Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Blog XXVIII (28): The History Ph.D. at a Community College

This next guest entry in this blog discusses the career options for the history Ph.D. while working at a community college. The author of this entry is Hal M. Friedman, a Professor of Modern History at Henry Ford Community College. He earned his B.S. from Eastern Michigan University and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Friedman is the author of three books: Creating an American Lake: United States Imperialism and Strategic Security in the Pacific Basin, 1945-1947 (2001); Governing the American Lake: The US Defense and Administration of the Pacific, 1945-1947 (2007); and most recently Arguing over the American Lake: Bureaucracy and Rivalry in the US Pacific, 1945-1947 (2009). Here is his guest blog:

I am the Associate Chair of the History Department at Henry Ford Community College (HFCC) and came to HFCC in a rather roundabout way, as I guess most Ph.D.s do to community colleges, so I'd like to give some background information on myself and illustrate what historians can accomplish in terms of careers at community colleges. My background includes a Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science and History (I couldn’t decide on which one to major in) from Eastern Michigan University in 1987. I began graduate school at Michigan State University, finishing my M.A. in the History of International Relations in 1991 and my Ph.D. in the same field in 1995. Like now, academic jobs at that time were hard to come by, so when HFCC offered me a full-time, tenure-track position starting in January 1996, I jumped at it.

To set the context, some description of my college is necessary. Henry Ford Community College is both a typical and atypical community college. HFCC is typical in that the majority of its students come from working class, economic underclass, and/or immigrant backgrounds. The vast majority of its students are first generation college students. They also work part-time, full-time, or near full-time at various kinds of jobs, primarily low wage positions without benefits or much security. Working hours range between 10 and 50 hours per week and students attempt to complete between 6 and 15 credit hours per semester while simultaneously working at these jobs.

HFCC is also fairly typical in terms of the age, time constraints, and skill levels of its student body. Students are typically older, with an average age of 27, though the daytime students which I teach are primarily 18-20 years of age. Day and night students are also many times involved in family activities which detract from the amount of time that they can devote to studies, activities such as providing child care or helping to operate family businesses. Moreover, while skill levels may not differ greatly between day and night students, motivation levels and seriousness about studies certainly does. Students over the age of 21 appear in class on a more regular basis, complete assignments more regularly, and contribute to class discussion on a more substantial scale than do younger students. Probably most importantly, the majority of our students, quite typical for community colleges (and increasingly for four year colleges as well), come to the College grossly unprepared for college level work, especially in reading. In the fall of 1997, for instance, 1/3 of the History Department’s first semester students taking daytime history courses were reading at a junior high school level! I have also increasingly found students unwilling and/or unable to do assigned readings. Worse, I have found students reluctant to take notes on the assigned readings, even after I instruct them to do so on the first day of class. Moreover, I have found that many students' notions of what constitutes “effective note taking” is seriously lacking in rigor, with many failing students merely taking down outlines from my computer-generated lecture transparencies or being satisfied with a page or two of notes when much more detailed information is needed for study purposes.

Finally, HFCC is typical in that the majority of its resources are increasingly being focused on “workforce retraining” for the 21st Century, catering to Detroit area corporations to fulfill employee training of various kinds, and participating in community projects across the spectrum. Though the goal of transfer to four year institutions is still the objective of the largest single group of students at the college (about 40%), a majority of our students are actually attending classes for technical certificates, terminal associate degrees, or other types of job training. HFCC as a “comprehensive community college” is, in fact, a junior transfer college, a technical institute, a remedial academy, a center for lifelong learning, and a commercial college, all in one.

HFCC is an atypical community college in that it is over 70 years old. Most community colleges in the United States started as recently as the 1960s. In addition, HFCC is fairly large for a community college, averaging between 10,000 and 15,000 students (and currently pushing 18,000), depending on the state of the economy, with enrollments lower during more prosperous economic times. Moroever, the College is atypical in that its administrators unionized in the early 1970s, and it is one of the few community colleges in the country today to practice Shared Governance on a significant basis.

The College is located in a highly urbanized area, and is therefore a crossroads of sorts between several major universities, archives, and museums. In addition, the College is also located in a vibrant, culturally diverse area, which has had a significant impact on the curriculum. Dearborn, Michigan, is home to the largest community of Arabic peoples outside of Southwest Asia and North Africa, and, as of the spring of 2000, the College’s student body consists of 60% European-Americans, 20% African-Americans, and 20% Arab-Americans. Because of these realities and opportunities in teaching comparative cultural history, HFCC’s History Department dispensed with Western Civilization decades ago and has been teaching World History courses for over 40 years. This comparative focus, along with a strong tradition of academic freedom at the College, allowed me to redesign the Early American Survey from an Anglo-centered political history to a comparative cultural history course.

My teaching duties at HFCC have included the Early American, Modern American, and Modern World History survey courses, also typical at community colleges where the teaching is primarily, though not always, at the survey level. Not surprisingly, my teaching has caused me to spend significant amounts of time reading in areas of American and World History that I was not exposed to in undergraduate and graduate school. These readings at times have been part of the assigned texts to the students, but more normally have equated to additional readings on my part in the New Social and Cultural History that has so significantly and positively changed the American historical profession since the 1960s. These additional readings have, in particular, included texts in Modern World History, an area that has become so prominent in the field since the 1990s.

I have spent a great deal of time on professional development because I am convinced that my continued development as a professional historian outside of the classroom has an immediate and positive impact on my ability as a history instructor in the classroom. I have been able to serve as an article and textbook reviewer for a number of professional journals and publishing houses. HFCC’s funding for professional development has also allowed me to attend a variety of conferences on both research and teaching subjects in a number of roles, including as a presenter, a session chair, a session commentator, and a member of the Program Committee organizing the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians earlier in the decade. All of these activities have been bolstered by participation in a number of local academic study groups and national professional organizations.

I have been fortunate in having a highly supportive environment at HFCC in which to research and write history, in large part because of professional development funding built into the local union contract. Given this support, I have been able in the last 14 years to produce 12 scholarly articles, 4 encyclopedia entries, a book review essay, a film review, 24 critical book reviews, and works for two essay contests, one of the latter receiving an Honorable Mention. Moreover, I have found time and encouragement to transform my doctoral dissertation into a monograph and write two subsequent books which together comprise a trilogy on US national security policy toward the Pacific Basin immediately after World War Two. These books explore how and why the United States sought to turn the Pacific Basin into an exclusive American strategic preserve after the Second World War, Americanize the indigenous populations of selected island groups, and project American power toward East Asia.

I am in the process of writing a second trilogy of monographs. In 2010, the U.S. Naval War College Press will publish Digesting History: The US Naval War College, the Lessons of World War II, and Future Naval Warfare, 1945-1947. This book explores how the Naval War College (NWC) reacted between 1945 and 1947 to the lessons of the Second World War and especially to what NWC personnel thought the naval aspects of a Third World War might look like. In short, I investigated "imaginary war" as the United States Navy transitioned from the Second World War to the Cold War.

A career at a community college can be tough. The student body is very often less than motivated, has numerous outside distractions, and resists the changes necessary to digest higher education. At times, one also finds oneself fighting the college administration, something not exclusive to community colleges but something they are also not immune to. In fact, since community colleges have very heavy teaching loads, usually about 5 courses per term, one is usually on campus 4-5 days per week, so if there are problems with the administration, the students, the local community, or even among the faculty, there is no escaping it.

On the other hand, it can be a fascinating career with highly collegial colleagues who are free from the "publish or perish" pressures and the concern about "status" that is sometimes typical of four year colleges. The students who are interested and skilled are some of the best and most interesting students one can encounter. There is also the opportunity to make an impact in the local community and with the college itself if one is lucky enough to land at a college with a unionized and shared governance culture. Also, scholarship is possible depending on the type of pedagogy one pursues and how good one is at organizing time and priorities.

Graduate students and recent PhDs have to realize that a career at a community college is drastically different than one at a four year college or a research institution. Instead of focusing on research and the teaching of specialized topics to future history majors and graduate students, one is largely teaching to a general public who will never encounter scholarly history again. A career at a community college, however, is much preferred to failing to find a history teaching position at all and having to find an alternate career. It's not the best of all worlds, but it's far from the worst.


  1. This is a valuable and interesting column. Any tips for getting one's foot in the door at a community college for graduate students on the job market? Community college hiring seems less formalized and more local in scope than college faculty searches.

  2. Salary and benefits packages at community colleges have tended to be higher than at four year colleges and universities. I think this is because of the higher teaching load, and it may be changing now because of tough budgets. It also depends on whether or not the community college is in a state that allows unionization. I know our starting salaries, for instance, are no longer keeping pace, but they do by 5-10 years. Full-time positions are more rare than at four-year colleges; community colleges sometimes advertise in Perspectives and the Chronicle, but not often because of expense. Often someone has to find these postings on college faculty job search sites. When community colleges do hire full-time, they are looking for someone to stay permanently, which at times has led to a bias in hiring locally, but not exclusively. Community colleges do nation-wide searches, as Federal law requires, and they are starting to use electronic means more, but there is still a concern that a Ph.D. from a high powered institution probably just won't stay at a community college very long. Given the expense of a search, community colleges get nervous and want to hire folks who will stick around.--Hal M. Friedman

  3. "A career at a community college, however, is much preferred to failing to find a history teaching position at all and having to find an alternate career"

    Why? Why is what you call "an alternative career" something that you'd "have" to find if you didn't get some teaching job? You make it sound as if there's some hierarchy of the worthiness of work we do putting a doctoral education to use, with teaching at the top followed by everything else. What about people who *want* to put their Ph.D. to use in some productive capacity that doesn't involve teaching? Teaching whether at a four-year school or a community college isn't necessarily the most worthy way to put a doctoral education in history to use. Many graduate programs inculcate that belief, and I have no problem if one holds that belief as a personal opinion. Do what's right for you, one might say. But not everyone will see "alternative careers" as only some kind of consolation prize.

  4. I'm sure your right. But I got into this field to teach. It's what I would rather do than anything else. I can understand if you don't agree with me, but there it is from my perspective.

  5. Hey, Dr. Friedman do you remember your conservative nightmare student?