Like most young faculty members, I began my first job with my eyes on the prize six years ahead -- tenure. Even though I was coming out of University of the Elite and heading Rural College, I was under no illusions that it would be easy. Amidst the bucolic surroundings and relaxed environment of my new institution, I knew I would be buried under a 4-4 teaching load, the pressure to produce a book pre-tenure, and the usual service work and personal attention to students that small institutions expect.
I believed that I would need to prove myself to my colleagues every bit as much as I had had to prove I belonged in my graduate program. And since I was lucky enough to land the job ABD, I was even more concerned that my performance would be under close scrutiny. I felt I had to catch up with my colleagues. So I immersed myself in my work the way I had in graduate school -- as though my professional life depended on it.
Over my first year and a half, I worked very hard -- 70-80 hours a week on my teaching, as well as keeping up with professional activities. I was getting a sense of my reputation among the students. “Tough but fair” was what most said. “Best professor I have ever had,” said some. “Too hard!” said others. I expected as much. I kept a close eye on my assignments, student performances, and my evaluations, and as long as their work was good, a few students got A’s, and the positive comments continued, my growing reputation as the toughest professor in the department didn’t bother me. And even if it had, I wouldn’t have known how to teach otherwise.
But at my second-year review, I got a shock. My chair, Professor Fuddydud, said, “There’s a problem. I don’t know what it is. Just fix it.” Panic and confusion! I began searching my mind for what I could possibly be doing wrong. I approached senior colleagues for advice. Professors Queenbee and Bullykid told me that it was very important that my students know that I like them. Was that in my job description? Does tough love count? For lack of any other solution, I worked harder. I would make it impossible for them to say that anything I was doing was substandard. It would all be stellar!
By the time of my third-year review, I was feeling confident about my performance. My file was huge. In six semesters not only had I finished and defended my dissertation, I had prepared eight new courses from scratch with myriad tailored assignments and teaching aids, created a new concentration for the college curriculum, and spent hours mentoring students, including taking them to conferences and on field trips. But not to be over-balanced in the teaching area, I also had written nine articles and papers of various sorts, participated in over a half-dozen conferences and symposia around the country, served on college advisory boards, committees and panels, pulled strings from my graduate days to bring in important speakers, received five awards from top research libraries to work on my manuscript as well as interest from top presses, and got rave reviews from students and colleagues alike, inside and outside the college.
I wasn’t nervous when Fuddydud told me she wanted to meet so she could convey to me the sense of the department about my performance. Again what she said astounded me. But now she had pinned the problem down a bit more. I was working “too hard,” I didn’t know how to “prioritize,” and what I was producing was “too good.”
I couldn’t fathom what she meant at first. I pressed her for explanations and examples, but got only vague and unsatisfying answers. Clearly there was an issue of “fit.” I had heard about fit. When a department can’t or won’t be explicit about what they don’t like about a candidate for tenure, it’s about fit. So I didn’t fit well with the department, but I didn’t know why.
On paper at least, the fit looked great. I had all the requirements covered and then some. I got along well with my colleagues and had a growing following of devoted students. But as I pondered the few hints Fuddydud gave me and began to think seriously about the culture of the school and the department, the problem began to come into focus. It was exactly that I was exceeding expectations that was the trouble, especially in my teaching.
Then I took a good look around me and saw things clearly for the first time. I had colleagues who showed movies several times a week, some who routinely came to class 20 minutes late or not at all, and others who freely admitted that they prefer it when their students don’t show up. Students said that when Professor Slackjob assigned a 20-page paper, they usually wrote five pages and printed them four times. They got A’s and B’s.
When I had a class full of upper-level students who didn’t know how to cite their sources, I consulted with Fuddydud. She told me without compunction that she didn’t teach her intro-level students to cite their sources because she “just didn’t want to deal with it.” She explained that students should learn to adapt to a variety of professorial styles. I was suspicious. The responsibility would naturally fall to those of us who thought it was important. I found this interesting since some members of the department had accused me of placing the burden of teaching on them. My courses were too hard, they said, and too many students were defecting to their classrooms. I clearly only wanted to teach the “good students” and they were getting all the “stupid” ones. I supposed my style was not one to which students should be compelled to adapt.
So I thought I would try to fit in better. I compared my reading load and teaching style with that of Professor Queenbee, whose pedagogy I respected, who was popular, but who also had a reputation for being rigorous. The page count was the same. I couldn’t understand what the problem could be, so I resorted to asking a student why her peers objected to my reading assignments. “You expect us to answer questions about them!” she said in their defense. “Professor Queenbee just tells us what they say.” I guess I just don’t like my students enough to do that for them.
Students complained. Colleagues disapproved. I was a troublemaker.
In retrospect, I should have seen the bizarro review coming. Much earlier when I told Fuddydud that I usually worked weekends, her response was: “What do you want? Brownie points?” I guess merit pay was out of the question.
Fit is important for new faculty. It can mean a happy career or no career. To “fit” in academia means to conform to the culture of the institution. It is in your interest to assess it carefully before you take a job. The logical way to go about this is to read the institution’s mission statement, check out the web site, look at rankings, and talk to faculty members, administrators, and students.
But what you learn this way and what the true culture of the school is may be very different things. What I heard when I interviewed for the job was that Backwater prioritized teaching. It considered its aspirant peers to be the top liberal arts colleges in the country. All the signs indicated that these priorities and aspirations were sincere, and even if they weren’t yet realized, there was great potential. So I accepted the job because I was serious about teaching and wanted to devote my efforts to undergraduates.
And the department seemed serious about me. Not only did they hire me ABD from an institution known for its academic rigor, they made me an early offer that didn’t allow me to explore the nine other schools with which I had interviews. At the time, I felt I had made a sound choice. The fit seemed excellent.
But what most small colleges won’t tell you -- not even in the fine print -- is that teaching and students often really don’t come first. And for the professors, they can’t. Once upon a time teaching colleges taught and research institutions researched. But these days, with the market for students competitive, and teaching schools scrambling for recognition, they have shifted their priorities. Now they market what is measurable -- not good teaching, but big names and publications. They look to hire new faculty from top research universities who will embellish the faculty roster and bring attention to the school by publishing. And they can do this, because even job candidates who don’t really want to be at places like Rural College (although it is ranked quite well) are grateful to get a tenure-track position.
And here is where the problem is compounded. Small schools want books instead of teaching; and many new faculty -- even the mediocre scholars -- want to publish instead of teach. In the new small college, both win. Everyone looks the other way while courses are neglected for the sake of publications. What few devoted teachers will admit -- because to do so would be impolitic -- is that it is impossible to teach a 4-4 or even a 3-3 load effectively and publish a book pre-tenure without working “too hard.” What’s more, when you suggest that a small teaching college should prioritize teaching over publishing, what your colleagues hear you say is, “I am not good enough to publish.”
Sadly, many of the students also think they win in this scenario. They get good grades with little work. Once a culture like this is established, a new faculty member who is serious about teaching rocks the boat. And if she still somehow manages to excel in all the other required areas, she might be sunk. Unfortunately for the small schools, the best solution for her might be to jump ship.
Alison Wunderland is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of history at the University of Midwestern State.