Image: theatrical poster, The Poseidon Adventure/20th Century Fox (1972)
“How are you doing?” the senior professor asks of the first-year protégé. Hopefully the ask is sincere, the intention noble. But rarely do rookie faculty members get the luxury of offering a full, reflective answer. What is it really like to be a new full-time faculty member? What tropes and lessons emerge from the crush and the chaos of the first year on the tenure track?
Answers vary depending on the individual and the institution. We are all faculty members at the College of DuPage, and four of us are newly minted members of the professoriate in our second year on the campus. Collectively we’ve found that the first year was a process of discovery: Suddenly you belong to “the club” — you’re no longer a graduate student, you’re a peer. At the same time, your position is one of surprising vulnerability as your membership could be revoked down the road by your colleagues.
Brian Brems: Same Ship, Different Perspective
The star-studded, big-budget disaster films of the 1970s are fascinating. They smash together Old Hollywood (Paul Newman, Shelley Winters) and New Hollywood (Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway). Fire! Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Tidal waves!
The best and most original of these is 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. When I think about my first year as a full-time faculty member on the tenure track, the experience of those hapless passengers, trying their best to navigate a ship turned completely upside down, resonates most strongly.
I had been an adjunct for about four years prior to becoming full-time. So I thought I knew my way around the docks. I had done the job: teach, meet with students, grade papers, and plan the next day. But then, I got the tenure-track job. Suddenly, up is down. There’s a chandelier at my feet. Stairs disappear into the ceiling like the Escher painting. It’s the same ship, but everything’s different, and what I thought the job was turns out to be just that: the same, but different.
The biggest difference is the chance to be reflective. Since I’m not shooting out of class at light speed to hit the interstate and drive to another campus, I have more time to think about whether a lesson worked or not. I also feel the freedom and security to take more risks, because I’m not concerned that one bad course evaluation will bounce me out of a job.
There’s also a whole other set of pitfalls on the tenure track that I wasn’t aware of as a part-timer. Being listless, adrift, and cut off from colleagues as an adjunct sounds terrible, of course, and it was. The difference is that now, I’m a colleague, and that means I have to navigate new waters. I’m not a loner anymore, I’m part of a crew of folks trying to decide which direction to go. And that’s a new dynamic for me.
None of those differences are unwelcome. And ultimately, the most important thing to remember is what Hackman’s Reverend Scott tells the group he has come to lead: “You can make it. Keep going.”
Eric Martinson: Remembering to Discover
I loathe the lawn. It daily inches back to bedlam until I must wield a machine for 45 minutes of pure monotony. It was when the trees had shed their leaves and the air was cooler that I took to the yard for the year’s final bout. Midway through, the neighbor boy came and sat on the sidewalk, without purpose, cause, or agenda. And then, he dug his fingers into the lawn.
I mowed and mowed while this child of such playful inquisitiveness and curiosity stroked those green blades, planted his thumb into the earth, cradled a ladybug. What this eager mind spent discovering, I merely attempted to wield.
The following day on campus came the epiphany. At what point did I lose sight of youth? When did I stop exploring, discovering, seeing the world as uncharted? Academia isn’t an institution to simply be maintained; it’s a pursuit of scholarship. And sometimes, it takes embracing childlike naïveté to rediscover the true purpose of the journey.
Innovation knows no rein, and the eager minds in our academic halls yearn for more than an instructor. They want an explorer. In my classroom, the lens is unique. We set to prove the obscure and disprove the obvious. We challenge that which has been accepted and rejected. We endeavor. Together.
I survived my first full-time faculty year, and my thumb’s back in the earth.
Melina Probst: The Process of Becoming a Peer
As one of the youngest members of my department, I at first questioned my role alongside the tenured faculty. I wanted to observe group dynamics on committees but also find a way to make myself relevant. I felt as though I needed to avoid encroaching on any tenured professor’s territory, but I also wanted to show that I had contributions to offer.
Those tensions were difficult to balance. And while group identity is important for the function and productivity of a department, new faculty members must be cautious that they are not losing an opportunity to develop their own individual professional identity.
As many female professionals have learned, the challenge for women to be respected and liked by their colleagues is real and frustrating. From comments about whether and when I will have children, to condescending remarks such as “Isn’t that cute!” when I revealed a lack of knowledge of how something worked on my campus, I learned that gender biases would challenge me, as a woman, to find ways to earn respect.
In the end, new hires, and particularly young female faculty, need to trust themselves as valued peers of senior faculty. Newness does not mean naiveté or incompetence, and new faculty might be challenged to prove that.
Timothy Henningsen, Balancing Performance and Vulnerability
Somewhere near the end of my first year as a full-time faculty member, I began to feel affirmed. I had been effective in the classroom, praised by my students, liked by my peers, and commended by the administration. My performance, if you will, had warranted my hiring. I felt complete.
Then my dad died.
This past summer, two days prior to the start of my second year as a full-time faculty member, my father was killed in a car wreck. On the day classes began, I greeted my students, introduced my syllabi, then wept as I conveyed that I’d be on bereavement leave for the remainder of the week.
After the funeral, a mere four days later, my wife gave birth to a baby boy.
By the time I finally returned to the classroom, I was a damn mess. My performance in that stressful period was far from the prime, polished version I had conveyed at the culmination of my first year. I was vulnerable, emotional, and scattered.
So much of the first-year experience — and of the pre-tenure process in general — is about performance. We perform for our students in the hopes that our evaluations will show positive marks. We perform for our administrators in the hopes of carving out a clear path to tenure. We perform for our colleagues in an effort to highlight our academic worthiness.
But what I’ve also come to recognize is that vulnerability and imperfection are OK, and maybe even a necessary antithesis to the idea that we’re finished products that finally got our due. I was reminded that I was hired not to be a mannequin, but to innovate. To adapt. To experiment. And even fail.
And there’s no need to fake it. I’d advise other first-year faculty that there’s no need to pretend that you’re a perfectly good academic. You are.