Underground advice to new faculty

Alice has reminded me of some advice to new faculty I gave her. I had forgotten it and seeing it again now, I realize it really is good advice and it is not covered in most advice books, which as I keep saying are largely about time and task management. I will repeat it here, adding one last thing.

Things I wish I, and some people I have hired, had known:

– There are huge differences among institutions, huge. The reason people tell you to be quiet at your first job is not that your first job does not want you to voice opinions (they have hired you for your expertise, after all) but that you do not want to inadvertently challenge their values. I did not realize, for instance, that people had chosen to work there because they wanted a suburban lifestyle, and that my hanging out in town on weekends was not well regarded even though where I was hanging out was the research library.

– You are not an impostor. Just because people like Genette and Todorov taught some of the undergraduate surveys I took, does not mean one has to be them to teach that material. They were using less horsepower than they had, just as you are when you teach freshmen. You may have to use more of your total horsepower now to teach advanced course than they were, but that is all — you are still valid as a professor at this level.

– People there may like you better than they like their more established colleagues, but they will be more loyal to those colleagues than to you: they have to be. Do not assume unconditional support from anyone, be careful whom you take in confidence, and do not assume this means you have enemies, either.

– The doddering full professor whose work you disdain, may be the person who got your hire authorized. They may also be the one who will know how to file an effective grievance if you are not renewed / not tenured. Do not judge anyone too quickly.

– Know who the AAUP members are. Locate the people who were professors already in the 60s and 70s. Even if you are a man, identify the old feminists. Identify people who have been at the institution a long time, or who have been active in entities like academic senate or the grievance committee. All of these people will have seen true difficulty at some time and will have perspective and wisdom to reveal discreetly if it is ever needed. Smile at them in the halls so that if you ever have a question for them, you will be someone they know.

– Do not easily fall prey to the interpretations of reality you may hear from assistant professors. They can be quite acute but they can also be misinformed. In any case they will still be thinking more like graduate students than like faculty, and they are not always a good influence. Try to talk more to these people about work and play than you do about institutional politics.

–On that note, while as we all know it is not a good idea to join factions or “play politics,” talking about institutional culture and history with more senior people can be illuminating and by doing it, you show interest in the place, which is good. I do not mean you should complain to them or harangue them like the character in this blog, “the Blackguard.” But questions like, “Is there a reason for this policy, or is it just traditional to do things this way?” or “Has this committee historically been active/effective?” are completely legitimate.

–On turning down service: we all know we should do this, but find out what practice is on it before you do. It may be smarter to accept the assignment but then follow cues on it, and not put major effort into doing the job right. In other words: you may have been assigned it so that you get credit on paper and the job is not done, and depending on where you are, you may have chairs and directors who are more like foremen you should not challenge directly. (If you do not have such chairs or directors, you will see that.)

Axé.

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Filed under Banes, Resources, What Is A Scholar?

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