AHA 2018 Dispatch: Teaching History in Community Colleges

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We are pleased to have Professor Mike Davis writing for The Way of Improvement Leads Home this weekend from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  Davis teaches at Northwest Florida State College. He is a scholar of American history with a focus on the politics and culture of 19th century America. His most recent publication is a history of the Anti-Masonic movement in Thetford, Vermont. His current project is a history of the National Christian Association (1868-1983)Enjoy!–JF

On Thursday, January 4, 2018, I attended a panel titled “Teacher, Historian, Scholar: The Professional Identity of Two-Year Faculty.”  It focused on (among other things) the role that two-year faculty should play in the community outside their classrooms. A recurring theme among panelists Paul D’Amboise (Vermont CC), Nathaniel Green (Northern Virginia CC), Elizabeth Bryant (Houston CC), and Tony Acevedo (Hudson County CC) was community engagement, both inside and outside the classroom.

Paul D’Amboise pointed out that two-year college faculty are uniquely placed to be a bridge inside the historical community between K-12 educators (who might have more pedagogy), four-year college faculty (who might have more content), and museums and historical societies.

Furthermore, the preponderance of surveys and the growing number of students beginning their careers at two-year colleges make two-year college historians the ‘fulcrum’ of historical education – the front-face of the historical academy and the best way for scholars to get a feel for the general public’s knowledge of and engagement with history. There are no better scholars for teaching skills of critical thinking and citizenship to the average American.

Reversing typical expectations for community college faculty, Nathaniel Green argued for CC faculty to embrace research – making the case that the best way to promote student confidence, success, and satisfaction is to give them the understanding that their community college faculty are professors of history rather than just teachers of it. A scholar with an active research agenda is a scholar making vital contributions to their field, suggested Green, meaning that said scholar can show students that their learning is just as important, and their institution just as ‘real’, as their counterparts at four year institutions.

On the subject of promoting student engagement, Elizabeth Bryant took a pedagogical route, suggesting that faculty adopt the role of “learning manager”, explaining the term as faculty abandoning the idea of disseminating information and becoming masters of strategies to ‘promote understanding’. Community college students are too diverse in their backgrounds and college preparation for anything less, given that many lack the support systems or personal freedoms of students at the four-year college level. On that subject, she led the panel in championing “growing relationships” outside of the classroom, reminding those in attendance of just how diverse the role of community college faculty is.

Finally, Tony Acevedo reminded us of two “facts of life” of community college faculty ] they tend to be happy and satisfied with their jobs and their strong focus on teaching, but concerned about the issues of professional isolation (as they tend to work solo or in small groups), poor conditions (5-10 course teaching loads are not uncommon for community college faculty), and in general how the tension between teacher and scholar is particularly difficult for faculty members working at institutions that may give no weight to the latter at all.

Moderator Mark Smith’s promotion of disciplinary mastery led us into a final discussion of themes that felt familiar to scholars at any institution – declining enrollment, poor treatment of adjuncts, the increasing need to teach learning strategies to products of an era of standardized testing, and other crises that afflict both two-year and four-year institutions. It was an engaging discussion for this author, a teacher at a two-year institution, and a rewarding one – as career paths for Ph.Ds change amid broader evolutions in the nature of higher education, it’s reassuring to know that the American Historical Association is engaging with the interests of two-year faculty.

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