A Year with a Twist

As I watch summer evaporating beneath my feet and begin to look forward to the new academic year, I try to recall the most important lessons I've learned while surviving my first year as an assistant professor at a mid-sized liberal arts college. It was a year of many lessons--of turns and twists. On the theory that someone out there may benefit from my experiences--if only by laughing at them--I offer the lesson's I've learned along with some short explanations.

1) "No" = opposite of "yes"; short but infrequently used word among junior faculty.

It's a bit of a cliché I know, but it really is true, and it represents the single biggest lesson I learned from my past year. I'm the first--actually the second, after my wife--to admit that my time-management skills could be . . . well, polished. Still, I was surprised how much of my first year was spent performing administrative duties. As tenure-track faculty, you are made aware that service is a requirement of your tenure decision package, but nobody can tell you exactly how much is the right amount to satisfy that requirement.

In this respect, first-year faculty are much like naïve first-years in any other sphere--eager to be exploited and fresh meat for committee monsters and their keepers. I initially felt compelled to say "yes" whenever anyone asked me to be on a departmental committee, or whenever the department was looking for volunteers for things that none of the experienced members would go near.

At one point, in an especially vulnerable mood, I made what proved to be a fortuitous mistake. I walked past the door of a colleague who--how could I have known?--was gathering nominees for college-wide committees; if I had known what she was up to, I would have chosen a different way.

In the event, she stopped me and asked if I would consider being on one of two committees. Feeling under-qualified for either but under pressure to volunteer for at least one, I deferred my decision and asked some other senior colleagues (including the Chair) if I should or if I shouldn't. Indicating, perhaps, that my hazing period was over and that I would no longer be subjected to humiliating jests, all agreed that there would be time to serve on such committees later, and that now was still the time to focus on my teaching and getting my research program up and running. Bolstered by their remarks, I managed to find the courage to say "no" to both committees . . . or at least "not right now."

2) Talk to, and listen to, other faculty in your department at every opportunity.

Even though they might have a bit of fun now and then at your expense, most department colleagues are decent sorts deep down. In all seriousness, as in rule 1 above, my senior colleagues have consistently given me important advice. I have been lucky; I've also been able to make good friends of some of the colleagues in the department and that makes it a lot easier to talk with them. But the thing that stands out is their willingness to share their experiences and ideas when it comes to teaching in order to assist junior faculty. I could not have survived my first year without the many conversations I've shared with my colleagues about teaching, syllabi, and the culture of the students at our institution.

3) Don't be afraid to ask for help.

This is related to rule 2. Your senior colleagues will almost invariably have more experience than you--utilize that--and there's always one or two who simply love to pontificate. I am fond of telling my students that if they ever have a problem getting a professor to talk to them, they should ask about their research and they won't be able to shut them up! They will likely be more that happy to talk with you about problems you might be having and may well have encountered similar (if not exactly the same) problems in the past.

4) Treat your department support staff nicely.

Your departmental Administrative Assistant (AA) can be a critical part of your experience as a junior faculty member. In our department, we are blessed with a lovely and efficient AA, so it's very easy to be nice to her. I realize that this might not always be the case, but my experience has shown me that developing good relationships with support staff (including the custodians who, if they should choose to, could make your life a living hell) will make you happier in your workplace . . . and you'll feel good just being nice to people!

5) First impressions do matter.

They certainly mattered in the job interview, but they keep on mattering after you are hired. There are many people on campus that I didn't meet or talk to during my interview. Without sounding too calculating, although I now have the job, it's important to remember that some of these people who had no say in my getting this job will have an important say in whether I get to keep it. Partly rule 5 contradicts Rule 1, since the best opportunity to make a good impression on colleagues outside your department is through committee work; when rules come into conflict, the key is balance. Try to make a positive impact early--it helps raise your campus-wide profile if you can get on a couple of smaller committees and get to know faculty from other disciplines.

6) Expect the unexpected.

You never know what's going to happen just before a class. As I mentioned in my last Next Wave article, my father was seriously ill with cancer in New Zealand when I began the fall semester last year. One morning at the start of October, I came into my office to get ready for my 9:05 a.m class and there was an e-mail from my brother in New Zealand telling me to call home urgently. I had a pretty good idea what was going on but decided that I really needed to know for sure, so at 9:00 a.m. my Mum let me know that Dad had passed away that night. I said "I have to go and teach a class now," and that's just what I did. I was a little shaky for a few minutes at the beginning of the class, but I don't think my students were any the wiser. I did fall apart after class once I started to tell my colleagues the news, but I made it through class.

7) Watch out for aliens--they are among us!

I am now a Resident Alien . . . that is, I have my "Green Card" . . . so no more dealing with the bureaucratic nightmare of jumping from temporary visa to temporary visa. A really good sign for the future is that it took just over 6 months from filing to having the card in our hands--much to the stunned amazement of everyone involved who expected it to take more like 2 years! I couldn't have done it without the help of the College's Human Resources people and the lawyers the College hired to help us. If you think your taxes are confusing, try filling out these immigration forms. Even the INS gave me incorrect information when I called them with a question! I consider myself a well-educated person, and I'm lucky enough to have English as my first language (even if I make it sound funny), but I found it really hard to decipher these forms without the help of the lawyers. I can only imagine what this process must be like for non-native English speakers, that is, most of the people who have to fill them out.

8) Don't get your knickers in a twist.

Well, the technical term the doctor used was "torsion" and it wasn't my knickers that were twisted, but it's a twist all the same, and we're in the right general location, anatomically. As the spring semester reached its peak, and during the week of the big Symposium that I had been on the planning committee for, I twisted my right testicle. I have absolutely no idea how I managed this relatively uncommon occurrence, but let me share with you that it did not improve what was probably my busiest week of the semester. Ten minutes into one of my classes, I became aware of a pain and cramping in my lower abdomen that got progressively worse until, by the end of the class, I was in a great deal of discomfort. I felt like I was going to throw up although it struck me as strange that I didn't feel at all nauseous.

After a couple of hours I realized that the pain was mainly coming from my testicle and my wife took me to the local hospital's ER. I was initially (mis)diagnosed as having an infection but, after two more days of pain, I sought a second opinion from my family doctor who told me to return to the ER for a second ultrasound. I was then informed by an ER nurse that I did indeed have a "torsion" and that I needed to go immediately to another hospital 30 miles away (by my own means) for surgery; it seems I had a 4-hour time window to "save my testicle." I didn't wait around for details; a friend gave me a ride (and received a speeding ticket in the process) and I underwent surgery the minute I got to the hospital. Four days later, I was able to move around without splitting headaches and could sit down again, very gently.

So looking back--what did I learn from all of this? That I am lucky to really enjoy my work, despite the twists and turns.

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