- Teach First, Research Questions Later: Understanding the Role of the College Teacher-Scholar
We are at a crossroads in the profession wherein we can either find a way to support teaching-focused academics in remaining part of the scholarly conversation or risk losing recent doctoral graduates from our community. This short paper is a bit of a meditation on why that is and what comes next.
I’m a community college instructor working at Douglas College in Metro Vancouver. We’re the largest public college in the province and the fourth-largest postsecondary institution, period. I don’t have an academic rank, much of a travel budget, graduate students, or access to sabbaticals, but I do have a stable income with benefits, a reliable (if reliably large) teaching load, and an institution that tells me they would like me to be doing research, as long as I don’t need much of anything to make that happen. This is the position in which teacher-scholars in the community college sector find ourselves: we are teachers by trade and researchers by training, and increasingly we are looking to make both roles work. This is often seen as a more natural fit in so-called applied research fields, like health sciences and community services, but with increasing numbers of humanities PhDs finding work at community colleges, it’s an issue for those of us with an academic or “pure” research focus, too. [End Page 13]
Community colleges are one of the few places still seeing substantial growth and opportunity for employment of new PhDs. Recent numbers show that as many as half of all postsecondary students in Canada are now attending colleges, and colleges across the country are hiring full-time faculty in larger numbers than universities. Anecdotally, I arrived at Douglas College in 2010, and since then we’ve hired eleven new faculty members in the English department alone: most doctorate holders, most continuing to pursue their research agendas, albeit off the sides of their desks. We must prioritize support for these early-career researchers in maintaining research agendas, lest we lose a large number of new, highly engaged voices from the discipline. Permanent, tenured, research-focused jobs are, we all know, few and far between and greying quickly. Considering those positions the gold standard for PhD bearers—even those who want to stay in the postsecondary sector—is not a recipe for a vital future for literary studies in this country. We need to do a better job of understanding the pressures on teaching-stream faculty and supporting their desire to do research, be it applied or “pure.”
Teaching remains the primary duty of all community college faculty, but as part of a larger community of postsecondary educators, it’s worth thinking about how we talk about these jobs and the people in them. For examples of the kind of language we use to describe college-sector employment, it’s worth looking closely at Linda Muzzin’s 2010 sshrc-funded findings into the working conditions in community colleges for Academic Matters, the journal of ocufa; it’s a thorough and thoughtful article that also typifies the kind of language common to these examinations, steeped in a sense of incredulity that people could be satisfied by teaching-centred work (Muzzin). This incredulity should not be surprising, when as an industry we refer to sections and semesters off from teaching as “release,” a reprieve from prison for our good behaviour. And in advice for new PhD graduates, college teaching is usually listed as an option after adjuncting; being in a university offers status so compelling to academics that we advise new graduates to pursue contingent, precarious, underpaid labour in a university over permanent, well-compensated work in the college sector. I remember being at Congress 2009 and telling a past professor with whom I had worked closely that I was seriously considering a career in the college sector. His response? “You don’t have to settle, you know. You’re good enough for a real job.”
I think we can’t be surprised at this attitude when we consider the devaluation of teaching in our institutions as...