December 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 8

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“Why Teach at a Community College?”

A. James McKeever, Los Angeles Pierce College

I always begin the first day of class with a riddle, “What do you call someone who takes nine years to get through community college?” I wait a minute or so to take a few responses, smile and answer, “You call him doctor.” Community college gave me, a low-income, Black, 18-year-old single father, the kind of opportunity that I could not have received anywhere else. Where else could you spend eight years working on your general education requirements and still end up with a PhD? Community college gives people a second, third, maybe even a sixth, or seventh chance. Community college is a place of direct and indirect almost unfettered activism. Lastly, community college may be the most democratic and egalitarian space within academia. It is a place where everyone is welcome, and if you wish to teach a diverse student body it would be difficult to find as many working-class students of color.

Our kindergarten through 12th grade educational system is an alienating experience for many of our youth. It is a time of rote learning and standardized testing that requires little critical thinking. This has dulled many of our students who could barely get though the mundane process of their secondary education. Many students come to college not necessarily hoping for inspiration, but, out of necessity and the need for future employment. However, many of these students truly become inspired by lectures that directly relate to their lives and experiences. In community college you get to see the light go on, and sometimes you even get to throw the switch. I have had students that have come to my classes after barely passing high school, with the modest hope of transferring to a state college. Some of these students were more engaged with the person on the other end of their text message than the class material, but became students that constantly want to discuss the reading further and crave more information. Many students have gone from alienation to engagement. Some of these students who only dreamt of going to a Research I college as a youth are now at University of California-Santa Cruz, University of California-Santa Barbara, and University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) as sociology majors.

Activism in Academia

I attended the Association of Black Sociologists Conference in 2008. During the question and answer portion of a panel discussion with Eduardo Bonilla Silva, Patricia Hill Collins, and Elijah Anderson, someone asked, “How can we practice activism in academia?” Patricia Hill Collins quickly answered, “Go work at a community college.” Often the pressures of publishing can change the best of organizers into what I call “vita activists”: professors who can only practice activism when it will help with their advancement. I do not blame these academics, with the narrowing of acceptable journals needed for tenure and advancement, book publishers desiring the kind of material that will appeal to a larger and broader audience, the responsibilities of campus and hiring committees, and working with graduate students, who has time to organize marches? Community college professors do.

We have many of the same responsibilities with the exception of publishing and working with graduate students. These are big exceptions because the work and pressure in publishing is no joke, and the needs and expectations of graduate students are many. We in community colleges have the additional responsibility of a greater teaching load (I teach a 5/5 load) and I grade all of my 350 students’ papers. How do I have time for activism? It is not easy; however it is more than manageable. In community college your direct work with students, including your activism, is rewarded and can aid in your tenure and promotion. In my tenure review meeting with the campus vice president, she thanked me for giving voice to our students of color and hoped that this would continue. Thus while the activist tendencies of Research I faculty are often are met with criticisms from those who feel it is hurting chances for advancement, at community college it is another aspect of your job.

You are working with a student population that had been lulled to sleep by many high school teachers, textbooks, and curriculums that did not seem to have relevance to their everyday lives. At community college these students are often awoken. They start to ask the questions: What can we do about racism, sexism, and homophobia? How can we support immigrant rights, gay marriage, and do something about the gutting of our education system? These students don’t want to simply intellectualize about concepts of oppression, they want to organize and agitate on the behalf of others and themselves. During the difficult times of the current economic crisis the California education system has had to endure the deepest cuts. At my community college I helped students organize nearly a dozen talks about the issues of educational equity, a half dozen marches and rallies, and two student road trips from Los Angles to Sacramento. Some of these events had as few as 100 people involved to as many as five hundred. My campus went from having the reputation of being the most conservative of our nine community college district campuses to one of the most politically active. Many of my students have received awards and even scholarships for their activism.

Embracing Diversity

As a working-class black man who grew up in a predominately Latina/o city, I feel privileged to have the ability to teach so many working-class students of color. My campus had been considered the last bastion of whiteness within our district, but no longer. Currently we are 34 percent Latina/o, 31 percent white, 13 percent Asian and 6 percent African American; overall nearly 70 percent of our student body is students of color. If you have a desire to work with a minority student body, community college gives you the opportunity.

I am not trying to paint an unrealistic picture of rooms full of noble and eager students who all value education over degrees but to be honest that is not the case at the research one either. Yes the undergraduate population at a Research I institutions may be better prepared, but many of the students share the same mantra, “Cs get degrees,” with the less motivated student body at the community college. However, there is no better feeling than having a young Latino male gang member you have mentored get accepted into UC -Santa Cruz, or the graffiti street artist who leaves for UC-Santa Barbara, or the son of struggling immigrants getting into every UC he applied to. It is an honor to have taught the Chicana activist who chooses to transfer to California State University-Northridge because it is home to the original Chicano Studies program in the nation, or the older wife and mother of two teenage children who goes on to get her undergraduate degree, or the former porn star wo decides to make a career change later in life and goes onto UCLA to major in religious studies. While this may happen at the Research I, it happens in abundance at the community college. Where else would you get to witness so many dramatic student transformations? You are a part of the truly miraculous, and the pay isn’t bad either.


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