Creative Writers and the Community College

Tim Waggoner | October 2002

During the expansion of the community college system in the 1960s and ’70s, great numbers of faculty were hired. Now, some three decades later, two-year schools are experiencing massive retirements which are expected to continue over the next few years. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,166 community colleges in the United States. If you’re looking for a teaching job at the college level, there’s an excellent chance you’ll find an opening at one of these two-year schools. But is a community college the right place for you? And are you the right teacher for a community college?

I teach at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. I’m one of seven full-time, tenure-track faculty members hired in the last three years to replace retiring teachers. Four of us have graduate degrees in creative writing. Though I teach fiction writing courses and serve as the department’s coordinator of creative activities (editing the literary magazine, organizing the annual writers’ workshop, etc.), my primary teaching responsibilities are in composition. Of the colleagues I mentioned previously, one teaches poetry writing in addition to composition, and another teaches business and technical writing, though she is in the process of a developing a Web-based fiction writing course.

My point? Just that you need to know up front that community colleges don’t have the equivalent of MFA programs, and we don’t have creative writing majors per se. Bottom line: you’re not going to be supervising any graduate theses here. You’re going to spend most of your time teaching something else in addition to or instead of creative writing, most likely composition.

Still interested in exploring the possibility of teaching at a community college? Then let’s discuss the reasons why it’s a great place for creative writers to work.

  • Teaching counts more than publication. In order to get an interview for a creative writing teaching job at a four-year school or university, book publication tends to be the dividing line between the vitae that end up in the To-Be-Interviewed pile and those that are relegated to the Thanks-But No-Thanks pile. How many times have you read through this very Job List and encountered phrases such as "significant publications" or "minimum one book published by nationally recognized press"? While it would be wonderful if all of us could sign our first publishing contract before we finish graduate school, the reality is that we’re more likely to have published a few poems, short stories, or essays in lesser-known journals.

My colleague, Vicki Henriksen-Stalbird, explains why she sought a community college position. "As far as choosing to apply to a community college after receiving my MFA, the answer, simply put, is supply and demand. At the time I graduated with my MFA, I was competing with well over 3,000 other graduates for a limited number of positions. And that’s not even counting previous years’ graduates. Also, it seemed to me that most four-year institutions were hiring only graduates who had significant publications-at least one, and probably several stories published in the prominent journals-and those qualifications were bare minimum. Many of those I was competing with had two or more published books. My publication history and the perceived prestige-level of the journals I’d published in was relatively modest by comparison. Since I like teaching, and because I had a varied background in non-academic employment, a community college seemed like a better bet."

Teaching, not research, is the focus of a community college. Publication is still important for a writing instructor, of course: it shows you practice what you teach. But at a community college, you don’t have to worry about having the "right" publications in the "right" journals. It’s far more important that your writing and publishing provide experience and expertise that you can share with your students.

  • A graduate degree in creative writing is good background for teaching any writing course. Training in the writing process and the workshop method can be applied to any writing class-beginning composition, research writing, writing about literature, business and technical writing, and, of course, creative writing. Because of the more practical focus of MFA and MA degrees in creative writing, graduates of these programs have a great deal of experience that can translate to any writing course they might find themselves teaching at a community college.
  • Community college students are great to work with. Community colleges are not all of a kind, of course. Some are larger, some smaller; some are located in urban areas, some rural. But students share certain traits. They tend to be practical about their education, choosing to attend community colleges at least in part due to their lower cost. They’re focused on receiving training in their prospective careers, and while they don’t mind if a writing class helps them with their respiratory therapy or business courses, most aren’t looking to become the next National Book Award winner. Even so, they still see the value in becoming better writers.

During my career, I’ve taught at both four-year schools and universities, and often my students at these institutions would act as if they already knew it all when it came to writing, despite what their grades indicated to the contrary. Few students would seek out extra help either from me or from a writing tutor. They were, in many ways, far more narrowly focused on their career paths than community college students.

Now, while I have my share of students who are content to just pass the class, there are far more who view writing as a valuable skill that can help them in their other classes and in their future careers, whatever they might be. They seek out additional feedback from me and they aren’t shy about going to the Writing Center for even more help. My composition students may not see themselves as destined for writing careers, but they are interested in and grateful for what I have to offer. It’s a good feeling, and it’s one of the biggest perks of teaching at a community college.

Should you be fortunate enough to teach at a community college that offers creative writing courses, as I am, you’ll also find yourself working with a different, but no less rewarding, population of students.

James McGowan, professor at Parkland College in Champaign, IIllinois, says, "I cannot remember a creative writing class in my two-year school that failed to have a representation from every age group from the ‘traditional’ ages to retirees. Just about every student in the 30-plus age group has a baccalaureate degree already in hand, and a considerable number of them have graduate or professional degrees. The ultimate result of this mix is that the greater maturity of such a large number of students gives a much more serious mien to the class than when the class is predominately composed of younger students, as would be the case in most four-year creative writing classes."

My experience has been the same. The creative writing cl- asses at my sch- ool draw people from throughout the community who want to learn how to write fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Often, they already have degrees from other institutions and are taking creative writing classes for their own sake. These students are serious-minded about learning craft and many possess as much talent as any students I’ve

  • The money’s not bad. A recent survey of community college teaching positions listed on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website showed a starting salary range of $30,789 to $42,841 for full-time, tenure-track English professors-and that’s not counting opportunities to teach overload or summer classes. Not a king’s ransom, perhaps, but then again, the starting salaries for positions at four-year colleges and universities often aren’t much higher.
  • There’s room to expand course offerings and develop creative activities. Perhaps the community college that eventually hires you has no creative writing courses, or perhaps those courses are the province of older, tenured faculty who aren’t quite ready to share them yet. Don’t despair: two-year schools are open to professors willing to use their time and creativity to enhance existing programs. Community colleges are all about student learning, and anything that enhances the educational experience is valued by staff and administration. If your school has no memoir-writing course, develop one. No literary magazine? Start soliciting submis- sions. No reading series, writers’ workshops, writing contests? My college is fortunate to have all of these activities and programs-but only because various professors took it upon themselves to develop them over the years.
  • There’s a chance to have an impact on the cultural life of your community. Often, four-year schools and universities have an inward focus, gearing programs and activities solely toward tuition-paying students. But in addition to their teaching mission, two-year schools are concerned with contributing to the surrounding community, and creative writing activities and programs make for effective outreach. Poetry readings, literary magazines, and writers’ workshops-all open to community members as well as students-not only enhance the student experience, but they can also feed the artistic life of your community.

Sold on at least exploring the possibilities of teaching at a community college? I’ve served on two search committees at my college, and while much of what community colleges look for is the same as any other school, there are some important differences.

  • Do you have community college teaching experience? Community colleges are not four-year schools or universities. Their focus on student learning, practical education, and community service make them very different places from research-oriented, publish-or-perish colleges. If you have experience teaching at a two-year school, it shows that you not only understand the difference, but that you might even like it.
  • Does your writing make you a better teacher? Being a writer means that you have experience and expertise to share with your students. Search committees want to hear how you intend to use that expertise in your classes; they’re not interested in hearing whom you studied with in graduate school, what prizes you’ve won (or almost won), or what dazzlingly innovative narrative technique you’re using in the short story you’re currently working on.
  • Mention your attitude toward students. Remember, at a community college, it’s all about the teaching. During the last faculty search I was involved in, only two candidates out of perhaps a dozen we interviewed discussed how much they enjoyed teaching students. Guess which two candidates we ended up hiring?
  • Don’t talk at length about your creative writing if you’re up for a bus/tech writing job. It’s doubtful that any posting for a two-year college teaching position will specify that the school is looking for a creative writer. If the notice says "primary duties involve teaching developmental English" that’s exactly what it means. You don’t have to hide your creative writing background during an interview, but remember you’re there because the department is trying to fill a specific teaching need: composition, business and technical writing, developmental writing, etc. Make sure the bulk of your interview addresses how you can meet that need.

I’ll leave the last word to Cathryn Essinger, who teaches composition and creative writing at Edison Community College in Piqua, Ohio.

"I chose to teach in a Community College, knowing that I would have a heavier teaching load, but never doubting that my creative writing students would be just as talented, motivated, and industrious as their four-year counterparts. I was able to step into the classes that truly interested me-creative writing, writing for publication, fiction, and poetry-without the long wait that seemed inevitable in four-year institutions where these classes were staffed with older professors who had no intentions of giving up their favorite courses. I also welcomed the opportunity to do my own writing in an atmosphere where there would be less pressure to do academic research and vie for tenure.

"Creative Writing, out of necessity, seems to straddle two worlds-it is neither academic, nor part of the popular culture. Creative writing students are literary practitioners, who need to hone their skills, just the way any other students in technology programs practice their craft. This is what Community Colleges are all about."

Tim Waggoner is the author of two novels, a short story collection, and numerous articles on writing. He teaches composition and creative writing at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. His website is located at


Tim Waggoner is the author of two novels, a short story collection, and numerous articles on writing. He teaches composition and creative writing at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. His website is located at

No Comments