Sunday, June 24, 2007

How Not to Impress Your New Co-Workers

Recently, a non-English department hired a new faculty member with a trailing spouse who happens to have a phud in English, and cooperatively, we hired the spouse as an adjunct to teach several courses. (This sort of thing happens all over academia.)

The non-English department chair was having some sort of gathering, involving these two, and wanted some English folks to go to meet and greet. Through a friend in that department, I ended up going. (I'm not entirely sure if the gathering was for these folks, or just coincident with their visiting to look for a place to live or what.)

The gathering is outside, and it's dusky, but quite pleasant.

I get introduced to the New Guy. I've heard you do British modernism, I said, that's a fascinating and complex period.

I answer the what do you do question with the usual Shakespeare rap, and the New Guy says, I really would love to teach some upper level Shakespeare classes. Erm, I replied something about how great it is to teach Shakespeare, internal claxons alarming the while.

I ask him what he'll be teaching this semester, and he says writing (which we pretty much all teach) and an intro level course in modernism. He makes a sort of derogatory comment about intro courses in modernism. I ummed uncomfortably.

He lit up a smoke.

And began to talk about how much he'd had to read in early modern lit through studying Eliot.

And happily, we were interrupted by someone in the Philosophy department. I did introductions, and the New Guy immediately said how much he loved reading philosophy, and he really wanted to teach a philosophy class. The philosopher asked pleasantly who he liked to read. Then the New Guy noted that he'd liked his philosophy class as an undergrad, but hadn't actually read any since then.

We turned the conversation to the Northwoods housing availability, and what sorts of things are available to do around here. New Guy talked about how they'd already been out to check out some of the bars in town, and were looking to check out some more.


One of my faults is that I really don't like being around smoking. It's not some moralistic or health thing. It's a nausea thing. When I was a little kid, one of my grandmother's smoked a fair bit; she'd smoke in the car, and the windows would be closed, and I'd get nauseated. I've never really gotten beyond that. Smoking just turns me completely off. (Though, to be honest, I rather like the smell of unsmoked cigars.) There's no way he could have known about the smoking thing, and the gathering was outdoors, and he wasn't even being rude about how he smoked. That's totally me.

At first the bar thing made me think I've gotten old, but then I realized that I just never had that much interest in checking out bar scenes. I think the smoking thing is a HUGE part of it. I used to party in a specific club, and when I'd come home, I'd have to take a shower and put my clothes in the washer before I went to bed because I stank so much. But it was a fun club, lots of dancing. Maybe I am just old?

I do go to one bar in town, probably every 4-6 months. But I go for their great soup and sandwiches at lunch. Seriously, messy sandwiches, served on waxed paper, but oh so yummy. And hot bean soup. It's perfect for really cold days. I drink water because I hate the taste of beer and it's way too early to drink anything else.

The big thing, though, and this isn't about me: If you've done your phud in field X, sub-field Y, that's what you're qualified to teach. You aren't in all likelihood qualified to teach in a different department, nor are you likely to be qualified to teach upper level courses outside your sub-field. This is especially true in a field such as English, when there are so many folks who actually spent time studying sub-field Z. Yes, to really read Eliot, you have to read tons of early modern lit. That will stand you in good stead when you teach Eliot, and when you teach intro courses, and let's face it, early modern lit is just down-right fun. But if you haven't read recent criticism or historical contextualization, you probably aren't ripe for teaching that upper-level class in early modern lit.

If you wanted to teach sub-field Z, you should have done your dissertation in that area. If you wanted to teach field Q, you should have gone to grad school in that area.

If you're starting out as an adjunct, then it's unlikely you're going to get to teach upper-level courses even in your own field. That will change if you're proven to be a capable teacher of our students AND there are opportunities. We have a couple adjuncts who are brilliant in being great teachers, adaptable and willing, and who've taught upper-level courses for us often when needed.

Yes, I know adjuncting is painfully exploitative. I've done my time. And, really, there's nothing I can do to make it less exploitative (though I can do things to make it less painful locally, by respecting my adjuncting colleagues and doing my part to make sure my department/school treats them as well as it can. I can talk all day about trying to do that, but unless you're here, you won't have a sense of where I fail and where I succeed).

So, what should you do when you're meeting folks for your new adjuncting (or other) job?

It's always fine to note what a fascinating and complex field someone else works in. Every academic field is fascinating and complex, so you're not lying. If you can ask a minimally intelligent question about the field, then you get to learn something from the conversation! YAY!

It's always fine to be enthusiastic about your field. You studied it, right? You'd better be enthusiastic about it. Seriously, your enthusiasm is one of the tools you get to use to face down a class some days, so grin and go for it. Don't put down the intro class in your field!

It's never great to BS about someone else's field. If you really love Sartre, then by all means, feel free to say so. But don't say you love Sartre if you haven't read anything by him beyond No Exit, because the philosopher over there is not impressed.

So that's it.

I'm guessing the New Guy I met was really trying to make a good impression and trying a bit too hard, maybe? I hope he and his partner are happy here and that things work out well for both of them.

I don't mean to sound as if my initial impression is some huge deal, first because I have little power in these sorts of hiring decisions and second because I'm not that caught up in what people say after a couple of beers at a gathering.

And on the other side of the deal, maybe the New Guy looked at me and laughed inside when I talked enthusiastically about the bike trails, about learning basic kayaking on our non-whitewater river, about what a great department we have, and such. I'm no model of the athletic type, and not much to write home about as an English scholar.


  1. How awkward. Anyone who's spent any time on the job market ought to know better...but maybe he thinks the trailing spouse gets a free ride?

    I was on an interviewing team once at MLA when one of the applicants pulled out a printout showing all the courses in our curriculum he felt qualified to teach, which was pretty much all of 'em. No one can be that versatile, and even if this guy was Super-Prof with expertise in everything, he seemed blissfully unaware that other people might already be committed to teaching those courses. How can someone with so much education be so clueless?

  2. Sounds to me like the New Guy is having a little insecurity about being the trailing spouse... My guess is that his ego took a hit when his wife got the good job.

    As for teaching philosophy, I was pretty shocked to see the qualifictions of the people who responded to our job adverts.. many of them had no philosophy background. Of course, we didn't hire them :).

  3. Wow, not the way to impress colleagues, indeed. Let's just hope he was feeling a bit insecure and will behave in the future.

    I was on a job search this year, and one of our questions included, "what other courses would you feel qualified to teach in our department?" since you never know when we'll need someone to do an overload due to illnesses, sabbaticals, etc. I was impressed by how some of the folks answered by carefully saying, "Well, I don't want to step on the toes of anyone currently teaching any classes, nor do I know what needs you have, but I'd feel comfortable teaching X if I were needed to do so." Classy!

  4. With you on the smoking thing.

    It does sound as though Dr. Trailing Spouse is trying to impress. It also sounds a little as though he wants to teach something--anything--except the intro-level courses he's been hired to teach.

  5. Was he a young guy? Like in his late 20s? If he was a young guy I might be inclined to cut him a break. Maybe he just doesn't know how to behave yet. Parties can be scary.

    If he's older than 32 or 33 thought, meh.

  6. I'm totally with you on the smoking thing. I find the smell yucky and I have asthma and it makes me cough.

    That guy really does sound kind of like an idiot. It's kind of degrading to the fields to assume that anybody can/should teach Shakespear or philosophy. I loved how on further questioning, he hadn't read any philosophy since his undergrad course. If that's the bar, heck, I could teach philosophy. ;)

  7. I say give him the benefit of the doubt. If he's new enough, young enough, still reeling from his perceived job failings, and desperate to impress, he might not yet realize that teaching intro classes are his dues at least for a while---possibly a long while as an adjunct.

  8. Bev, Right! It's so hard when you're on the market trying to get a job, and so tempting to try to be all things to all people.

    Inside, I think Philosophy for some reason, makes people think they know it because they've had some life experience?

    Terminal Degree, I'm constantly impressed by how amazing some of our job candidates are at handling things. It's painful for everyone that we can't hire them all!

    Undine, Yes, but isn't that weird? Why do your diss on something you don't WANT to teach?

    Delagar, I think cutting him a break is totally in order. I'm thinking eager to please and a little awkward as trailing spouse.

    MWAK, Asthma would make things far worse, I think! Sometimes, people don't seem to realize how much there is to know in a field such as Philosophy!

    Julep, I agree, benefit of the doubt for sure! Thanks :)

  9. You think you got it bad. I have an MFA (Iowa) & teach creative writing & contemporary lit, etc. I've won prized, published books, been in the good journals, etc. I mention this not to pump myself up, but give a bit of context: I cannot count the number of times I have been told by someone like Trailing Spouse at an academic party, "Oh, I'd like to write poetry if I had the time."