Andrew Kemp, Ed.D.: The sun was shining clearly through the tall windows of the conference room when my dissertation chair called me back in at 11:47 a.m., on March 27, 2007, and said, "Congratulations, Dr. Kemp."
Four years of classes, research, data analysis, statistics, sleep deprivation, library stacks, copies, reading, writing, and paper after paper after paper were over. Those years -- which I had also filled with a full-time job as a high-school teacher and with two daughters and a supportive wife -- were suddenly and abruptly finished. What was I to do with myself?
Now, here I sit, 1,292 miles to the northwest, an assistant professor of education in my first tenure-track job. I am in a small, windowless office with my computer and my books. The overhead fluorescent lights are off, and my three antique lamps light the room with 75 watts of "natural light." This is my place.
I look over at the disk housing my dissertation, which is desperately calling for my attention, pleading to be turned into articles. I review my notes, again, to prepare to teach my next class. I grade the newest set of essays from a group of highly motivated graduate students. And there goes my dissertation, calling out to me once again.
Where did all of my time go?
I remember when I accepted the job, my friends, colleagues, and family all joked about the cushy life I was going to have. How many classes do you teach? What are your office hours? So you get to sit around and think about things you are interested in and write about them?
I teach two classes. They take up as much time as all of the classes I taught in a semester as a high-school teacher, combined. Office hours? I'm here every minute I am not at home, or in a meeting, or sitting on a committee, or visiting a school.
When I sit here, sometimes I think that I am an assistant professor in title alone. Is it possible to be filled with confidence and fear at the same time? I have no idea where the fear comes from. Perhaps it is because I am learning to become a professor, and all that it entails, and it entails more than I imagined. I am learning to be a researcher, a teacher, a mentor, an adviser, a member of the academic community, all the while being a husband, a father, and a friend.
In this column, my colleagues and I will share our experiences as first-time faculty members in the department of teaching and learning at Northern Illinois University's College of Education. We spent years preparing for an academic life only to find that there is so much for which we are unprepared.
We are discovering through our conversations that our experiences are the same, and yet quite different. We are excited and nervous; we are confident and scared. Each day we wake up and realize that we know more than we thought; we also know a lot less. We are finally in the profession of our dreams, and it turns out that being a professor is a challenge, a thrill, a chore, a revelation, and one heck of a lot of work.
Samara Madrid, Ph.D.: Down the hall from my new office is the dance department. Every Tuesday, on my way back from teaching my undergraduate class, I stop and watch the beginning ballet class. It's set in a typical dance classroom with hard floors, barres, and mirrors. Young women and a few young men of every shape and size in their pale tights and black leotards stand in line doing pliés as the dance teacher critiques their performance in a loud, authoritative voice.
It takes me back to my first year of junior high school, when I was enrolled in a performing-arts program for dance. We took two hours of dance every morning. My dance teacher said I looked in the mirror too much, wore too much makeup, and talked too much when I should have been listening to her.
Why am I writing about dance class in a column about being a new assistant professor in early childhood education?
Because each time I walk past that dance class I am overcome with feelings that connect who I once was with who I am today. At 13 years old, I was a scared, young girl alone in a new school wondering if I was going to fit in. Was I good enough to be in a performing-arts school? Would the other girls like me? Did my dance teacher see that sometimes I missed a step? Did she notice my big thighs?
Twenty-something years later, with a doctorate in hand from a Big Ten university, I find myself with the same sort of insecurities. Will I be successful in academe? Do my colleagues like me? Do I still talk too much when I should be listening? Will I make the final cut? And what about those big thighs?
What I am learning, however, is that the process of becoming a member of a junior-high dance program -- while different in its particulars from the process of becoming a new assistant professor -- is not all that different in its general requirements. It takes daily practice, discipline, sweat, tears, and, most of all, a deep commitment to the profession.
So I smile and keep my back straight even when I am exhausted from teaching. I attempt to ask questions in meetings even when I have no idea what anyone is talking about, or even what the acronym for the committee stands for. (And why so many meetings anyway?)
When I miss a step, I jump back in line with the rest of the dancers and try to learn from my mistake. Even when I doubt my abilities, I continue to show up for practice and give the best I've got for the day.
Joseph Flynn, Ph.D.: This all came so fast. After years of graduate school, the amount of time between realizing that my dissertation could be defended and starting a professorship was like approaching a black hole. Time and space distorted, and my past as a student sped away while a new identity unavoidably and rapidly pulled me into an uncertain center. Suddenly, just like that, I became a professor. But what does that mean?
In teaching my first graduate-level class, I had my students watch an episode of HBO's The Wire to discuss community and institutions. Everyone said everything I was going to say. Usually I would be happy about a good discussion, but at the time it made me question myself, "So what the hell am I here for?" Gena, my wife, told me, "Baby, at this level you're a facilitator, not just the expert."
A fact about me: I am a black man whose research is on multiculturalism, whiteness, and film. After I was hired, I was told that that unique matrix of experience was a significant reason why I got the job. But do I really want to be "that guy"? The black guy who works on race?
Having wanted to be a professor most of my life, I always thought that becoming one would be the end product. But within minutes of attending my first faculty-wide meeting, I realized that something much bigger was happening. As I strolled in to the large ballroom, listening to Miles Davis on my iPod, I looked around and understood a fact that many new black faculty members come to realize: There really aren't that many of us.
I was vibing with a senior faculty member and with Drew Kemp when I noticed a woman kept coming around to photograph the three of us from different angles. "You know why, don't you?" the senior professor asked. "Because the more pictures of you, the more diverse we look."
I looked around again and took in the fact that being a black professor is a much greater issue than just comfort in my own skin; I am also a symbol. Here was my first lesson in how the sausage is made at a university, and I felt that being a black professor was just as much about what I hope to be as what others think I am. Suddenly the reality of politics, place, and identity crashed into me. Am I ready for this?, I wondered once more.
Regardless, it's still a pretty cool gig.
All Three of Us: So here we sit -- halfway through our first year as professors -- struggling to understand who we are, who we want to be, and just how much control we have in making it happen.
We find that we are less concerned (for the moment) with the mechanics of earning tenure and more concerned with finding our ground. If we can succeed at the latter, will that make it easier to achieve the former? Are we making too much of all this? Or are those fears and worries just part of becoming a professor?