It’s Already November? Reflections By “Jan In The Pan”

Jan In The Pan

Jan In The Pan

One year ago, “Jan in the Pan” (a pseudonym), wrote a post on her blog, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, reflecting on the progress she had made over the past two months on her tenure-track job.  Due to Hurricane Sandy, including the loss of electricity and cancellation of classes, she had a bit of time on her hands to read a few advice books on preparing for tenure.  Her reflections, and the books she read, may prove useful to others.  Enjoy!

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It’s Mid November? Notes from 2+ Months on the Tenure Track

Suddenly it’s mid-November? I don’t know what happened to October. The month was lost in a flurry of emails, teaching, grading, meetings, and trying to get my car to pass emissions inspection. Now it’s nearly Thanksgiving, and I’m starting to reflect on the semester as a whole, while I struggle to get done everything that needs to be done. So many times during the last couple months I’ve thought “oh, I need to blog about this” and then never have the time. The closest I came to “blogging” was a long and overdue “catching up” email to my advisor. Maybe I should just cut/paste that here.

Here’s a smattering of observations and experiences from the last semester:

  • Being tenure track is awesome. It’s just as awesome as I always thought it would be. I feel welcomed at my new school. I feel like I have dozens of new mentors. It’s really fantastic. Actually, yesterday, I felt so much warmth toward my new school, that I almost went into the bookstore and bought a school sweatshirt. I’ve never owned a college sweatshirt (I only own a t-shirt from where I went to grad school) so this seems strangely significant to me.
  • Another part of my new school that’s fantastic is the diversity of the campus. I really, really, appreciate that students, staff and faculty come from so many different backgrounds and experiences. The diversity in my classroom contributes to what we’re able to discuss and learn together.
  • Teaching has been an adjustment, but not a terribly difficult one. Thank goodness that the workshops I attended before classes began helped me get ready for the classroom. I’ve had to rework what I do during class time. I almost spend less time prepping outside of class, and more time listening to my students and thinking in the classroom. My classes are much more interactive, and I’m always thinking on my feet about what I can do differently or use as an example to make a concept clearer. Yes, there are new struggles in terms of getting students to do reading, and make it to class (busy work schedules and long commutes) but they are realistic problems and I’m figuring out how not to let that distract from what we can learn in the classroom.
  • We’ve had some obstacles this semester. The most obvious has been a lost week+ of class time due to Hurricane Sandy. I’ve had to be even more flexible with my syllabus, with deadlines, and have had to make some painful cuts to readings. But, we’ve also been able to have some great discussions about the unequal impact of the hurricane on different areas and segments of the population.
  • After the hurricane we lost power for a week. Thank goodness we live in an apartment with a gas stove and gas hot water heater, so we didn’t suffer too much, although being without internet was difficult to say the least. I couldn’t get to all of my academic books on campus, so instead I read the pile of academic advice books I had here at home (it was either that or get hopelessly lost in a bunch of mysteries).

By the light of my headlamp, I ended up reading:

  • Preparing for Promotion, Tenure, and Annual Review: A Faculty Guide by Robert Diamond. This one was included in the tenure materials given to my by my new school, so it seemed to be an important read. It’s actually quite useful, and I made a ton of notes on what I can include in my retention packet, and prepare for my future tenure dossier.
  • Finally, I got around to reading Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing by Robert Boice. Boice is the author of Advice for New Faculty, a book which was so revolutionary for me when I read it in grad school that I still keep it by the side of my bed (not kidding). I consider to be sort of a bible for my academic career. Professors as Writers is less philosophical than Advice for New Faculty and very action-oriented. I’m now toying with the idea of waking up a little earlier to do some writing first thing every morning instead of trying to fit it in during the day. While I am not, and will never be, a morning runner (that’s for the evening), I could write for a while with coffee in my PJs. Maybe even before checking my email or Facebook. More on this in another post!

It’s a good thing I read all that stuff on retention and promotion during The Great Blackout of 2012, because it turns out I have my first retention packet due in early January! It’s been described to me as “another job application” in terms of professional content (but not in the sense that they don’t keep us– they very much want to work to keep each of us). Thankfully, colleagues have already offered to read drafts of personal statements, and to loan me their retention packets to look at.

Here’s what I’m working on for the three areas (weighed equally at my school):

  • Scholarship: Since we just started, they don’t expect a lot here. I have an article I am planning to send out before the end of the semester. I’m also working on a book review, and a submission for a national conference. Additionally, the contributions I make to a well-known blog count as scholarship. And my participation in the interdisciplinary faculty writing group counts as ongoing commitment to scholarship.
  • Service: First year faculty are technically exempt from serving on committees, but I was asked to serve on the GLBT Advisory Board and happily accepted. I’m serving as a mentor to an at-risk student on campus. I am also the social media guru for a national organization, which counts as service to a wider community.
  • Teaching: In our first semester they definitely want to make sure we’re doing well in the classroom and adjusting to new teaching challenges. In this section I expect to talk a lot about the adjustments I’ve already made and what I plan to change in the future. Mid-semester evaluations show that my students are happy with my classes, and the fact they’re asking me what I am teaching next semester leads me to believe I’m doing well. We also do regular peer teaching evaluations. I completed one for an adjunct, and I’ve had 3 colleagues observe my courses. The feedback has been incredibly positive and helpful. I love the fact that the goal is really for all of us to help each other succeed as teachers, and as scholars.

All in all, it’s been a great semester so far. Provided I can make it through all the grading ahead, prep a new syllabus for a spring class, and put together a good retention packet, I should be just fine. I appreciate that a mid-year retention packet helps me think through where I’m at, and goals for the upcoming months.

Really, though, my big goal right now is just to land an office with a window!

“An Academic Foster Child: Life as a Visiting Assistant Professor” – By “Jan In The Pan”

Jan In The Pan

Jan In The Pan

I recently discovered the very insightful, honest, and simply amazing blog of “Jan in the Pan” (a pseudonym), The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.  “Jan” posts great pieces of reflection, advice, and even simple practical matters that many academics may find useful. 

“Jan” has kindly allowed me to share a post from March on life as a visiting assistant professor (though now “Jan” has a tenure-track job). 

Enjoy!

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An Academic Foster Child: Life as a Visiting Assistant Professor

Like many recent PhDs, the process of getting a tenure track job was not what I thought it would be. While working my way through grad school, I watched newly minted PhDs ahead of me move from grad school into their “forever” jobs. Naturally, I assumed that if I played my cards right (network, publish etc.), I’d follow the same track. But I happened to finish up the year after the economy tanked– just in time for budgets to be slashed and positions cut. The number of positions plummeted. After two years on the market, applying for dozens of positions, and I ended up in a VAP.

Success.

And I’m lucky that it was a great VAP. I had healthcare, a travel budget, and I wasn’t paid slave adjunct wages. My colleagues were nice and my teaching load was reasonable (2/2). It was the ideal place to spend a couple years learning how to teach, learning that I loved teaching (I didn’t do much teaching in grad school), and getting acclimated to post-PhD. But I also hated the professional limbo of VAP-hood. I had to keep applying for jobs, finally revamping my application materials to reflect someone no longer a student. And I hated having that “visiting” label tagged onto my email signature and business cards.

I received lots of advice about being a VAP from mentors near and far. They told me to keep working for my next job, not to spend time serving a college that hasn’t made a commitment to me.  Not to settle into the area too much (hard to do when it happens to be your home state). That I should always keep one foot out the door, using whatever resources are available there for my career. But, then others would tell me that if I wanted a shot at a TT job there, I should ingratiate myself with them– attend student and faculty functions, work closely with students, develop the courses they need etc. Don’t be invisible. Make it hard for them to imagine life without you, I was told. But, if you’re the inside candidate for a TT job there, things will be awkward to say the least. They’ll believe in you– that you can be successful, but not there. Someplace else. In face, one piece of advice that really stuck with me, although I tried to pretend it wasn’t always the case, was that:

[VAP] hiring is often decided based on personal relationships, but tenure track hiring almost never is. Tenure track hiring is absolutely cutthroat, and is dominated by an ethos of “desire for the unattainable.” This means that the unknown, who promises seemingly limitless possibility for achievement and contribution, will almost always prevail over the known.

[…]

In short, the tenure track search is about making THEM want YOU. If you pander to them, cater to them, overtly appeal to them, and try to play off of pre-existing personal relationships and your ethos of “giving” to the department, you are defining yourself as, fundamentally, NOT TENURE TRACK MATERIAL.

So I was there, but temporarily. I kept one foot out the door– genuinely enjoying my students and teaching, and continuously applying for other jobs. All while I tried to ingratiate myself and be what they needed, just in case that coveted TT line opened up in my area.  Because in spite of all the advice I received to the contrary, I planned and plotted to make them want to keep me forever. I liked the area, and didn’t want to go through the hassle of moving again. But all along, I knew that even pandering to their needs might actually work against me. I tried my best to balance on that undefined line in that liminal space of VAP-hood for 2 years.

In reality, I was only an academic foster child. They paid/fed me, sheltered me, and welcomed me into their fold, to a degree. But, I was, by very definition, temporary.

I didn’t see that for what it was until recently, now that I’m settled into my shiny new, completely wonderful “forever” TT job. A job where they wanted me– and would love to have me stay and build my career there permanently. The differences are startling. I have the space, freedom, and encouragement to develop my own teaching, scholarship and service. Having that support and encouragement actually makes me more productive as a writer and researcher. Instead of living year, to year, job app to job app, I can shift my plans to real short term and long-term goals. I’m a nester. I can settle in and organize my time around what I want to write and where I want to go with my research. I can begin to think about developing courses that I want to teach that fulfill area requirements at my school. I can contribute to shaping something larger than myself. It’s fantastic not to be a foster kid any more!

I recently asked my mentor why she thought I needed that VAP for two years. Yes, the VAP shielded me from the bad job market and gave me teaching experience. But what was the larger point of all that living in limbo? She answered: “So that you would appreciate what you have now.”