Lessons of an Academic Vagabond

Having worked at five different colleges, Melissa Nicolas writes that there are commonalities every tenure-track faculty member needs to remember.

January 20, 2010

Over the past eight years, I have held tenure-track positions at five very different institutions: a regional campus of a state university, a research intensive state university, a private technical college, and two small, private, liberal arts colleges. With the exception of my first position, all my moves have been dictated by child custody issues beyond my control. While in an ideal world I would have put down more permanent roots in the past few years, working at these varied institutions has made me a quick study of institutional politics. Even though every college has its own peculiarities -- the tenured professor who won’t talk to students before 10:00 a.m., the department that still uses a mimeograph machine -- there are some things that are universal.

No matter what type of institution you are at:

1. Every department, every division, every college has politics. No matter how much those politics may be downplayed or even denied during your campus visit, you can be certain that you are not walking into a neutral zone. As a newcomer, your task is to discover what those politics are. I’m not talking about actively seeking out conflict. Rather, the best way to get a handle on the politics of a new institution is to be observant and wary of anyone who tries to pull you into an intrigue before your nameplate is even hung on the door. A friend of mine was literally cornered in the hallway during her first month at her new job by the departmental pariah who was seeking to build an alliance. Listen to hallway conversations. Watch body language at faculty meetings. Notice who socializes with whom outside of work. There is nothing wrong with people being friends outside the office, but knowing whose kids may have weekly play dates is important information to keep in mind when you may be tempted to vote on an unpopular issue. Many alliances are made over margaritas and swing sets. If you have been around awhile, you will almost certainly find yourself involved in the political struggles in your department and your college. This doesn’t mean, though, that you have to turn every political battle into a personal assault on you and your work. While political battles cannot be avoided, experienced faculty should model for junior faculty how to argue like a professional.

2. Everyone is overworked and underpaid. No matter your teaching load or your research responsibilities, professors do not have enough time to do everything that is expected of us. Again, senior faculty can take the lead here and help more junior colleagues negotiate which ball they really can drop. While your college may stress that teaching, research, and service are equal in terms of tenure and promotion, we all know that they probably aren’t. At the first college I was at, the dean was so fond of repeating that mantra about the three-legged stool, I actually started to believe him. Until I sat down for my first tenure review and quickly learned that despite the rhetoric, research trumped everything (see #6).

3. No matter how much teaching experience you have, when you change institutions, you will probably have to adjust to your new students. By the time I started my fourth job, I was sure I was not going to be blindsided by the issues my students brought to class in terms of preparedness, discipline, respect, and participation. As with the previous three positions, I was wrong. Students are as much a part of the institution’s ethos as the marketing materials. Allow yourself time to get to know what the students are like. Be prepared to change your expectations, rewrite your syllabuses, and make mistakes. Enlist your students as your institutional informants; students love to tell you about their lives and their institution.

4. Even if you are excellent at your job, you are replaceable. Your department may love you; you may get glowing reviews; you may make significant changes to a program or the curriculum; you may start new initiatives, but there is always someone who can take your place. While this may be depressing on the surface -- after all, we all like to feel that we are special -- if you really believe this, it can actually be liberating if you decide to look for another job. You can assuage your guilt for abandoning your colleagues by knowing that someone will fill your shoes once you’re gone and it will probably work out just fine.

5. If you decide to leave a position, leave on good terms. Every year, I become more and more aware of how very small academic circles are. While there may be six degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and every other actor, I think for academics, it’s more like two degrees. About three years after leaving my first position, I found myself interviewing for a position with the wife of my former department chair. Small world, yes. Intimate world, absolutely. And once you’ve given notice, continue to work like you are going up for tenure there. Colleagues will remember and word will get around if you suddenly drop the 15 balls you were juggling and attempt to coast through your last semester. Your soon-to-be-former department has invested a lot of time, energy, and money in you. The least you can do is give them your best effort up until you leave.

6. If you want to keep your options open, publish, publish, publish. Even if you love where you are and cannot imagine ever leaving, it never hurts to have an ace up your sleeve. If you have an active research and publishing agenda, you remain marketable. The quickest way to become stuck in a position is to let the research agenda slide. If you are not publishing, your market value goes down, even if your own institution is teaching-focused.

7. There are no perfect positions or perfect institutions. When you interview, most departments will put on their Sunday best. I do still have flashbacks, however, of one department where the colleagues couldn’t stop fighting among themselves to make it through a dinner. Nevertheless, once you sign on the dotted line, you become a member of that family, no matter how dysfunctional or healthy that family might be. While there are no departments where absolutely everyone gets along all the time and where you have all the support, resources, and time you need to be a spectacular professor, some departments are much healthier than others, and some departments should simply be quarantined. How can you gauge the temperature of your department? I use the reasonable person standard. Do reasonable people disagree, even get angry with each other sometimes? Absolutely. It would probably be boring if they didn’t. Do reasonable people who disagree shout at each other in hallways, send hate e-mail to the department, and attempt to sabotage each other at every turn? No. If you find yourself part of a dysfunctional department, you need to consider how much of the contamination you can take before your own health and sanity are affected.

8. By and large, academe is filled with talented, caring, interesting, and professional people. There are many problems in our profession not the least of which is our compensation and the abuse of adjunct faculty. However, in my travels from institution to institution and state to state, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the most creative and fun colleagues I could ever imagine. The hardest part of leaving each place has been saying goodbye to those people who really do, no matter how sappy it sounds, become like family. Because the work we do is so emotionally and intellectually demanding, we all seem to be cut from similar cloth.


Melissa Nicolas is an associate professor of English and coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum at Drew University.


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