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Welcome to Relationships 101, New Professors

August 26, 2007, 1:02 pm

Hello New Professors!

Welcome to XU. Right now, your life is a rush of new knowledge, for which graduate school prepared you not at all. Sure, there are some experiences you have already had, like having to get a campus map in your head while you were unpacking and finishing your syllabus. (Actually — have your belongings arrived yet, or are are you balancing your lap top on your bicycle rack while sitting cross-legged on the floor? That’s what I thought.)

And there are other things you know — you have at least been a section leader at CU, or perhaps you have even run your own seminar, so you have some idea of what will happen on the first day of class. You are vowing to memorize all your students’ names in the first week, and you have even written a number of lectures in advance before things get crazy. Perhaps you have been assigned a mentor, having just escaped your graduate mentor — but what critical pieces of information have you not been given? Read on.

Your department Administrative Assistant and any other office staff are your lifeline to success. This is perhaps the most important thing I could tell you. You think it is your chair who runs the world? Ha. Your chair doesn’t even want to be chair, most likely, and since graduate school has never taught administrative skills, half of us who are chairs leave as much of the technical side of running the department in the hands of the office staff as we can. Go in and introduce yourself to the staff, learn their names and remember them. Moreover, never be too busy to inquire after their well-being. Why? Well, other than the fact that it is polite, your office staff can do things for you that you can’t do for yourself and, given the longevity of employment among clerical workers, they have relationships with staff around the university who can also help you. Do you have an unsuitable classroom? Guess what? So do ten other people. Your AA can most likely call the single person in the registrar’s office who can get you the room you need while the requests of others are kicked to the curb.

Never yell at a member of your, or anyone else’s office staff. Ever, ever, ever. And if you do, apologize, even if you were technically in the right and had a good reason to be angry. Flowers will do; candy is better.

Choose your friends, don’t let your friends choose you. This was standard advice given to most children in the 1950s and 60s as they started new schools. Even though being chosen by others seems to be the dominant cultural mode, I still think it is relevant to the situation of new faculty to ally themselves to others while keeping their eyes wide open. Here’s the scenario to really watch out for:

Before you were hired, you were one of many candidates in the beauty pageant and somehow you became Miss America. The tap dancing, the dieting, the implants, the hot rollers — it all paid off. But why, exactly, did the judges choose you? “Merit!” you chirp. OK — I’m not going to say you aren’t meritorious, but really, many other people in the search were too, and the process by which you were hired cannot, and should not, be imagined as a scientific deliberation in which it became clear to all that you were, objectively speaking, Graduate Student of the Year. I’m just telling you this because it gets you ready for the big letdown when…..some senior person shimmies up to you and tells you — confidentially, of course — that s/he was your really big supporter in the hiring meeting, and that you really need to watch out for Dr. Grumpo, who is a big right-winger and a sexual harasser besides, and hated your work. You are, of course, crestfallen, and ready to grab at the ally who has mysteriously appeared at hand to comfort you. What do you do dear? Do you say, “REALLY???!?” and go out to lunch to hear this new “friend” (who is trying to tie you down as a departmental ally) recount the awful details? You do not. You smile warmly and say, “Thank you so much for your support. I really look forward to working with you,” and you just sashay right back into your office and make a dress out of the blinds for good measure. Then, if you are feeling really self-confident, take some time to drop into Grumpo’s office (prudently leaving the door open, of course) and see for yourself what this person is like.

Never betray another untenured person. And don’t assume someone is a natural ally just because s/he is untenured. If you do something that harms the interests of another untenured person, no matter how unconscious or innocent it was, a lot of people will view you as a snake, and not just your peers. On the other hand, it takes a while to figure out who among your peers can really be trusted to watch your back, because some of them may actually be snakes and not innocent, powerless untenured people at all. Imagining that faculty rank parallels the class formation process, because it too is an effect of oppression, is horribly misguided. If you need any further proof of this, remember that if the class formation process actually had occurred in the United States the way Marx had imagined that it would, historians like David Roediger and Robin Kelley would not have the distinguished careers that they do.

Don’t distrust someone just because s/he is tenured. I do not mean to belittle the grave concerns that many untenured people have about tenured folk making unfounded, or founded, judgements about them. But there are a great many people whose advice can be trusted, and this is how you can tell: they don’t tell you what to do. They give you the information you need to make your own decision. They don’t assume that your experience with a particular person will replicate theirs; they acknowledge that you will want to make your own relationships with others, that your interests might differ from theirs and that the two of you can respect and like each other despite your differences. They don’t make core assumptions about you because you are gay/of color/a woman/a man/ white/southern/from the Ivy League/from England. They don’t look straight at your brown/queer face and tell you that they don’t “see race” or that a good family friend “is gay.” OK, so what if some of these things do happen — is this tenured person untrustworthy? Not necessarily. People who have structural power over you will occasionally make you uncomfortable, and you need to put that information in your personal data bank along with other information, gathered over time. But perform some sort of internal calculus to determine at any given moment whether this is someone who y
ou will be able to rely upon, and for what. Someone who initially makes a negative impression on you may actually be a good colleague, or a good colleague for you, who just fumbled a first impression out of ignorance or their own discomfort. It’s not up to you to deal with this, but don’t make life harder for yourself by developing grudges that blind you to a person’s more congenial qualities.

Do distrust someone who tells you to your face that your intellectual interests are unimportant or wrong. This person wishes you no good, and wants you to go away. Stay away from her, and cultivate a bright, empty smile for hallway encounters.

Whenever someone does something for you, say “Thank you.” Saying “thank you” is perhaps one of the most underrated academic skills I know. You are not automatically owed service by anyone. No one — I repeat, no one — works for you, New Professor. The class dean works for the dean of the college. The departmental secretary works for the administrative assistant, who works for the chair. There are probably a hundred people who make your work possible, and it is their job to do that, but it is not their job to tolerate rudeness or serve without recognition. Look for an opportunity to pay people back: would it kill you, on the way out to get lunch, to ask the office staff if they need anything — and to refuse payment for that $1.25 can of Coke? No it would not. Or how about this: a senior colleague has just read your article – ask if you can take her to lunch. The senior person might even say no (recognizing that your salary is a fraction of his), but although this sounds trite — it is the thought that counts.

Do not have sex with anyone you work with this year. Wait until next year, when people know other things about you.

Never be afraid to ask a question, or ask for help. This is the only way you will learn how your institution works. And despite all the teaching centers that are now in vogue in higher ed, it is the only way you will learn how to teach. Saying to a colleague, “Can you look at my syllabus?” is a good example. This has two advantages: one is that a person who has taught the same demographic of students for years can give you good advice, rather than your students giving it to you in a cruder form at the end of the term. But the other is that it gives people confidence that you care about teaching those students well, as opposed to the students you had at selective CU, or the ones you didn’t get a chance to teach when someone else got the job at Zenith. In addition to getting sound advice, here’s the Bonus Track: the next time you are being reviewed, this colleague will step in and say, “Yes, we had a good talk about that class, and from what I understand….” In other words, you can counter that sense of not having a role in your own destiny by actually engaging in dialogue with senior faculty who will listen to you and take that information to their peers.

Why, is that the moving truck pulling up outside your empty apartment? Time to go! There’s lots more I could say but I, um, have to go — finish my syllabus. Good luck, New Professors, and don’t forget to let your colleagues in the blogosphere know how you are doing.

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