Although often left out of the conversation about the future of the instruction of ancient language, history, and culture in higher education, contingent faculty at community colleges serve on the front lines of this struggle, frequently becoming the first ancient studies professors their students encounter. Often working without job security, a steady salary, or benefits, adjunct faculty are providing cutting-edge instruction to an exceedingly diverse student body. According to the American Association of Community Colleges’ 2022 Fast Facts, community college students represent 39% of the total undergraduate population in the United States and include large percentages of first-generation students, workers, single parents, students with disabilities, and members of historically marginalized groups.
The SCS Blog recently had the opportunity to interview two community college adjunct professors to hear about their experiences.
Patrick J. Burns: Let’s start with the here and now — what courses are you teaching this semester?
Stacy Davidson: I teach credit and non-credit courses for Continuing Education and History at JCCC. This semester I am teaching Ancient Greece, the Near East, and Egypt asynchronously and History of Ancient Egypt via Zoom. Traditionally, Egyptologists end history instruction with the death of Cleopatra, after which Classicists or historians take up the mantle; this semester, I am rejecting artificial chronological boundaries and stressing cultural continuity — Egypt did not “end” with the death of Cleopatra. My students are loving it! As a special opportunity, I have students participating in the American Research Center in Egypt’s Archive Digitization and Publication Project, in which students from community colleges, HBCUs, and MSIs create digital humanities projects using archival materials.
Erika Bucciantini: Oh, boy. I’m on three separate campuses this term. I’m teaching Latin at a local college preparatory school, tutoring English at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus, and teaching Latin 101 & 102 on the Rockville campus. This term, my chair and dean went to bat for me to secure a coveted HyFlex classroom. It’s amazing. My Latin students can select whether they would like to attend class in person or via Zoom. Leaning into our tech tools is the only way I’ve been able to keep my program alive through COVID. I need to be able to draw from a large geographical region and offer as much convenience as I can for my students.
PJB: I became interested in learning more about ancient world teaching at community colleges after hearing about the Community College Faculty Meeting on the SCS listserv. Can you tell us a bit about the Committee and how you met?
EB: I attended the inaugural Community College Faculty Meeting in July 2021 and was thrilled to meet Stacy there. We realized quickly not only that we had a lot in common personally, but that we both have M.A.s, are dedicated to teaching and research, and are passionate about creating opportunities for underserved populations to participate in ancient studies. We connected after the session and have remained in touch ever since. We call ourselves geminae, to honor our collegial connection and blooming friendship. The pressures of the pandemic have yielded some gaudia inter lacrimas, after all!
PJB: What are your favorite courses to teach? Can you point to an example of a course that was more successful than expected? Or an area of ancient world study that you find really captures the interest, piques the curiosity of your students?
EB: I’ll teach anything. Give me anything in the English or Latin pantheon, and I will create a course that reaches, educates, supports, and inspires students. These are difficult times, and many students are struggling personally, financially, and emotionally. Their ability to confidently reach for their dreams is the only success I use to truly measure my work.
SD: My favorite class to teach is Egyptian Hieroglyphs, because it’s so interactive, but I love anything ancient. Teaching at a community college allows me to break down the barriers of access that selective degree programs, like Egyptology, have. The class that stands out to me as being more successful than expected was my Introduction to Hieratic class. I upended the traditional way hieratic is taught, by assuming no prior knowledge of hieroglyphs in this course. To my knowledge, this is the only hieratic class to be taught at a community college and to be taught using this method.
EB: With the shift to online learning, we have to use every tool in our toolbox to attract, retain, and inspire our students. I have flipped my classroom, taught synchronously, asynchronously, hybrid, HyFlex, and accelerated. For community college adjunct faculty, if there are no students, the class doesn’t run. Keeping a program going takes innovation, grit, and a bottomlessly cheerful attitude. That is the recipe for a successful class.
Most community colleges also have a number of programs to support student success. Students, if you are struggling with basic needs, mental health, or with your academic goals, reach out to your professors or your dean of students!
PJB: Speaking of interest in the ancient world, what background knowledge of the ancient world are your students arriving to your class with? What background knowledge of other subjects are they drawing on to bring fresh perspectives to the ancient world?
EB: I can’t assume students arrive to my classroom with any background knowledge of the ancient world, any formal training in grammar, writing, library-based research, or critical-reading skills. Especially with the disruptions of the past two years, students arrive to class from a whole range of backgrounds, family circumstances, educational experiences, and traumas. While most of my Latin students have familiarity with basic Graeco-Roman mythology and some Roman history prior to my class, starting from square one is always the best bet.
And I am pretty careful when bringing in pop culture references. I find that as I age, it’s increasingly difficult to keep up with the trends.
SD: I completely agree with Erika in that I can’t assume prior knowledge. While I am in favor of judicious use of pop culture to elucidate concepts in the ancient world (and am currently writing an article to this effect), it can be somewhat problematic, because students assume that what is being presented to them is historically accurate. I often use imagery or text as a stepping-off point to explore the reception of the ancient world, where this interpretation comes from, and what purpose or agenda it has.
PJB: The importance of language teaching to the study of Classics has been an active discussion recently concerning the future of the field — I’m thinking, for example, of Max L. Goldman and Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Inside Higher Ed piece from June 2021, which notes that the “field has long disproportionately emphasized…languages” and that it may be time to push for a more balanced definition of the field, where language is one part of what is, in fact, “a methodologically diverse field, incorporating the study of languages, literatures, art, architecture, inscriptions, human and animal remains, and modern receptions of the ancient materials,” among other things. How much language teaching do you do relative to other areas of the ancient world? How does your experience inform how you view the place of languages in the future of the field?
SD: I have a tremendous amount of curricular independence in my CE classes, as I design each course, start to finish, from scratch. I have taught Egyptian hieroglyphs, hieratic, Latin, and ancient Greek, as well as provided instruction on the history and development of English letterforms. My history courses are regimented survey courses, but I always include language learning. In many cases, this is the first time my students have been exposed to anyone who knows an ancient language! The study of history can prioritize text, and I always include the etymology of the terms we use. I believe it is crucial for understanding how the study of history has been codified and what added meaning is hidden in our words. However, my college does not have credit courses in any ancient language, so students who transfer will be behind peers who have had those opportunities. It is an issue of access and inclusion, and our fields are losing talented, innovative thinkers by holding fast to rigid language requirements for entry.
EB: Unlike Stacy, I teach credit courses and don’t have unlimited curricular flexibility. My courses have to tick a number of specific boxes so my students’ credits will transfer to four-year institutions. Yet, in this conversation, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by looking at higher ed alone. I don’t think we should so narrowly define our field by sheerly what’s going on at four-year universities. In teaching high school languages, ancient and modern, and in modern language teaching at the community college level, there is a heavy emphasis on the teaching of culture. While I think our Classics majors should be required to study ancient languages, all of our language learners should have exposure to history, mythology, literature, art, architecture, and inscriptions. I am currently revamping my Latin 101 curriculum at Montgomery College through the Smithsonian Fellowship to include museum resources and tangible objects in my grammar/translation course. My hope is to increase the immediate relevance of the study of an ancient language for students and increase my enrollment numbers at the same time.
PJB: The last two years have given instructors throughout higher education a crash course in the advantages (and, of course, the challenges) of teaching remotely — can you speak to how the shift toward remote learning has played out for your students?
SD: The online pivot has increased participation in my courses. There are fewer transportation, time, and access burdens for students. I would like to mention, though, that there was a steep learning and technology curve for community college instructors — contingent faculty, in particular — who did not have access to stable Internet, computers, doc cams, headsets, second monitors, printers, other equipment, training, or stipends for such, or even the dedicated space they needed to teach.
EB: To echo much of what Stacy said, moving my courses online has been the only way I’ve been able to stay afloat, especially since I needed to be home monitoring my own children in their own online learning while schools were physically closed. The more training, tools, and economic stability we can provide our faculty, the better equipped we will all be to support student success. Now that we have been in this online instructional realm for some time, we need to listen to what our students are telling us. For some students, engaging online makes the most sense, for others, just as for many contingent faculty members, stable Internet access, a functioning computer or word processor, and obligations such as work and caretaking are still significant burdens.
PJB: Following up on that idea — I wrote a chapter in 2020 on online resources for “teaching the ancient Mediterranean,” where I discuss, among other things, the importance of classicists sharing resources online. I am curious which resources — digital, digitized, or otherwise — would have been (and would still be!) most useful to you and your students to have open access and freely available. Another way of asking the question — if we could develop one app right now or digitize one resource or remove one paywall, what would [you] want it to be?
SD: Community college resources are strained, and my students need free or low-cost options. I’ve actually spoken about this quite a bit — so much so that one of my students developed an ingenious Apple app for learning Egyptian hieroglyphs! It's brilliant, fun to use, and visually appealing. He did this with no funding and on his own time.
EB: A free interactive Roman calendar with the dates, major festivals, and links to OER scaffolded readings would be incredible. I haven’t had the time to develop this for myself, but if it’s out there, I would use it in my high school and college classes as a way to provide a more direct link to ancient Roman culture.
PJB: I really appreciate you both taking the time to talk and let us know more about your experience teaching the ancient world at a community college, as well as helping us get a better sense of your students’ experience. Before wrapping up, I wanted to give you both an opportunity to mention anything that we did not touch upon that you would like your colleagues to know about your work.
SD: I do want to state that there is a sort of stigma in some circles about teaching at a community college. Community college adjuncts must be resourceful, tenacious, and self-motivated to succeed at our jobs despite all the obstacles we face. We are doing brilliant work with few resources, and our efforts and contributions are valuable and vital for the health of our disciplines.
EB: Agreed! As a whole, contingent faculty are dedicated to teaching and student success. We teach the bulk of freshman classes at four-year universities, too. There are significant time and economic burdens associated with living an adjunct’s lifestyle, yet we persist passionately and support each other wholeheartedly. If a program is looking to tap a source of creativity and vitality to encourage innovation and increase enrollment, consider creating partnerships with your local community colleges. We’re doing some great stuff.
Header image courtesy of Stacy Davidson and Erika Bucciantini.