Friday, March 10, 2017

Community College Calling

Christine Gengaro
My last year in graduate school at the University of Southern California was my third year teaching at community colleges. I taught at three different community colleges that year (Pasadena, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles) in various capacities. In the midst of writing my dissertation, while also working at a research assistantship at USC and “freeway flying” (a freelancers’ term for being occupied by near-constant driving in pursuit of a livelihood), a full-time job opened up at Los Angeles City College (LACC). Although it wasn’t in music history, it was in voice, a field in which I'd earned a Master's. But I wanted that big musicology job where I could immerse myself in research and publish books. Over the next year, two things happened: my body and mind became worn out by freeway flying, and LACC did not find anyone for the open position in voice. When they re-opened the position, I was still reluctant, but I put in an application anyway (on the very last day, if I recall).
While there was a clear disparity between what I'd imagined—a musicology job at a research university much like USC—and the very different conditions that came with community college teaching, the benefits of the latter were undeniable: the trunk of my car would no longer double as an office; I could work in one place instead of braving LA traffic driving to three jobs; perhaps most importantly, I could build relationships with students instead of always running off to the next gig. The pay and benefits were also impressive, as community college teachers in California, and especially in LA, benefit from a strong union that sets starting salaries at a consistently high level. Suddenly I found myself with a full-time job, money in the bank for the first time since leaving a middle school teaching job, full health coverage, and my own office. And the job was a mile away from my apartment (it is hard to overstate how much proximity can mean in LA).
Despite this, when I first started, I was at war with myself internally. Had I sold out? Was the siren song of the steady paycheck luring me away from my passion for musicology? Should I stay or keep applying for that elusive musicology job? At the outset I gave myself eight years. I reasoned that it was a good period of service to offer the school, and I thought my prospects for getting another job would grow in that amount of time. Yet during that window, multiple factors gradually cemented my commitment to LACC. Two years in, the global recession began, and I watched programs all over LA (and the rest of the country) cut classes, and adjunct teachers lose their jobs. Four years in, I was granted tenure with little fanfare--most full-timers are given tenure as long as they’ve done their jobs and received “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations” on their yearly reviews. Along the way, public awareness about student loans increased, as the amount of student debt in the U.S. reached an all-time high, with new graduates not finding the jobs to pay back the investment.
These financial issues were especially disturbing to me. I was fortunate enough to receive scholarships and assistantships for all of my schooling, and I worried about the students who didn’t have the same opportunities. I saw first-hand my students' financial struggles, and they were paying just $46 a credit (if they were paying at all). Compare that to the $1000+ a credit some schools charge, and the lack of financial assistance those schools offer outside of loans, and it became increasingly clear that I had a personal and political alignment with the community college mission. Community colleges provide quality educations to people, some right out of high school, and some who postponed college at eighteen in order to work full-time or otherwise support a family. Most of our students have jobs; many have children or parents they care for; some come back to school after successful careers in other fields. So when I hit that eight-year mark, I realized that I didn’t want to leave. I love my job. I’ve loved it for a decade. I love my students. I am inspired every day. I’m delighted to be part of an institution that values student success. I recently served on three search committees for new faculty members, and the competition for these positions was fierce.
LACC serves around twenty thousand students every semester, with about half of those aiming for transfer to a four-year school. Many of our students are receiving some form of financial aid. Some of our special programs include remedial Math and English classes, ESL, a program for emancipated foster youth, and a high school concurrency program. LACC is part of a nine-school district, and the student body is one of the most diverse in the world. In 2015, our student population was 49% Hispanic/Latino, 18% White, 17.2% Asian/Pacific Islander, 10.4% African American, and 5.3% other/unknown. The median age of our students is 30-something, although the music majors skew quite a bit younger.
The professors in my department are contractually obligated to teach fifteen hours a week. To my younger self, that would have seemed like a barbaric amount of teaching, but it’s manageable, especially since some of these are performance classes. Currently, I do about a third of my hours in online classes. I am a member of the Curriculum Committee and I am the Student Learning Outcome coordinator for my department, meaning I provide support for my colleagues as we evaluate our students’ progress in meeting the objectives we've chosen for our classes and our programs. SLOs are required for accreditation in institutions across the country. The administrative stuff sometimes takes up more time than I like, of course, but I am happy to be part of shared governance.
Our transfer students may move on to local or more distant schools in the CSU and Cal State system, but we’ve also sent music majors to San Francisco Conservatory, Columbia, and USC. Last year, the music department received a $10.1 million grant from the Herb Alpert Foundation, the largest private gift to a community college in Southern California history. Soon we will be changing our name to the Herb Alpert Music Center and offering full scholarships to our music majors.
My school offers a travel stipend for one conference a year, usually taken up by the Music Association of California Community Colleges conference, but I still attend AMS at my own expense whenever possible. Because of the intensity of my teaching schedule, it is more difficult when the meetings are on the east coast, but I am energized by the papers and panels and the interaction with colleagues from around the world.
My original plan—to do research and publish—is alive and well, although my focus is now more on doing work that is widely accessible. Publishing is not a requirement of my job, but it turns out that I am highly self-motivated (I would argue that this is a crucial characteristic for any community college professor who wants to publish). With no one breathing down my neck, I am free to pick and choose my projects and write at my own pace. I will be editing my first volume next year, and meanwhile have written two textbooks for use by our beginning theory students; published my first book in 2013 (with my second forthcoming this year), written chapters on film music, and presented at conferences in the U.S. and abroad.[i] This is not the path I envisioned fifteen years ago, but it’s a far richer experience than I could have imagined when I began.

Christine Gengaro is an educator and musician based in Los Angeles. She’s taught at Los Angeles City College for over a decade. An enthusiastic writer and researcher, she’s been program annotator for the Los Angeles Chamber orchestra since 2007, and her second book is coming out later this year.

[i] Christine Gengaro, Experiencing: Chopin, Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2017; and Listening to Stanley Kubrick: the Music in His Films, Rowman and Littlefield, 2013.


  1. Some of my best learning (in school) was done at community college. Smaller classes, discussion with diverse students (including older), dedicated and caring teachers --especially for introductory-level courses, community college can be better than university.