In the Beginning: The Role of Community College Faculty

ASCCC President

As we start another academic year, we finally have some additional funding to support our efforts, collaborations and partnerships that keep the system moving forward, and we renew our hope that our students will achieve their dreams. Once again, there is promise in the air, and new beginnings provide an opportunity to review an understanding of our roles as individual faculty members. The ASCCC has many "role" papers and publications for senates and groups of faculty, but finding one singularly about our profession and the role of a single faculty member is difficult because aspects of our job are hidden in a variety of places. This article will bring new attention to the basic responsibilities of every faculty member and common standards for our profession.

Faculty in community colleges have a role that is different from both K-12 teachers and university faculty. Teachers in elementary and secondary schools survive in a culture where decision making occurs at the top level and trickles to classroom. In some instances, teachers are engaged in decision making, but standards for grade level work or expectations for earning a diploma may occur at the local board of trustees or even the state superintendent of instruction. University faculty are expected to conduct research, and for that reason, often spend less time in class with students. Community college faculty land in the sweet spot where the focus is on teaching and assistance to students, and have the responsibility to develop and propose solutions for curriculum, degree requirements, and other aspects of student learning rather than have those solutions come down from top administrators. Faculty in community colleges also have responsibilities and professional duties with respect to governance and academic matters through the academic senate which has been described in several ASCCC publications.

Many faculty who apply to work at community colleges know these differences in roles and expectations, which is why they select community college teaching as a career. We want people who make the choice to work with our students and focus on teaching and who also understand their responsibility for contributing to academic programs and success of the college. However, their role does not end at making the choice to focus on teaching and engage our students. Our faculty are also committed to one another through our further responsibilities to improve not only our own teaching but that of others, as well as to improve the overall college experience for students.

Collegial Consultation. We have a responsibility for collegial consultation, and not just the type that is spelled out in Title 5 for senate purview with academic and professional matters. Collegiality occurs when we help our colleagues understand our perspectives and experiences just as we would help students understand our course content and subject area. Luckily, our place of work is a learning environment for faculty as well as students, where learning is the goal and where mistakes will be made by well-intentioned people. As we all know, learning from mistakes takes patient and supportive teachers, and when the learning environment is a committee or department/division meeting, we focus on understanding for good decision making. Helping colleagues learn about new approaches to teaching, the new system in the library, or challenges to students with basic skills needs are just as important as helping our students prepare for required assessments in our classes. Our profession demands that we develop ways to help each other achieve greater success in our respective assignments.

Official Job Description and Course Outline of Record. Our role as faculty is to follow our job descriptions as negotiated by our collective bargaining groups. Some faculty in the state have obligations beyond our primary assignments with students which may include committee work, service to the college, or other professional assignments. For classroom faculty, we are hired each term to teach specific courses, each of which has an official course outline of record (COR) associated with it. Each COR has been developed by faculty in one or more disciplines and then at a minimum approved by the college curriculum committee before being officially approved by the board of trustees. As a result. that course is owned by the discipline(s) that wrote it, but more importantly, it's owned by the college and board of trustees. The course is then advertised in the catalog and online to students who read the course description and enroll in the class with a general understanding of the course content, which requirements it fulfills, and if it transfers to a university. So much is riding on the integrity of the COR that all faculty teaching the course have a responsibility to abide by it. The COR serves as a contract between the college and its transfer partners and students guaranteeing the course content it describes will be addressed and evaluated.

Counselors and librarians also have job descriptions that indicate the specific ways they will contribute to student learning and success. Just as classroom faculty are held to the COR, librarians and counseling faculty also have professional responsibilities to uphold in their respective realms on campus. The ASCCC has separate publications on the roles of counselors and the roles of librarians.

Syllabi. Each faculty member designs his or her own syllabus for the class based upon the COR and any guidance or requirements established by the department or academic senate. Given those parameters, faculty can decide to create online modules for the class, "flip" the classroom, require certain instructional materials, and design assignments and assessments. In order to help students, some departments ask all faculty teaching a particular course to use one common assignment, to use or not use particular technology, or require faculty to include some other agreed upon element of the course. Senates may ask all faculty to include certain statements in faculty syllabi in order to communicate important messages to students across campus such as a senate policy on academic integrity. Just as the COR is a contract with the public and transfer partners, the syllabus is a contract between the teacher and each student in the class.

Peer Review. We have other obligations to our colleagues as well, including performing peer evaluations to improve the teaching and learning environment and participating in program review. Both of these peer review processes are designed to allow faculty to contribute to the quality of the profession as well as to the excellence of academic programs at the college. Through implementation of these processes, we strengthen the educational experience at the college for students and colleagues by using our expertise in our disciplines and our experiences with helping students learn. Our profession must maintain high standards, and the best way to energize members of the profession is with meaningful peer review. In addition, California Education Code is clear that faculty evaluations must include peer review (see §87663.c) while other elements of faculty evaluation are optional. The ASCCC has several papers on program review and a new one, approved at the plenary session in Spring 2013, on faculty evaluations.

Grades. California Education Code §76224 gives faculty complete authority over grades awarded to students. Unless the faculty member is incompetent, or mistake, fraud, or bad faith can be proved, the grade assigned by the instructor of record is the official grade for the student for the class. We take this responsibility carefully and thoughtfully by ensuring that our assessment of student work aligns to the expectations stated in the class syllabus and the COR. With as much fairness as possible, we must ensure that students are treated equitably and evidence is available to demonstrate to a student why a particular grade was awarded.

Tenure and Academic Freedom. Understanding and defending tenure and academic freedom are critical parts of what faculty must do. In order to be able to explain successfully why tenure exists or what academic freedom means when we are faced with questions from those outside of academia, we first must have faculty-wide conversations about what these critical elements of our profession grant to us. The Academic Senate has resources on both tenure and academic freedom that can be useful for faculty to read before engaging in those conversations with family and friends who want to know why faculty should have tenure. A brief explanation of what tenure and academic freedom provide for faculty should include the fact that institutions of higher learning are also protected by tenure and academic freedom just as much as individual faculty. These necessary aspects of our profession are not simply tools created by faculty unions to allow faculty the right to say anything we want. Quite the contrary, both tenure and academic freedom exist to keep our institutions of higher education engaged in speaking the truth about controversial topics and not be beholden to an agenda from a funder, a faction of the community, or other entity attempting to sway academic learning away from the facts and truths of a given discipline. Though it happens rarely, faculty with tenure can be fired, and tenure does not guarantee that faculty with documented poor performance remain employed indefinitely. Our profession needs tenure and academic freedom, and we also need to honor the responsibilities that go with speaking the truth of our disciplines.

We have the greatest profession on the planet - we see lives enriched and transformed in a positive way every day. The faculty I know regard teaching as a joyful and rewarding assignment, and our students are lucky to work with the dedicated faculty of the California community colleges.