Tuesday, September 2, 2014

There's So Much Awful Advice for New Faculty

It's the beginning of the semester at most colleges and universities nationwide, meaning it's also advice season for new faculty. This is the time of year when The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed publish a string of pieces from older, wiser faculty to help us novices survive tenure trackdom. I've decided to stop reading these pieces for several reasons I'll share here. And it's not because I know everything I'll need to thrive.

First, a chunk of the advice is completely common sense. It's not just common sense to me. It's quite literally common sense. Included in this category are the suggestions that we learn the culture of our departments and try to be nice to our colleagues. I'm not sure anyone, in any profession, would walk into a new job thinking: "I'm going to completely ignore what's going on around me and try to be a jerk." So, I'm not sure that this advice really needs to be verbalized. If there are people who approach a new faculty job this way, chances are they are too self-absorbed or socio-pathic to read advice pieces and take them seriously.

Second, a chunk of the advice is contingent upon the institution type. Writers of advice pieces will understandably draw upon their own experiences to spin humorous cautionary tales or chronicle how they saved a new faculty member from an embarrassing blunder. I understand this approach: you write what you know. But what you know doesn't necessarily speak to where I'm at. You may be talking about teaching generally, but your ideas are informed by lecturing to 300 undergraduate students, not developing online modules for working adults. Let's face it: there are few universal rules when it comes to being an academic. We work in a fabulously diverse occupation, rending most advice useless in practice.

Third, a chunk of the advice treats academe like a secret society or game demanding a particularly nuanced strategy. And, trust me, I get it. The stakes are high. There are unwritten codes. This is a unique profession in which your colleagues vote on our promotion. But at the end of the day this is a job. Every job that I've held was political and stressful. I trusted my instincts and stayed true to myself. If I can't do that as a faculty member, why would I want to work in this department, institution, or field? I recognize that "being myself" is a privilege, but it shouldn't be. It should be the only advice given and the only advice we, as new faculty, accept. In some ways, the narrative that treats academe like a game and new faculty as clueless rookies does more harm than good. If we all treated this as a job, even if (as many others have noted) it is a calling, it would be easier to walk away at the end of the day and draw clear boundaries. We would put up with a lot less foolishness.

Lastly, much of the advice leaves me feeling more panicked than prepared to succeed. I start worrying about things that, honestly, probably don't matter all that much. I think about whether I'm being nice enough or getting too friendly with my students. Before long, I give in to the perennial academic pastime of overthinking everything, which means I'm not thinking about the really important things, like editing that manuscript or developing that creative discussion idea. I swirl around in a tornado of self-doubt and tenure fear.

So, I stopped reading the advice pieces, electing to believe in my ability to learn and make incremental improvements. Truthfully, I wish that some older, wiser faculty would give up writing them. If you really want to write something for fellow faculty members, share pedagogies that you found effective. If you're feeling the itch to mentor a new faculty member, swing by their office or invite them to coffee. Find out about their life and aspirations, then give them personalized advice. If it's really about our success, and not somehow about you, then I would think this approach is more effective than writing an op-ed.

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