Holly Gilman: Community College Activist/Instructor.
Why did you make your latest transition?
Some years back, I finished a master’s degree in Language and Rhetoric, but chose not to pursue a PhD. I had a realization about myself: I was a teacher with strong academic inclinations, not an academic with teacherly inclinations. But, while teaching at community college I got a grant to work on developmental education. I had to do a lot of research on my own in the field of composition studies and basic writing and I found myself deeply interested. One of my officemates laughed and said I should go back to grad school and I thought, “why not look into it?” I contacted my former advisor and I thought he would smile politely or redirect me, but that wasn’t what happened. I told him that I had been teaching in community college and there wasn’t much scholarship looking at community colleges as a site of inquiry. He was very supportive. I got excited by his reaction and feedback from other faculty and I wanted to figure out if I might have anything to add to the academic conversation that was worth saying.
What surprised you most about the transition?
The professors were fabulous, and I knew they would be. The very first class I took, the professor was so interested in what I wanted to work on and the ideas that I brought to the table. When I originally went for my master’s I knew what I wanted to do. But when I went back this time I knew a lot more because I had been in the field 8 or 9 years. I had knowledge that only one other student had. We were tuition waiver students because we worked at public institutions. We were the only ones who had worked with the kind of students we were studying about. I was surprised that I knew as much as I did. I was also surprised at the ease I felt doing the work. When I did the master’s I had a fifth grader and it was challenging to juggle it all. It never mattered to me that my professors were my contemporaries. Age means nothing.
What are you doing now?
I just published an article, and I’ve been on medical leave from the PhD program for a year and a half. I was weeks away from writing my PhD exams and then moving on to my dissertation when a major health event interfered. My goal in going back was to see if I had anything worth saying and I know I do, so I’m going to keep working. I have published and will continue to do so. I’m also still teaching as contingent faculty at an open-access institution and I teach two classes a quarter.
How did you decide to pursue these opportunities?
After years of teaching in a community college setting I had a different focus. When I went for my master’s I just wanted to teach reading and writing at a community college. When I went back to school, I wanted to make reading and writing at community college better. I decided to pursue the PhD program because I had support from instructors I knew. I also had so much incredible support at home. My spouse realized how real it was for me even though he wasn’t innately interested in what I was doing. He was solidly behind me. I probably would have gone back anyway, but that whole thing about “follow your dreams, but find someone to support you while you do it” really happened for me and made it so much better. From my English instructor at the community college I attended, to the faculty at University of Washington, to my family.
What advice would you give to someone in the same circumstances?
In general terms, I would say that the first thing to do is explore. If you want to grow bananas in Costa Rica, educate yourself about what that means. See what the opportunities and logistics are.
Given your vast experience both professionally and personally, do you have a top 5 or 10 list of things that you would tell people if they would like to follow in your footsteps or follow a similar path?
-Challenge the accepted reality.
-Look for what’s wrong.
-There’s no such thing as too much kindness.
-Kindness and niceness are not synonyms.
-Learn something new every chance you get.
-Find people who support you. It makes all the difference.
Holly Gilman has been teaching academic reading and writing for 18 years. She holds a Master’s Degree in Language and Rhetoric from the University of Washington and has returned as a PhD student to further her studies.