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.

Managing Health on the Tenure Track

When I started my first year on the tenure track, I did so knowing that it would be challenging. Not only would I have the tenure process to worry about, but I also began teaching more than I ever had during my graduate school training. On top of these challenges, I live with a chronic autoimmune disease which can be unpredictable and flares under new and stressful conditions. It was a perfect storm and I knew that my health would suffer if I didn’t make it a priority.

Today I submitted grades for all of my writing classes, and I want to briefly reflect on what worked as I tried to take care of myself this year.

  1. Health Insurance! As I have mentioned in the past, benefits for full time faculty at CCs can be substantially better than other types of schools due to a strong union presence. This was the first time I had access to all the medical help I could want, and I took advantage. From taking care of my Vitamin D deficiency to getting referred to a dietician, this benefit was immensely helpful.
  2. I had a health coach. In the past couple of years, I have noticed an increase in the availability of life coaching, career coaching, or other kinds of guidance beyond a therapist/patient relationship. A friend of mine was beginning a coaching career and allowed me to work with her for a discounted rate as she earned her license. We talked on the phone twice a month about my goals and values alongside her speciality in mindfulness and meditation. These conversations became an opportunity for me to re-center my health as work demands constantly drew my focus.
  3. My chronic illness buddy. My very good friend suffers from an autoimmune disease similar to my own and we are working to create structure and support for each other even though we live far away. When doctors do not take our pain seriously, we take each other’s pain seriously. We have a Google Doc with updates on our health, procedures, and doctor visits as well as resources such as recipes and articles in the news.
  4. Rituals for Selfcare. From Adeline Koh’s line of Sabbatical Beauty to Rebecca Schuman’s 10-step Korean Skin Care Routine, to Sarah Ahmed’s Selfcare as Warfare this has been the year of academic women taking care of ourselves. My personal rituals include epsom salt baths with Ylang Ylang and lavender essential oils, watching The Americans while eating chocolate, and sleeping 9-10 hours per night.

What rituals, practices, and support networks do you turn to when health issues flare up?

When Teaching is Like Social Work

I am writing from the 11th week of our semester and kicking myself. What was I thinking agreeing to write a post at the end of April? So here you have my most honest and unfiltered thoughts now that I am nearing the end of my first year teaching community college full time.

Wow. It is hard. It is brutally hard on my body in a way that is completely unfamiliar from my previous experiences in higher ed. Teaching so many students at two different campuses requires much more communicating than I have done as an academic introvert. And it’s not just the teaching/ meeting with students/ grading responsibilities. While my students try to complete freshman writing, they are dealing with childcare worries, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction in their families, and significant health concerns. Continue reading

I survived Year 1 as a new professor, and you can, too!

As of last week, I have officially survived my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor! I’m sure there are a lot of you out there just getting started, too, and so I wanted to share some advice and reflections, while they’re fresh (Year 2 is already upon me, and it’s already a different animal!). I was told a lot of this before I started, myself, and it didn’t really sink in until I lived it. Still, just having someone normalize your experience is so incredibly valuable, and so here’s my own:

1. You won’t get anything done in Year 1. This is actually not really true, but it feels like it. Everything takes much longer than you’ll predict — getting your office set up, getting phones turned on, figuring out the email client and Payroll and the archaic student course software (or softwares!), ordering equipment. There are meetings and orientations and everyone wants to invite you for coffee and to talk about collaborations and to invite you on committees. You’ll basically find that you get to the summer break and all of your ambitious plans to publish (even if you have a teaching release!) and write grants and collect amazing data all went out the window, and you will very likely feel like a failure. Even if you were crazy productive just before you defended, you’ll find that you’re paying the price now, and finding it harder to focus with so many new demands to your attention. But here’s the thing: everything you’ve been doing, from the thinking to the planning to the figuring out what your space situation is, has value. It’s part of the process. When you hit Year 2, it should all be settled.

What you can do about it: Be strategic about your time, and block off a day (or a half a day) that is sacrosanct. Put it on your calendar. Do not treat it as time for scheduling meetings– treat it as a meeting between you and your computer. Invest in some time management software like RescueTime. Get those last PhD and postdoc papers in the pipeline. Make it a goal to apply for a grant or two, even if you have startup funds. Don’t stay at work too long. I didn’t figure any of this out until recently, and I’m trying it out for Year 2. Continue reading

The good, the meh, and the ugly of pre-tenure service

To academics, the term “service” covers a variety of activities, from reviewing papers, to serving on committees, to doing public outreach. Really, service is anything that doesn’t fall under the categories of teaching and research. While service is part of our job descriptions and for some of us is even factored into our workloads, the old saying “no one ever gets tenure for doing service” is still, unquestionably true. It’s also true that women and minorities often shoulder a disproportionate service load relative to white, male colleagues.

So given that we as women in academia are going to get asked to do service, and that the time and energy we spend doing service is going to detract from what we can accomplish on the research and teaching fronts, it behooves us to be strategic in our service choices. Continue reading

Dealing with disrespect in the classroom

One of my clearest memories from middle school is the time that my class made our teacher break down and sob on her desk. She was a new teacher who seemed passionate and kind, and the increasingly vocal disrespect and general meanness from the class culminated in her total loss of control of the classroom and herself.  The principal came in and give us a severe talking to, but we never regained respect for our teacher.

Part way through my second semester I’m thinking a lot about how I can improve as a teacher. As I’ve mentioned, my research-focused training didn’t prepare me for a teaching-focused career. One thing that I’ve come to realize is that I don’t have complete control of my classrooms. Continue reading

We Want You! Musings of a New Diversity Hire~

We have all seen the behests included towards the end of a job posting. “ We encourage minorities and women to apply” or “We are equal opportunity employers, and we specifically encourage women and members of under-represented groups to apply for this position.” As a woman of color, these phrases never meant much. They seemed tacked on at the end of every job post. Every institution of higher learning should be working to increase diversity among their faculty, staff and student populations, no? Would I want to work somewhere that didn’t explicitly state this in their job advertisement? The short answer: certainly not. Having done the job market tango several times (and as recently as fall 2013), this phrase became invisible to me. It only received a passing glance as I tried to absorb the announcements, to determine whether I could bend and twist my CV to another job posting. Continue reading