Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Interviewing for community college teaching

I've been teaching geosciences at either a college or university full-time for 16 years now (14 of them at my present-day community college position).  This doesn't include years spent teaching various labs as a graduate teaching assistant at two different state universities.  I've also been a department chair for several years and have served on and chaired numerous faculty search committees in a number of different academic areas and will continue to do so in the future.

Let your good buddy Steve tell you how not to apply and interview for a full-time community college faculty position.

First a disclaimer (because some people are dopes) - I speak for no one but myself.  Not my employer.  Not community colleges in general.  Not my faculty colleagues.  Not anyone.  Just me giving you some free advice (and you know what that's worth).  Take it as guidance from a kindly uncle - a voice of experience hoping to save people some embarrassment and wasted time (especially my wasted time).

First, a few generalities...

1. Understand the difference between adjunct and full-time faculty.  Adjuncts are people hired to teach one or two courses a semester as needed (they are contractually not allowed to teach more).  They are not well paid and have no benefits.  While we try to hire adjuncts who are qualified (and many in our department have PhDs and years of teaching experience), we'll also hire people who are promising with a bit less academic and/or teaching experience (but still hold them to high standards).  Feel free to send a resume to me inquiring about adjunct positions - they come and go over the years so we're always looking for good instructors.

2. Full-time faculty, however, are not hired off the street.  Sending an inquiry, resume, CV to the department chair asking about a full-time position in your field that was not advertised is a complete waste of time.  I might call and say we have one class available for an adjunct but I will never call and say "Oh yes, we just happened to be looking for a tenure-track physics professor.  It's so lucky your resume just arrived!"  Never.

3. Positions don't open up all that often.  We have to sometimes fight to even get retiring or resigning professors replaced by a full-time position (due to poor financial support of community colleges by both the state and county legislatures, budget lines are always up for slashing).  It's a several month-long drawn-out process to hire a full-time, tenure-track faculty member.  We only have a few dozen full-time faculty members at our institution (the other 2/3 are adjuncts) and we all love our work - it's rare for people to leave and for jobs to open up (one or two a year in the whole institution on average).

4.  Given the above, we're picky about who we hire.  A bad hire will haunt us for years and cause a lot of wasted time, effort, and aggravation.  We might have to work with you for decades - we obviously don't want to hire an incompetent, an asshole, or a slacker.

Now let's talk about the application process.  You see an ad (maybe online in the Chronicle of Higher Education) and want to apply...

1. Make sure you at least mostly fit the job ad.  Most of our ads are a bit generic (because community college instructors are generalists - we don't look for instructors of British literature, we look for instructors of English - you'll teach a few sections of Freshman 101 and may a section of Brit Lit once a year if you're lucky).  We've had people apply who aren't even close (one I remember is a retired attorney with zero teaching experience or background who thought it would be fun to teach Earth science - it's insulting he thought it would be so easy).

2. Send a professional-looking resume - or, better yet, a curriculum vitae (CV) like a real academic.  Bad grammar, bizarre formatting choices, and spelling errors make me want to crumple it up and toss it.  Search committees reject applicants for interviews for such things all the time.  This is especially necessary for applicants whose first language is not English - have a native English speaker proofread it (pay someone $50 to do it if you don't have literate American friends).  No one's saying we'll toss an applicant for a misplaced comma or a simple typo but you wouldn't believe some of the shit people send.

3. Include all of the material asked for in the ad.  If the committee wants a statement of teaching philosophy, write one up (if you're applying at a community college, make sure it references teaching at a community college).  If we want a list of references, get one together (be sure to tell them in case we decide to call!).

4. Don't include lots of extra crap.  I don't care if you worked at McDonalds for 3 months in 2005 (we all worked crappy jobs in college to have some beer money, so what).  Don't tell me you are listed in Who's Who (once they started sending me those emails, I knew it was a scam).  Don't list some bullshit certificate in JavaScript you got from taking an online class.  Don't tell me your hobby is knitting or church bingo or collecting 50's pornography.  I don't care.  Oh, and since we're a community college, don't tell us about all the wonderful research you want to do (good luck with a 15-contact-hour/semester load and possible summer classes).  What I do want to know is your contact information, where you went to school and when you received your degrees, and relevant job information (like teaching!).  I also want to know that you understand community colleges.

5. Be patient.  It takes a while to get a search committee together, read applicant's materials, decide who to interview, sometimes even go to a second round of interviews, etc.  I know that sucks if you're waiting, but that's just the way it is.  When I chair search committees, I do try to let everyone know we received their material and the eventual outcome.  Unfortunately, a lot of schools don't.  But don't make a pest of yourself and start calling - I'll just let it go to forever unanswered voice mail.

If you get called for an interview...

1. Be appropriately dressed.  I'm a geologist and I dress pretty piss poor some days when I'm in the lab or going out in the field.  In the summer, I'll come to my office in a tee-shirt, sandals, and shorts.  But it's a fucking interview.  Business casual is good, no need for a three-piece suit, but don't show up like a slob (yes, people have).

2. We're not out to get you, we want you to be the one we hire.  If we bring you in for an interview, you're qualified for the job.  I know it's hard, but relax and have fun with it.  Our interview questions are pretty straightforward - it's amazing how many people flub "Why do you want this job?"

3. Answer the questions honestly.  We ask questions during the interview that have no "correct" answer.  "A student comes the last week of the semester, is failing the course, and asks what he can do to pass.  What do you tell them?"  Some of us on the search committee might tell the student to register for the course next semester because they're out of luck and will fail.  Some might give the student some opportunity to hand in late work for more credit.  Some might let weight the final exam a bit more so they could pass if they did well on the final.  We want to see how you go about answering the question, not what you'll actually do with this hypothetical student.  We don't care - you'll have the academic freedom to do different things depending upon your teaching style, syllabus, college policies, etc. (unless your answer is to offer the student an A for $100).

4. Community colleges are teaching institutions.  Some people look down on us.  They're assholes.  If we catch a whiff of you implying that you're "settling" by deigning to work for us, you've lost the job.  If your primary goal is to do research, chase grants, write papers, work with brilliant students, have assistants to grade papers, don't apply to a community college.  If you want the challenge of teaching 100- and 200-level classes in your broad subject area to students at an open-admissions institution, then we are where you should be teaching.  At many community college, you will teach 15 contact hours each semester (5 three-credit classes).  It doesn't leave a lot of time for things like research or publication.

5. The most important part of the interview is the teaching demonstration.  We always ask applicants for full-time positions to teach for 15-20 minutes on an assigned topic.  We know that you know the material (unless you lied on your resume).  We want to see how well you can communicate that to a class of 20-30 students who don't know it.  A lot of applicants lose the job by not doing well on the teaching demo.  You're not impressing us with your brilliance, you causing us to think the students will have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.  A good teaching demo is prepared and rehearsed (don't read off a sheet of paper!).  It has a logical flow and makes sense.  A little nervousness is excused, being completely rattled is not.

6. Understand the job.  We don't pay well - if you want high pay, find another job.  It's not only teaching.  Faculty are expected to advise and mentor students, serve on committees, engage in professional development (especially in my field - the sciences), perform curriculum development and assessment, etc.  If you imply you just want to teach and leave, we'll wonder who the hell is going to do all the extra work and then we'll realize it's us!  Not good.

Just a few thoughts off the top of my head.  Like I said, most of our faculty (once they survive the first couple of years and show they can cut it) love it here.  They stay for a long time.  I'm starting my 17th year of full-time college teaching this August and looking forward to the start of classes.  I love standing in front of a group of freshman and talking about geology!  There's nothing I'd rather be doing.


  1. Wow, I always wonder how they did it with the full time faculty. I dont recall ever doing an interview for adjunct.

    I too am looking forward to school starting I have a larger than normal class this year.

  2. I'd really like this post...Your information is very clear...Thanks for sharing info...

  3. Good article, though the author comes across as an asshole.

  4. This article was really refreshing (including the very real use of swear words). You reinforced what I already thought, but it's nice to get reassurance. I have an interview in two weeks. If offered, I cannot take the job (I'd lose too much pay). But it's my heart's desire to teach full time. I just wanna know that I can do it. On the surface, I may sound selfish (okay, it is). You really have no idea how much I want to do this full time.

  5. I wish I read this before my second interview. Haha. It was really entertaining, nonetheless. I'm currently in the purgatory of the second interview and their final decision and I'm scouring the internet for clues.