, and I have included some of their suggestions. There’s nothing scientific here, and the list below consists mostly of what I personally look for in new hires when I am asked to serve on a hiring committee. While I cannot really speak for every community college, and I am not an administrator at my own community college, my hope is that this blog post will serve as an informative guide to those scholars who are seriously considering teaching at a community college.
With that said, here is my list of what I believe are the top ten qualities that a prospective community college professor should have. The best community colleges especially look for someone who is:
Committed to research and service as well as teaching: Obviously most community colleges are teaching institutions and not research institutions, and there are a lot of community colleges that still hire full-time professors without PhDs. However, that is changing as the mission of most community colleges is shifting. There is a long-standing misconception that community college professors are not required to publish in their field, or that they publish less than their colleagues teaching in the four-year institutions. At my institution, two major publications are required for tenure, as are two additional publications for advancement to associate professor, and one needs three additional publications for advancement to full professor. That might be less than at some four-year institutions, but the demand for scholarship is in place if the faculty member wants to advance. Even though new faculty will be asked to teach in various areas of their field, community colleges still seek scholars who are committed to their field of specialization, evidenced through their publications.
Service is also heavily weighted with regard to a faculty member’s future promotions. Like every college or university, community colleges need people who are willing to serve on committees and as directors of various programs of study, but they also especially want people who are willing to devote time to students, such as traveling with them to museums and conferences, or acting as faculty advisors for their campus activities.
Able to treat community college like any other college: When querying my former students about what they thought were the best qualities of their community college professors, many noted that they wanted to be presented with challenging material. Some said that they often did not feel challenged to work hard in their courses because they were asked to do a minimal amount of work. It should be remembered that community colleges are colleges, and all students, even the less motivated ones, don’t want to feel like they are in some lesser place, and that is often the negative effect of the less challenging, chalk-and-talk, multiple-choice exam kind of course. Readings should be challenging, and that might mean that professors should consider assigning some more advanced readings and not relying solely on a textbook.
Able to emphasize writing in their courses, even though students’ writing skills may be lacking: Having poor writing skills is not an excuse to write less, and the best way to assess writing skills is to give students lots and lots of different kinds of writing assignments. While it is not always easy for a community college professor to correct and score tons of writing (most community college professors do not have graders), not all of the writing needs to be scored in a formal manner. Quick, low-stakes assignments are often enough for a professor to gauge whether a student should be advised to work with a writing skills tutor. At my college, when we have prospective candidates tell us that they don’t assign a lot of writing, or they don’t permit students to submit drafts, or they are not interested in being involved in writing intensive initiatives, that often signals the death-knell. Ideally, community colleges want someone who, immediately after they are hired, gets certified to teach writing intensive courses.
This is also where a prospective professor’s own writing and research comes into play; if the person applying for a job has no publications or no forthcoming publications of their own, it makes one wonder how successful they are as a writer. Should an institution invest in a professor who doesn’t write? How can such a professor teach writing skills to students if they lack those skills and lack the motivation to write themselves? This is one of the main reasons why more and more community colleges want to hire people with PhDs, and one of the main reasons why these institutions primarily hire PhDs for tenure-track positions.
Art history is a field built on writing and research, and provides excellent opportunities for students to develop good writing and research habits. Regardless of what the champions of the STEM movement might say, it is humanities courses that teach people how to read critically, write clearly and think logically and art history courses cover all major learning objectives.
Willing to teach all areas of a subject and participate in learning initiatives: While many community colleges have room in their schedules for new, specialized courses, especially if the enrollment numbers can be found for them, in general they need faculty who feel comfortable teaching in all areas of their field, and who can bring new and interesting viewpoints to survey courses. While the candidate’s specialty might be contemporary art, they should realize that they may very likely be called upon to teach courses in Ancient, African, or Renaissance art. When candidates express a desire to teach only in their area of specialty, the hiring committee may have reservations about the breadth and depth of that scholar’s knowledge of the field as a whole. It is atypical for someone teaching at a community college to have a full load of courses only covering their specific specialty. Thus, someone who can bring innovation to the presentation of canonical material would be ideal.
Speaking of innovation, willingness to participate in national learning initiatives such as writing intensive programs and learning communities is increasingly important. While many of these new pedagogies have yet to fully prove themselves (passing a writing-intensive course does not always guarantee that a student can write well; participation in a learning community does not guarantee any additional success in college), they are worth their heft in providing critical thinking experiences for both students and professors. For example, professors who participate in learning communities have the opportunity to work with faculty in disciplines outside of their own, and learn from the teaching methods and exercises used by their colleagues. Students have a more enriched college experience through being part of these initiatives, and faculty learn from their peers and are forced to break out of their own (often stale) teaching routines.
Capable of using digital technology and new media: One of our key learning goals is technological literacy. Any professor in 2013 who is unwilling to utilize a learning management system (like Blackboard, which isn’t perfect but is widely used by academic institutions), an eTextbook, and/or some other sort of digital media in the classroom is not fulfilling their duties as an educator. While it seems obvious to say this, it should be noted that our new technological world will require young workers and scholars who have solid tech skills. It should also not be assumed that just because students have a Facebook page and a smart phone that they have any real useful tech skills. Professors who do not use technology in the classroom, and who do not require students to use technology in their study, research and class projects, are just not properly preparing students for the current and quickly-evolving tech-saturated world. AHTR has many wonderful examples of technological materials and new media that can be explored in contemporary art history courses.
Willing to make course materials available to students: Many students who attend community colleges are there not because of academic obstacles, but because of personal financial obstacles that made it difficult for them to go elsewhere. Learning management systems (LMS) make it possible to provide students with a wealth of materials that can now substitute for that textbook that they are not buying anyway, or that they bought but aren’t reading. Rather than requiring the $150.00 art history textbook, the best community colleges like to see professors who instead find a strong series of articles that students can access on JSTOR, fortified with videos and other materials available online such as from museum websites or free-access sites devoted to the subject, such as Smarthistory. If the professor feels tethered to a textbook, they should try to find an eTextbook, which are often a fraction the price of the paper edition. It does take a bit of time on the part of the professor to collect the links and sources for their LMS, but students appreciate not having the extra expense, and frankly the material now available for free on the web greatly out-smarts even the best art history textbooks currently on the market. There are excellent resources here on AHTR to experiment with, and using a live-link syllabus is one of the best ways to implement the use of new materials (For more information on digital and live-link syllabi, see the crowdsourced online syllabi on AHTR.)
A model of professional behavior: A large number of community college students do not come from families where people have gone to college before them; therefore, the students don’t really know what a college environment, or, frankly, what a professional environment, is like. It is up to the faculty to help create a professional and scholarly atmosphere for students who are not familiar with one. Creating this setting can be as simple as alerting students to where the library is, when the next poetry slam will be happening on campus, or where the next scholarship fundraiser will be and how they could volunteer. Students should be encouraged to treat the course as they would treat a job; for example, if they are going to be absent, they should know that it is common to inform the professor by e-mail, in the same way that they would call their employer if they were going to be absent or late to work. If professors enforce this, students would be better prepared for their future professional experiences.
Also, and this may sound old-fashioned and a bit school-marmy, but dress is important. I once had a chairperson who used to say, in all seriousness, “No jeans before tenure!” I used to scoff at this, but there was something truthful about it. Don’t complain about students who wear inappropriate clothes to class if you are there wearing yesterday’s unlaundered blouse. College professors are among the first professionals that students meet in their adult lives, and we should represent, in our manner of dress, respectful speech, and ability to mediate situations, the best qualities of professional individuals.
Able to keep students to high academic standards: Professors should not make the work in their classes easy because they think community college students are not up to the challenge; as noted above, students want to be challenged and want to feel that they are receiving the same education as their peers enrolled at four-year institutions. To this end, there is no point in grade inflation at the community colleges, as it only leads to a misrepresentation of the student’s true abilities, and actually prevents them from seeking help in writing labs and tutoring centers. As harsh as this may sound, failing courses is in itself a good learning experience. For the students who have been too often socially promoted through their earlier educational experiences, it is important that they learn the true rigors of intellectual work. Prospective community college professors are expected to present the students with challenging material and projects, and then hold to the standards that would be required at any college or university.
Willing to help facilitate transfer of students to four-year institutions: Many community college students come into the school not fully realizing that this is only the first stop in their professional education. Sometimes they are not sure if they are enrolled in an A.A., A.S., or A.A.S degree program. We actually had a sign at the transfer office that explained to students that when they graduate from community college, they are not a “graduate student” and should not be looking to transfer to “graduate school.” I don’t relate this to be funny or unkind, but it exemplifies the fact that students just do not know the terminology that academics use to discuss specific details of university education. Professors need to relate this information to students and remind them from time to time that they should always be planning their next move. This can be as simple as reminding students when the college fair is on campus; giving them an assignment to print out their transcript so they can be taught how to read it; and alerting them to key transfer deadlines. Community colleges seek prospective professors who are willing to train students to excel not only at the college they are now, but at the college or university they will attend after they graduate. They want faculty who are invested in the current and future success of the students.
Respectful of students: A word that floated around a lot when I queried my colleagues and former students about this issue was “empathy.” Community College students often have a lot of other life issues on their plates, including responsibilities to jobs and family members to whom they are obligated in some serious, time-consuming way. Obviously, it is not the responsibility of the professor if a student cannot do the work because they are a single parent and have two jobs; no one forced that student to come to college, and if they really want a degree they must make their education a top priority in their lives. It is possible, though, to be fair and somewhat flexible while still holding up the best standards for students. Requiring students to submit copies of professional letters from employers or doctors when the student wants to be excused from something, for example, often works in everyone’s favor. The student has to prove they had a valid reason for missing a class or an assignment, and the professor can use that to give a student a little leeway, or deny it when necessary. Respect also means giving out an equal amount of positive reinforcement and constructive correctives; refraining from public, verbal complaints about students; and being respectful of students’ time. This benefits the best professors, who find that when they respect their students, they get that same respect in return.
Most of all, community colleges look for people who want to be part of the institution for the long term, and who want to be part of the important project of preparing students for professional and intellectual work during their first two years of college. Community colleges are now the necessary bridge between secondary education and the more concentrated study they will undertake when they arrive at their four-year institution. Therefore, community colleges must have the best academics and professionals on board to help students cross that scholastic bridge, and develop the reading, writing and critical thinking skills necessary for transfer. The best community colleges want great faculty who can help to create the next generation of professionals and scholars.
Caterina Y. Pierre, Ph.D. is an associate professor of art history at Kingsborough Community College (CUNY), which was named one of the top four community colleges in the nation by the Aspen Institute (2013). She is also a visiting associate professor at the Pratt Institute. This is her second contribution to AHTR.