A Kiwi Afloat (But Not Adrift)

All I ask is a tall ship,And a star to steer her by;- "Sea Fever"by John Masefield

I am a Kiwi--a native New Zealander--and not a sailor--though, given that New Zealand is surrounded by the ocean, the fact that I am not a sailor would cause some Kiwis to question my Kiwi-ness.

In addition to being a Kiwi, I am also a newly minted assistant professor on the tenure-track in a mid-sized, mid-western liberal arts college. I documented my efforts to find a tenure-track job in a couple of earlier Next Wave installments ( 12 March 2004 and 11 June 2004). Now that I'm fully fledged, with a tenure-track faculty position, I'd like to offer an update about what life has been like "on the other side."

More like an inflatable dingy

Although I may not be a sailor, I like to think that landing a tenure-track job is something like being given the keys to the "tall ship"that was the goal of my academic career (though I'm not completely sure that tall ships have keys...). The truth is, having being in a tenure-track job for less than a year, most times my craft feels more like an inflatable dingy than a tall ship. But what's important is that I don't feel adrift. My boat may seem small and the seas rough, but I've got a "star to steer by"--a mentor. In fact, I now realize that my career has been guided, not by just one star, but by a constellation.

When I think of mentors, I picture wise, senior colleagues providing sage career advice. But not all my mentors have been professionals. I have the strong suspicion that my first mentor -- mentors, actually -- were my parents. My father tutored electrical apprentices at the city's polytechnic institute. I remember several occasions when I bumped into his former students socially. They would tell me he had been a good teacher, and I was always a little surprised by the flicker of pride I'd feel in response to comments like those.

And then I started teaching. When I become a laboratory demonstrator as a graduate student and would complain to him about the amount of time it was taking me to mark full lab reports, my father would smile knowingly. The one thing that shone through about my father's teaching was that he cared deeply about his students. This also showed in his other life love: coaching high school basketball. I have watched my father pour time and care into the players he coached, and I've seen those young people reciprocate his care.

My father has been in my thoughts a lot recently since he passed away last October from cancer. The first signs of his illness appeared in January and things progressed quickly from then. Thankfully, I was able to travel back to New Zealand in June to spend two weeks with him, and I had the opportunity to say those things you sometimes don't get a chance to say to someone you love before they're gone. But when I think of him, I can see him as a mentor, and the first teacher who really inspired me to care about my students.

My mother was also a coach and a mentor. She coached the New Zealand national Netball team for 15 years to a great number of international successes, and she still coaches a regional team today. Since I'm guessing you've never heard of Netball, it's a game similar to basketball but without dribbling or running with the ball, just passing and shooting. It is by far New Zealand's most popular women's sport. Since this was an amateur sport at that time, I watched my mother devote a huge part of her life to something that she did just for love, not for money. Just like my father, she cared immensely for her players.

I will always remember my mother and father--two people who lived for coaching--talking for hours with each other about strategies for helping their players to be the best they could be. I don't know if it's genetic or learned, but with that family background, I don't think I ever really stood a chance. Teaching was in the stars for me.

I also consider my Ph.D. and postdoctoral supervisors as mentors. I learned a great deal from them about how to do research and how to manage people--sometimes how not to do it--but I am especially grateful to them because their help and training allowed me to become what I am today: a college professor.

A stranger in a strange land

In a general sense, no one will ever displace my parents as my most important mentors. But of all the mentors to date, I suspect my most recent mentor may end up being the most influential on my career. As a new faculty member, you enter a department full of people who you may have spoken to a dozen times, most of them fewer than that. These people are strangers, and yet, as a tenure-track member of the department, there's a good chance I will be with these people for a very long time, so forming relationships is very important. The institutional induction, if you actually receive one, is very useful, but a million pieces of new information are squeezed into a day--too much to process. You remain a stranger in a strange land. What you need is someone to help you navigate this period of uncertainty and those turbulent if not treacherous waters--and that's where my most recent mentor comes in.

My new mentor is also the chair of my new department. I believe that part of the job of any chair who's worth his or her salt is to help integrate a new faculty member into the department and help them succeed in their career. I know this doesn't always happen, but in my case it has.

A case in point: my first-year course assignments. As some of you may have experienced, in some departments this could very easily end up with the new person "paying their dues"with awkward schedules and loads of new class preparations. This happened to a friend of mine who had to prepare four new classes in his first semester, at least one of them on a topic completely outside his area of expertise.

But this didn't happen to me. I got to teach two of the same classes over both semesters, a very light load at an institution like mine, and quite manageable. This, along with a one-course reduction in my first semester for being new, meant that I had two new preps in the first semester and only one in the second--fewer new preps in my first year than my friend had in his first semester! This was due at least partially to my mentor in his role as chair, thoughtfully setting the new faculty member a workload that wouldn't overload him in his first year.

My new mentor has the advantage that he has managed already to successfully navigate this environment, and he is willing to share what he's learned along the way. That's important because I'm at an institution that emphasizes teaching, so it is noticeably different from the places where I did my academic training. It is also very nice that I now consider him a friend, as well as a colleague.

Although I single him out as my mentor, over time I expect many of my new colleagues also to become friends and mentors, each in a different way. The thing that ties them all together is the sense that they care--about their students, the success of their colleagues, and all the people around them.

I see mentors as having played, and continuing to play, an essential role in the development of my career. In some cases, I haven't so much sought them as I just happened to fall over them. And each one of them has passed on to me something different.

Is there a perfect mentor out there? I doubt it. For me, after what seems like countless years of school, university, and post-doctoral training, I have finally begun my voyage across the sea of academia. I feel like I might just be able to find my way but only with the help of quite a few stars.

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