Thursday, January 11, 2018

So You Want to Teach at a Community College

It took me six years to land a full-time, tenure track English position at a community college in California. Overall I sent out dozens of application packets, interviewed a handful of times, including three second interviews, before I finally triumphed. Some of my colleagues spent many more years in freeway flyer hell, others are still there.

Now that it is spring application season again, it seems like a good time to share the lessons I have learned sitting on the other side of the table. There is a lot of non-information out there, and very little guidance in general from most institutions. When I was looking and applying, I spent a lot of time online digging into different college's hiring practices and policies. I found that some colleges offer the occasional training, and every school has its quirks, but the process seems to be nearly identical wherever I applied. Interestingly, the biggest resource for community college job seekers,, offers very little guidance.

Applying to a Community College
No matter the subject, it is crucial to understand the role of a community college: We prepare students to be successful in college and beyond. This often means remediation of math, English and life skills; we often help students develop study skills and learn to access resources. The most effective instructors scaffold learning in such a way that students can learn to climb the academic ladder themselves. My experience as a graduate of my local community college is that the rigor is solid, and there are lots of services and support.

The tenure process focuses on teaching and fulfilling contractual obligations. Professional development is a high priority; publishing and research are peripheral to teaching. Unless the subject of your Ph.D. or E.D. dissertation is directly related to that specific job description, you don't need to spend a ton of time talking about it in your application materials.

Understanding the Process
I have often heard from disgruntled colleagues that the system is rigged, that candidates are chosen in advance and then shepherded through the process. But here is the thing: all completed application packets are put through the same review process. Each packet is read by the hiring committee, each piece is assessed and assigned a number value using a rubric that is based on the advertised job description. Once the numbers are tallied, those with the highest scores are invited to interview.

Some colleges use one committee for the paper screening, and another for the interviews. Others use one committee from start to finish. Some committees are made up of only the department members and the division dean; others bring in other departments, staff and management. The whole process is overseen by the Human Resources department, and they are mindful of potential lawsuits of any kind; while I suppose rigging may be possible, I doubt pretty seriously it really happens.

When you are putting that packet together, make sure that your qualifications for that particular position are suuuuuper easy to find; don’t make the committee have to guess or spend extra time tracking down important information. Be explicit in the cover letter, CV, application and answers to supplemental questions. Larger colleges and departments may receive hundreds of application packets and every member of that screening committee probably has to read every single page. Make their reading experience count.

Application Packets
This is part of the process that always baffled me. I assumed that there were trick questions included in the directions or job descriptions. I have ultimately learned that adhering to the list of items to be included in the packet, or following the directions, is the only trick.

If the application has to be downloaded and is problematic, then ask for a hard copy or print one out and fill it out by hand. Fill it out completely! If you can submit everything online, make sure to review every document carefully before hitting the submit button.

Human Resources will use the teaching history information in calculating your initial salary. Simply writing “see resume” or “see CV” at any point on the application itself will almost guarantee that your entire packet will not make the cut.

If letters of recommendation are required, include them, and only the number requested. It is really a pain to have to ask for new letters every time you apply for a job, so lots of us recycle. That's fine, except that it doesn't look good if you include a letter to one college that is addressed to another, or if the letter is 10 years old, or if it doesn't address any of the job qualifications.

If a diversity statement is requested, write one. If not, don't bother including one you wrote for another college.

If supplemental questions are required, answer ALL of them, even if there are a dozen.

Avoid sending in anything not requested. Some colleges might accept additional materials like evaluations or lesson plans, but why take the chance if you don't know for sure? If there is a stated option, then send the best and most relevant materials.

Cover Letters
If the advertisement requires a cover letter, it should be written to the specific position and include information about how you are uniquely qualified for THAT position.

Part-time instructors who currently work for a college might be openly encouraged or invited to apply for full-time positions. Adjuncts can have insights into the needs of the college, department, and students that can often be addressed in the application materials or interview. Encouragement from a department chair or administrator is not usually a signal that an interview is guaranteed.

All applicants, by law, are put through the same screening process. Treat the application process as if you are introducing yourself for the first time to new colleagues. Do Not assume that since they know you, they will fill in the blanks themselves because legally they cannot.

Adjunct instructors are not always interviewed. Track down and read the full-time and part-time bargaining agreements/contracts. These are very insightful. Some community colleges will interview all adjunct applicants as a courtesy, others will interview at least one. I would argue that most will only interview those who earn high scores in the paper screening process. Also check the Human Resources websites; they can sometimes be very illuminating.

The Interview
Becoming familiar with that particular community college will help you understand the needs of the student population. Scour the website, look for academic senate meetings, board of trustee meetings, and the most recent union contracts to help you get a sense of the climate and needs of that campus. Get to know the college and district so that when you are discussing your qualifications, you can offer the most direct and relevant answers. Do you know someone who works there? Went to school there? Ask them questions. Do your research.

In the interview itself, avoid badmouthing colleagues, administrators and, most importantly, students. Pay attention to the interview prep instructions. If you are asked to do a teaching demonstration, even about a topic you wouldn't normally teach, create a lesson plan and teach it. If you are asked to give a teaching presentation, create a lesson plan and be ready to explain and discuss it.

Often you will be given the interview questions as much as a half hour in advance. If you are allowed to keep them, do it. If not, take thorough notes. My adjunct friends and I shared questions with each other for years. After awhile you get to know the kind of information that committees generally want to know. Take another look at the job description; what kinds of qualifications beyond general teaching responsibilities is the college looking for?

Find someone to help you practice with mock interviews. Use the interview questions you have found online or from colleagues and review potential answers. Some are standard like "What qualifies you to teach at this college?" Duh--they want to hear you talk about your qualifications, the same ones you listed in your packet. But hearing it and reading it are two different things.

I found that I did better if I viewed the interview like an opportunity to talk about teaching with other teachers, which I love to do, so I felt less nervous.

The Aftermath
If you are not invited to interview, or asked back for a second, you can still learn something from the experience. Human Resources can give you some limited feedback about how you fared in the process. If you don't ask, you will never know.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Today's Struggle

I am discovering just how painful a daily writing practice can be. I'm revising essays I wrote a decade ago and parsing out what stories to include in this larger piece, what to leave out, what to rearrange and what needs to be newly written. Some pain comes from revisiting the past, and some comes from trying to write something, anything, compelling.

It is both an advantage and a handicap to revisit childhood memories through the lens of time, therapy and maturity. I felt pretty bullied as a kid. But some of the folks I considered to be my nemesis in those early years are now adults I care about a great deal. I even have a level of compassion for those I am not close to because I have done enough work on my own shit to understand that we all had shit as kids. We all had traumas and pain and stories. And I can also see how my issues and behaviors might have aggravated the hell out of the kids around me. I think that I often inadvertently set myself up to be the loser.

So the question becomes how many of these stories to tell, and how much responsibility do I take for the pain or trauma inflicted on me. Do I focus on my truth in the moment, or the truth I have discovered along the way.

Today's struggle is in balancing the need to offer a whole picture within the theme I have chosen for this project with the conflicting realities of current and old memory.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Oh the Planning!

The very first semester that I taught, I was hired less than two weeks before the classes began, so planning was a constant, ongoing, all-consuming task. I had little previous experience to draw from; I had worked as a TA and grader and tutor. I often walked into class sessions with no clear idea of what I was going to teach. I was able to assign readings in advance, but the lessons and assignments that were attached to the readings were most often made up on the spot, seat-of-my-pants style.

This was the norm for quite awhile because we were in the midst of a recession and planning for the department was in flux. Classes were being cut right and left, and several adjuncts already burnt out from a wacky system left the profession and classes behind, and a few landed full-time teaching gigs elsewhere. Then administration would realize at the very last minute that they needed more sections of a course, and I would just happen to be lurking near the department chair's office in time to volunteer to take the class.

Still, these days when I sit down to plan, even with plenty of experience and material to draw on, I get kind of panicky and freak out that I don't have all seventeen weeks in the forefront of my brain. I can't recall every lesson I have ever taught and the nuances for each, so I worry that I will fail. Never mind that I have an entire filing cabinet full of hard copies and multiple electronic copies on multiple computers and clouds. I freak out about having to re-invent the wheel.

Eventually I settle into reviewing past semesters and new ideas and hammer things out with only a few gaps to fill in as I go.

I'm discovering that planning a memoir is really similar to planning a class. I'm kind of panicking. I have told lots of stories over the years, and written lots of essays about my childhood, but deciding what to include and what to leave out is really daunting.

My training focused on the memoir as a piece of pie. The whole circle represents the entire life. The triangular slice represents the material for the memoir.

I really, really don't want to write an autobiography. I really want to spend my time focusing on some piece, some theme, some aspect that is neither overwhelming nor boring nor simply navel gazing. And as with most of us, the various stories overlap in theme, time, and impact.

I struggle with the guilt of incorporating pieces I wrote ten years ago into this new project. I feel overwhelmed about writing new material.

Some moments I really want to stop-- walk away from the project and forget I have aspirations as a writer. But again, as I chip away at the process I am finally discovering where I need to focus, what I need to include and what I can leave out. It's a really messy process sometimes, much like planning a semester.


I knew this!


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times

One of the interesting aspects of teaching composition and trying to support my own writing life is that the lessons I so often try to impart on my students are essentially the same that I return to in my own writing year after year.

This morning I'm rereading Judith Barrington's book, Writing the Memoir, and I have come back to the idea, yet again, that my primary struggle is not about the lack of time to write, or the lack of interesting material, or even a lack of training and practice, but that I doubt that I have anything interesting to say or that anyone would care to read it.

This became a huge stumbling block during my first project period in grad school. My mentor gave me some feedback early on that I mis-interpreted. She was asking me to decide exactly what point I wanted to make in an essay, to focus in on that idea and then expand the story around it. But I internalized a different criticism. I heard her saying "So what? Why would we want to read about your life?" I was hearing what Natalia Rachel Singer refers to as "who cares?"

This fear, that no one will care, comes back to me again this summer as I dive into a new memoir project. I have often toyed with the idea of a full-length memoir; it is something I feel a strong pull toward, and something that brings up so much fear that I push myself away. I struggle with structure and focus, much like when I plot the day-to-day plans of an entire 17-week semester that will creatively and academically nourish my students. The questions are never-ending: What should I write? What should I focus on? What voice should I use? What is safe to reveal? What should stay hidden? Why would anyone outside of my circle of family, friends and students want to read this?

The shortened version of a potentially larger memoir has already been published at StoryScape Journal. It's a pretty funny piece. But a full-length memoir likely wouldn't be, and of course I worry that if it's not funny, no one will care.

My students often face a similar struggle. They worry that they won't have anything interesting to say, that they have nothing to offer the conversation, that no reader will be interested in their story. They tip-toe around sensitive or painful ideas or memories. They play with words, allude to some happening then back off and wax philosophical. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: don't dance around the subject, say it. Don't question the validity of the idea, memory, or trauma, write about it honestly.

Yep, teachers and students; we have the same struggles.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


I had three essays out for consideration. One was rejected, so I immediately sent it back out to another publication. I received word that another was also not chosen, but I haven't really had the focus to resend it, so for now it has returned to the back of my mind.

As of this writing, I am waiting on two responses, one is due any day now, and the anticipation is killing me. It is a tremendously personal piece (I know, I'm a memoirist, what isn't personal about my writing?), although the subject matter has a far more universal appeal than I think most editors would like to admit, and I really am not sure if the editor (Dinty W. Moore) will see the appeal. The finalists are set to be announced in September, and the month is waning.

I've spent some time obsessively stalking the publication and my submittable account and learned nothing.

Did I mention that the anticipation is killing me?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Creating Rituals with Pants

I learned many good things in graduate school about craft and the writing process. One suggestion was about creating a writing ritual. The idea is to have a ritual that always precedes and/or includes the act of writing. This, along with a regular writing practice (re: daily), is good advice that came from well-grounded writers.

Some of my colleagues began lighting candles when they sit down to write. Others have specifics things at hand: computer, pencil/pen and paper, a favorite visual object, etc. One writing friend outlines his entire project on paper on the wall before sitting down to write.

I purchased a pair of writing pants.

I only wear these subtle pants when I am writing. At home. I've not yet ventured down to the local coffee house in them. When the hubby sees me wearing them he smiles that special, "atta girl" smile that I love.

I'm wearing my pants now, so I'm off to create. :-)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Out There Again

I just sent of another essay out for consideration in an online literary journal. That makes three this summer. That may not sound like much, but considering how little writing I have done in the last few years, this is a big deal for me.

They say that the art is in the revision. If that is the case, then I have been particularly artistic of late. One piece was written ten years ago. Another was started in 2008, and today's submission is the youngest, only dating back to early 2015.

The oldest piece was the most difficult to revise, it tells the story of the year I was ten and being molested by my guitar teacher. I have submitted it in the past with no luck. One respondent suggested that the story didn't have a very universal appeal. Ha! That is funny. Considering that 25% of girls and 20% of boys report sexual abuse, this is hardly an isolated phenomenon. The respondent was clearly in deep, deep denial or simply clueless.

With all that being said, it needed a good revision. But it took a long time before I could read it over and over again and make the necessary cuts and revisions. The end result is a piece that is leaner and more focused, with a clearer arc and theme. The fact that I spent most of a weekend dealing with panic attacks is a side-effect that was well worth the effort.

I'll let you know what happens!