This post originally appeared in August 2005. As we start yet another semester today, I thought it appropriate to reprint.
Jonathan Dresner sends me this link to a Jay Mathews piece in the Washington Post in praise of community colleges: The Workhorse of Higher Education.
It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been over eleven years since I was hired for a full-time position here at Pasadena City College. I still remember the date of my first-level interview, April 8, 1994. It was a Friday afternoon, and it was the day that Kurt Cobain’s death was announced; I was listening to KROQ (LA’s alternative-rock station) and heard the news just as I was pulling into the parking lot here at the school. I was a moderate Nirvana fan, but couldn’t help but consider this tragic news to be a "bad omen". I have no idea what I ended up saying during the interview, but within days I was called back for a "second-level" meeting with the committee, and on April 20, was offered the job.
I’ll never forget the reaction of my dissertation chair when I told him I was accepting a tenure-track post here at PCC. "You’re a fool if you take it, Hugo", he said. By ’94, I was about half-way through my dissertation. I was giving papers at medieval history conferences, and was enjoying the feeling of being "groomed" by my distinguished adviser. In that same spring of 1994, my adviser told me I was "one or two years away" from successfully competing on the academic job market for a position at a four-year research institution. He was very upset that I wasn’t willing to wait for a chance at a university job. Frankly, our relationship was never quite the same after I came to teach at the community college. He was very helpful as I finished my dissertation (with my teaching load at PCC, it took me until early 1999), and gave me a warm handshake at my doctoral hooding ceremony. But he was clearly disappointed that I wasn’t willing to put research first.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve never taken a class at a community college. I knew plenty about community colleges growing up; my mother taught for three decades at Monterey Peninsula College (MPC). But even as I saw how much she loved her work there, I also had a bit of prejudice against the system. My high school teachers made it clear that the best and the brightest did not go to community colleges, and there was no question that there was (and I think still is) an unfortunate stigma in some circles related to "JCs." I’m afraid I internalized that stigma even as I was proud of my mother’s work. The summer after my junior year, I’m sorry to admit I even paid the much higher fees to take summer classes at UC rather than enroll in a community college.
In graduate school, however, my goals shifted. Though I liked research well enough, I loved my time as a teaching assistant. (I still remember my first section, in the spring quarter of 1991; I was not quite 24, and so terrified I threw up before meeting my first class.) I quickly realized that it was teaching that turned me on, not research. I didn’t like musty old archives, and I sure as hell didn’t like working on long papers. I enjoyed discussing ideas in seminars, but nothing was as "fun" as interacting with students in the classroom. I began to think more and more about what my mother did for a living, and began to wonder if I wouldn’t be better off teaching somewhere where I could "just teach".
I’ve never seriously regretted coming to the community college. If I had gone on to teach at a four-year institution, I could never have developed courses in "men and masculinity" and "American Lesbian and Gay history". My Ph.D. field would have set far more narrow parameters for my academic career. I would have been hired as a medievalist, and would have been expected to teach lower division survey courses and offer upper-division specialist classes until the end of my career. At the community college, where I was hired simply to teach "history" (with no geographic or chronological modifying adjective preceding the term), I have been free to develop whatever courses strike my fancy. At the community college, I have been allowed to grow as an academic. Here, the fact that I was interested in one set of things at age 27 (when I was hired), and another now at 38, and perhaps still another at 49 — that’s not held against me! Indeed, I’ve been encouraged to develop and explore new interests.
As for the students at the community college? They challenge and they humble me. The top 10% of students here are as good as — or better — than the students I T.A.ed for at UCLA. The bottom 10% of students are immensely difficult to teach. Unlike at a four-year university, at the community college one regularly encounters students who are forced to be here by their parents, who face the choice of staying in school or being kicked out of their homes. I have the sullen, the stoned, and the moronic with which to contend — but they are a distinct minority, I’m happy to say.
In the same classroom, I teach the extraordinary, the mediocre, and the dim. I have students who can write breathtaking prose that puts me to shame sitting next to students who cannot form an entire coherent English sentence. I have seen some of my students transfer on to the likes of Berkeley, NYU, Georgetown and Pomona College — and have seen them thrive there. I have had students pass out drunk in my classroom. I have had mothers who couldn’t get childcare hold (and nurse) infants with one hand while taking notes with another. Twice in my career, I’ve had the police come into my classroom and take a student out in cuffs. I’ve had students disappear in the middle of the semester because they’ve been deployed to Iraq. And I’ve heard countless stories of tragedy and persistence and endurance. I’ve had former students become teachers, lawyers, and now, community college professors; whatever they have become, their periodic notes and e-mails cheer me immensely.
If you had asked me a decade ago whether I would want one of my kids to go a community college, I would have said "absolutely not." Even in my early years of teaching here at PCC, I still struggled with a certain elitism that stigmatized the two-year college experience. I am happy to say I’ve let go of that indefensible snobbishness; I would be happy today if one of my children chose to attend a community college before heading off to a four-year institution. Thousands of students have smashed my misconceptions about what it means to be a student at a place like this, and those same students have made me tremendously grateful to teach at such an extraordinary institution. We at the community college are the ladder into the middle class; we are the school of second (and thirty-seventh) chances; we are the school that delivers remarkably quality for very little investment.
There’s nowhere I’d rather be.