Don’t ask the new guy

Following my advice regarding faculty mentoring, here is another piece of advice for the colleagues of new faculty members: when you need a volunteer for a campus event, don’t ask the new person. Beyond the fact that the new person is probably naive enough to say yes as senior colleagues ignore these requests entirely, there are two reasons why this is a bad idea: The new person is not supposed to be doing service this year and the new person doesn’t actually know that much about the curriculum (at either the college-level or the department level). This can’t work out well for anybody other than the senior colleagues who do not have to spend a nice spring evening on campus.

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Signs of spring

-Longer days

-Warmer temperatures

-Decreased class attendance

-Increased difficulty of obtaining a quorum at faculty meetings

Signs of spring are apparently shared between my current and former institutions.

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Faculty mentoring

Tenured Radical’s latest post states:

The other day I read a comment on Facebook to the effect that, after changing jobs, many academics experience a moment of intense regret. The author of the comment timed this moment of regret at about six months into the new job, when the losses and the difficulty of the transition becomes truly apparent.

Like her, I am not experiencing regret, but it have been noticing certain differences as I get settled in. In some cases, such as mentoring, these differences have given me an even greater appreciation for my former colleagues.

It is not that my new colleagues are particularly bad at mentoring, but one particular colleague at my former institution regularly went out of her way to ensure that I knew what was going on. Unlike mentoring undergraduates or graduate students, at the faculty level I think that successful mentoring is mostly about keeping new colleagues in your thoughts so that you can tell them when you have to do something that a new faculty member might not know about. An example of this is submitting final grades. When the end of the semester nears, a good faculty mentor will not only think, “I need to submit my final grades,” but also, “John might not know how grade submission works here, so I should stop by his office and show him.”

As faculty members it is easy to get caught up in our own grading, students, and deadlines. I think that successful mentoring of other faculty members requires an external focus that our daily work does not. Hopefully I will remember this if I ever get the chance to mentor a new faculty member myself.

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If you, like me, tend to pace when you’re teaching then, you, like me, may have wondered how much walking you actually do during class. The other day I realized that my phone has some fitness tracking tools so I decided to find out. Keep in mind that the day I measured my classroom walking was actually a best-case scenario for this activity, since it involved my students working on group projects while I walked around the room and answered questions. While my typical pacing may cover a range of 10-20 feet at the front of a classroom, then, on this day I was untethered, able to walk around for 75 minutes. Am I getting a ton of exercise by pacing at the front of the room?

No. No, I am not. On this “best-case” day I took a total of 264 steps while in the classroom. 264! That is nothing! I assumed that I took 264 steps to walk down the hallway to the bathroom. How many miles did I walk during this time? .11. The previous sentence is 11 being hugged by two periods. It is being hugged because it is so sad about how little distance I actually walk in class. I was expecting results that numbered in miles, not tenths of miles!

There are two things that I have learned from this experience. The first is that teaching does not count as exercise, even if it gets me on my feet once or twice a day. The second is that my perceptions of the amount of walking one can do in a classroom was horribly inaccurate. I suppose that it is better to know that I should not count teaching as my daily exercise, but I will miss the illusion that I am walking miles everyday just by pacing.

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Institutional confusion

When starting my first job as an assistant professor, there were a lot of things I didn’t know about how the institution operated, like how tenure-track professors were reviewed, how service was assigned, and how advising worked. I have found, however, that starting my second job as an assistant professor is even worse in this regard because I not only don’t know how these things are done at my new institution, I do know how they were done at my previous institution. This makes the way things are done at my new institution seem weird because they are not what I am used to.

At my previous institution, for example, faculty turned in annual binders recording performance in various areas and all tenure-track faculty were observed at least once per semester by their department chairs. At my new institution observations are not officially required until the second year and I still have no idea if I need to turn in some sort of annual review. It seems that I don’t, but after doing one for so many years it feels wrong not to.

Service is also assigned differently. At my previous institution, each faculty member turned in a list of preferences and was typically assigned to one of his or her preferred committees. Furthermore, elections were held for certain committees based on who nominated themselves or accepted the nomination of a colleague. At my new institution, we also submit some preferences, but those preferences are likely to be ignored in favor of other factors like balanced divisional and gender composition. Elections are also composed of people who have been assigned by a committee to run for a particular position. Saying no is apparently not an option.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with any of these policies. I’m sure that if this was my first job I would learn the ropes and come to see them as normal. Having gotten used to things being done differently, however, makes it more difficult to accept a different system. On top of this, I haven’t even touched on departmental differences in course selection and I still don’t know how advisees are assigned. At least I have six months before I have to worry about that!

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To the faculty of Sweet Briar College, behold the four-page list of job requirements for a full-time Assistant Professor of History at Lansing Community College. (Don’t worry, it isn’t just the humanities – the requirements for their other positions contain most of the same ridiculous language.) If you don’t have time to open the linked PDF document, check out the required Professional Qualities and Abilities from page four:

  • Serves as a role model of good written and oral communication skills and good time management skills.
  • Possesses a positive attitude; able to see good in self and others.
  • Shows flexibility including the acceptance of and willingness to change; sees change as an opportunity for growth.
  • Seeks improvement over time by taking risks and trying new things.
  • Knows and acknowledges personal limits.
  • Displays self-discipline and a strong work ethic.
  • Accepts responsibility for professional and personal growth.
  • Demonstrates commitment to be a productive and supportive member of the college community.
  • Successfully organizes, executes and follows up on projects; sets specific objectives and measures to achieve results.
  • Accepts criticism gracefully and uses it as an opportunity for growth.
  • Handles conflict effectively.
  • Inspires others; sets an example of professionalism both within the college and the community.
  • Leads and/or follows as circumstances require.

These are real requirements for a real job, not something made up by The Onion. I think that my favorite is the last one. Combined with the other requirements, they are essentially saying, “we want the perfect faculty member, who knows what to do in all situations and, in the event that we decide that they are not doing the right things, knows that they were wrong and quickly starts doing what we say to do instead.”

While some of these are just ridiculous, I’m more concerned by the fact that institutions feel the need to spell these things out in a job ad rather than communicating them through mentoring, at orientation, etc. Attending commencement, for example, is probably expected at many institutions, but it seems that LCC expects a situation to arise where a faculty member says “Oh, I didn’t attend commencement because it wasn’t in my job requirements,” so they put it in the job requirements. College students typically complain about faculty treating them like high schoolers. Nothing good can come of treating the faculty that way.

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As I’ve noted before, as a tenure-track professor it can be very difficult to maintain a publication record that is higher than necessary for your institution. Whatever your own goals, the expectations of your institution are probably adjusted to account for teaching and service loads but the norms of your colleagues can also affect your productivity. Years ago, I noted that in the current academic climate of budget cuts publications are not only necessary for tenure and promotion but are also necessary to allow you to get another job if something happens to your current one. Of course, publishing more than you need to is easier said than done.

With the recent news of Sweet Briar College’s closing, a lot of faculty members are finding themselves in this position. As noted in The Atlantic:

Mid-career faculty at the school, including many revered professors who’ve devoted their lives to education, will likely have a tough time finding similar positions at other college institutions. As many higher-education experts will attest (and as I have witnessed in my own experience), these institutions typically prefer to hire junior faculty who have well-adorned resumes and are fresh out of prestigious graduate schools but are less expensive and willing to commit to a job for decades. With what are often hundreds of applicants for every opening, schools can be picky.

One faculty member was close to tenure and feeling confident. Now she is faced with starting over (as are the college’s staff members). Good luck to the faculty and staff of Sweet Briar College and to everybody else who will find themselves in similar situations in the coming months and years.

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