Monday, January 25, 2010

The Ivory Dungeon

This comment from Anon. 2:58, here, about teaching at a community college constituting social justice work, deserves discussion (much snipped):
[snip] I have a tenure-track full time teaching position at a HUGE urban community college. [snip]

The teaching loads and assignments for CCs vary by institution, location, student population, and (crucially) unionization/union effectiveness. My teaching load (12 classes per year split between fall spring and summer, with a guaranteed nine week off period) often elicits cartoon-worthy eye pops from others in the discipline. But its really not nearly as bad as all the fainting and chest-clutching would have one think. I still have plenty of time to do other things, or, you know, sit around and watch TV instead.

[snip] CC/Jr Colleges vary in the funding they are offered by their respective states, but the approach to budget is generally no-frills. (CCs are expected by state legislatures to teach the hardest populations at the highest volumes with the most effectiveness at the lowest cost; basically, it's the Ivory Dungeon.) [snip]

Another problem is (and don't take this the wrong way) most philosophy Ph.D.s are totally and completely unprepared for the sheer poverty of education students have had before arriving at these institutions. They are almost always completely unprepared for college, educationally immature, and borderline illiterate. They are typically extremely poor and have been systematically deprived of real education throughout their entire primary and secondary education. Working in CCs, depending again on location and economic background, is really, genuinely social justice work -- with all the stress and joy that brings with it. Frankly, most of the folks I know in philosophy -- from first year grad student to respected tenured full professor -- would not be able to survive, let alone thrive, in such an environment. It requires real knowledge about pedagogy, real sensitivity to problems of race and class oppression, and some measure of actual training in how to teach. You can't fly by in this environment just with your innate abilities. You must consider teaching a skill and be willing to revise and change; you must give up the idea of meritocracy to some degree; you must face your own unearned privileges.

That being said, I love my job -- at least on most days. And I may be working in the Ivory Dungeon, but its still better than being a corporate slave (which I have done, and would never do again). I feel like what I do actually matters, and that even if I am not a philosopher remembered by time, I will have meant something to at least some of the students I teach. (I'm 3 years in, and the tally is at 2,600 students so far.)
Well put and, I imagine, right on target. As more and more of us start expanding our searches wider and wider, all of this seems to be worth keeping in mind.

-- Jaded Dissertator


Anonymous said...

A great post. A real breath of fresh air in this blog.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I think of my job at a CC as working at the "philosophy factory" for a reason.

I completely agree with the Ivory Dungeon description of a CC... my CC is in a fairly wealthy suburb, but since we are one of the largest in the state, we still have a very wide range of preparation in every classroom... We also have large classes (Ethics, Intro and World Religions = 50, Logic =40), so the real challenge is actually getting to know our students before we are finished with grades..

Anonymous said...

Never thought of CC as "social justice work," but of course it is. Very apt post.

Anonymous said...

I agree, awesome post. I worked at CCs on and off for years, tried to get a job at a few, but could never make the final cut. Things such as my research agenda, publications, fact that I traveled a lot, fact that I held lots of teaching positions, both at colleges and universities, were often held against me during the hiring process. Also, admin at CCs are serious about Affirmative Action hiring. If you like working with that population of students, it's a great opportunity to make a real difference in those students' lives. Though I ended up with a good job at a satellite campus of a big state university with a much lower teaching load (3:3), I secretly wish that I had secured a CC position.

Anonymous said...

There's something mildly (or worse) self-congratulatory about calling CC teaching "social justice work." (The Nietzschean slaves celebrating their purity and all that.) Bless you, noble philosopher, for coming down to teach the masses.

I say this as someone who's taught at a CC and now at a small state U in a very poor region. Yes, you can make a difference and expose students--many of whom will be incredibly receptive--to ways of thinking that never before occurred to them. And that's what good teaching should do at any level and at any place. But let's not be self-righteous and try to appropriate some kind of moral high ground here.

Chris said...

Oh, calm down, Anon 5:29. Is teaching not an at least somewhat morally praiseworthy activity? Is teaching to the comparatively underprivileged not an at least somewhat more morally praiseworthy activity than teaching to the already privileged? Are the reasons for this, which are too obvious to bother spelling out in full, not related to "social justice" in some sense? The original poster isn't claiming to be Martin Luther King or anything, or (importantly) claiming that the social-justice aspect was the only thing that got him/her involved in CC teaching in the first place.

Anonymous said...

If it helps make a person's life better and to help him/her better serve the students, then I think CC folks ought to call it social justice work. And it really does have some similarities to social justice work.

But folks should not let the 'social justice' aspect blind them to many of the problems in the CC system, such as chronic underfunding and anti-democratic administration.

Anonymous said...

There are many different kinds of social justice work; community college emphasizes a certain type and God bless those who participate in it. But other places require other kinds of work -- attending to the rural, attending to the gender divide, attending to the cultivation of civic discourse.

Furthermore, at my "flagship" campus in a low end state system, I have counseled rape victims, helped people get out of bad marriages, assisted with those who needed their voices heard, advocated for the abused, and created an environment where political and religious diversity is welcome.

I'm not Gandhi and there are people with more immediately pressing needs than my students (food, water, basic literacy skills, etc.), but the stuff I do is often social justice related as well. Unfortunately, there is enough injustice in the world that we are all needed.

Anonymous said...

Poster, you should write an article about this (community college teaching as social justice work) for Chronicle of Higher Ed or some other pub.

Anon 2:58 said...

Wow, this is more attention than I expected. Let me see if I can say something meaningful.

First, I don't mean to suggest there aren't major problems in the the way CCs are set up or administered. And, of course, there's a lot of variation between institutions. So, yes, I agree it may be more or less social justice work, depending on the population being served.

I don't deny different institutions just run differently, and perhaps I didn't acknowledge that as much as I should have in my original comment to Phaedrus ~ I consider myself wholly corrected.

With respect to Anon 5:29 comment that There's something mildly (or worse) self-congratulatory about calling CC teaching "social justice work." ... Social justice work is something that takes different forms. But maybe its also because I don't just walk into the classroom, say some stuff they've never thought before, and walk out. I don't think my only job here is to open my students eyes to new ways of thinking, philosophically. I don't know of a single faculty member here who conceives of their job solely as teaching the subject. We do much more than that with our students.

Further, Anon 5:29 seems to think that "showing them new ways of thinking" is just that -- "showing them new ways of thinking." But, those who are familiar with literature on oppression and cultural hegemony, and who actively do social justice work realize that one of the main ways that systematic privilege/oppression is reinforced is by the internalization of dominant oppressive values in the minds of both the oppressed and privileged. To that extent, teaching the oppressed amounts to giving them a set of skills they've been systematically denied. Teaching the oppressed to think in different ways is not the same as teaching the privileged to think in different ways; but of course, if you knew anything about pedagogy of the oppressed, you'd know this.

I'm also not claiming that ONLY those who teach at CCs are doing social justice work.

I agree with Anon 6:47 -- the problems shouldn't be ignored just because some of what is done in CCs is helpful. The same is true, though, of the social worker, of the public defender, etc. -- we all work within a broken system. What we are doing is the best we can to help people who need it. But, yeah, if I had to make a list of all the things I think my institution does that are morally dubious -- it would be a long one.

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. And thanks, Jaded Dissertator, for thinking my comments merited their very own post.

Anonymous said...

I'm a philosopher in a somewhat fancy position and don't have the character to do CC work, but thought I'd add a bit of evidence on the side of the social justice thesis. Some years ago I was hanging out in LA talking with some guys in their mid- to late-20s about the value of their CC experience. The progression was: directionless, reckless, and small-minded at around 18, 19, 20 years old; somehow found way into CC system; excellent teachers found a way to reach them; this enabled them to get a broader, more analytical perspective on things; found meaning and direction; better lives.