Surviving the First Year

As she gets ready to start as an assistant professor, Shari Dinkins shares the advice she's received and the lessons she learned.

August 16, 2007

As a child, I thought that being the new kid at school was the most painful experience imaginable. Now that I’m older, I’ve reconsidered. I’d say that being a new tenure-track hire is even more stressful. I like to think that teaching for nearly a decade has helped ready me for my own first tenure-track position, but I know that this next year will challenge me. Luckily, more-seasoned colleagues have given me some valuable advice over the years:

S.T.F.U. or “Shut the frick up.” This advice sounds counter-productive. After all, outsiders are often hired to bring in fresh ideas. This is true -- but know that brash commentary offered at the wrong time can damage a new professor’s chance to be of use to a department in the long run.

This is not to suggest that new faculty should not make suggestions. Still, careful research will help educate those who are less experienced with a campus’s specific concerns. I think seasoned hands are more open-minded to suggestions when they can tell that the newer professor has some understanding of the history of the program and underlying nature of the issue at hand.

For those moving into a first year on tenure track like myself, the challenge will be to sit in meetings, listen, take notes, and say very little. It will help me to remember that if I have a big worry about a topic being discussed, chances are that a more established professor will have it, too. When they speak up, they’ll be able to weather some criticism since they have a history at this institution. By curbing the tongue, pen, and keyboard in the first year, fresh faces like mine will last long enough to make a valuable contribution to a department, program, and college.

Watch out for the pink cloud. An academic acquaintance of mine accepted her first tenure-track job at a university in the Midwest and bought a house within a month of signing her contract. A year later, she wondered if she might have jumped too soon. The department was fractured, research funds were scarce, and the students seemed unmotivated. Worse yet, two hiring seasons later, her fiancé, also an academic, was still two states and a 10-hour drive away.

It’s normal to want to plant roots, find a home, and invest in a community. After graduate school and years of TA'.ing, it’s natural to grab on to that first tenure-track position and breathe a deep sigh of relief. But the reality is that half of the colleagues I’ve met did not stay at the their first tenure-track job. Of those who left, some found that they needed to move even after a second tenure-track position. It’s a sobering thought.

That’s not to say that I won’t stay in my first tenure-track position until retirement. But it does temper the expectation that this job, these colleagues, this area must be perfect because they represent a 30-year commitment.

To those who have never landed a tenure-track position or are experiencing their first, this may smack of ingratitude. But more experienced colleagues have told me that true fit between professor and campus becomes more important with time. It may be something as simple as location. Departmental politics, curriculum, or student population can also influence a professor’s decision to go on the market. Some are just searching for an atmosphere more conducive to development as an instructor, a researcher, or an author.

For those, like me, who get caught up in small details (like noticing the overzealous office supply guardian, worn linoleum, and lack of parking spots), it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Good questions to consider: Has the college weathered more than a few educational trends? Have seasoned professors held fast, knowing that one weak administrator would eventually move on -- whereas the college itself was solid? Is a key group of faculty that you admire and enjoy working with going to be there for a good part of your tenure? In theory, would you choose to live in this area even if you weren’t tenured at this institution?

Don’t fall into one camp right away. At institutions awash in politics, new hires may be approached by more established professors hoping to get support for pet programs or new curriculum. As a fresh face on campus, it’s tempting to see this as a chance to develop professional contacts and feel more anchored on campus. The down side is that in fractured departments, this alignment may directly influence which committees one is invited to serve on, and even what courses one will be allowed to teach for years to come. For a few, it may even curb chances for promotion and research funds.

At one university where I taught, new faculty were immediately “sorted” into camps according to the institution that granted their graduate degrees, their academic mentors, and the subject of their dissertations. Many assumed that the new hire was of a particular ideology based solely on this information. On top of this history, many immediately received a reputation depending on where they sat at departmental meetings and faculty with whom they lunched. Surely not all institutions are this political; still, it reminded me that the connections made in the first year may be of utmost importance.

Of course it’s important to make connections and encourage professional friendships. These are necessary to teach well, do research, and publish. Yet old friends in academe have cautioned me to make it a point to spend time with professors on both sides of longstanding divisions. When in doubt, be nice to everyone. Don’t gossip. And when burning with enthusiasm after the first departmental meeting, it’s smarter to approach professors in private and ask questions rather than publicly take a stand. In addition to keeping a new hire from being branded with a reputation too soon, making more than a few alliances will help avoid overdependence on one individual and strengthen a professor’s position in the department.

Get over your last college or university. I remember one faculty member at my last institution whose every comment started with, “At Blah Blah U, we…” No matter how important his point, two-thirds of the faculty zoned out as we heard, yet again, how much better his last university dealt with every situation. We often wondered why he left.

It’s natural to want to lend your experience to a committee or to a department. But know that if you fly your last institution’s flag every time you open your mouth, others will not be as open-minded to your suggestions -- no matter how valuable. I’ve already caught myself wanting to name my last affiliation when chatting with faculty and staff at my new position. A few times, I’ve trailed off with, “… somewhere where I used to teach.” Other times, I’ve bit my tongue, reminding myself that this is not my last college. And I need to learn to trust the professors and administrators that are already working with the curriculum and student population at this college.

I’m working on my listening skills so that I’m actually paying attention rather than formulating a response. When I feel the need to “blurt,” I often check my motives. Am I excited about a past experience that will be useful here? Or am I feeling insecure because I’m the new hire? I also need to keep in mind that constant comparisons in my head may be a way of emotionally distancing. Changing positions involves grief. When I admit that I miss my old colleagues, staff, and even the fast copy machine on the second floor, I’m on the way to making room for my new situation. It’s smart, though, to use old colleagues, non-academic friends, and relatives to work through my emotions, rather than burn up my new contacts during this adjustment.

Don’t overextend yourself. After a semester working full-time on contract at my last institution, I was able to make time for a few outside interests. I wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper and volunteered two shifts a month at the regional food bank. At one point, overloaded with committee work and essays to be graded, I cursed the monthly column that had originally been a source of great pride. I already suspected what others knew: academic work is all encompassing. And I’ve heard it’s much, much worse for those working toward tenure.

For those on the tenure track for the first time, it’s tempting to try to do everything to impress senior faculty and administrators. I understand the desire to impress higher-ups and do well. Even while working on contract, I felt compelled to do everything I could to “fill in the blanks” in my annual review binder -- even though I knew that others less qualified would be renewed. And tenure is much, much more difficult to acquire than a yearly contract. I will need to carefully gauge where my time is best spent.

Agreeing to do extra committee work, service work in the community, and advising feels good when one first signs up; in the end, however, one needs to consider the time necessary to do well with the teaching, publication, and research necessary to achieve tenure first. I’ve been told that it’s much smarter to add duties after a semester or two when one has already received positive reviews from a department chair or dean.

I’ve been told to prioritize -- to find out what is most important to my department and draw boundaries when I find myself falling into saying, “Yes” to responsibilities beyond those in the first year. I know that outside interests will have to suffer in my first few years while I work to be a good instructor, colleague, and agent for my students. True, I want to look good to administrators -- but I also realize that being overwhelmed and dropping the ball will be noticed, too. Balance is the key.

Prepare for a deeper level of commitment. Being on contract is like dating for fun. If there is too much friction between the individual and department, temporary faculty can finish out the semester or year and attempt to find another assignment. On the other hand, working toward tenure is like being engaged -- at least according to my tenured friends. Because both professor and institution are more committed, there is a better chance that the union will last. Tenured faculty members often stay during poorly funded years and look to the big picture when faced with a failing academic program or weak administrator.

After nearly a decade of teaching on contract, I know that staying put will be both a welcome change and a challenge. My current CV is a mish-mash of adjunct and contract work spanning eight years. Although I’ve always been deeply committed to teaching my students, it’s painful to realize how less committed I’ve been to my employer’s vision. Still, I realize that there is a greater plan in place here. Working toward tenure is not just the opportunity to step up professionally; it’s an opportunity for me to mature as an individual.

Already I sense a shift in my thinking. On campus today, I passed a maintenance man working with a large rolling cart of student chairs and padded benches. I stopped, introduced myself, and asked if a short bench might be placed outside my office. “Sure,” he answered without hesitation. I motioned back toward the office that I share with a colleague. He walked back with me, then stood for a moment, hand beneath his chin, one finger tapping his lower lip. “A two- or three-seater bench would work here,” he said, looking at me for approval. “Three would be great. If you have it,” I said. He nodded. I thanked him, and as I turned, I started to smile. This was the first time that I’d asked for something to augment my physical workspace. In years past, I’d simply make do with whatever had been given me, confident that I wouldn’t be teaching there long enough for it to make a difference. I suspect this is a one small step toward a deeper level of commitment for me at this college.

Today, I feel more dedicated to the process. Although a bit nervous, I’m excited about being “on track” for the first time in my career. It will be an interesting study to see how well I follow the advice given me -- and how I fit in this new academic circle.


Shari Dinkins has been teaching at postsecondary institutions since 2000. In fall 2007 she joined Illinois Central College as an assistant professor on the tenure track.


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