Notes From The Workfront: Denise Spivey (PhD 2012)
Since I was a teenager, I have known I wanted to teach. When I took an amazing Classics course as an undergraduate, I realized I wanted to teach at the college level. Today I am tenured at Tallahassee Community College, the result of a somewhat unconventional but strangely direct path.
I am not sure I would recommend that path, but I did learn some lessons worth sharing along the way. I received my bachelor’s in Humanities at Florida State as an undergraduate in 1993, spent a few years in the workforce, and came back to FSU for a master’s in American Studies. About fifteen years later, in 2012, I was awarded my doctorate in History. I earned all three of my degrees at FSU, as Tallahassee is my hometown. I also worked while I was getting my degrees, which meant that getting to the finish line took an awfully long time. None of that is standard in academia, but I was very fortunate to have patient and encouraging major professors in the late Dr. Karen Laughlin, Dr. Elna Green, and Dr. Maxine Jones.
My progress went in fits and starts. The one thing that kept me going was my focus on getting a college teaching position. When I was working toward my master’s in American Studies, I arranged for two semesters of internships in TCC’s History Department. There I met several mentors, especially Dr. Monte Finkelstein, who became my dean when I joined the TCC faculty many years later. It was also in those internships as well as at FSU that I taught my first classes and confirmed that I had chosen the right career path.
My first two degrees were in interdisciplinary programs, and so when I began my doctoral program, I chose Humanities with an emphasis in History. I reached an important turning point when I took a Women’s History class with Dr. Elna Green, then chair of the FSU History Department. Dr. Green encouraged me to consider changing my major to History, for a stronger academic background in one field. As I mulled it over, I realized the wisdom of that option. Majoring in history gave me a much stronger understanding of the discipline and its methodology. In particular, I learned the importance of historiography, which in my opinion is what distinguishes a historian from a hobbyist. In other words, it was in the FSU History department that I received the training to become a scholar.
That said, my primary interest had always been the classroom. For me, research was in the service of finding ways to communicate information to students, rather than to academics. I was fortunate to have Dr. Green and, later, Dr. Maxine Jones as major professors. I had chosen to do my research into the visual rhetoric around American Wars, ultimately intending to use that material in the classroom. Dr. Green and Dr. Jones understood my goal and provided the kind of encouragement I needed to keep moving through the process.
Meanwhile, as soon as I finished my master’s, I began packing my CV with teaching experience. I taught as an adjunct at TCC from 2001 until 2015, and the FSU Humanities and History Departments gave me teaching assistantships during my time in their programs. When I graduated with my doctorate in 2012, the History Department awarded me a Visiting Lecturer appointment while I looked for my permanent position. During my doctoral work, I had been applying to TCC each time a History position came open. I had several interviews, but it wasn’t until my FIFTH try, when I had the doctorate in hand, that I finally got the job. Persistence pays off. I like to say that I wore them down, and they realized I was just not going to take no for an answer.
Community college teaching is not for every one. There are benefits and drawbacks, but it suits me well. I love my colleagues, many of whom are also FSU alumni. And I love my students. At a community college, teaching is more valued than publication, and I am first and foremost a teacher. My tenure was based on my work as an educator and a colleague.
Having taught large lecture hall classes at FSU, in some cases with as many as 300 students, I much prefer the smaller class sizes at a community college. I like that I can get to know my students and interact with them on a more personal level. I also really enjoy the diversity of the student population. I particularly enjoy the “returning” students – somewhat older students who have more life experience. They bring a lot of earned wisdom to the classes.
There is diversity too in the level of college readiness among my students. Community colleges in Florida have an open enrollment system, meaning that any student with a high school diploma or GED can enroll. This means that many of my students struggle academically, and their encounters with history classes in the past were often not positive. Catering to a student body drawn from such a wide range of backgrounds and with differing life experiences means that instruction has to be tailored much more to individual needs. However, this also means that dedicated faculty have a real opportunity to make a difference in students’ lives.
Watching students begin to understand that history is more than the memorization of names and dates is immensely satisfying. I love the light in their eyes as they come to understand that history is about their lives and their families’ lives. And increasingly I believe that the critical thinking skills so entwined with history education are vitally important in this troubled world of ours.
There are certainly challenges in this field. The work is not for those who are easily discouraged and the job market is competitive. However, of my FSU cohort, every single one who persevered ended up working in our field in some form. FSU provided us with experience and a solid academic foundation. We are making a difference doing what we love. The rest is history.