Thoughts on Education – “The Advancement Problem” – July 13, 2015
I have been far behind in my reading on educational issues for a while. In fact, when I started this second summer session, I went and deleted almost 4 months of emails about articles from The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. I always plan to read over what has been said in those articles, but they go into a specific email folder, and, when I don’t have time, those emails become the lowest priority. And, of course, once I fall behind, it is hard to get up the energy to go back and review them for things I might want to read. I am always amazed at people like my wife who have 8-10,000 unread emails in their inbox, but I can see how, once you get a certain level behind, it is almost too much to catch up.
The other thing I am behind on is my whole “Thoughts on Education” series, where I talk about issues in education. So, I am also restarting that here, with the hope of doing these types of posts more often as well.
The article that got me thinking again was posted last month in Inside Higher Ed. It came from the blog series Confessions of a Community College Dean, and it was called “The Advancement Problem.” In the post he highlights an issue that has been bugging me for a while, what happens after you have hit most major academic milestones. I have looked forward in my own career, and I am not sure what it will bring. This coming year will be my tenth year teaching at my current community college. I have been here through a two presidents so far, and have moved from being one of the young ones to being a veteran in the department, as most of those older than me have either retired or are on the verge of retiring. When I arrived in 2006, I was the youngest in my department by almost 30 years. Now, I am in the middle of the pack in age and one of the longest in tenure. Of course, at my community college, there is no actual tenure, as we are all on renewable, one-year contracts. Yet, after the first couple of years, we all essentially have tenure, as few people are ever dismissed where I am, outside of program closings and far outlying academic performances.
We do have titles, but they are largely meaningless and completely ignored by the college and administration. There was a push for titles, but it is run by faculty and has no recognition officially and comes with no compensation. They are largely so that we do not have to just call ourselves Instructors on our business cards. I am an Assistant Professor, although I might be an Associate by now. There is so little need for the titles, that I have not even calculated to see if I might be able to move up. I know others care deeply about these titles, but they provide little incentive for me. The largest things you can do to go up in rank is to gain an additional degree or stay an additional year, as most other things count very little. I have no desire to get an additional degree, so I am basically going to move up when I have stayed here long enough.
And, that is the issue that the article got me thinking about. My future in teaching is to stay teaching at my community college, teach for several more decades, and then retire. I might become department chair one day, if I haven’t burned too many bridges by then, but I am really not sure what else there is. And, since I am teaching at a community college, that means that, for the next several decades, I keep teaching the same thing – the two halves of the American history survey. Over and over. If I stay thirty more years, I will be about 70, having worked here for forty years. I will make more money than I do now, although we do not have step pay. We are dependent on raises being passed in the budget years, but, as long as those raises keep coming, I will make more money each year. And, I will continue to teach the same classes.
Unlike other disciplines here, we cannot really make classes outside of the American history survey. We teach one section each of the two halves of western civilization, but I am only qualified to teach the second one, so I will never get to participate in that survey line. We have tried to offer state history, but that has not ever made here. And, the other history classes that are open to us to teach are all electives that would have a very small audience at best. Then, to take someone out of a survey class that will fill and put them in an elective history class that might or might not make is not really a viable option anyway. So, my best option is to try teaching the surveys in different ways. I have taught them as traditional lecture courses, online, and hybrid formats. To keep my interest in teaching the same things over and over, I will keep changing, adapting, and updating what I do. But I sometimes wonder if that will be enough.
I have even already been chosen for the two biggest awards that a faculty member can receive at my community college, leaving even recognition out of things unless I wait another decade or so to see if it happens again. This is what I see as the “Advancement Problem.” Do I want the biggest thing to be said about me when I do retire that I taught the same classes at the same institution for decades on end? Certainly, many people do, and they are celebrated when they retire. And, the truth is, it is a good job, with good pay, good benefits, and good hours. I have a steady job that I am not likely to be fired from, which is more than many people can say. But what I worry about is burnout. I have felt that off and on for the past couple of years, and involvement in nasty office politics has left me hesitant to pursue one of the routes that is available to do something different — moving into administration in some form, even if it is just as a department chair. However, that does appear to be the only “different” thing to do.
What I don’t have are any solutions. I have recently joined professional organizations and would love to go to conferences and be more active in professional life. But I have both a large family that is hard to leave and a college that cuts our travel budgets every year. So, that is, unfortunately, largely out of the question unless the conferences are close. I try to read and keep up with changes and developments, and I hope that will be enough.
Any ideas out there for other things to look at in approaching this problem?