Paula Krebs

Executive Director at Modern Language Association

Know What You Don’t Know

Full getting directions

Image: Getting directions from a policeman at the airport in Washington, D.C. / Jack Delano, photographer (1941)

If you’re like most new faculty members, your doctoral program taught you a lot about your research area, a bit about teaching (if you're lucky), and pretty much nothing about any other aspect of the profession you’ve entered.

Of course you'll be expected to teach, produce research, advise students, and serve on committees. But you'll also need to learn to navigate the campus, figure out power structures, and determine who your students are and how to get them through. You’ll come to know a lot about residence halls, fraternities and sororities, and athletics. And you’ll learn how to submit grant applications, lead study-abroad tours, and talk to alumni.

You'll have great colleagues who help you — and others who won't. You'll learn to trust some people in your department, some in other departments, and some in administration. If you’re smart, you’ll cozy up to the administrative assistants and value what they do and what they can teach you.

To get you started, I have some advice on three key aspects of your new career. If you hope to become a successful full-time faculty member, you will need to seek out guidance on all three of these areas.

How to teach more than one class, with more than one prep. Some of you were already doing that in grad school, and then adjuncting at more than one institution before finding your first full-time teaching gig. At your new permanent home, the difference is that people are invested in helping you adjust to a full teaching load. They understand it as their obligation to make it possible for you to become a good teacher.

At least, that's the case at regional public universities, liberal-arts colleges, and community colleges — where the majority of faculty jobs are found. All of those institutions prioritize faculty development in pedagogy. Teaching is their bread and butter. They know that recent Ph.D.s haven't necessarily taught more than two classes in a semester, and they know that the first year on the job can be overwhelming. Many have teaching-and-learning centers, mentoring programs, and other faculty-development opportunities to help you adjust to your new teaching load and learn to do for 100 students what you’ve been doing for 50.

Learn to budget your time, balance the workload on the different syllabi you're teaching (so you don’t have 100 essays coming in during the same week), and keep track of everyone’s name.

How to become a good adviser. As T.A.s in a doctoral program, most of us don't have anything to do with academic advising. When I was a graduate student, my own department had professional advisers for the undergraduates, and tenure-track faculty didn't seem to work directly with undergraduates much outside the classroom.

Unless you're started a tenure-track job at an R1, however, you're going to have to do academic advising. And you’re going to have to learn, on the fly:

  • The general-education requirements of your college (“No, that course doesn’t count as a lab science”).
  • Which courses from the community college down the road count toward the major, which ones count as electives, and which ones don't count at all.
  • The differences between the various concentrations and tracks in your major.
  • How to do holistic advising — helping your majors understand which skills they’ve learned in addition to disciplinary content, and how to talk intelligently and concisely about what they can do. You’ll become good at asking students what they do outside the classroom and helping them to figure out what that might have to do with what they want to do with their lives.

Find out who in your department has a reputation as the best adviser, and start asking that faculty member questions. If you have an advising center on campus, ask the professional advisers for tips and see if you can shadow them for a couple hours. Listen. Learn.

How to participate in governance. You’ll need to learn how the business of your institution and your department is conducted. You're now part of a system of shared governance that depends on faculty participation.

Does your campus have a collective-bargaining contract? Read it. It will take a long time. You will need a highlighter. And you may need an interpreter. But knowing your rights and responsibilities is invaluable.

Even if you aren't a union campus, it helps to know your contract and your system of campus governance:

  • How are curricular decisions made?
  • Who gets on those committees and what do they do?
  • What is the evaluation structure?
  • How often are you reviewed, and by whom?
  • What kinds of service are expected of faculty members, and do expectations change each year?
  • How is hiring done in your department, and how will you be participating?

The more informed you are about how your campus works, the better decisions you can make about where to invest your energy. This applies to the institution’s strategic priorities, too. Read the mission statement, the vision statement, the strategic plan: They tell you how your campus sees itself and where it wants to invest. That’s good information for you to have as you try to decide the direction of your research or your teaching, or what committees you’d like to join.

Many more challenges face you as a new faculty member and I will touch on them in future columns. But let me ask readers: Those of you who’ve been teaching awhile, do you remember what surprised you most in your first year? Share your suggestions in the comments below. Those of you who are just starting your jobs, feel free to reach out with your questions.

Working in higher education involves a lot of on-the-job training, and it can’t hurt to start out with a better sense of what you don't know.

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