English in Community College (feat. Stacey Donohue)
Alumni Aloud Episode 28
Stacey Donohue is a professor in the Writing and Literature department at Central Oregon Community College. She earned her PhD in English at the Graduate Center in 1995.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Stacey talks about the importance of enjoying teaching and mentoring students if you’re applying to teach at community college; the subtle art of being adaptable to the needs of a diverse student body; and the value of getting some experience in university administration while you’re in graduate school.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: I’m Anders Wallace a PhD candidate in the Anthropology program at the GC. In this episode, I sit down with Stacey Donohue. Stacey is Professor of English at Central Oregon Community College. She earned her PhD in English at the Graduate Center in 1995. In this episode Stacey talks about the importance of enjoying teaching and mentoring students if you’re applying to teach at a community college, the subtle art of being adaptable to the needs of a diverse student body, and the value of getting some experience in university administration while you’re in graduate school. Stacey and I conducted our conversation remotely via Skype and so the conversation has been edited to enhance clarity and sound quality.
Can you tell me your name and what you do for a living?
STACEY DONOHUE, GUEST: My name is Stacey Donohue and I’m Professor of English at Central Oregon Community College. I’ve been here since 1995.
WALLACE: Can you tell me a bit about your academic background and your journey from the GC to your current role?
DONOHUE: Sure. I earned my doctorate in 1995 and I applied for jobs that same year—that was the year I went on the job market. I had been adjuncting at Borough of Manhattan Community College for seven years during my PhD years—during my coursework—and I applied to many many jobs. I’m not sure if you know this, but 1995 was pretty much one of the worst years to apply for jobs with a PhD in English according to the data the MLA shares. But I got several interviews and I accepted this position at Central Oregon Community College—three thousand miles away and I took the job. I’ve been very happy here. I’ve had several positions besides Professor of English. I’ve been the Department Chair twice and Dean of Humanities once.
WALLACE: So that’s an interesting record also—teaching and academic administration. Can you talk about other decisions that played into your choice?
DONOHUE: Well, I was working at Borough of Manhattan Community College, also a wonderful position, even as an adjunct. I was really treated nicely. And my last year there I was a full-time temp. There might’ve been a chance I could’ve gotten a tenure track job there. But again, it was a very competitive year that year and hundreds of people were applying for single positions. I think at BMCC 500 people would apply for a tenure track position. At Central Oregon Community College they got 200 people applying for the position I ultimately got. And it’s in Bend, Oregon and not many people knew about the town then. Now it’s become sort of a tourist mecca, but at the time it was a small, tiny little town. So I knew that I wanted a tenure track job. That’s what I wanted. Alt-ac was not necessarily an option at the time. People who chose not to go into academia often left the PhD program before they finished the PhD. For those of us who finished the PhD, we pretty much knew we wanted to stay in academia, especially in English; I’m not sure about other fields. So I didn’t envision another position. I had worked for years before entering the PhD program at the Grad Center. I had worked in publishing; I worked as a paralegal. So I had other job experiences and I knew that I didn’t want those jobs. I wanted something in academia. And having adjuncted at Borough of Manhattan Community College for seven years, I was pretty certain I wanted a very teaching-centered academic experience at a community college specifically. That meant I had to apply outside of New York City if I was going to be competitive. And that is what helped me. Being able to move helped me get that position.
WALLACE: That’s something I think is really important for students to be aware of where they stand on that.
DONOHUE: Yeah. Because colleges outside of New York, they want to diversify their faculty, too. In Oregon, they don’t want only Oregonians on their faculty. I was effectively the diversity candidate.
WALLACE: So you came into the GC already having a breadth of experience in non-academic jobs, so you felt really confident having had that experience that academia was the way you wanted to go.
DONOHUE: I did. I wouldn’t have gone for that—it was an end-route PhD—I wouldn’t have done that unless I was pretty confident that was what I wanted to do.
WALLACE: What’s a typical day like for you in your role?
DONOHUE: I’m in a pretty unique position. I’m a Full Professor now. I’ve been here twenty-two years. So my typical day might be different from a new Assistant Professor of English. I teach fewer courses because I have a partly administrative load still. So a typical day… on Monday I teach a class—a live class—a composition class. I might have office hours, several meetings related to a title III grant we’re working on. I also teach an online literature class, so I’ll spend time facilitating or grading or preparing for that class also. I do community service as part of my position at COCC, so I’m involved in the public libraries community read selection committee. So I might on a typical week be engaged with that work. I’m on several committees at COCC because college service is again part of what we do. So I might have a shared governance work group meeting—I’m the chair of that committee. Or I might be on the faculty forum executive committee meeting—that’s our union, so I’m involved in our union work. So that’s a typical week.
We also do peer-evaluation of other faculty. So for example, last week I observed a faculty member teaching an early childhood ed children’s literature course and this week I’ll meet with her to discuss my observation. Because we’re a community college, we do return the favor of local taxes by serving the community. Community is broadly defined also, so it doesn’t have to be local community. So I do a lot of work for the Modern Language Association, the MLA, which is our disciplinary organization. I’m on several MLA committees.
WALLACE: Do you have a great deal of freedom in choosing which of those activities to pursue?
DONOHUE: Very much so. Department chairs are… not everyone desires to be a department chair for example. But those who do are kind of groomed to be department chairs at some point. At COCC the system is that every four years a new department chair rotates in. So in a small department like ours—we only have twelve tenure track faculty members—that means most people will ultimately be a department chair at some point. Which, to me, is a really value-added thing because if everyone experiences that administrative role—even though department chair is pretty much middle management—you learn a lot more about the big picture, how the college operates. And when you have, as in our department, many former chairs as faculty members, we all understand how the college operates, which allow us to get more of what we want because we understand more of how things are decided. We know how to use the system.
WALLACE: You’ve talked a bit about the difference between two and four year colleges in the teaching load. Are there other differences that come to mind?
DONOHUE: The teaching load. Our regular teaching load—and we’re on the quarter system, which is rather unique if you’re from the east coast where you’re used to semesters. But our typical load is 4-3-3 for the average Professor of English. However, many of us in the humanities department, and we’re called the humanities department here rather than English—that’s another difference that may be seen in community colleges versus universities. But there are also many similarities between community colleges and teaching-centered colleges, too. Teaching load is one of them. The requirement that we also do advising. So this is the time of year we meet with advisees to help them register for the next term’s courses. So many of those expectations and the expectations, too, to be engaged with student activities generally is not different at community college than it is at a teaching-centered institution, a four-year college. But yes, the teaching load is probably heavier than most. And for community colleges, we’re probably a little lighter than many community colleges. There are well over a thousand community colleges in the United States and we’re all very different.
WALLACE: That’s interesting. And can you think of advice for a GC student on the job market who might want to evaluate if they’re a good fit for a community college. Can you think of any good self-reflective criteria they might use to think about that decision?
DONOHUE: That’s a great question. Well yes, one, getting some experience teaching at a community college is the number one way of determining whether that’s the place you want to be. And being in New York City there are so many community colleges to choose from. And many of them are very happy to hire GC students to teach part-time. So I highly recommend that. It’s a fabulous experience. Having said that, teaching any first-year course at any of the CUNY colleges is probably pretty similar. The difference might be the student body. The student body at a freshman composition class at Brooklyn College would probably be a little different than the student body at a freshman composition class at BMCC. Just different types of students.
I think community college students can be incredibly rewarding because many of them really choose to be there; they really want an education. Many are first generation college students. Which could also be true of Brooklyn College, I’ve never worked there. I bet there’s more similarities than not. So you really want to work with students though. If you’re at a community college, you want to be with students and you have to be willing to work with the students you have rather than the students you think they should be. So it requires you to be flexible and to be excited about that challenge. And if you have that bug you know it. You know it from day one. You really do.
WALLACE: And have you served on a faculty search committee? What do you look for in applicants?
VOICEOVER: Hey everyone, Anders here. At this point the audio quality of my interview with Stacey cut out. I was asking Stacey what she looks for in candidates when she serves on faculty search committees. Stacey said that COCC struggles with writing job ads. They are often looking for a generalist, someone who’s open to teaching a variety of courses. As a department of writing and literature they also want someone who’s experienced in teaching composition. In addition, they may want someone who can fill some of the content areas that may be left open by individual faculty who are retiring. And preferably someone who has community college experience and experience teaching more than one course at a time. So when Stacey sits on faculty search committees, she says the applicant’s cover letter is especially important. It reveals not just the candidates’ experiences but also how they’ve dealt with challenges. Have they ever created a new course from scratch? And how did that go? Are they excited about being at a community college? And have they looked at COCC specifically and seen their uniqueness as a college?
What do you enjoy most about your role now?
DONOHUE: I admittedly enjoy only having two classes at a time this year. That’s been novel. It’s been exciting because I can focus much more than when I’m teaching four classes or even three classes. Our students change every few years. We get a different sort of population. So this year, Oregon is offering free community college to recent high school graduates. So the makeup of our classes has skewed younger. In the past, our average age was around 28 and now it’s probably down to 26. But I’m finding in my composition class, specifically, there are many more 18-year-olds than there used to be. That changes the dynamic of the class and it makes it a new challenge for me. We still have students in their late 20s, 30s… there’s at least one person who’s probably in the 40s, and we have several veterans in the class. It’s an exciting mix of students. They all come with their own strengths and their own challenges. They have to negotiate working together themselves—especially the younger students who are kind of not used to working with older students or veterans. That’s a challenge that they’re working though. It’s fun to see how it happens.
Generally the older students and the veterans—even if the veterans are just a few years older than the just out of high school students—they’re more comfortable working with the younger students and they set the tone and it works out well. I have to admit I’m excited by that. And every community college I’ve ever taught at has a range of students and a range of student abilities. So that’s not unique, but the uniqueness for me is more younger students than usual.
The other thing about this free community college—we call it the Oregon Promise—is that many of these recent high school graduates are very strong students. Students who may normally have gone straight to a university are saving money by starting at the local community college. We’ve always had that—I’ve had several of my students ultimately transfer to Harvard or MIT or Stanford. I’ve had those students over the years. Many students who were taking community college while in high school—many of those students. But these are students who graduated high school who could’ve easily gone straight to a university, but are saying, “You know, I think I’ll start at this community college, save some money, and then transfer.” So that’s unique too and pretty exciting to get these very strong students in our classes.
WALLACE: Really interesting as a phenomenon socially, but then also for you as a teacher to figure out how to manage a class. What about the most challenging aspects or most frustrating?
DONOHUE: The most challenging aspect is the more typical community college students, which is those who are working—often full-time—those with family commitments, and, because of where we are in the rural part of Oregon, transportation issues are a big problem. We have a very pitiful public transportation system here, which is basically a van that they call a bus system, which is a very rigid route. And the students don’t live on that route, so they have to rely on unreliable vehicles. Plus, winter is coming, winter is here. So those unreliable vehicles don’t drive well on ice or snow. So the challenges… but nothing to do with skills. Because even students with rusty skills… that’s easily addressed. The challenges are more these outside issues that get in the way of their learning. So it’s a challenge to balance being flexible with students with issues outside their control—employers who are not flexible with their schedules who demand that they come to work at a dime because “someone called in sick, now you have to come into work” and they don’t care that the student has a class that day, or transportation issues, or family issues that are really outside the student’s control. So it’s a challenge for me to balance giving them that flexibility while also keeping them on track. The quarter system is ten weeks long with the eleventh week as finals, so missing a week is brutal; it’s unforgiving. I remember teaching on the semester system at BMCC and a student missing a week… it’s not fun but it’s not brutal. There was space to deal with that.
WALLACE: That’s a lot of responsibility for you. Are there skills that you would recommend GC students could hone for themselves to prepare for a career at a community college?
DONOHUE: Yes. There’s several skills—and this is true of any college—assessment is big. So having some experience using Excel would be brilliant. I’m still struggling with Excel. And just understanding how data works and how data can be manipulated. So, if you understand how data is collected or can be manipulated or misinterpreted, understanding data analysis and collection, understanding assessment, that would be good training.
WALLACE: Is that assessment in regards to the student’s performance or departmental?
DONOHUE: Both. You’re assessing student learning—are they actually learning in your class? And you have to go beyond the grade, so you have to assess whether they’re meeting student learning outcomes. You have to assess whether your department is effectively providing what it says it’s providing students. Is the curriculum as up-to-date as it should be? Is the curriculum transferrable? Are students transferring as successfully as they should be? So you have to be able to assess that. Assessment happens everywhere, trust me. It’s a big part of this job. Any change you do in your curriculum, especially if the change costs money, you want to prove it’s going to lead ultimately to a cost savings, as well as effectiveness. Not always to a cost savings, but at least to student success.
WALLACE: Being able to work with data, knowing what to measure and how to measure it.
DONOHUE: The person we hired to be this coordinator has a PhD in English from the University of Washington, and the value of that—he’s a recent graduate from the University of Washington and his field is Renaissance Literature—but during his graduate career he worked on several grants at the University of Washington. So he had a lot of experience working on grant projects doing the kind of assessment work that’s required for any grant project, and thus that translated into that he had the experience we desperately needed as coordinator of our Title III grant. And we’re really happy to have him.
In addition, he has a background in teaching developmental reading and writing and composition and that background is part of what we’re doing with the grant. So he’s the perfect candidate. He had experience working with various levels of administration at several colleges near Seattle. He got comfortable working with staff in other departments—IT staff, working with deans and other administrators. So he had that experience just working on grants as a graduate student, so when he got here he just stepped right into the role. It’s been wonderful. He also had a digital humanities background, so that’s been helpful because he can help us create these visual maps of the work we’re doing in ways that those of us in our department who are not so savvy yet… he can be very helpful that way. So that kind of background. Working on committees even. Even as the adjunct rep on a committee at a college you’re adjuncting at or a committee at the Graduate Center. Seeing how committees operate is excellent training.
WALLACE: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Stacey for coming on the show to share her experience as a Professor at Central Oregon Community College with our listeners. Also, we’d love to hear from you. Tell us about your experience listening to Alumni Aloud by filling out our survey. Just click the Alumni Aloud link on our homepage. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every other week during the Fall and Spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified when new episodes are released. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter, and Career Planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office and to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time.