It's just about time for newly hired, tenure-track faculty members to begin panicking in earnest. As the adrenaline rush of their job-search triumph fades, the questions and uncertainties about the coming year loom large.
I remember my own concerns about whether I would have enough time for my writing and about how I would take the research I had done in graduate school and turn it into published material that would count toward tenure. I had questions about service responsibilities, too -- such as, How much should I take on in order to demonstrate my commitment to the department and the college?
But, by far, the most pressing anxieties I had centered on teaching. How many students would I face? Would they be intellectually curious, eager to participate, hostile, apathetic? What would happen if I bombed in my first semester? How much time was I going to spend on preparation, teaching, and grading? And should I just glue my zipper to the top of my pants to ensure that I never walked into class with my fly open?
New faculty members of every kind -- tenure-track, graduate student, adjunct -- share those concerns. Don't be surprised when they begin to surface in your dreams, either. Nightmares about walking into class unprepared, or naked, or in the wrong discipline are common among teachers at every level.
And I don't mean to add to your worries, but I can guarantee you this: You will have problems, and, worse still, you will encounter problems you didn't even realize existed. That's the nature of the first semester; You only realize the full extent of the challenges after you've been through it.
Because they're academics, many new faculty members will turn to books, and a handful of excellent guidebooks on college teaching are available. But no printed guidebook, Web site, or discussion group will ever deal with your exact situation, which is teaching for the first time -- or for the first time on the tenure track -- at this point in your life, at this institution, in this discipline, with these students, in this year.
Fortunately, there is a place you can turn to where people will understand the particulars of your situation: the teaching center on your new campus.
It won't be called the Campus Teaching Center, of course -- that would make life too simple. It will be called the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Center for Teaching Excellence, the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Center, and so on, with all of the subtle linguistic variations that imaginative academics can muster.
On some campuses, the teaching center will be an office, or a suite of offices, with dedicated space and staff members. On other campuses, the center might consist of a single faculty member or administrator whose job description includes working with colleagues on teaching development.
If they're doing their job well, you will have heard from the folks who run your center before you ever step foot in the classroom. They will invite you to an orientation session, send a brochure or an e-mail describing their services, or announce an open house. Possibly, a department head or dean will mention the teaching center to you at a general orientation.
You will be overwhelmed with information in the coming months, so any invitation or mention you might hear will probably register at about the same level of attention as the invitation you received to tour the new campus recycling center.
But whether you have been invited to the teaching center or you have to seek it out on your own, it deserves a closer look from new faculty members as well as professors at every stage of their careers.
The center's services are free, of course -- not an unimportant point for new faculty members, adjuncts, and graduate students, who will not want to have to dip into their ramen-noodle budget to become better teachers. And you will not be putting anyone out by seeking advice from experts at the center. They are there to help you, and all of the teaching-center denizens I have met and worked with have a passion for teaching and working with other teachers.
So what will happen when you locate the center and seek out guidance on how to become a better teacher?
The process generally begins when the center notifies the administration that you have sought help, thereby marking you out as a bad teacher. Then you will be forced to attend seminars where you will be asked to wear a pointy hat and describe what kind of tree you would be, if you were a teaching tree.
But during the years I worked in a teaching center, I sometimes wondered whether the faculty had such perceptions about our work, since far fewer of them visited us than we would have liked. In fact, most teaching centers have a policy of confidentiality, so they cannot tell department heads or administrators that you have availed yourself of their services. And we saved the pointy hats for the annual holiday party.
What you will find at your teaching center, in most cases, are at least five categories of services for both newcomers and more experienced professors who need assistance with pedagogical issues or just want to continue their growth as teachers.
First, the specialists at the center will offer some form of observation and consulting. They might offer to sit and observe your classes, or videotape you teaching. Afterward, they will review with you what they saw and offer suggestions.
Being observed in the classroom, and having the chance to discuss the experience, can resolve most problems faced by new instructors. You might think that a problem you are encountering is unique but, chances are, an experienced observer will have seen it before and will have some practical strategies to help you overcome it.
Second, they will have resources on teaching for you to consult -- articles and books on the topic, online tutorials and links to online resources, computer programs, and so on. The keepers of those resources will usually have enough experience and familiarity with the literature on teaching in higher education that, if they don't have a resource to address your specific concern, they will know how to help you find a few.
Third, they will sponsor campus events devoted to teaching: lectures and workshops with visiting and local faculty members, discussion groups, reading circles, orientation sessions, and brown-bag lunches. Some of those will be formal events at which you will learn specific ideas and teaching strategies; others will be glorified kvetch sessions, in which you'll be invited to discuss whatever problems you're having in the classroom.
Either way, the events are worth attending. You will discover soon enough, if you haven't already, the therapeutic benefits of kvetching about your students and your teaching problems around the copy machine or coffeemaker. The center's organized events simply put a title, a time, and a place on that time-honored tradition, and you will leave feeling a little less alone in the teaching universe.
Fourth, your teaching center may offer grant money for developing new courses or conducting research on teaching, or for attending conferences on the subject.
Finally, the center may offer a mentoring program, in which it connects new teachers with more-experienced ones who can provide sustained and personal guidance through the pre-tenure years. Securing a mentor will not only ensure help with your teaching, but it will have the side benefit of helping you build connections with your senior colleagues -- one of the many challenges you'll face as a new faculty member.
So support and patronize your local teaching center, in whatever form you might find it. Even if your tenure case depends largely on your research output, you will still find yourself, at least a few times a week, standing in front of a sea of young faces, and you will want to do your best for them. Teaching centers can help.
And if your tenure case -- or your promotion, or your contract renewal for next semester -- depends upon your teaching, nothing will make as significant a difference to your livelihood as the personal guidance of an experienced professional who will welcome the opportunity to help you become a more effective teacher.