Figuring out a new department

The first day of class is upon us. I am at a new school, and doing my best to figure out the culture of the institution, the students, and my department, without committing any major faux pax. Faculty orientation gave me the institution’s official beliefs about who it thinks it is, and that is useful. I am very glad I went. But that can only go so far. How do I really find out what the undercurrents are? I can’t see them, but at every institution that I have been at, they have inevitably existed. I am in a temporary position, but it is one that the department is most likely going to begin a TT search for in the coming year. So in many ways, this is an extended job interview, and my job is to not mess it up.*

They talk to me about enrollment numbers and bringing students into the major. I hold back from telling them that with them losing all the faculty in my sub-field and bringing me in just a few weeks ago, it would be a bit much to expect students not to take notice and act accordingly.** They encourage me to begin new initiatives and join multiple projects, but it’s not yet clear to me that there is funding around to support any of it. At least among the faculty members who I interact with more regularly, there seems to be genuine good will. I do really like the enthusiasm, but I do my best to both guard my time and make smart choices about whose suggestions I take seriously.

Since getting here, I have taken several steps to try to better understand my department’s culture:

1. Attended all official orientations of every kind. If nothing else, they have been a useful way of making new friends in a new city.

2. Had an official meeting with the Chair and DGS to ask about expectations from me as a new faculty member in the department, as well as students’ expectations from me as an instructor. A lot of it was silly stuff that I just needed answered: do I print materials or can I expect the students to? how much reading can I expect them to do in a week? what do they actually learn in prereq X?

3. Unofficially chatted with students and asked them versions of the same questions. Noted the variability in answers but mostly the constants.

4. Invited other young faculty members out for coffee. They are going to be very important for my mental health.***

5. Talked to off-campus mentors about what they know (which unfortunately for me, in this case, isn’t all that much).

6. Observed. Sat quietly in talks and social events and tried to make sense of who sits next to whom, who speaks sarcastically of whom when they are not in the room, etc. This one really scares me — I am convinced that there are some intrigues between some senior faculty members, and that they run deep.**** But I can’t quite figure out what they are.

Being the new gal can be disorienting. But as the new year begins, I am determined to be happy and productive, and to do my best to steer clear of trouble. Now if only I were better at detecting it…

How have you dealt with invisible inner-departmental politics at a new institution?


*And at the same time, also not to get over-excited about it. Hiring decisions are as complex as they are obscure.

**Relatedly and worryingly, this department has failed to tenure three young women in the past few years. Men don’t quite seem to have the same problem. So, there’s that.

***Speaking of which, I’ve also already made sure I have a PCP and an understanding of the mental health system here, in case I need to use it. If there is one thing I’ve learned is that this is something to figure out now, when I’m doing well, and not when I’m in a crisis.

****And that they affect hiring decisions.

3 thoughts on “Figuring out a new department

  1. In *every* new operations that I’ve moved on toward, there was the “FNG” syndrome.
    In part, blame it on the FNG, in others, tolerate the faux pas. For the record, moi francies c’est merde, actually had to look up that spelling.
    Where I’ve actually spoken that mistransliteration, to humorous effects in French speaking nations. Serious and tolerant laughter.
    And yes, I do, if I sit and seriously think on it for multiple minutes, can recall the proper French version of the phrase.😉

    FNG, Fu***ing New Guy/Girl, you’re new, it’s expected to have some foul-ups and especially in regards to local culture.

    I’ve lived and operated in more countries than I currently own pairs of socks, the number of which is legendary (socks, that is).

    You’re new, you’ll foul up, it’s expected. If it isn’t, you need to find a real organization to work within, as they expect failure and termination and obviously don’t regard assets or their clients.

    Note the terms I specifically and intentionally used.
    Assets are those who care for clients, customers are casual relationships, like Walmart has, clients are professional relationships, to be treasured. Customers can be trivially replaced, clients cannot. Nor can assets.
    That’s the very real business relationship you’re living in.
    In that situation, someone that’s an FNG fouls up, everyone should cover for the foul up, explaining novelty of the situation to the asset and learning curve.
    If that isn’t happening, you’re in a potentially toxic environment and you should begin to consider moving forward.

  2. I am starting at a new university as well. My situation is different in that I am at an extended campus, thousands of miles away from the main campus. There is less than a handful (like 2) other faculty members. We don’t have a formal opening ceremony, opps to meet and greet, etc. I am charged with building relationships and assessing the culture virtually. Suggestions?

  3. When I moved to another country to start my first postdoc, I observed a couple things during our weekly seminar. Everyone seemed polite and friendly and students were curious about my overseas experience. Then I soon noticed that my boss didn’t seem to be on good terms with one of the other professors. I just felt it, without any proof. A couple months later when we finished a long research discussion (or argument, actually) with that professor, my boss told me that he hadn’t wanted to spend his time on this. All of sudden I felt myself in a very awakard position because as a junior researcher I wanted to discuss research with people nearby as often as possible. And I spent a few days figuring out how to invest my time appropriately. I had to establish my professional connections. I still discussed with the said professor sometimes and my boss didn’t say anything about it. But I was just thinking my gut feeling turned out to be true…

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