Image: Illustration from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, 1883 (Mechanical Curator Collection, British Library)
Even when graduate programs do not actively discourage their best and brightest students from applying for jobs at community colleges (a circumstance that still happens far too often), relatively few graduate-level faculty are insiders in that world. When departments offer interview coaching, they rarely focus on questions, topics, and answer strategies specific to the community-college milieu. That is a particular problem because community colleges are very particular places — and not simply the first two years of a university model sheared off at the bottom, like some job seekers unwittingly imply.
As an administrator and a faculty member at a community college, I’ve seen many otherwise strong job candidates who simply didn’t convince me that they understood what a two-year college really needs or that they would be a good fit for those needs. Interviewing well at a community college means more than changing the numbers of your sample syllabi to “100” from “300” or adding the word “developmental” to your vocabulary.
Retooling your interview approach to the priorities of two-year colleges is not, then, just a quick fix. It represents a comprehensive rethinking of educational mission and mode. Here are three broad pieces of advice that could help set you ahead of the job-seeking pack.
Be prepared to be exciting — and excited — about bread-and-butter courses. Graduate programs, for better or for worse, do an excellent job producing hyper-honed specialists, and it is easy to wax philosophic about your pet Special Topics course. What sort of candidate is much harder to find and more germane to what community colleges need? A truly passionate generalist.
At the community college, chances are good that the body of your teaching load will be characterized by the words, “introduction to.” So, first and foremost in your interview, you will want to explicitly describe how you can make the “Introduction to X” course extraordinary, vital, and unique. Show you can construct a survey that sizzles; make the basics bloom.
Also, your answers should recognize — and honor — the unique privilege of offering introductory courses. There’s an excellent likelihood that your courses will serve not only as an introduction to your discipline, but as an introduction to the whole discourse of college. Talk with the search committee not only about how you’ll scaffold content knowledge, but how you’ll help students negotiate the demands of a new body politic, a whole new way of life.
Finally, demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for teaching entry-level classes. Explain why you prefer those courses over any other. If you expect to be happy at a community college, then this preference is crucial, and it is often easy to tell the fakers from the true devotees.
Be aware and enthused about the larger mission of community colleges. Faculty at two-year campuses are generally loud and proud about the things our colleges do best:
- We are affordable — usually the most cost-effective undergraduate option by far.
- We are accessible — most community colleges are open-admissions, and barriers to entry are purposefully streamlined as much as possible.
- We serve underrepresented populations, including ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, recent immigrants, and those younger and older than the traditional college age bracket.
- We serve students who have been deemed academically ready for college and plenty of others who have not.
Such values characterize the community college. We seek teachers that vocally share our values, and that place those values at the center of their day-to-day work.
A typical comment from a search committee’s notes about a less-than-successful interview: “talks about teaching content, but doesn’t talk about changing lives.” As a candidate, you must remember that community colleges are a first chance, last chance, second chance, and for some, only chance. Call us sentimental or touchy-feely, but the best two-year faculty and administrators are in love with their chance to help students realize that crucial opportunity.
A candidate for an opening at my college had this to say about teaching at a community college: “This job is all about bridges — bridging work and home, high school and B.A., ‘ivory tower’ and practical knowledge.” That comment establishes a level of reflection about what community college, writ broadly, is for. We hired that candidate.
Place community and collaboration at the center of the conversation. The “community” in community college is anything but incidental. More than any other type of campus, these are hyper-local spaces, drawing the majority of their students from the immediate vicinity.
If you are interviewing in a region at all unfamiliar to you, do some research. Most community college websites offer a wealth of information, and a really savvy candidate will look beyond simple raw statistics (“I read that black students account for 35 percent of your enrollment”) to discuss specific trends and themes (“I saw from your student-services page that you have a number of programs geared toward Somali refugees; I recently read an interesting article about outreach to that population”).
It wouldn’t be a bad idea, as well, to peruse the local newspaper. Nearby textile mills shutting down? Tax referendum defeated? Even if the connection is a little bit clumsy, I’m always impressed when candidates gesture toward an investment in our locale.
Don’t forget to mention your interest in collaboration with colleagues. One stereotype of university life posits professors as lone wolves, defending the primacy and territory of their own specialization. But that isn’t true at the community college, with multiple colleagues often teaching the same generalist courses. Likewise, sitting on committees and participating in other forms of college service are not an afterthought at two-year colleges, but a central aspect of the job. Prepare specific stories, scenes, and examples of how you’ve worked with others, both in hierarchies and in equitable teams. Assure the search committee explicitly that you are prepared to pitch in — no divas, please! — and be ready to propose some areas where you might do so.
The more you position yourself as already present in the job, the quicker your committee will be to picture you there, as well.
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