Reflections on my first year as a faculty member

ScienceWoman mused about the completion of her first year here, and I had hoped I would develop similar observations and reflections while on Isle Royale. Truth be told, rather than taking the hiking time to think, uninterrupted, about the last year, I did anything but. Think, that is. Instead, I turned the intellectual brain off, and instead looked for orchids and wolf tracks and birds, and engaged in random brain static conversation with my husband about our house and his developing job. It was like a brain vacation.

However, on the 600 mile drive back, I did have chance to think a bit over my year, and I've come up with these points.

On one hand, I feel like I weathered my first year pretty well. I made substantial contributions to my department's communal life by starting and hosting a seminar series, serving on a faculty search committee for 2 new hires starting next year, doing active recruiting for graduate students for the department, and now helping develop a graduate orientation program for our department. In teaching, I survived my classes okay, with an Acceptable Overall Score on those wretched scantron evaluations, and even got a few positive comments that I can grasp onto. I enjoyed co-teaching the graduate class (a course on the history and philosophy of engineering education) so much that I am actually looking forward to doing it again. And, of course, I helped submit Purdue's ADVANCE grant (still haven't heard, by the way), which, if we were granted it, would be a pretty feather in my cap. I have a paper in review for the top journal in my field, and one that's under revisions after having already been reviewed. I've got a fun research project planned for the summer, and a student to help with it, and I have another student to help with ADVANCE.

And I bought a house, and my husband will soon have a job in the same city as me. Major goals also accomplished.

On the other hand, it really was like drinking from a firehose. I know it always is supposed to be, but it felt like drinking from a particularly public firehose because of the position of our department in the country, both a nice perk and a challenge. How we do things at Purdue must not fail, as we have access, resources, and fabulous people involved. No pressure on the junior n00bs who are just trying to work out how to survive their first year.

I really really need to work out better ways to manage my teaching. Mid-fall semester, I didn't know how I was going to finish, particularly with the large (my co-taught section was 220 students) undergraduate class: I was worn completely thin dealing with learning the new material (taught in tandem with 5 other instructors), dealing with scads of students in office hours, the emails, the typos and corrections, the exam stress, and so on. I know that the patterns of work I engaged in in the fall with my 2 courses (the other was a grad course) are COMPLETELY UNSUSTAINABLE and I CANNOT CANNOT CANNOT do them again this fall. Somehow I have to work out some other way to survive.

I took the attitude last year that my first year is something simply to be endured. The problem is that, in simply enduring, I set patterns that are unhealthy for me. I started getting weekly stress migraines, vacillating between not eating enough (lost 10 pounds over the fall semester) and junk (put it back on and then some over the spring semester), and falling out of touch with friends I've known for years. I am somewhat angry myself a little for allowing myself to be distracted by the frenetic pace of academic life and sacrificing myself in compensation, something I told myself I would not do.

I don't think it's a question of being more effective with my time. While I was a procrastinator as a graduate student (reading and writing in blogs being a major avoidance mechanism for me), this has not been a problem for me much in the last year. While at work, I have been, by and large completely focused on work, or at least, not wasting my time with self-constructed distractions. So my challenge is more a case of setting more realistic expectations. My attitude now is that I know where my limits are, because I surpassed them last year and it was a bad scene. So now I can gauge my efforts better, and know what the consequences will be if I don't.

I also have only made a couple of friends in this new city, and some of whom have had to move on to other places already. While I'm really good at "getting along with" all kinds of people, including people who see themselves on opposite ideological sides (in the department, in the city, in life), I tend to keep a wall up, a mask on and over the particularly personal part of my life, something that many folks I get along with are surprised (and often hurt) to find out. Like ScienceWoman, I miss real-life friendships, and hope I can work on developing these more when I can host people at our house. I have great plans for future dinner parties. :-)

And of course, the research pressure. I've put a lot of eggs into the ADVANCE basket, and it will be really tough if we don't get it. Plus I've sacrificed a lot of research time to help with all that community-building stuff I mentioned in the first paragraph. I know those decisions risk being mistakes, but I don't know if they are yet. I'll reserve judgement for now, as well as start plans for diversifying, as it were.

Additional lessons I've learned:

  • Bluffing is a good skill to have, but only if you have the wherewithall to figure something out "for real" after you've bluffed that you understand it, and the willingness to look slightly ridiculous and ask for help when you can't figure it out. This relates to committee function, grant applications, college politics, student advising, and even perhaps publication. My advice is to keep a notebook handy for noting down all the stuff you need to figure out somehow, and then when you're avoiding prepping for class or writing that paper, start figuring it out.
  • Administrative assistants are key people to get to know and respect. They know all the official rules, the forms you need to fill out, who to talk to to get registration requirements waived or FedEx packages sent, and they can make your life a living hell if they are not on your side. Cherish whatever support help you have, and don't make the mistake of treating them as less smart than faculty, or woe betide you.
  • Everyone tells you to "be selfish" with your time, and "learn to say no." The problem for me was not that I can't say no, but that I'm not asked my choice of yes or no. So really you have to learn how to say "no" when no question has been asked, no alternative option offered. I'm still working on learning this skill.
  • In addition, you also need another skill which is saying no to things you've already said yes to. Mid-way through the fall semester, a colleague shared with me that he gets to a point where all his commitments become too much, and he has to start "throwing babies off the train." Those of you who are parents (as this person is) may really not like this image (and nor do I), but the point is to acknowledge you don't want to throw any of them off because they're all important and precious and have potential, but you just can't help all of them. Once you take the attitude that your task is to choose one, some, however many, a whole bunch of associated tasks can go with it. The challenge is not throwing off so many babies that your colleagues start to hate you. Learn this skill, young grasshoppers.
  • Don't leave all your research plans for one day. If something happens that day (like, for me, this afternoon I had great plans, but instead was sick and spent the afternoon sleeping off a headache and nausea, ick), your research plans are toast for another week. You can't afford such breaks, as it will take longer to get back into your research flow after further time. I'm still working on this one too, but hopefully my fall teaching schedule will facilitate this -- no teaching at 8:20 this semester, so I should be able to do some writing in the mornings. If I plan it in.
  • I had thought that not having my husband around was helping me, as I didn't have to feel guilty about working all the time, staying at work until 10 PM or all Sunday and so on. But I think he would have served as a reality check mechanism: I don't think I would have worked myself so hard had he been around. And he was as destructive to himself as I was to myself, and hearing about how lonely and depressed he was by phone rather than in person was particularly hard to bear. I'm hoping that having him here next year will allow us to prop each other up better.
  • After returning from our week away, I realized how much I realized I need time away from work. We're considering making Memorial Day Week a regular escape tradition (the Smoky's next year, maybe?) to decompress from the year. I feel much more like I can grapple with the summer (including my 4 conference presentations coming up, ack!) and my research projects, and am ready to gear up up for a confrontation about my fall course assignments. I'm hoping to ride this wave for the next 2 weeks, then I start my conference tour (any readers in St. Paul or Cincinnati who want a meet-up?). I have more vacation planned throughout the summer, and I feel better about not taking work along with if it makes me more productive when I get back. I also feel better about leaving work during regular office hours over the summer.

I still will share more details of our Isle Royale trip, but now it's become 7 pm, and I have a basketful of fabulous CSA veggies (and fruit!) in the kitchen crying out to be eaten. I'm going to go take care of that - a proper meal rather than eating junk. With strawberries for dessert.

I know there are other folks out there who were first-year faculty members this year. How are you assessing your first years? Share in the comments, or link to any blog posts you've written...

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This is a great reflective post...much better than the mess of a one that I wrote. I particularly like your general points at the end (saying no when no question has been asked, trying to spread research time out, etc.) These are things that I also need to keep working on.

How are the corn fields of W. Lafayette these days? Is Harry's Chocolate Shop still a shithole?

By VanDerBan (not verified) on 03 Jun 2008 #permalink

Hope it eventually becomes summer-like by the time you make your way to Minnesota.

My partner and I had similar issues being apart during undergrad and feeling 'free' to work as hard as we wanted. It definitely contributed to both of us feeling very burned out!

Re: "The problem for me was not that I can't say no, but that I'm not asked my choice of yes or no."

I had a friend with an unreasonable advisor/mentor (we're talking internationally recognized unreasonability). He finally developed the technique of saying, "You've told me to do A,B, and C. You need to pick two."

Any chance you're going to ASEE?

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 04 Jun 2008 #permalink

FEP -- not this year. I'm going to Inclusive Science in St Paul and NWSA in Cincinnati, and I couldn't stomach ASEE right afterwards. But I'm going to FIE in October if by chance you are too... :-)

I too have been reflecting on my first year on this tenure ride. I was lucky enough to have 2 years teaching and 2 years postdoc-ing under my belt, so I did not feel totally overwhelmed...however there is much to reflect on. I have been making new goals for the next 3, 6 and 12 months.

I want to tell you that your memorial week trip plans are a good tradition. I left before finals this year to conduct 3 weeks of field work (not scheduled by me) and am now back at my desk being completely unproductive. I am just pooped both mentally and physically! I have decided to take the rest of the week and the weekend and go visit friends and unwind -- no work allowed! On my list of things to do differently next year - NO FIELD WORK RIGHT AT THE END OF THE SEMESTER!!!! (see it is in writing, maybe it will remind me....)

By all means, go to the Smokies -- it's beautiful. (Also, I live near there and it would be fun to meet you in person :)