Sink or Swim

Colleges need to abandon the philosophy they use to justify doing little to help new faculty members, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.

October 17, 2011

In my last column ("Don’t Talk About Mentoring"), I listed the wide variety of needs that faculty members have during their careers and suggested that individuals are far more likely to get their needs met by making specific requests to a broad range of people that make up a support network than by waiting for (or depending on) a single guru-mentor. Some people found this liberating, and others thought it was not only poor advice but dangerous.

I hear the latter response all the time. In fact, on a recent trip to present a workshop for department heads, my host (the provost) introduced me by outlining his own philosophy on the tenure-track years. It went something like this: the tenure track is a time to prove yourself and figuring out how things work is part of the test. This was followed by a story of his personal misery on the tenure track, hard work in isolation, and his triumphant promotion with tenure. The underlying message: I was miserable and had to figure everything out myself, so other people should have to go through the same thing. If they can’t, then they don’t deserve to be here. Sink or swim baby.

Typically an introduction is about me, but when it’s about the host and has the added bonus of presenting organizational pathology as a badge of honor, it’s on! I was actually quite thankful for such an odd set up as it gave me the opportunity to lay out how inefficient, ineffective, and financially costly that argument is in terms of faculty development. For the record, the idea that all new faculty members should have to sink or swim is inefficient because it takes time and energy away from their actually doing the jobs they were hired to do. It’s ineffective because whether people are good at navigating organizational structures and politics has little relationship to the quality of their research and teaching. Sink or swim also fails the most basic cost-benefit analysis because the time, energy and resources required to replace a faculty member who may have been a great researcher but failed the test of “figuring things out” far exceeds the cost of providing new faculty with the mentoring and support they need to thrive. And it is organizationally unhealthy because as it sustains a hazing culture where people respond to their own painful initiation experiences by reproducing them on others.

"Secret Knowledge"

But even more problematic is the toll it takes on individual faculty members. When I think back to my own unnecessarily miserable tenure-track experience, I remember perpetually feeling like there was some “secret knowledge” that I was trying to get out of people. For some reason, it was excruciatingly difficult to get an honest, clear, and concise answer to the most basic questions. Yes, I went to the faculty orientations, professional development workshops, and teaching center brown bags, as well as participating in my department, college, and university’s mentoring programs. Through those mechanisms I learned the official processes and procedures, but that's not what I’m talking about. The secret knowledge is the hidden information about how things really work and the strategies to actually be successful. In other words:

  • How to align my time with the criteria by which I would be evaluated for tenure
  • How to teach efficiently and well
  • How to establish a healthy and sustainable writing routine,
  • How to manage conflict with people who have more power than me (my senior colleagues) and those with less (my students),
  • How to establish authority in the classroom in the midst of inexperience and insecurity
  • How to cultivate a broad network of mentors, sponsors, collaborators, and opportunities
  • How, when, and why to say “no”
  • How to keep moving forward in the face of numerous and inevitable rejection that come frequently from academic journals, presses, and funding agencies.
  • How to create accountability for writing so it feels as pressing on a daily basis as the demands of teaching and service.
  • How to make time for my physical, emotional, familial and relational health and well-being.

These are things that had nothing to do with my specific discipline and that I (like many others) had to figure out through the most ineffective, painful, and time consuming ways possible: trial and error, making humiliating mistakes, and cobbling together bits and pieces of information from assigned mentors. In the process of acquiring the secret knowledge, I lost untold nights of sleep, handfuls of hair, and important relationships. But it was precisely these fragments of the secret knowledge that, over time, formed the life preserver that allowed me to swim in unfamiliar waters.

In hindsight, I’m quite clear that if someone had taught me some foundational skills and strategies before I started my first tenure-track job and walked closely with me through my first year to challenge my limiting beliefs and bad habits as they arose, I would have not only had a fundamentally different physical and emotional experience, I would have been a far more effective teacher, colleague, and scholar than I was having to "figure it out" as part of some test I didn’t even know I was taking.

This all leads me to wonder what would happen if we simply let go of the sink or swim mentality that assumes a new faculty member’s ability to "figure it out" has any meaningful correlation with their ability to conduct rigorous research, be an effective classroom teacher, or serve the campus in a meaningful way? In other words what would happen if we accepted the reality that the vast majority of doctoral programs may prepare people quite well to be researchers, but do little to prepare graduate students for all the other things involved in being a professor. What would happen if we democratized the secret knowledge so that instead of each new faculty member having to idiosyncratically beg it out of one person at a time, it were widely available to anyone who wants to know. And what would happen if we used technology to do that in a way that was efficient, effective, and affordable?

Internally, it might look like the innovative “mutual mentoring” model at the University of Massachussetts where faculty needs drive professional development offerings and resources. Externally, it might look like Gina Hiatt’s Academic Ladder that uses an innovative technology platform to bring together hundreds of academics every month, across disciplines, to form writing communities that are driven by data-tracking, accountability, and empirically-documented strategies for productivity. And for groups with specialized needs and small numbers it might look like the popular monthly professional development tele-workshops that my center offers for under-represented faculty that draw hundreds of faculty live each month and are downloaded by thousands of others to listen to at their convenience.

For the mentor-less faculty I’ve dedicated this column series to, it means identifying your needs, assessing a broad range of options available to you internally (on your campus) and externally (beyond your campus), determining how best your own needs can be met, and moving forward in that direction. This week I encourage and challenge you to:

  1. Review the list of "secret knowledge" areas above and honestly assess your sense of competence in these areas.
  2. Ask yourself if you need additional support in these areas (or others). If you’re not sure what you need, ask What’s Holding You Back?
  3. Survey your campus offerings to see what is available to you in your specific area of need.
  4. If you’re not able (or don’t feel comfortable) getting your needs met on campus brainstorm possibilities for getting them met in creative and supportive ways elsewhere.

I hope this week brings you the freedom to let go of the idea that “figuring it out is part of the test” and the spirit of curiosity to imagine new ways of mentoring and being mentored.

Peace and Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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