Sunday, May 6, 2012

The View from a Year In

Dear new assistant professor,

This year is going to be really rugged. In many respects it will be harder than anything you ever did in graduate school, but the semblance of a life that you start to see glimmering through makes it easier to manage.

Loads of people will tell you that you should expect to get nothing accomplished this year. You should listen to them. When people told me that, what I heard was: "If you're not careful, you'll get nothing accomplished this year and make lots of excuses for yourself having to do with settling in, getting used to a new uni and being collegial." What I should have heard was: "You're not going to get anything accomplished this year, and that's okay." Settling in is important and time-consuming. My workaround was to take on several small projects (an article, an essay, two book reviews, four conference talks (all in the spring, too!), and participation in a symposium where I'd be workshopping a book chapter) with very proximate deadlines, figuring that if I had to get work done, then I would. And I did. Only just barely. Every deadline involved a sprint to the finish and a request for a short extension. On top of that, I did nothing else all year. Didn't make connections with many of my colleagues at the university, didn't put in enough time to my teaching (more on that in a moment), didn't write or read except as required, also didn't explore New York at all and had no outside life.

Expect to be tired. All the time. That is all.

Okay, it's not all. Try to set a decent and consistent bedtime for yourself. You're going to be tempted, especially if you had a sprint-to-the-finish ending of your dissertation work, compressed into a few months to finish up so you could take your job, to spend every waking second at your desk and to stay up until 2am trying to accomplish the work that you couldn't during the day. It's not even so much temptation as compulsion or as blindness to any alternative. Fight the urge. Don't, to use an autobiographical example, feel like you have to go back to your desk and write three more sentences between putting the eggs into boil and the timer going off. Take those thirteen minutes to tidy or read for pleasure or watch a short or daydream. You'll be more productive for it when you do go sit back down.

And don't plan your semester out as though everything is going to run smoothly; in other words, don't account for every second from the get-go. If you do, you won't have the time to meet weekly with the student who isn't the brightest in the class but who wants to review every assignment, responds to your comments, improves and who will, eventually, perform to the best of her ability. If you do, and you find yourself really intrigued by curriculum reforms in your department, you might not be able to be so involved in them. Don't forget that things will come up. Not pre-scheduling every second won't lead to a failure to work hard.

You will be a kind of busy that you've never experienced before.

Teaching is just going to blow. Sorry about the turn of phrase and the vulgar image, but it's going to be bad. And it's going to get better. You're going to get used to a different student culture, a different general work ethic, different general preferences and expectations and entitlements. One of the best things that you can do is to do a lot of explaining. Tell them why you do things the way you do things, and why your way is really great even if it's not what they're used to. This kind of meta-narrative will, at first, range from seeming counterintuitive to seeming a little irritating, but it helps; and the rewards are students who are more on board with whatever else it is that you are trying to accomplish in the classroom. Figure out which of your colleagues are especially devoted to and thoughtful about their teaching, and spend as much time as you can talking with them.

Hang in there. The year will end soon enough, you'll spend a week on a beach in a place with very blue seas and very little else, and then  you'll have the summer to finish up that nagging book chapter or article you didn't quite finish during the year. And from there, it'll have to be smoother sailing. Inshallah.

With love from someone who's just been there,

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