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Dear Kerry Ann,

I am starting my first job as a tenure-track professor this month. I’m so excited and I feel a huge responsibility to succeed. I’ve moved into my office, started to meet with my new colleagues and finished my syllabi. I’m starting to feel like I should be doing some other things in order to have a successful first semester but I’m not really sure what they are.

What are three specific things I can do now(before classes start next week) to ensure that the next 15 weeks don’t just disappear in a whirlwind of activity?


Nervous in the Starting Blocks

Dear Nervous,

Congratulations on your new job and the fact that you already know how to ask highly specific mentoring questions! While there are many things that you could do the week before classes start to alleviate stress and ensure you keep your priorities clear, here are the three tasks I recommend for this week:

Create an Accountability Structure for Daily Writing

Having worked with many first-year faculty members over the past five years, I know that the biggest mistake they make is to prioritize all the activities that have daily deadlines while procrastinating the most important activity to their long-term success, reputation in their discipline, tenure decision and mobility in the job market (if things don’t work out on their current campus): writing for publication. In other words, the average new faculty member overfunctions on their teaching and service while underfunctioning on their research and writing in their first term. We could blame this pattern on limited experience, but I think it all boils down to a basic time management error. Specifically, prioritizing tasks that have built-in daily accountability (teaching and service) over those that have long-term accountability (research and writing).

To make sure you don’t fall into the teaching trap, you’ll want to develop a daily writing habit and create your own accountability structure to support that habit so that you don’t focus exclusively on the daily grind of running from classes to meetings and campus events at the expense of making consistent progress on your research agenda and publications. I strongly suggest that you pick an accountability structure that will best support you (whether that’s a writing group, a buddy, a campus-based write-on-site, or an online community). Once you choose your accountability structure, send the emails to get it all set up.

Review Your Syllabi

Many first-year faculty members start out nervous and extremely excited about teaching. The nerves may stem from teaching a new course, adapting to new students who seem different than those you taught as a graduate student and/or you may be excited to be teaching your first courses as a professor. Whatever the source of your nervous energy, it’s important to identify it, because that well-intentioned nervous energy can lead you to overstuff your syllabus, plan overly ambitious (and labor-intensive) evaluation mechanisms and/or create intro-level course syllabi that look like graduate seminars. And to state the obvious, these are the very errors that will lead to you spending long hours on class preparation and grading that will suck up huge amounts of your time and energy, and rarely lead to greater student learning.

The key to efficient and effective teaching is to have a syllabus that is aligned with the normative expectations in your new department and that is set up to maximize student learning (hint: lecturing is the most time-intensive preparation and the least effective mechanism for learning). This week, I encourage you to compare your syllabus to those of others in your department teaching courses at the same level. And it’s even better if you can review previous syllabi for the same class you will be teaching. When I have suggested this task to brand-new faculty in the past, it has resulted in a realization that their standards are quite different than their colleagues and a right-sizing of their syllabi.

Ask a Colleague to Be Your ‘Service Mentor’

While departments typically aim to protect new faculty members from being overwhelmed by service commitments, this is a difficult challenge. In part, this is because as a new faculty member, you are going to receive requests from all over campus (not just from your department) and you will be the only person who knows the sheer volume of requests that you are receiving. While some will be easy to decline (e.g., the campus tree-planting advisory committee), others will be difficult to say no to because you may find them exciting (who wouldn’t want to be on a search committee for a new colleague?), you may be one of few people on campus who can meet the request (you’re the only _______ in your college, so you’re being asked to be on the diversity strategic planning committee), or you may feel like you can’t say no to the person who is making the request (i.e., your dean or provost).

You don’t want to be making these decisions on your own when you do not yet know the norms and expectations on your new campus. So this week, pick one of your senior colleagues (or maybe ask someone whom you’ve already been matched with as a generic mentor). Ask your colleague if he/she can help you in a specific way during your first term by being your service mentor. Then clarify that (as a new faculty member) you want to be sure that you’re developing a campus-appropriate filter for when to say yes and no and that you would like to run requests by them while you’re developing that filter. Start a list now of your existing service commitments and keep them organized on one piece of paper. That way when you meet with your service mentor to discuss upcoming requests, she or he can advise you in the context of what you are already doing. By the end of the term, you will have a clearer idea of how to evaluate service requests that is specific to the culture of your campus, and you will have saved yourself the time and energy you would have spent saying yes to every request that came in the door.

There it is! Three concrete tasks for this week: 1) set up an accountability structure for your daily writing, 2) comparatively assess your syllabi and adjust for effectiveness, and 3) send an email to ask a colleague if he or she will be your service mentor for your first term. Those tasks won’t take long and they will help you to adjust to your new campus culture with the valuable support of your new colleagues.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

P.S. I encourage readers to suggest additional concrete actions that new faculty members can take to reduce stress and overwhelm in the first term of a new position below in the comments.

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