Starting Over, Part 2
In the first part of this essay on tips for professors on starting over at a new college, I offered advice on seeking mentors, changing your thinking from your grad school days, and "thinking like a lawyer."
Here’s my second batch of hard-earned advice (from my multiple job changes) about adjusting to a new place, managing your expectations, and getting what you really want.
6. Be visible.
Go to everything: every meeting, every panel, every reception, every talk, every cocktail party. Accept every invitation extended to you. At least for the first month or so.
If you're an introvert like me, what you’ll want to do at the end of the day is go home and recharge your mental batteries, but don’t. If you refuse an invitation once or twice, it probably won’t be extended again.
Take the initiative and introduce yourself wherever you are, but especially do it in your own department. Especially in large departments, your colleagues are so used to seeing strange faces, they’ve probably ceased trying to know everyone. It’s nothing personal. You will have to take the initiative.
If you’re single, you will not be invited to dinner as often as coupled faculty. Don’t believe me? I was once hired the same year and in the same department as a young married woman, no kids, and over the course of our first year, I kept track of her social calendar vs. mine; she and her husband were invited to dinners, outings, etc., twice as often as I was.
I don’t believe that any of this was personal. Our culture is just very couples-oriented. So, if you’re single, I recommend that you actively seek out fellow singles and colleagues who are not in the thick of raising a family. If there’s no regular gathering of such folk, organize one.
7. Learn the culture.
Of the department. Of the college. Of the city/town.
Listen carefully when people tell you outright what’s expected, but remember they can’t tell you everything. They’re too close to the culture of the place to fully explain it.
I taught at a college where faculty offices were spacious, comfortable, book-lined, At the conclusion of the freshman convocation, faculty lined the exit walkway and applauded the students as they filed out. Most faculty went out of their way to make themselves as available as possible. It wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule. It was simply the culture of the place.
I taught at a college where faculty offices were mostly barren, intemperate, and often unoccupied. When I inquired about this, I was told that the expectation was that I should spend as little time in my office as possible. Yes, I should teach my classes, hold office hours, and attend to my committee responsibilities; then I should go home and write a brilliant book. The person who told me this said it wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule. It was simply the culture of the place.
I knew someone who taught at a college where faculty were expected to keep bankers' hours, to be in their university offices from 9 to 5. It wasn’t a hard-and fast-rule. It was simply the culture of the place.
I taught at a college where service responsibilities were tossed around like hot potatoes until some chump — usually a non-tenure track faculty member — held on to it in an attempt to seem indispensable. I learned to say no, no, no, because it was the culture of the place.
I taught at a college where service responsibilities were assigned and absorbed equitably among the tenure-track faculty and things were made to happen with minimal fussing. I learned to say yes, yes, because it was the culture of the place.
8. Decide how many feet to plant.
Maybe this job of yours is not tenure-track, not a job you can keep — or maybe it is. Maybe it’s not a job you want to keep — or maybe it is. In any case, whether or not you’re happy there is pretty much up to you.
For a long time, I thought that external factors determined whether or not a place was “right” for me, but in retrospect, I realize that I denied myself many pleasures by not planting both of my feet.
If my life were a song, it would be called, “I Could Write More If…”
Maybe you think you’d be happier if only the town had a Trader Joe’s or a bookstore or an airport or was closer to or farther away from your family.
Maybe you think the job would be better if only the university did A instead of B, or if the department did C instead of D.
Maybe you’d finally be able to put down some roots if you had a TT job rather than a NTT, or if you had a 2/2 rather than a 3/3, or if you had a two-days-a-week teaching schedule rather than a three.
Maybe you want to change jobs because they hired E instead of F, or you want G per year rather than H.
Maybe if I were the university president instead of J, or if Mayor K were a Democrat rather than a Republican, or if you got to teach L instead of M, or if you didn’t have to be on committee N all the time, or if you didn’t know that your grad school friends O, P, and Q have better jobs than you at R, S, and T universities.
Maybe U and V would finally publish your work if you taught at a fancy school like W or X.
Maybe if there was a Y in your town rather than the student rec center crowded with students, maybe then, you’d stay.
Look, towns and universities don't really change. They are what they are. You will either come to terms with this — or you won’t.
I didn’t. Three times. All those maybes have been my maybes.
I changed jobs four times, and that has cost me. In all, it took me 17 years to get tenure. The salary I was offered at my fourth TT job was absolutely appropriate for an assistant professor, but I was 41 and in the middle of my career. I estimate that if I’d stayed at the job I was offered when I was 29, I would be making more than $20,000 a year more than I do right now. That’s a small fortune in long-term earnings. Poof. Gone. And the emotional cost? Don’t get me started.
But I consider myself fortunate that, unlike most academics, I ended up in a tenure-track job in the place where I really want to live. Hardly anyone gets that, unless they’re willing to sacrifice something.
I recognize that I speak from a privileged position. I got four jobs! I recognize that planting one's so-called feet is contingent on getting a job at all. I know that gross inequities exist. I know there’s an adjunct crisis. This essay isn’t about solving that problem, but rather about how you choose to respond to it.
Recently a friend of mine in a full-time NTT position called me on the phone and said that, after nearly a decade of unsuccessful attempts to get a TT position, she was contemplating quitting her job. She’d published well, taught well, served not just well but admirably, but she was fed up with her employer and burned out. “I’m thinking about moving to State Z. I thought maybe I’d adjunct there.” No, I said. No. Rethink what you can do and get a job making more than $32,000 a year. The line was quiet. “Like what?” she said. I told her to go to the Career Center, and there was a pause. “You want me to go to the Career Center?” and she was angry now. “This is my career! It’s why I went to graduate school!” and I said no, you went to graduate school to be a writer.
9. Prepare to be bullied
Understand: If you’re just starting your academic career, it’s as if you’ve moved to Flint, Mich., circa 1985. Times are tough.
Understand: If you got a tenure-track job, anxious people around you (including people online) may project their feelings of vulnerability and insecurity onto you.
Understand: The psychology of scarcity turns everyone into the bitterest versions of themselves. Even me. I’ve cursed people whose lives I envied, committees that didn’t hire me, and colleagues who didn’t treat me as I thought I deserved to be treated. The real enemies, of course, are the structures that created the scarcity in the first place, which is why I hesitate to even call this “bullying.”
On my first day at a new college, I got on the elevator and introduced myself to a middle-aged man in a suit. I asked him what he taught, and he said first-year writing. I told him I’d just been hired to teach creative writing. He stared at me. “You got a tenure-track job here teaching creative writing, and I’m teaching composition as an adjunct? I [expletive] hate this place!”
At the first party I threw at a new college, a male graduate student said, “I will never get a TT job because of women like you. I mean, come on, you don’t even have a book. It’s not fair.”
On my first day at a new college, a woman came into my office with a copy of her C.V. She’d been in a NTT position at this school for a long time and wanted to know, in essence, “What do you have that I don’t?” I looked at her C.V. “This is great. You should do a national search.” She said, no, she wanted this college to give her a TT job. I said, “They can’t just do that. They always have to do a national search for those positions.” The truth was, she admitted, that she didn’t want to leave that school because she’d probably end up at some “bumfuck college in…” and she named the state next to where I’d gotten my first TT job. I said, “So what you’re saying is that you’d rather have a NTT job here than a TT job in a geographically undesirable location?” She thought about that for a long time, nodded her head, and left my office.
10. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Teaching provides immediate gratification. It’s tempting to put all your energy into doing a good job. My first mentor told me that the way he kept himself from over-preparing for teaching and neglecting his writing was this: he reminded himself that he was a better teacher for having written than not having written. He said that writing regularly, not elaborate lesson plans, gave him confidence and contentment, which is what made him a better teacher.
No doubt, you loved school and loved college, and to now be the one standing in front of the classroom is probably a dream come true. Maybe you have an office? Maybe you have benefits? But how much money are you getting paid, and how much job security do you have? Are you cool with that? If your employer allows people to stay in non-tenure-track positions long-term, and you’re happy with the situation, great. Congratulations. But if you’re not cool with that, remember that the only thing that’s going to get you out of that situation is publication.
One night, a colleague was bemoaning the “hyper professionalism” of my generation. He’d gotten his job with an M.A., and he’d never published much. Instead, he’d been an inspiring teacher who’d made an enormous difference on campus. “In my day, we didn’t see teaching as our profession,” he said, spitting out the word like a swig of sour milk. “We saw teaching as our calling.” I thought about that for a second, and I said, “Well, unfortunately, they don’t give graduate degrees to people just because they love teaching anymore. They have to intend to be a scholar.”
As you begin your first job, remember: your identity as a scholar/writer isn’t dependent on the school where you teach — or even if you teach. Your identity depends on your answer to one very simple question: Does your job (whatever it is) make it possible for you to keep body and soul together and get good work done?
Your work is the prize, you see, not the job.
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