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small college teaching and "the promised land"

Karen Allendoerfer ravena at CCO.CALTECH.EDU
Sat May 13 13:17:55 EST 1995

I have a couple of friends who went the route of teaching at a small 
college that serves undergraduates exclusively, although I don't plan to 
do this myself.  I thought that some of their experiences might be 
interesting to people in this group who have asked about that career path.

It appears, from the outside, that it is not "the promised land" for the 
following reasons:
1.  The workload is very high.  A professor is often expected to teach 3 
or 4 classes per semester.  One of my friends, who is a very gifted 
teacher and lecturer, and who has a lot of energy, says that by the end 
of the semester he is "crawling towards the finish line."  He found the 
first few years of teaching to be as much or more work than his postdoc.

2.  Many of the students, although not all, by any means, are unmotivated 
and uninterested in the coursework.  One of my friends cynically 
describes a large majority of his students as "Limbaugh dittoheads" and 
"frat boys" although he has also described the very rewarding experience 
of working with the three or four really good, motivated students that he 
has every year in various courses and independent work.  I have heard 
comments like this from both of my friends my age and from a friend's 
father, all who teach science at decent small colleges.  A large number 
of students are more interested in drinking than in studying, have short 
attention spans, and are extremely grade-oriented, especially the 
pre-meds.  The balance/reward that comes from the really exceptional 
minority of motivated students is sometimes worth the aggravation, 
sometimes not.

3.  These colleges are not always more sympathetic to family concerns 
than large research institutions.  Another friend faced a very 
unsympathetic administration and department when she wanted to lighten 
her teaching load during what turned out to be a difficult pregnancy (in 
her mid-30's).  I think, like any job, one has to look at the specific 
school, the specific department, because many can be good environments 
for family-oriented people; I'm just saying that there's no guarantee just
because it's a small teaching institution rather than a grant factory.

On the positive side, even my cynical friend really enjoys many of his 
students.  It seems that on the balance, he usually thinks that the good 
ones are worth the aggravation of the bad ones.  And if there are other 
young faculty around, they seem to form a close cameraderie and 
friendship with each other.  And, my friend with the difficult pregnancy 
ultimately did end up getting tenure, so perhaps the unsympatheticness 
that she perceived was more talk than action.

My own personal feeling about a teaching job at a good undergrad college, is 
that in order to excel, one really has to have a thick skin, a secure ego, 
and to enjoy and be good at public speaking.  These aren't necessarily 
skills that you learn in grad school. 

Karen Allendoerfer

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