The Invisible (Wo)Man: Or, Thinking About Your Year As a Visiting Member of a Faculty

September 8, 2007, 3:50 pm

Visitors are at the top of the contingent faculty depth chart, in my view, perhaps slightly below post-docs — unless you believe, as I do, that post-docs have become a way of institutionalizing contingent faculty. But they are right up there, status-wise. What’s good about such positions? A living wage, for one thing, and health insurance. Sometimes there is a little money for conferences or research expenses. Access to a university library would be another. Gaining experience without having every false move entered in your tenure dossier, and getting to apply for what we call “real” jobs with letterhead stationary would go on the list.

In my previous post, I mentioned some things I learned from Year One as a Visitor. There was actually Year Two as well, at an Urban Ivy, that helped to catapult me into the job I have held here at Zenith since 1991. One of these days I’ll write about that, because I really liked those people, and they did a lot of things right. So drawing on this experience, and on my many years of hiring visitors, I offer the following suggestions to counter the problem of “visitor invisibility.”

Work in your office at least two afternoons and one morning a week. More if you can really work there. I know, I know. Your former dissertation advisor has told you to compress your teaching, stay home as much as possible, and get a jump start on your book. Well, aren’t there some things you could work on in your office? If you are not there, you will be technically invisible. Because you won’t be there. Shall I emphasize this further?

And how can people invite you to lunch on the spur of the moment if you are actually never there at lunchtime?

Go to Campus Events. Talks, panels, receptions — anyplace you might be able to introduce yourself casually. Watch the university calendar like a hawk, and bookmark the websites of interdisciplinary programs where there are events listed. Go to IT demonstrations of new teaching technologies. Not only are you learning something cutting edge that you can unveil at your next job interview, but the great secret of university life is: the IT people are really smart, funny, nice people who make great friends because they are not stuck up and they can be trusted not to compete with you constantly. They are often academics who decided, wisely, that the tenure-track mill wheel was not for them. Knowing such people can ease your fear that, in the event that you do not get a t-t job next year, you will be forced to live under a viaduct selling counterfeit DVDs.

Talks, symposia and the like are a particularly good venue for a new face because, with the right touch, you can ask a question and make people curious about you. They will then come up and introduce themselves (this is after they poke each other and whisper sotto voce, “Who is that?”) If you don’t want to go alone, find another visitor — or that new, tenure-track person cowering in her office — and suggest that you go together.

And speaking of people on tenure-track lines…. At Zenith, these are the most fun people, the most socially inclusive, and the most heterogeneous as a group. Ask them for advice on the best supermarket in the area, where to go dancing, if they know a good baby sitter — whatever you need to settle in. And a lot of these people have recently been, well — you. In the figurative sense. And they will also be some of the best people to give you advice as you pull yourself together to go on the job market again.

Get yourself on the women’s studies’ program mailing list. I cannot emphasize this more strongly. Gender Studies, or Feminist Studies, or whatever they call it at your university — women’s studies programs are unfortunately not the hotbeds of radicalism that they used to be, but they have also not entirely shed a political past of including people on the basis of a desire to be included. You don’t study women? OK, here are the following conditions under which you might plausibly associate yourself with the women’s studies program and get on the e-list for intellectual and social events:

You are a woman; your work encompasses the fields of gender and/or sexuality; you don’t work on women but you would like to; you think you could benefit from a dash of feminism; you are a man who works on gender; you are a man who is supportive of women and/or feminism and/or queer people; you are a woman whose intellectual interests do not seem to overlap with the women’s studies program at all but you need to get into a feminist space once in a while; you are a woman who likes to drink cheap wine and tell dirty jokes; you are a non-sexist man who can happily sit there, talking very little, basking in the light of female friendship, while feminists get drunk and tell dirty jokes.

“But what about my career?!” you shriek. First of all, never underestimate the power of social events to make connections that will make a difference to your career sooner as well as later. You get to know people who will not only give you the benefit of their experience, they also have networks that can help you on the job market. And not just the senior people — untenured people have lots of friends who you can call to find out about an institution, what they really want in that search, who serve on search committees, and could be the person (as was the case at one of my interviews) who grabs your arm at the on-campus interview and says, “I’m so glad to meet you! Charlie told me all about you.” It won’t necessarily get you the job (didn’t get me the job) but this guy set aside the better part of two days to make sure that everything went ok for me during the interview process. And that, my friends, does give you a better chance of getting the job.

If someone asks you to give a talk, or fill in on a panel, or give a guest lecture — say yes. Yes, yes, yes. If there is a writing group that you can join — join, join, join.

Finally, I am going out on a limb here, but: the people who hired you owe you a little something because, although they have lifted you out of the kind of adjuncting that means you are holding office hours on BART, SEPTA or the Metro, you are doing them a favor too by stepping in when they need help. So the first person you should make contact with is the person who hired you; the second is the senior scholar in your field; and the third is anyone else you admire. And these people should be willing to offer you one or more of the following things:

Looking over your job letters; sitting in on a class and writing a let
ter for your dossier; assembling a few people for a practice convention interview; listening to a practice job talk. It is not out of line to ask someone to read your work, and if you are paying attention to the advice you are getting from the untenured people, that individual might even write a letter on your scholarship for your dossier. If you are lucky, someone will offer; but you might have to screw up your courage and ask. People are busy, and sometimes when you feel ignored, it can be the case that when asked to make time for you, they will. But not until then.

The last thing you must remember is that when you become a tenured person, and you hire visitors, remember how others treated you and improve on it. When you are untenured, and get a job, remember that the visitor in the office next door isn’t someone who “didn’t make the grade.” It’s someone who wants a chance to show who they are, and what they can do.

Just like you did.

Oh yeah: and just because I would not be here without their kindness and advice, I would like to give a very belated shout out to Don, Jane, Demie, Drew, Michelle (and the other SWAPS), Carroll, Stephen, Ruth, Mike, Lisa, Evelyn and Marc.

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