Preparing for Your First Full-Time Teaching Position
Nolde Alexius | August 2000
"Does being a good departmental citizen mean holding your tongue, especially when you’re not tenured?" So asks Courtney Leatherman, regarding the seniority system of today’s colleges and universities. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE), she relates the story of Yale University’s assistant professor of history, Lee Blackwood, who was turned away from the tenure-track in his third year. According to Mr. Blackwood, the decision of the hiring committee wasn’t based on his work. Instead, he says that two prominent members of his department were guilty of cronyism, patronage, and weak scholarship, as well as trying to hire friends and recently minted Yale PhDs into their department. Mr. Blackwood believed that, in his department, certain individuals had "acquired excessive influence over decision-making in the department, and this corruption (was] having a deleterious impact on the quality of education at Yale."
If a tenure-track professor can be fired for building a fuss over hiring and policy-especially when free speech protections are supposed to keep you afloat in the academy-then how can new instructors and professors expect to succeed?
Mr. Blackwood’s case is still on appeal, so at this time, his firing may be chalked up to a fickle tenure review. But his situation holds a case in point for new teachers in academe. Losing a teaching job early in your career may be devastating to your future in academe, leaving you with a thin file of reserve recommendation letters and few avenues for advancement. The quality and quantity of work you do in and out of the classroom, and the types of relationships you form in your department, will determine how long you keep your new job; your work and relationships will help you determine whether teaching is really the profession you want to do for the long term. But being caught in departmental politics without understanding how to establish your future in academe-if you choose to stick with it-may tax your wits and your sanity beyond repair.
Here are a few ways that you can brace yourself for your first teaching year.
Find Support from a Mentor
Some departments offer mentoring programs for first-year teachers, which are designed to offer support in specific areas, such as classroom techniques and grading policies. At Louisiana State University (LSU), for example, mentors must review at least two sets of new teachers’ graded papers and observe at least two classes. Deirdre Carney, who is beginning her second year as an English instructor at LSU in August, needed occasional advice from an informed faculty member during her first year. "As a teaching assistant, I found that much of the responsibility is on the department. When you move into a full-time position, everything is on your shoulders. My fellow teaching assistants were closer and less competitive than my full-time colleagues. For instance, it would be so helpful to me if there would be some sort of committee that taught us how to handle disruptive students. The other instructors and I talk about it in the hallway, but we don’t talk about it in large groups because we don’t want to seem like we can’t handle our classrooms."
If your school doesn’t have a mentoring program, ask a sympathetic senior colleague to be your mentor. Realize that his or her purpose, as a mentor, is to help you learn how to do your job better. For example: when grading your student papers, don’t be afraid to hand over the very worst. Your mentor will be concerned with how you respond to the mistakes your student made, so show your mentor your best efforts at grading and remarking on your students’ work.
If you know you will be observed by your mentor or any member of the faculty-and probably you will be observed as a new teacher-try to prearrange their visits. Ask him or her to come when you feel your lesson or lecture is particularly good, or when you are confident somewhat that your students will be active and interested. If your mentor says the class he or she observed was a bust, evaluate his or her advice. How long has your mentor taught at this institution? Is your mentor’s advice based on a particularly hot topic in pedagogy, or on the preferred teaching methods of the department?
When at all possible, though, use your mentor to learn how to be a better manager of your classroom. Be honest when you need help-which sounds obvious, but may seem difficult in polarized departments. Use your mentor for the assistance you need in order to become a better teacher. And if he or she has a good experience in your classroom and sees your improvement as a faculty member, you have a better chance of being discussed among career instructors and tenured faculty as a person who belongs in the department.
Attend Meetings & Join a Committee
E ven if you are not required to join a committee during your first year, you may discover that one is particularly in line with your personal or scholarly interests. If you join a committee that interests you, you can turn an obligation-even if it’s not an obligation yet, it might be during your second year!-into an opportunity to further your knowledge and your career.
As with any job, your position will feel increasingly political with time. Adjunct and temporary appointments may rely more on superficial relationships-after all, no one knows how long you will stay there-but department administration and your special areas of study become more important as you reach for promotions and tenure. You were hired because of a degree that your department appreciates, and you have worked with people in your area of study that your department respects. Since you are a colleague, and should present yourself as such, show interest in any scholarly points of view that are presented to you. Remember that a university is a place for open debate, so be prepared to discuss the scholarly basis for your opinions. When appropriate, voice a dissenting opinion; you may end up agreeing to disagree. But always keep your main professional interests in mind, and find out who shares the same territory.
Beth Ann Fennelly, who has already experienced the transition from graduate teaching assistant to assistant professor of English at Knox College in Galesburg, IIllinois, points out that in academic departments seemingly simple decisions can be cause for discussion. "Whenever we bring in a candidate or a guest speaker, there are even opposing sides about the hotel he or she should stay in. I threw in my opinion when we were discussing one of the speaker’s accommodations, not knowing the history of the debate. I had the tie-breaking vote." Fennelly realized that her opinion on every issue that required a vote would clearly align her with some faculty, and separate her from others.
If you are unable to attend a committee or departmental meeting, it’s nice to show that you feel remorse for missing it. As Deidre Carney notes, "I get the impression from LSU’s meetings, whether there is a job candidate speaking or any other business is at hand, that if you are absent, it’s noted. It’s not enough to be there listening and enjoying the speaker. You have to ask questions that demonstrate your intelligence in a specific scholarly view." With this in mind, be sure not to brag to your colleagues, first-years or tenure-track, that you were able to "get out of" the meeting at four o’clock on Friday afternoon because you had other plans. The more sincere you are about your involvement in the department, the more allies you’ll make.
Understand Your Place in the Department
Usually, non-tenure-track positions afford very little voting power in major departmental decisions. But remember that the tenure-track and tenured professors that teach one or two classes a semester, as opposed to your four, subsist because you take over those extra classes. For this reason, you are quite valuable to the tenure-track faculty. You work just as hard as your tenured colleagues with regard to teaching, but lack the publications record or cumulative teaching experience that qualifies you to teach upper-division courses.
So, as a full-time teacher, you have to have realistic expectations concerning student evaluations, mentoring, committee work, interdepartmental politics, initiating change within the department (yes, it can happen), department meetings, and the balance between teaching and creative or research projects. Your preparation might also include reading some of the books your future colleagues have written, or reviewing the basic grammar rules you are supposed to be able to teach your students. Your preparation should also be governed by what your department values-and you can only learn that from an established faculty member who is willing to be honest about such matters. As a new teacher, it’s hard to measure the quality of advice you receive from your colleagues, but you should always look for ways you can learn about your department on a professional basis.
For example, Robin Becker, who made the transition this fall from teaching assistant to full-time instructor at LSU, feels that student evaluations and interdepartmental politics are not a priority in her preparation. "Having taught at LSU for two years already, I’m not concerned with student evaluations or politics as much. But I am concerned with budgeting time, with being able to get everything done, and with knowing that I won’t have the time to give my students that I did when I was teaching only two classes. I like to do individual conferences and extensive comments on their essays, but with 100 students and my own scholarly work, the conferences and comments will probably be the first to go. I prioritize this way so that I can get published, become a professional writer, and eventually apply for a better teaching position. But I am going to start using grading sheets, which are more efficient than extensive, individual comments on the students’ papers." The categories on her grading sheets, Becker says, will include grammar/mechanics, individual style, and voice, among others. "I hope to use the sheets as a tool so that I give my students the attention they deserve without neglecting my own separate but complementary career."
Deirdre Carney affirms Becker’s anticipated challenges as a new teacher. "The preparation wasn’t terribly difficult because I had already taught four sections of the same course," Carney says. "But in terms of keeping up with homework assignments and grading papers, I needed a semester to adjust. Grading is very time consuming, because I want to do a thorough job. Writing is a release for me, though, and is a necessary part of my life."
Beth Ann Fennelly echoes Becker’s and Carney’s concerns about finding a way to balance the time she spends on her creative pursuits and her teaching. However, Fennelly attributes the drain on her time to work that doesn’t necessarily involve her time in the classroom, and to the small size of the faculty in her department. "I’d get a lot of calls to help out. I felt overworked and that I needed to protect myself. I said ‘Yes’ to almost everything. The big switch in moving to a tenure-track job (from a teaching assistant position] is that I never had to make those decisions before. Also, I didn’t have a model from my own professors about their criteria for saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to extra work. During the first year, I needed to know how and when I could say no, and if I could say no."
Be Realistic About What You Can Accomplish
Once you have gained basic understanding of your department, you will want to find a way to feel some individuality within it. In addition to a good relationship with your mentor or other supportive faculty member, some committee work, and an intelligent question or two at department meetings, you may discover you want to make an even more aggressive effort to show your devotion to the department. As with any academic institution, every department will have areas for improvement. Therefore, you might feel compelled to instigate departmental reforms. This is a valid way to gain an identity, and has its limits. In her eight-person department, Fennelly did have the opportunity to offer suggestions for departmental change. "Some of the changes I suggested were accepted, which added to my sense of belonging," she says.
But beware of becoming too aggressive with your ideas for change. Before you form task forces and criticize the way other professors and staff members are doing their jobs, be sure that you understand those jobs and the personalities that have supported the people in them. You will effect change not only because of your great ideas, but also because you have allies. And be realistic. You will not, as a first-time instructor, reform the department into anything its present faculty (who have been there for some time, usually) don’t accept first. They won’t accept anything from a person they don’t accept. As Ms. Mentor notes, "academia, like the rest of the world, is often not a meritocracy." In a case such as Lee Blackwood’s, which is a complicated tangle of tenure politics and uncollegial sentiments, the inevitable result can be bad feelings all around.
Learn Your Benefits
Be sure to go to the university orientations-they are very important, even though they can be tedious. You will learn about policies that affect student life, health insurance and other benefits, and even special funding for your research or creative pursuits.
Put Student Evaluations into Perspective
Now, for some relief: your first-year teaching evaluations may hold less weight than you expect. If your students show, by their written responses to your job, that they like you, little in your life will change. If their approval of you is lacking, well, you’re new-you have the opportunity to improve. Lucia Perillo, in a "Point of View" piece in the CHE, questions the value of teachers reading their evaluations, whether they’re positive or negative. In my recent correspondence with Perillo, she added that "teaching as driven by student evaluations is… too charisma driven." People in your department also will understand that student evaluations sometimes reflect personality more than quality of teaching. Bad evaluations alone probably will not cause you to lose your position after the first year.
After you have addressed these issues, even fleetingly, remember that you took your job in part, possibly, because it offers the summer months for uninterrupted writing or research time. The time you have away from school is worth every bit of the transition you will make into full-time teaching. Try to regard your first year as necessary for your livelihood, which will feed the writing time in the summer. And always remember that next summer is a descending number of weeks away.
Nolde Alexius is an English instructor at Louisiana State University. Her fiction has been awarded a mini-grant from Louisiana Division of the Arts and is forthcoming in The Southern Review. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from George Mason University, where she was a teaching assistant.