Further Advice to New Faculty

One

The most interesting e-mail I received today said: “Dear Professor Zero, Thank you so much for sharing your manuscript. I have read exhaustively on this subject and yours is one of the very most useful pieces. It is so surprising you have not yet been able to place it.” On this issue see paragraph 2, point 3, below.

Two

Now everyone is giving advice to new faculty. Didion‘s is the best, and mine is the worst. I could give an even worse set of instructions by parodying the actual assistant professor trajectory most familiar to me (although unavailable to me): “Advice for New Faculty – Protégé Edition.” Elements in it would be:

1. Carry a cell phone and receive important calls in foreign languages, obviously from faculty at fancy universities.

2. Give good classes. You do not have to tone down a thing. What in others would be “too hard” or “mean” will, in you, be seen as what it really is — well educated, interesting, challenging, intelligent.

3. Publish good research. You do not have to worry about placing your work, as that will be taken care of by your protectors. You are therefore free to write whatever you want, so long as it is in field and good.

4. Follow the same rules on service as everyone.

5. Be very flattering to everyone, and somewhat flirtatious with (much) older people. Then your foibles, even including mildly unprofessional behavior, if any, will be considered cute.

6. Rent a cheap apartment here (or ideally, find a nice local girl to live with), and buy a nice condominium near your research site, which is of course near your family, friends, and mentors. Spend all vacations there. This way you can keep moving around in terms of jobs, but always have a home.

7. During term time, rent this condominium to faculty on sabbatical who will pay you above market price and in Euros. That will cover both your mortgage and your rent.

8. On the question of outside letters for tenure, see point 3, above.

Three

Actually, though, I do have a serious piece of advice for new faculty — the best advice: have a large project that seriously interests you. I mean which very seriously interests you. One so fascinating that its image pursues you everywhere and you miss it after a few hours away. This will keep everything else in perspective and it will keep generating writing. All of the writing will be increasingly well informed, and since it will build on itself, it will build momentum. Do not let anyone — anyone — tell you that your interest in the topic is obsessive. Good projects are like that, and that is what it is to be a specialist, anyway. “Usually the articles that are the most successful are pieces of larger projects.”

This is, of course, advice from my own experience. Deferring work you want to do because “it is a long project” may be appropriate in some circumstances, but in can also waste more time in the end. That is particularly true if you are not working at one of those lively places that make everything seem interesting. If you are conducting research in less than ideal circumstances, then it really does have to be on questions that haunt your leisure time — not just questions you recognize as interesting for “academic” reasons.

The other advantage of utter obsession with a project is that it will move you to turn down invitations to speak in panels on your sidelines. If you work in less than ideal circumstances you will have good reason to want to say yes to these invitations but beware — it is much more work to turn a set of discrete conference presentations is much harder to turn into a set of articles than it is to write a book that generates articles and conference presentations as residue. If you are utterly obsessed, you will soon receive invitations to speak in panels at the same conferences, but on your main project, not on your sidelines. This is particularly important if you are in a situation where you must also prepare a good number of out of field courses.

Axé.

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12 Comments

Filed under Banes, Da Whiteman, Theories, What Is A Scholar?

12 responses to “Further Advice to New Faculty

  1. I love to study and write and I am in a fascinating field but normally I do not like to be a professor.

    Normally I think it is because I am unsuited, etc., to it. I wonder whether it is really just that I am not willing to absorb some of its more false values … such as those I decry in the What Is A Scholar posts? And I will DEFINITELY say that it is because in my experience being a professor means having lots of incompetent freshmen and sophomores, required to study but not interested in the material, and no curricular control. If I taught more advanced courses, and/or if faculty had input re materials at lower levels, it would be very different. The third and final reason I do not like it is that so many people are so mean in academia, and so not grown up!

    See Susurro on this matter. She cites me, among others, but takes the idea further.
    http://likeawhisper.wordpress.com/2008/10/18/academic-unfreedom/

  2. Thanks so much for your remarks about obsession. I am finishing a big project and all kinds of smaller things are coming off of it and I have had this inchoate worry that I was too much directed toward this particular object of inquiry. I will worry less about this now– for I think your suggestions as regards this are substantially correct.

  3. Hi Mark and welcome!

    Re that, I should add to my advice one really important thing: do as you see fit / what feels right. General advice *always* needs to be tailored to the situation of the individual, or disregarded when it doesn’t apply. This is one of my main beefs about advice that gets reiterated to well educated well trained and savvy adults as though they were 12 or 15 years old and did not know what they were doing.

    *

    While I’m adding to advice, another point to be made is that there will be a lot of things that aren’t fair. Some need to be stood up to, and some can be acted upon peacefully, but a lot – like funding inequities – you are going to have to accept (I don’t mean accept *as fair,* just accept as realities).

    *

    The other piece of advice I should add is: while there is plenty of unfairness and other oddness, there is also abuse, which is real. One of the reasons I chafe at advice is that the most general advice: focus on your research, give your courses as responsibly and interestingly as you can, but don’t let them occupy your research time, and do service/administration as required, but don’t overdo it unless you have part of your time officially assigned to administration … DOES apply always, and everywhere, but it is NOT a response to queries from people who are being abused, obstructed, bullied, and so on.

    In those cases the “just do your work, dear” attitude is entirely beside the point and becomes itself abusive … because in those cases the person is being impeded from working in a normal fashion, so that implying to them they should be able to just ignore and sidestep everything only compounds things and confuses them more … makes them think that what is happening is a problem intrinsic to them. There’s a term for that: denial.

    (I notice younger faculty is always being told not to place “blame” on others, but on themselves … get off their high horse, come out of denial, take blame … and I think that is part of the whole hazing ritual that says everything is fine except them. Caveat: I am not talking about arrogant superstar would bes, and so on, nor am I talking about people who are just in culture shock at a new institution and maybe a new kind of institution.)

  4. Gosh. You almost seem to read my mind, like you know what is going on here. In any case, I don’t think the particular situation I exist in here is pathologically abusive. But it does fuck with my head. Too often, people are telling that what is up is down and vice versa. One thing that is causing this is insecurity among some of the senior academics. Another thing is that I still feel utterly brand new and I have been here for four years! This seems incorrect. But all the same, as regards all of these things, I need to get real and accept them as what must be. But, quite frankly, I have been struggling. Glad I discovered your blog.

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  6. Hi Mark! Oddly, four years is brand new. Some people have been there for decades. Up is down and down is up, I know. The thing is that sometimes these things really are true, or if not true in a philosophical sense, are true in a practical one, etc.

    THE most confusing advice I ever got were always instances of standard advice iterated to me by people who knew me well. I always thought they were issuing it as a corrective to something I was doing — and only recently have understood that they were not aware of what I was doing, they merely assumed I should hear the standard advice in case I had not heard it yet.

  7. Re four years = new… that has occurred to me– but I have been actively pushing that thought away (though at some level I have known all along that it is correct). Sometimes one becomes attached to one’s antipathy and feelings of aggrievement. Other times one wants to hit one’s head with a hammer. ALSO, I like the optics you suggest in the second paragraph re advice.

  8. I still want to hit my head with a hammer.

    But never get attached to antipathy and feelings of aggrievement — it’s all too common, it’s what the lumpenprofessors do, one must have a more aristocratic attitude than that. ;-)

    The aristocratic attitude includes humility. The advice in paragraph 2 works for people who know how to use it and really are that well connected, but it backfires on others and just makes them look arrogant! They think they are acting important but they are acting like parvenus.

    *

    While buying my kayak rack today I realized I need to do a post on social life for new faculty — remind me — lots of people, unless they come equipped with a spouse, don’t know how to have a life … they say in interviews that they do not have a social life or any hobbies, because they want to give the impression of being hard workers. Then they get really miserable and lonely because they don’t have their oysterbed of co graduate students around them any more.

  9. Also on advice, not to new faculty but advice in general. This is very random but I would like to take these notes and here is as good a place as any.

    I. The students. They graduate but if you run into them in a few years it is amazing in what bad shape some are, before 30 — the toll of too much alcohol, too many drugs, and too much processed food is very great. This reveals that some of their problems during college were drug problems, they just hid them better than. It also explains why doctors do not understand why I do not yet need medicines even though I am well over 40.

    II. Teaching. Some students who have done well point out that they would not have learned how to do well (in terms of general mental and physical health) had it not been for college. This is why teaching is really, really important if you are not teaching privileged students — your class is not just one of the intellectually and culturally oriented things they do, your class is IT and it really may change their life.

    III. Standard advice for life. People say automatically that you should learn to be more open to change — but they presuppose that they are talking to people who are not open to change. They say you should look before you leap — but they presuppose that they are talking to people given to random and impulsive acts.

    Right now, for example, people do not believe I already know the make and model of kayak I like best. But I know what I like and I have researched this matter — why should I now pretend to dither, just to prove I am “open minded?”

    So it seems that I am more sure of my likes and dislikes than the average person, and also more willing to try new things. It seems that most professors are more conformist than I am, and much more invested in status. This is why my advice probably only applies to a minority.

    IV. Privileged and not privileged.
    I come from an intellectual family and it is a great advantage — and I do not see it; some of the advantages I have from coming from such a family, I am not aware have their origins in this; I think they are universal but they are not, they are a special privilege.

    For other reasons I am, however, always used to the idea that I come second at best and I must struggle to survive; the real people are other people, I am not a real person; etc. I believe it is not my place to make my own work and life important, even to me — that is for the royalty and I am not in the royalty. This might be what I have in common with minorities and the poor, that feeling that one is destined for the margins. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of what it would be like to just go through life freely, not carrying the burden of watching your back, remembering to step aside, remembering not to hope for too much, and so on. To be a Subject in your own life, not to doubt your being; to be considered a Subject by others and thus not policed in an attempt to make you doubt your being.

  10. Also on advice, here’s more from Didion.
    http://iwassomucholderthen.wordpress.com/2009/03/17/addendum/

    She’s right but I’ve noticed that what works best in the short run is to be somewhat servile and curry favor — and find your place in the departmental dysfunction, slip into it, and use it to your advantage in a conscious way. Otherwise you’ll be placed in it and not control it.

    I have never been willing to do that, however, and I would rather everyone take and stick to Didion’s advice.

  11. And, adding to the general advice.

    1. Be really careful about dating anyone from campus, even from a department very far from your own. It may seem all right but seriously, it’s a bad idea.

    2. You need a “secret” or other life, one your colleagues don’t get into. Some people have families. I’ve got an art studio and some activism.

    3. If your secret life involves debauchery, do not let it be known. If you engage in exotic activity, do it out of town. If you see anyone from work there, leave and do not go back. If you are foolhardy enough to stay, do NOT discuss work. Information you get will be unreliable. What you say will be unreliable by definition. These conversations will poison you.

    [These things should go without saying but I have at various points had colleagues involved with drugs, sex workers, wife swapping rings, and so on. As though they were members of Congress! This is destructive activity and you should at least not engage in it with people from work, even if they are also doing similar things in their own secret lives.]

  12. Pingback: On Being New Faculty | Z-Xiuhtecuhtli

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