Friday, March 26, 2010

Don't Let Them Fall Through the Cracks! An Accretionary Wedge...

The Wedge is back! This month's new Accretionary Wedge, hosted at Geology Happens, is asking what we geologists are up to:

"Not everything I am studying ends up in a published paper, well actually nothing I study ends up in a published paper. Sometimes my HS students hear about my adventures and sometimes I write a blog post, but mostly it is just for me.

This AW is to share your latest discovery with all of us. Please let us in on your thoughts about your current work. What you are finding, what you are looking for. Any problems? Anything working out well?"

This seems a great opportunity to find out what kinds of things one can do as a geologist, and I hope lots of bloggers and readers out there are responding. As my readers must probably know by now, I teach geology at a community college. I've talked many times about the joy and motivations of being a teacher of geology (here, here, here, and very recently, here), but I don't think I've said much about the day-to-day grind.

As a professor at a community college, I wear a number of hats. Unlike many four-year universities, we are oriented more towards teaching rather than research. The school loves to tout our research if we pursue it, but it is not expected of us. Consequently, the teaching load is larger than it would be at other schools (15 hours a week of instruction time is considered full-time, plus required office hours). A teaching overload is not unusual. I teach classes in physical and historical geology, geology of California, and a distance-learning course called "Introduction to Geology". Laboratory sections are taught as part of the first two classes. Because geology is such a field-oriented science, I teach several field courses each semester, with an extended five-day trip to the Cascades, Death Valley, or the eastern Sierra Nevada, plus a number of day trips to Yosemite, the Coast Ranges, or the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode. The summer usually includes a two week exploration of the American southwest, or Pacific Northwest. If you have read my blog for any period of time, you know that taking students into the field is my favorite part of teaching.

I spend lots of time grading lab reports and tests, which I don't particularly enjoy, but responding to the student's work is one of the most important things I do; in a classroom people can hide in the back and not participate verbally, but their written work and my response is an important direct line of communication.

My job includes other responsibilities. As part of a philosophy of shared governance, we are generally expected to serve on committees, such as Academic Senate, Curriculum, Petitions, Scholarship, and so on. We participate in department and division meetings. All professors, full-time and part-time, are periodically evaluated, which includes peer review, so we spend time sitting in on other prof's courses, and providing advice and guidance. We are also involved in the hiring processes of both professors and administrators.

Finally, although it is not always spelled out in our career announcements, we are ambassadors for our school. We visit elementary school classrooms to talk to children about our work, we give presentations on geologic topics to the community (I talked about the Haiti earthquake a few months ago), and we provide expertise to local governments. I get visits all the time from people who wish an explanation of the strange rock specimens that they have discovered.

Community colleges fill many roles. We provide a bridge for high school graduates who are unsure of what path they want to follow into the future (some data suggests that our students may change majors six times or more) and we are also a cheaper alternative to high tuition universities (our transfers often do very well). We have many reentry students as well, people who need a new career after being laid off or divorced, or need to develop new skills for a changing workplace. And some students, well, they have a life-long love of learning. We are trying to make sure no one with an educational need is falling through the cracks (I had to justify the title somehow...).

So that's what I do, if you have ever wondered (no doubt all of three or four of you), but if it sounds like something you might like to do as a career, you will need to earn at least a master's degree in geology or related science. Most geology departments at California's 112 community colleges are fairly small, so full-time openings are relatively uncommon, especially in difficult budgetary times (like right now, for instance). On the other hand, the average age of us professors is, well, not so young, and many retirements can be expected in the next decade or so.

It is not very often that a newly minted college graduate scores a full-time position as a professor. Many people teach part-time at several schools for a time, or like me, work in a related capacity for a few years (I know some of my old colleagues at Santa Barbara City College occasionally look in on the blog: thanks from the bottom of my heart for the wonderful opportunity you provided me back in the 1980's!).

Teaching at a community college is a great career choice. I'll never be financially wealthy, but I have had a rich life. I have never regretted it for a moment.

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