Priorities for Year One

Rob Weir suggests ways to avoid panic and confusion as you launch your career at a new institution.

September 7, 2011

Are you the new kid on the block -- the neophyte beginning your first job, or entering year one at a new institution? If so, you either have or are about to experience Deer in the Headlights Syndrome (DHS). In the next few days you’ll be caught in a whirl of endless meetings and introductions. Your otherwise empty office will be piled high with curriculum guides, catalogs, upcoming fine arts events, human resources manuals, and college policy handouts on everything from academic dishonesty to procedures on what to do if there’s a renewed outbreak of the Black Death. (There hasn’t been a major outbreak since 1772, but you never know….)

There are several things you need to know about DHS, the first of which is that it’s not just you; everyone experiences it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete rookie whose teaching experience doesn’t extend beyond having been a T.A. or if you’ve been around the block more times than a teenager’s first car -- the first year at a new institution is hard. No orientation seminar can help you learn the ropes; that’s strictly on-the-job training stuff. In fact, none of those early meetings and rounds of introduction are about you; their purpose is for the entrenched to see your face and check you out.

Tip One: Block out nearly everything that happens during the orientation phase -- just like you did when you were a first-year undergraduate. If you try to remember every bit of info thrown at you, your brain will explode. All that you need to know is where to find information later on. You will meet everyone from the college president to the dean of fisheries and small game management. Don't try to memorize their names; find the online college directory and consult as needed.

Tip Two: The very first office to master is human resources, no mean feat as most college personnel offices have procedures roughly akin to Rosicrucian ritual. A single unfiled form can delay your paycheck by weeks. Take my word for this. In my first go-round I didn’t get my first check until mid-October! There’s really only one way to be certain you’ve done everything you need to do: don’t leave the office until a human resources agent has looked at everything you’ve signed and utters the magic phrase, "You’ll make payroll on…."

Tip Three: Get your classes in order in advance. Make sure that your syllabuses are printed, that you have all the appropriate keys to rooms and equipment cabinets, that you’ve tested the technology you hope to use in the assigned classrooms, that the bookstore actually has the materials you’ve assigned, and that you’ve met with a library specialist upon whose expertise you can draw.

Tip Four: Cultivate friendships with department support staff. Long after you’ve forgotten everything in your orientation -- about 12 hours in most cases — remember that these are the folks who know how things work. They can cut through red tape and make things that don’t officially exist appear magically. They will do this if and only if they like you. I cannot emphasize this enough -- do not treat them like they’re your servants. Get to know them as people, treat them as equals, and show interest in their lives. Learn to listen to them rather than barging into the office with a puffe- up sense of urgency and self-importance. If you have an exalted opinion of yourself, learn some humility. Stat! Lots of bad things have happened in academe in the past few decades, but the growing intolerance for prima donnas is not among them.

Tip Five: You need to get on with support staff early because another thing you want to do pretty fast is outfit your office. You’ve no idea how annoying and time-consuming it is if you have to trudge from your office -- often in a different building -- to the department equipment cabinet to get a stapler, find the cabinet locked, and discover that the secretary is off on an errand. Do you need a printer cartridge? You’ll get one fast if you’re liked; you’ll get one after the official requisition form goes through channels if you’re not.

Tip Six: Pick a few "safe" committees and volunteer for them. New profs are like chum to sharks. Count on it -- as soon as your picture appears in the campus newsletter as a new hire, you'll get a phone call “inviting” you to join this or that committee. Very often it will be from someone angling to find his or her replacement on that committee. If you're already serving, you can politely beg off. There are some very important committees that you might eventually want to join, such as admissions, tenure and promotion, programs and budget, and curriculum revision. The key word is eventually. These are huge time sponges and you’re going to be busy enough. Moreover, those committees ought to be staffed by those who know how things work on campus; as a newbie, you could waste dozens of hours just trying to figure out what the curriculum is, let alone how to revise it.

Avoid, at all costs, an assignment to the committee on committees. Its very name is something out of Bleak House and its tasks are equally irresolvable: figuring out what committees are needed, how to staff them, how they will be held accountable, and to whom they report. Also steer clear of the campus parking committee. It’s an assignment guaranteed to make enemies. Unless you can figure out a way in which people can park in their offices, someone is going to be furious with you.

Two safer choices include the university press committee and the public safety committee. Disputation and crises can arise, but those committees have the benefit of being more advisory in nature and of working with in-place staffs. Although this one can be demanding, consider serving on the library committee. It’s a great way to forge relationships and learn how information flows.

The names of college committees vary by campus, so check them out. But do volunteer for a few, or you'll be drafted.

Tip Seven: Find a mentor who can help you assimilate. It might be your department chair, but it probably won't be because chairs serve on a host of committees and are often instantly recognizable by their beleaguered demeanor and neck pain, the latter from constantly glancing down at their watches as they rush from one meeting to the next. Find a colleague you like who knows how things work and is willing to offer sagacious advice. By all means avoid the malcontents who suck the oxygen out of the room. All they want is cannon fodder for their pet gripes and they’re very willing to throw you into the frontline. Years ago I made the mistake of falling in with a few complainers and all I accomplished was to make myself untrustworthy in the eyes of a few people I admired.

On a related note, use the phrase "at a previous institution" whenever you are forced to reference having had a professional life before your current assignment. Rivalries such as that between Harvard and Yale are well known, but they exist everywhere. So too does a sense of insecurity. Some people will be intimidated by where you studied or previously worked. I also discovered that the hard way; it took me several years to win the trust of some folks who had me (risibly) pegged as an elitist.

Tip Eight: Find, cultivate, or steal a stress outlet. The descriptor "hell" is most commonly applied to the year-one experience. Find something to do or someplace to go that's a retreat, and I mean something off-campus and non-academic, not your research. I put up a basketball hoop in my driveway the first year and developed a pretty decent three-point shot working out stress. I also began reviewing music for a local arts paper so I could hang out with some musicians instead of just academics. Do what you need to, but find a way to clear your mind.

Tip Nine: Give it up; you are simply not going to get much research done in your first year. You will, of course, need to find time eventually, but once again the key word is eventually. When you’re treading water is not a good time to contemplate deep-sea diving. There is simply too much to do, too much to learn, and too little time to devote more than cursory attention to detailed research. Keep it alive in your head, do some reading, and do what you can within reasonable constraints. Don't drive yourself beyond endurance; academe is littered with flameouts and the disillusioned.

Tip Ten: The first year is unlikely to bring out the best in your teaching. You will hear some variant of this old academic chestnut, so take it to heart: Year one is survival, year two is damage repair and refinement, and year three is when you find your groove.


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