The Missing Campus Map

Full vitae confused faculty

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I’ve just come from the second department meeting at which I didn’t say anything. I’m wondering if I should be concerned about this. I’m new here, and so far it seems like the departmental culture is to act as though we’re all midstream in our careers.

At the first meeting of the year, although there were two new hires in the room, neither of us was introduced. People just jumped right in — rehearsing positions everyone else seemed already to know. Topics were discussed in a kind of shorthand, or code.

One professor began, "I just adore Flashpoint," to which another responded, "I’ve never even opened it." In my notebook, I scratched out "find out what Flashpoint is." Before any explanation was offered, the stream banked. "I taught the 2201 for three years," said a professor. "Oh," piped up another, "the 2201 was a mess," and so on until New Hire No. 1 meekly inquired, "What’s 2201?" Turns out, it’s a course that the department no longer offered; there’s no way she could have known. And then yet another colleague interjected, "Let me just put in a plug for the green rhetoric book; students love it."

In my head I was screaming: "What green rhetoric book? Is there only one? Is this something I should have heard of?"

And so on.

Today’s meeting was a midquarter check-in, with people asking questions that were open-ended versions of "How’s it going? What’s working?"

It’s going pretty well. My students are excited to come to class, they turn in work on time, and their latest batch of papers shows measurable improvement over their previous set. I am having trouble with the online grading software (which won’t seem to allow me to make comments on the papers), and the bookstore under-ordered texts for our predicted enrollment, but otherwise, things are swell.

I didn’t get to say any of that though, so eager was everyone else to drop their bits in the bucket. To see from the outside what looks like feeding time at the zoo, one would think these people had never been asked to share their opinions aloud. Is that what was going on there? Beleaguered humanities faculty who have little sway in the larger university counting themselves queens of this finite space?

I’m not a shy person. In most company, I err on the side of gregariousness, but though I waited at four separate points for a pause during which to offer my encouragement, or solution to a problem, that moment never arrived. As one faculty member’s sentence began to taper off, the next lit right in. Is part of the problem that we’ve assembled a cast of persons so trained to the nuances of language that, detecting the dying fall of what must be a sentence’s penultimate clause, these readers see the runner rounding third and jump on deck without waiting for the cheering crowd to regain its composure?

And if it’s hard for me — confident, loquacious — to get a word in, how must it be for those who are by nature more reserved?

Such shoals can be navigated with sensitive steering. I’ve hosted enough cocktail gatherings to know that it’s a practically painless maneuver to say to someone "Thanks; I think we understand your point," and, turning, "Yeleena, how are things going for you?" — therein slowly teaching the group about itself, and how to behave.

Or is this my problem? Is part of advancing in any profession learning to make oneself heard? Does "minutes of meeting commanded" translate to "departmental authority"? Or is there a current of respect running under the floor for the quiet figure at the table’s end, listening intently, turn indicator blinking, but refusing to cut someone off to make the coming merge? I’d really like to know, but I can’t see when I’ll have a chance to ask.

Still, those are all minor adjustments, made around people I like very much. It isn’t as though I’m slipping off the learning curve here. But I am, shall we say, impressed at its scale. Aside from the new teaching assignments, new office, new city, new colleagues, and endlessly new software, there are dozens of other cultural adjustments required of new faculty members that academe would do well, in welcoming newcomers, to remember.

For instance, we have on my campus — as I am assuming is the case elsewhere — a faculty email list that functions as a private discussion board. If I found the departmental norms difficult to parse in a room full of actual people, I found the practices in the digital hinterlands positively beguiling.

Six months into my tenure here — or perhaps that’s the wrong word in this crowd — … into my employment, the assistant provost, who was from the first day of orientation my favorite person, referred to a professor as "our lodestar." The online community didn’t seem eager to dispute that appellation. Is he a lodestar, I wondered, and in what way? And if he is, shouldn’t we have been introduced? Should I seek him out? Should I bear gifts when I do? How does one become a lodestar, anyway?

In my first week, a colleague had advised me to stay off of that faculty email group. She seemed like a wise mentor, so I unsubscribed. Two weeks later, I watched all of my department colleagues laughing their way back from some riotous meeting. Apparently, I’d missed an in-service day, complete with free lunch, that was only announced through the email list I’d just quit.

You see what I mean. Each campus, like any community of people, possesses a distinct set of norms to which many are so acculturated that they don’t realize those rules have become invisible. They look simply like the world, or the discipline. But they aren’t!

At the university where I taught last year, faculty members ate together in the cafeteria, for example. I didn’t realize the practice was uncommon elsewhere. It wasn’t a planned thing, but the food was decent and professors were given a hefty discount. You could eat there for less than it cost to make your own sandwich. What that meant in practice was that we would each wander in between classes, grab some food, and see who was around. I met the facilities crew that way, and the exercise-science team. A professor of education and I planned a volume of essays together over schnitzel. My dean was a regular, and the provost came by sometimes, too.

I’m not merely touting the glories of that program (although it’s a great investment in collegiality). I’m just noting how different things are from place to place.

Week 1 of my new gig, I sauntered over to the cafeteria where the attendant attempted to extort me. Lunch was 3.5 times what I was used to paying. "Ah, I see what’s going on," I said, "my mistake; I’m faculty here." I pulled out my shiny new ID card and she said, "yeah I assumed so it’s …" and she repeated a number that’s more than I pay for lunch at restaurants. OK, I thought, maybe the food is amazing. It wasn’t. No wonder there were no other faculty members eating there.

Where do people here go to eat, then? There being no faculty lounge, I’m assuming they eat in their offices but I’ve never actually seen anyone doing that. So maybe my colleagues are eating alone and with their office doors closed, which depresses me more than is probably reasonable.

It isn’t like noobs here are just left to flounder. We were given an edifying orientation wherein we might have caught our bearings. Yet, while it covered things like health plans and emergency procedures, it did nothing to point out other deep pools or foundering rocks.

I’ve struck a few them. Last week, I tried to mail a copy of my new book to a potential reviewer and so walked through the mailing-services door we were shown in orientation. When I did, 15 people varying in age and rank stopped their work to stare at me. It was like I had kicked in the swinging doors of a saloon.

"Can we help you?" asserted some den mother.

"What, all of you?" I inquired. "I’d just like to mail this."

"Who are you?" she interrupted.

"Umm, I am a new faculty member and I was told this was a mailing place."

"Why did you come in that way?"

In my head again, I was gasping, "You mean through the door?" Turns out, our orientation group had been marched through the service entrance. I was standing in the only part of this building I knew, but it was the wrong side of the counter.

Can these transitions be made easier somehow?

I really don’t know. That’s the thing about codes and cultures: They are learned through use. But I do think — and forgive me if this sounds a bit tribal — that it is the responsibility of the elders to pass on the group’s folkways to "the young," even if we’re older than some of them.

I suppose one could say: "What’s the big deal? Why don’t you just be yourself and stop worrying so much about prevailing norms?"

But that’s the tricky bit. First, adapting to cultures is me being myself, ever the new kid in school thanks to my family regularly relocating for my father’s job.

Second, academic jobs aren’t like regular jobs. I’m not doing this for the money and I’m not eyeing some other career opportunity for which this is a launching pad. I’m looking for a place to spend the rest of my life, more or less. Perhaps, given that, one understands the grasping in the dark to take the proverbial room’s proportions, a little fumbling to find the switches. Has anyone got a light?

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