The Job Market: How to Get an Interview at a Community College (Part 1)

by Basil Smith

Tailoring Your Application for the Philosopher on the Committee

After getting my Ph.D. in philosophy, I applied to any job that I could, which included about 90 jobs. When applying to community college jobs, I cited all the obvious things one is usually told to cite. For example, I emphasized teaching over research, talked about my committee work, and detailed my vast teaching experience. Still, I got just six interviews in total. Three of these interviews were from community colleges, and I was offered one community college job. A few years later, I’d just been granted the version of tenure that my college offered. Even so, after a holiday to California—I couldn’t resist Orange County—I impulsively applied to six jobs here, got four interviews, and got a job. What made the difference?

By the time I did the California applications, I was chair of my department, with all the duties this requires, such as grant-writing. However, by asking the members of the committees who hired me, and from my own experience on two hiring committees, I realized that there is more to getting an interview at a community college than citing the obvious things. As of now, I look at citing the obvious things—such as vast teaching experiences—as a prerequisite to applying at all, but not as particularly impressive.

Hiring Committees and Dating Strategy?

Consider an analogy. After a long period of marriage, solitude, and/or dissertation work, you start dating again. Your friends, trying to be helpful, remind you that for you to impress any potential mates, you must be positive, be a good listener, and establish common interests with potential mates. After a few dates, though, you get the impression that your competitors have also been speaking this language of love, and so seem equally appealing (or harmless). Even worse, you realize that by acting positive or attentive, or by seeking to develop a rapport, you’ve wasted valuable dating time concealing what makes you special.

Alas, as Allen Wood notes on this blog, hiring committees—even those in community colleges—are inundated with too many applicants/suitors who come across as having similar qualities. Members of hiring committees, being spoiled for choice (and just a bit jaded), often have no good reason to choose between candidates. Consciously or not, committee members utilize inaccurate information, faulty methods, or even prejudices, to exclude candidates. Often, the inferences committee members will make about you will be about you (i.e., will be ad hominem). Even if these tactics are ineffective, there is no point in your complaining about them, for such appeals will not get you a job.

To get a philosophy job at a community college, I suggest you concentrate all your efforts on your CV and cover letter. When writing (i.e., adapting) these documents, though, you should seriously consider the psychology of the faculty and administrators you are writing for (e.g., their respective desires, goals, and fears), and cater to it. Because graduate advisors do not direct their graduate students to these jobs, they often do little more than tell graduates to add a few sentences to your documents. By seriously considering the psychology of the faculty and administrators on these committees, you will at least avoid excluding yourself, and you may increase your chances of getting an interview.

Philosophers, ESL Instructors, and Deans (Oh My)

Typically, hiring committees for philosophy jobs at community colleges are composed of three groups: the philosopher or philosophers (the “content expert” or “experts”), the other faculty—which mostly includes faculty from related disciplines—and the dean. Here, I look at the first group: the philosopher or philosophers.

Assuming this committee includes a philosopher, there will probably only be one—or only who has any sway over the group. This person will probably be the only member of the committee (perhaps even at the college) who understands philosophy. Given this, other members will look to this person for guidance, and this may prove decisive at the interview and teaching demonstration stages.

Philosophers, whether in research institutions or community colleges, think of themselves as intellectuals (i.e., as being primarily interested in ideas). Because philosophers self-identify in this way, this person will be less interested in your pedagogical boasts (such as your interest in teaching, committee work, community projects, etc.) than anyone else. Actual teaching experience will matter, but only if you can show this in detail. However, if anyone on the committee will judge you by silly standards (e.g., where you got your Ph.D., who you worked with, that you have a paper coming out in Mind, etc.), this person will. After all, only this philosopher will have the background to have such prejudices.

So, your initial task should be to look this person up (by old publications, the course catalog, online student recommendations, etc.), and try to estimate where he or she is coming from, as it were. Sure, this is work, but assuming you want the job, you have every reason to do it. Actually, this is easier than you might think, for this person will be in the course catalog over and over teaching certain things but not others, this person may have published, and online student recommendations will contain trends. With just this amount of information—assuming you still want the job—you can and should describe (or completely recast, if need be) your CV and cover letter in order to cater to this person.

Opposites Don’t Attract, Actually

What will this philosopher want? Well, just as with dating, he or she will want a great deal. Still, consider two main categories. First, this philosopher will probably be looking for someone who is philosophically similar to him or herself (having the same philosophical interests, assumptions, dislikes, prejudices, etc.), such that this person will be a serious philosopher, whatever that amounts to for them. So, contrary to the typical strategy of citing your love of teaching, committee work, or community involvement (all of which sounds shallow or insincere) for this philosopher, you should evince your passion about philosophy itself, as well as, say, about process reliabilism, the moral emotions, or whatever you are working on (citing all your publications, conferences, appearances, projects, blogs, collaborations). By doing all of this, you are showing that philosophy (and your work) is important to you, hinting at why, and being honest, such that this philosopher can infer that you are serious and worthy of respect.

It is absolutely imperative, in such an application, to motivate your passion for philosophy (and your own work) in the right way. When candidates cite their achievements in their CV and letters (imagine a dissertation on “norms of assertion”), they can seem to be motivated, in part, by trivial and/or conventional issues—issues that a philosopher who teaches in a community college will probably not care about— such as the desire to publish or the desire to be the next philosophical superstar. Although it can be difficult to avoid being motivated by these things, you do not want to seem keen on trivial debates, seem to care about fame, or seem to take yourself too seriously. After all, you do not want this philosopher to infer that you are too annoying, absorbed, egotistical, or competitive to be interested in the college or the department, or that you are not worth talking to. In his “Higher-Order Truths about Chmess,” Daniel Dennett points out that when graduate students are encouraged to get hooked on some trivial project with a short shelf life, then to philosophers outside that conversation—especially those in a community college—such candidates come across as people who are obsessed with useless things.

Rather, difficult as it may be to do, you will want to talk about philosophy (and your work) in such a way that you seem to be motivated by the study of ideas, their implications, and sharing them, and all for their own sakes. By doing all of this, you will imply that even though you are a serious philosopher, you are also optimistic about ideas, can be committed to the department, will be a generous colleague, and will even be fun to have around.

So Teaching Does Matter After All

Second, this philosopher will want you to teach specific classes (e.g., ethics, practical ethics, critical thinking, or philosophy of religion). Even if the job description does not say so—they usually do not—whoever is hired will be expected to teach whatever this philosopher does not teach. After investigating what these classes might be, you should describe (or completely recast) your application to cater to this. Clearly, your actual teaching experience will matter (hint: being a teaching assistant is not teaching experience). In other words, if you can, you should make it clear that whatever these classes are, you have taught all of them, and have taught them well many times. Cite your amazing teaching evaluations, your very detailed syllabi, your best teacher award, etc., all of which suggest that you could slip right into your new job easily. By showing that you are a seasoned teacher in these ways—as opposed to leaving such things unsaid, partial, or vague—by citing all this detail, you will seem to be a superior bet (and less risky) than much of the competition.

Again, once you know what your potential classes will be, in order to appear to be a seasoned teacher and to convey what you can teach in the future, you should describe or recast your own work (namely your dissertation and papers) generally, such that it spans these classes. Imagine citing your Ph.D. thesis, say, on theories of vagueness (and papers on the same). Well, if this philosopher sees that this is what you chose to work on for years, you really only care about boring things. Why trust you to teach, say, practical ethics or philosophy of religion? By recasting your work in general terms, you can at least convey that you have a good handle on different parts of philosophy and that you can learn to teach new things easily.

Similarly, once you know what these classes may be, you should describe or recast your work so that it does not seem weird, crazy, or otherwise biased. Alas, we are not always the best judges of how our interests come across to others, and you should ask others—people not in your own program— what they think. Imagine citing your Ph.D. thesis on the Christian concept of prayer. Well, this philosopher may infer that you are too devoted to your religious dogma to treat many positions fairly, and again might be skittish about letting you teach things like philosophy of religion. Again, by recasting your work in a way that does not seem weird, crazy, or biased to this person, you will allay some of their fears about you as a teacher.

Clearly, my observations about community college hiring committees—that is, about how the philosopher will want you to be serious and be experienced—are just my reflections, and so may be incorrect, especially in certain cases. Moreover, my observations are incomplete, even if true. Still, the idea here is that, just as with dating, by estimating the desires, goals, or fears of your target (e.g., the faculty or administration on these committees), you can increase your odds of getting through this stage. By not estimating what these faculty members and administrators want, by not doing more than talking about teaching and committees, you will seem superficial, insincere, and, just like all the other applicants.

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Basil Smith is Chair of the Humanities and Philosophy Department at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, and serves on the APA’s Committee on Philosophy in Two-Year Colleges. Smith did his graduate work on Cartesian skepticism at Kings College London and Cardiff University and is now interested in Experimental Philosophy and Metaethics. Find out more about Smith here.

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The aim of this series is to provide APA members with some insights into the hiring process from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.

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