No one in academe needs a reminder that the faculty job market is merciless, but the Covid-19 pandemic has given us one anyway.
For many institutions, the crisis has accelerated an already precipitous skid into full-blown austerity mode, with slashed budgets and suspended or canceled searches. Yet little attention has been paid to those who were fortunate enough to land faculty positions for 2020-21 — but unfortunate enough to begin their academic careers in the midst of the greatest public-health crisis in a century.
New hires arriving on campus this fall may seem like a low priority for attention given, well, everything else we are facing in the months ahead. But when it comes to both institutional health and student success, we need to consider how we bring new faculty members into our world. And they must ask the right questions, in order to maximize their odds of a successful semester, whatever its eventual format and character.
4 Questions New Hires Should Ask
First, if you are beginning a full-time or tenure-track position in the fall, congratulations. The typical complexity of this transition — handling the logistics of a move and figuring out your courses and workspace — has an added layer now, thanks to Covid-19. Your department and institution should have been in regular communication and sharing information with you clearly.
However, given the frantic pace of course revision and institutional planning for a variety of fall scenarios, it may be that you don't have all the information you need about your "onboarding." At minimum, make sure you've got the answers to the following questions:
1. Where's the contract? It's imperative to sign your contract as soon as possible in normal times; it's even more so in this time of fluctuating budgets and frantic cost-cutting. Your new institutional home may well insert financial-exigency language in the contract (the equivalent of saying, "We're good to go unless the sky falls before August"). This is worrisome, of course, but it's also very likely an institutional mandate, and may well be in the contract language for returning faculty members as well.
It's not my place to advise on how realistic the threat of a last-minute revocation of the contract is. If you know your new department chair well enough by this point, that would be a good question to ask. But a signed contract is the part of the process from which all else proceeds. So for your own peace of mind, it needs to happen as soon as feasible. If you've already signed the contract, great. If you haven't received one yet, a courteous inquiry to your new departmental home could be in order.
2. How do I get "in the system"? Planning for an uncertain fall semester involves even more work than what faculty members would already be doing for class prep. Making sure you have access to the digital tools and platforms you need in order to do that work now will pay dividends later in the summer. In my experience, a signed contract triggers the process that gets you access to various institutional networks — the email system, the campus intranet, the learning-management system (LMS). If you currently use an LMS, check to see if — and how — you can move course material that you want to reuse into your new institution's setup. If your new campus has an institutional license for videoconferencing platforms like Zoom or MS Teams, inquire if there are training resources available to you.
3. What is the fall plan, anyway? Unless you're joining an institution in the University of California or California State systems, chances are your new institution is telling everyone that it's planning on being open and teaching in-person for the fall semester. At this point, however, that's more a signal of hope than actual expectations. Check with your new department/division/unit chair — or, if possible, ask some of your soon-to-be colleagues — what the "unofficial" plan is.
Chances are, faculty members on your new campus are preparing to teach online even if the institution is publicly hoping for an in-person semester. That doesn't mean the college is lying to its constituents, but rather practicing a responsible ethic of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Whatever the case, especially if you're new to online teaching and learning, you'll need all the time you can get to prepare for your first semester. Knowing your new institution's fall plans as soon as possible can help you make the most efficient use of your time.
4. How will faculty orientations be handled? These aren't always the most scintillating events — indeed, they are sometimes a multiday information dump that feels akin to drinking from a firehose. But they are important nonetheless, and the information and materials you get there, and the people you meet, can be crucial parts of early-career success. In all likelihood, your new colleagues don't know yet whether orientation will be in person (with social distancing) or online. So persistent requests for specifics are not the strategy I would recommend.
Rather, frame a general question in proactive terms: "I know things are in flux, but I was wondering about faculty orientation. Will it be in a different format? Is there anything I need to be aware of, or anyone whose email I should watch for?" That way, you (a) get a sense of where your new institution is in its thinking on orientation, and (b) gently nudge your new colleagues to consider this issue if they haven't put it on their own lists.
4 Questions Departments Should Ask New Hires
Speaking of nudges, those four questions should serve as a checklist of sorts for departments bringing in new colleagues. You want their transition to be as smooth as possible, given the times in which we're operating. Above all, the same principle that applies to successful campus visits during the search process applies here: Be good hosts. Your new colleague is technically part of the campus community, but chances are that relationship exists in aspirational rather than concrete terms.
To do right by new hires, and help them begin long and distinguished careers at your institution, two things are essential: regular, proactive communication and empathy. They should guide your actions in normal circumstances, but Covid-19 — and the anxieties it has fostered — makes them critical now. If you are a department chair, here are some questions you should be able to answer about your new colleagues:
1. Do they have all the paperwork? Will they know when they do? Particularly at larger institutions, the HR process can be complex and confusing. One way to mitigate the confusion is to have a detailed timeline of the steps involved in this process. Do your new colleagues know when to expect a contract, and by when it needs to be returned (and to whom?) Are there other forms/processes/deadlines with which they need to be aware?
An email or letter that lists all of those steps would be a handy resource, not just for your incoming colleagues but for you as well. This is particularly important if there are certain steps that need to be completed before a new hire gets "into the system" and can access campus email and other digital tools.
2. What is the plan for the fall semester? Your campus is probably among those publicly committed to regular, in-person operations in the fall. As an aspirational statement, that's fine. As a strategy to most effectively prepare for the fall, it's incomplete. Behind the scenes, many colleges and universities are preparing for a scenario in which courses are, at least partially, online. Moreover, in a growing trend, some institutions are adopting a modified academic schedule, featuring block calendars or accelerated courses.
Alert new hires to any such developments. Connect them with the resources and support they'll need to modify existing courses or prepare new ones to suit the fall format. Does your institution have a faculty-development or teaching-and-learning center? If so, connect the new hire with that office. You don't have to prepare your new colleagues for a different type of instruction all by yourself, but you do need to facilitate that preparation, and ensure that it takes place.
3. How will you advocate for your new hire? The first year of a new academic position is crucial. But this fall promises a radically different context than "business as usual." You must ensure that a new colleague will be treated — and evaluated — equitably and fairly. For example, we know that student evaluations of teaching are problematic under the best of circumstances. We also know that students' response rates are much lower for online courses than for the in-person versions. If your classes unfold online in the fall, how will the student-ratings data be used for faculty-evaluation purposes? Is it fair to evaluate someone's first semester of full-time teaching in these circumstances? One could argue that this is similar to administering a swimming test during a flood: Is emergency remote instruction really the context in which we're going to get accurate data about teaching?
What about research and service expectations? How much research is being disrupted right now in an age of lockdown, quarantine, and work from home? Who's doing archival research, ethnographic interviews, or fieldwork at this moment? What degree of library services will be available? How will a new faculty member be able to advise students effectively or participate in service obligations — if these must be done online?
No doubt your new hires have plenty of such questions — but they shouldn't have to ask. Providing that information is on you. How will you advocate for, say, more flexible and judicious performance reviews in this outlier semester? How will you alert the dean and the P&T committee to the fact that business-as-usual scholarly expectations are impossible? And how will you remind them of that as your new colleague moves along the pipeline? Such advocacy is an ethical imperative regardless of circumstance. But thoughtful, proactive, and equity-minded work on behalf of new colleagues has never been more important than it is this year.
4. How are they doing — right now? Finally, in the midst of this welter of technical questions and policy details, it's easy to lose sight of the most important part of this equation: You hired a human being, and all the Blackboard training in the world isn't going to be enough if your new colleague is struggling to meet, say, basic needs in this period of significant personal transition.
You aren't required to check in regularly with a new hire this summer, but I would argue that you are morally obligated to ask: How are you? Is there anything we can do to help as you prepare to join us? Are you and yours safe and well? What concerns can I help address? A simple email or phone call can go a long way toward acknowledging the unprecedented difficulties we all find ourselves in, whether we're new or veteran members of the faculty.
There are, of course, numerous other considerations, dictated by your own personal or institutional contexts. But think about the above questions as a baseline.
We're moving into a summer like none of us have ever experienced in higher education. There is already so much to do, with even more to worry about and attempt to plan for. But the beginning of an academic career is among the most important times in a faculty member's personal journey and in the operations and sustaining of our institutions as well. Even amid the rest of this noise, let's make sure we get it right.