Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Looking Back at Year One

This fall marks the start of my second year on the tenure track.  This means that the newest element of my job is that I’m not “new” anymore – I have colleagues starting their first year, and I can answer at least some of the questions they are encountering for the first time.  I know what policies need to go on my syllabus.  I know where to find (most) things, and I’ve met the majority of our English majors.  I even have “repeat offenders,” students who have signed up for a second (or third! or fourth!) course with me.  In many ways, of course, I am still quite new – taking on new course preps and even some committee work while fiercely carving out time in the week to research and write.  As I prepare my materials for initial review, I’ve had space to be reflective about what went well last year, what I wish I’d realized, and what my still-limited experience has taught me already.

Many people with far more experience than me have offered excellent advice for new faculty members, but now that most of us are a month (or more!) into the semester, I thought I would share the best advice I was given in my own first year.  It’s deceptively simple, but perhaps especially important as the rush of mid-semester looms:

You don’t earn tenure in a year.

This is certainly obvious, but I think it bears repeating for many of us who have come off the current market.  Given the overabundance of pieces detailing the humanities in crisis and the dismal outcomes for humanities PhDs, as well as watching beloved friends and colleagues struggle through fear, anxiety, and depression on the market, I think those of us who find ourselves in that shiny new Assistant Professor position are sometimes not quite sure how it happened. When I got my position, I certainly felt relief and joy, but a tiny piece of me was also certain some mistake had been made – I got that elusive tenure-track position?  At an institution I really like?  With supportive colleagues in my department and across the college?  I have to assume I wasn’t – and am not – the only new faculty member to arrive on campus not entirely sure it isn’t all a wild dream of some kind, amazed that it was my name on the office door, on the faculty ID, on the campus parking pass.  I think it’s tempting to feel that you have to continue to prove you deserve the job, even once it’s yours.

But while the tenure clock often feels short, it’s a longer game than it first seems.  So here’s what “you don’t earn tenure in a year” means:

  • No one expects you to have your book in hand, hot off the press by January.  (Unless, of course, it was already at the press before you arrived.  On the other hand, if you successfully get your book in hand by the end of your first semester, PLEASE e-mail me and tell me how you have done this.)
  • No one expects you to know everything.  Your colleagues are aware that you are adjusting to a new institutional context, new students, and a new home.  All of them did it, too.
  •  No one expects you will adjust magically without any hiccups or questions.  Some of them will be small, such as how to fix the copier. Some might be bigger, and that’s okay, too.

The first year – my first year – was exciting, wonderful, exhausting, and overwhelming in turns.  It was usually more than one of those things at once.  You should, as much as you’re able to, enjoy it.  Enjoy meeting your new students, especially majors.  Enjoy the moment when you don’t have to look at the MLA job list the instant it drops.  Perhaps more importantly, be a listening ear and a supportive reader for those who do.  

  • Be strategic.  You’re probably eager to get engaged, and that’s wonderful.  But you can’t do everything – which I have discovered from trying!  Consider how the new commitments you’re taking on fit with your long-term plans.  Run new opportunities by senior colleagues who can help you think through what will move you forward and what will devour your time.
  • Do things on campus.  Go to events, socials, campus theater productions, whatever.  This is the best way to learn the culture, and it can also give you a broad sense of what kinds of cool things are happening on campus.
  •   Meet people.  You need mentors, co-conspirators in your own cohort, and friends.  Your department might assign you a mentor – mine did, and she is marvelous – but find others, as well, including people who aren’t in your home department.  If you can work with your office door open, keep your office door open.  Befriend the department admin.  (Mine likes cookies.)  See if there’s support for research on campus, such as faculty writing groups.  If not, try starting one.
  • Do things off campus.  Sign up for Groupon-like services in your new neighborhood as a way to find restaurants and things to do.  Find your new doctor, gym, salon, and the like.  If things go as you hope, you're going to be living here for a while.

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