Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Welcome to the Faculty

As I read around the blogosphere, I see that lots of people are moving into tenure track positions, either straight from grad school or from adjunct or visiting positions.

First, let me wish everyone well as we move into the new academic year. If you've moved to a new job, I hope it meets your dreams. If you're going on the market, best of luck for the perfect job fit for you. And if you're like me, happily staying at the same job, well, gosh, have a great year.

It occurs to me as I read other blogs that there's a lot to learn as a new faculty member, but it's not going to necessarily be obvious what's important. So I thought I'd try to put together a few ideas. I'm bound to forget something totally obvious and important, so please help me out with suggestions!

I'm counting on you to know your research and such in your field, so I'm not going there at all. Rather, I'm going to focus on some common issues I think academics broadly share.

First, your job and survival, and second, teaching and advising.

Your job and survival

I'm pretty sure every university and department has a faculty handbook of some sort. Get hold of yours and familiarize yourself with it. Your handbook should give you a sense of your obligations and the expectations your colleagues will have of you. Knowing this information, and keeping it in mind should help you prepare well for evaluations and eventually tenure. If you've got a union, learn the basics of your relationship with the union and the union's relationship with your school.

Don't panic. Your department hired you because they want you, and if they have even half a collective brain, they want you to succeed. So don't be paranoid, and give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt as you get started. (If you were hired by one of those schools notorious for not tenuring anyone, then you know that you need to focus on making yourself even more marketable through research and whatever teaching and service seems necessary. It's still no cause for paranoia.)

Save stuff for your portfolio. If you go give a talk to group X, ask them for a short thank you note, and save it for your file. Put a piece of paper in your file and make notes when you do something you want to include in your evaluation. You can always decide not to include it later. That also goes for copies of conference papers or publications, copies of your syllabi (or, if you're into Classical Greek, syllabuses) and so forth.

Get to know your administrative and other staff members. These folks make a department and school a good place or not, often. Value and cherish them to the greatest extent possible. Be respectful and decent to adjuncts and students.

As a junior faculty member, you may sometimes feel like you're on the bottom of the heap. You're not. Just by being a faculty member, you've pretty much started near the top. But just as an army marches on its stomach (or so said Napolean?), a university succeeds because people clean bathrooms, shelve books, and make sure the computer network works. Value these folks for the contributions they make and be grateful for their efforts.

When you want to complain about your office or something, remember that the adjunct standing in line behind you would likely be grateful for your position and your office.

Learn to say "no." Committees take a lot of time, and they offer tremendous educational opportunites. But if you're typical, you'll have a lot of requests for your time from colleagues, administrators, and students. You don't always have to say "yes." One strategy is to ask if you can think about it over night, then think about it, talk with a mentor, and get back to the person the next day with a response. Actually say "no" when you mean it. A "yes" that's not backed up with necessary work is worse than a "no."

If you're paid on a nine month schedule, budget for summer. Put away one THIRD of your monthly income for the summer. Figure out what's best for you, and start paying off loans and putting money into retirement savings; if you're a typical faculty member, then you're starting ten years later than most of your cohort, and you probably have more debt, and (in the humanities) not great earning potential. Ask your colleagues for suggestions about retirement planners, read motleyfool dot com or whatever.

Teaching and Advising

You may not be officially advising right away, or ever, but you will undoubtedly informally advise students, so this information should be helpful, I hope.

Save your school's catalogs, and if you can get hold of catalogs from a couple years previous, hang onto them, too. Students generally have the right to hold a school to the requirements and practices outlined in the catalog for the year they entered the university, so having a catalog for the year your sixth year student entered can be incredibly helpful when you're looking at requirements and such. When you advise, make sure to note which catalog applies to your student.

Get to know the majors and minors in your department and related departments. Try to get a sense of the big picture your department has in mind for the major, and try to understand why people designed the major as they did. (Some majors may look totally loony. Maybe someone loony designed it, or maybe a group of people with conflicting interests did, or maybe the college put some strange constraints on it. You need to know which before you start suggesting changes.)

Every school has (I think) some kind of plagiarism statement/definition and policy. Find yours, put it on your syllabus (and, of course, cite it correctly!!), and get to know the policy. Take time to explain what plagiarism is and why you care about it to your students.

While you're at it, make sure you're familiar with your school's mission statement and goals. Think about how your courses contribute to the mission and goals. Make sure you can articulate how the assignments and activities you plan for your students contribute to their learning.

Most schools these days have some sort of program that faculty can use as an on-line component for your class. It may be Blackboard, WebCT, or whatever. Get to know yours, and think about how it might help you with some aspect of your teaching. I have students turn in essays in computer files, for example, which makes it easy to check for plagiarism if I have suspicions. I can also put up questions or whatever. At the least, you can post your syllabus and such there, so you won't have students asking for a new copy in the middle of the semester.

When you walk into class the first day of the term, remember that in all likelihood, your students are more nervous than you are. Of course, some of them will drive you nuts. But others will be quietly working away, and you may never realize how much they admire you or are grateful to you. Teach for them.

Good luck!


  1. Aw, thanks, B! There's such good advice in here--especially the part about saving things for the reappointment and tenure file.

  2. Thanks for the good advice, Bardiac. I really needed to hear the "don't panic" part right about now!

  3. That's a fantastic list...thank you. To add to the "don't panic" thing, something to remember through the year if this is your very first full-time job: Remember that it will never be as scary or as much energy as it is this year. Last year was my first full-time job, and it was just so crazy with expectations and work and my own panic. Someone told me, "it'll never be like this again" and it helped me to remember that. And now, entering another year, I think it's just so true.

  4. Wow, what good advice! I just wish I had an appropriate job to apply it to.

  5. Nice list, B. As I start my 2nd year, I realize that a lot of this stuff has become apparent over the past 12 months, but I would have loved to have read this then, to be sure (particularly the paranoia stuff--it's taken me this long to realize that they can't rescind the job offer; I really do have this job!).

    To add to the list: Put your own experience in context. My sense is that it's easy for Jr. faculty to go overboard with the "at my graduate institution" response. It's importance to get a sense of the institutional history and culture before chipping in $.02 on everything.

    That said, good ideas are often transplantable, so don't make it a habit to be completely silent in your first year. So at faculty meetings and around the water cooler, wait, ask questions and listen a lot nbefore speaking, but when it's time to speak, do so with the confidence of someone who has also been in the educational system for a long time.

  6. Anonymous6:46 AM

    I came here from a teaching carnival. Cats and dogma's comment about keeping your grad experience in context is spot on. Many colleagues resent it.

    Thanks for this post.

  7. Anonymous7:59 AM

    Bardiac, this is great. I'm going to give it to our Person In Charge of New Faculty Orientation.

    I especially appreciated the comment about valuing other people for their contributions, because the university would in fact come a a screeching halt if nobody took out the trash.

  8. Thanks for the comments, all. Hilaire, you're so right about it never being so hard again.

    And the difficulty of negotiating how much of your grad school experience to bring in is an important point, too, that Cats and Dogma makes. I tend to think less is better than more, there.