Learn From Your Elders

Even if you disagree with their research priorities, older colleagues can help you want find out how things really work, writes Rob Weir.

September 8, 2010

Seldom have I given advice less likely to be followed than this: If you’re a new hire, approach one of the oldest members of your department for mentoring. I offer this, though I didn’t do it when I was fresh in the face instead of long in the tooth. I had to stumble upon the benefits of learning from my elders because I was busy dancing to the beat of that ageless Freudian in which we're supposed to find our identity by symbolically slaying the parental generation.

You folks didn’t grow up with the "don’t trust anyone over 30" nonsense of my generation, but many of you suffer from an equally silly malady of which I’ve seen ample evidence on this site: bashing Baby Boomers. I’m sure that some of you see yourselves as the catalyst that will revive your moribund departments. Perhaps your hiring committee even told you this would be your role. No doubt many of you possess skills that are miles beyond those of entrenched faculty. Maybe they don’t even understand your research and methodology. As a historian I could cite chapter and verse that refutes all "talkin' 'bout my generation" rubbish, but never mind…. The bottom line is that there’s lots of stuff you can only learn from older members of your department.

This starts with how things really get done, as opposed to the "official" channels one is supposed to pursue. Need a piece of equipment? Funding for a conference? A fast room change for your class? Access to a dean? Keys to a "restricted" closet? You can follow procedure, but it’s akin to traveling with your car’s GPS — it will probably (though not definitely) get you where you want to go, but only someone who knows the shortcuts will get you there fast. In your case, you need someone to tell you the difference between the procedures you must follow and the ones you can ignore — a nice way of saying they can point you to the people who actually get things done. Call it subverting the system or call it a shortcut — it’s simply the reality of how things actually work once you’re done staring at the organizational flow chart.

On the topic of real and theoretical, seasoned professors can reduce your panic attacks and overload anxiety. One of the ways they do this is by helping you understand the gaps between what is stated and what is expected, and between verbalized deadlines and real ones. This is especially the case for that most dreaded of all newbie tasks: committee work. Committees can consume time like a ravenous beast. Knowing which tasks need to be taken earnestly and which ones are just window dressing is insider knowledge. You might learn, for instance, that when the admissions office tells the enrollment committee it needs its recommendations by a certain date, that’s a drop-dead target because of its recruiting schedule. On the other hand, I’ve yet to see a campus parking committee that was realistically expected to do anything except meet once or twice, declare defeat, and fold its tents.

An older mentor can help when you get into a scrape. Older people are better negotiators than younger folks. Don’t want to take my word for that? Check out an April 2010 study presented to the National Academy of Sciences. Alas, getting into impassioned battles is a problem for a lot of young faculty. I’ll resist youthful-blood-burns-hotter slogans and simply say that a lot of the stuff that will get you lathered isn’t worth the effort and older colleagues can help you gain perspective. In particular they can tell you which policies being debated are open issues, and which ones are done deals at whose windmill you are tilting. Many’s the time a cherished older colleague has whispered to me in mid-debate, "No need to get excited about this one. It’s already decided."

Speaking of battles, one of the wisest things an experienced colleague taught me was to not waste time fighting with allies. Not every disagreement is a declaration of war and not every idea that pops into your head is a good one. Sometimes the best thing colleagues do is save us from our own ill-conceived thoughts. Don’t be surprised when the seasoned vets simply don’t get outraged when someone says something you think is provocative. They’ve learned to take the full measure of a person, not judge them by a single incident. Besides, as I said, you might be wrong. I once had a peer with whom I shared almost every value imaginable, but she got incensed when I used the phrase “rule of thumb” and wouldn’t let it go. She insisted it was a sexist phrase associated with violence against women and that my use of it was (somehow) directed at her personally. First of all, I’ve not struck another person since I was seven, but — as she did not want to hear — the "rule of thumb" story that a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick of said diameter is probably a folk tale. More to the point it had nothing to do with the issue at hand (so to speak).

Closely related to this is the ability of older colleagues to help you identify troublesome individuals before you inadvertently clash with them. Alas, all colleges have their factions and it’s probably inevitable that you will end up in one, but you won’t necessarily identify them right away. Older colleagues won’t be particularly helpful in helping you choose your poison, but they are very good in dispensing advice on people’s personal traits. It simply helps to know who has no appreciation for irony, who has a reputation for foisting their tasks onto others, who (like the example above) flies off the handle when you least expect it, who is the dean’s favorite, who values efficiency, who doesn’t like small talk, whose bark is worse than their bite, etc.

Regarding personal traits, take it from this older person: You’ll hear all manner of gossip about people’s personal lives, but the less attention you pay to it the better. The adage “tell no tales out of school” is sage advice, if amended to say don’t tell them in school either. Academics are not always the best-adjusted members of society, and if you stick around long enough you’ll find that some of them do shocking things. Unless what your colleagues do is unethical in the sense that it jeopardizes the college’s mission, it’s none of your business. Getting yourself sucked into the campus gossip is a surefire route to unwanted trouble.

Another bit of good advice my elders gave me early on was not to do things for students that they ought (and need) to do for themselves. Young faculty often think that the path to success is making students like them. That’s important, to be sure, but respect isn’t earned through disempowerment and students are not peers you must placate. Today the phrase "service model" is all the rage on campuses. We are told that we have to go out of our way to respect students as "consumers." (Really? I thought they were "apprentices.") But even if the consumer ideal is your school’s mantra, all colleges expect faculty ultimately to churn out independent graduates who can fend for themselves. Where is the line between what you are expected to give to students and what they are expected to do on their own? Where indeed? Guess who can tell you?

Speaking for myself, one of things I learned from retirement-ready colleagues was that personal happiness is far more important than a career. Yes, I know that sounds like a New Age nostrum. Yes, I know you have bills to pay, families to support, loans to retire, vitas to build…. Older colleagues can, however, help you assess your career plans. They do this directly and indirectly. Trusted mentors can be brutally frank. I am forever indebted to one who took me under his wing and showed me how the institution at which I had recently started was dysfunctional beyond redemption. When I had a chance to take a temporary job elsewhere, he counseled me to do so. He was right. You’ll also learn indirectly. There are those colleagues who are about to retire and wouldn’t have done a thing differently. Pick their brains for keys to success. Learn also from the sad sack who is pulling the days-left rings off the paper chain. He might just be a malcontent, but he might also know something that will make you look for the door long before you reach his age. It’s worth investigating.

Finally, seek out you older colleagues for the small gems they can dispense — the institution’s history, tips on campus culture, and wisdom masquerading as nostrums. You never know what will resonate down the line. Thirty years on I still recall a mentor who relieved my anxiety over a single negative student evaluation by telling me — and I quote — "You’ve got to understand that there are some students who would call your class boring even if it featured naked women on horseback jumping through fiery hoops." You just can’t buy a metaphor like that!

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