I started my tenure-track faculty position at a small, liberal arts college in the South this academic year. Midway through this first semester, I finally accepted that the primary challenge of one’s first year is simply to survive. All at once, I am adjusting to a new job, in a new department, at a new university, at a new type of university (i.e., liberal arts), taking on a new status, and new classes with a new student body. Well, damn. That is a lot all at once. Much of this adjustment is what anyone faces in moving and starting a new job; but, I also have the background concerns about tenure.
I am simultaneously grateful and resentful for some things that are in place for new professors, considering the aforementioned period of adjustment:
- I teach a 3/2 course load, which has been made 2 your first semester and 3 your second. I am certainly grateful to ease into two classes since I taught only one at a time as a graduate student. But, now, I have an even busier and more demanding spring semester ahead of me.
- First-year faculty are not given advising responsibilities until their second year. They will also be slowly drawn into various forms of departmental and university service. I really, really appreciate being protected from these very time-consuming, energy-draining, and sometimes political activities. But, I sometimes feel like an afterthought, too fragile and overwhelmed to do anything beyond teaching and research.
- Socially, other faculty tend to avoid me presumably to let me get settled without interference. When I initiate interactions, particularly with colleagues I meet for the first time or do not know well, they tend to ask just about how well I am surviving. I could be imagining it, but it seems like their voices go up a few octaves, as though they are speaking to a child. “And, how’s your first semester, little guy? A-goo-by-ga-ga look at the little professor growing up so fast!” Talk to me about my research, my five-year plan toward tenure, my thoughts on improving higher education, or something of significance beyond my first year. But, sadly, this limited conversation is appropriate because all I can think about is surviving this semester. So, while I resent it, I appreciate not having more expected of me.
- I prefer to don an air of experience, particularly with students. A professor never tells his age in academic years. That is, even when I was a third-year graduate student, teaching for the first time, I never told my students I was a novice instructor. But, I could not maintain that illusion for long as a professor, having to ask my students where the nearest bathroom is. They all know that I am new. And, the joke is likely on me because there is no institutional record of me prior to this year, so they may have already known. And, aside from a few skirmishes that I actually think reflect my young age more than how long I have been at this institution, the students do not seem to mind either way.
- I love the praise I receive when I exceed others’ expectations. “You did that in your first semester!?” Call it overcompensation if you will, but it is a relief to hear. But, I also realize that this reflects a rather low set of expectations. Anything beyond survival is seen as a major feat for a new professor. Survival? That’s it?! I have been surviving my whole life; the alternative is death. I suppose I should cherish these expectations now with the almost explicit message that “your first year doesn’t count.”
I suppose at the root of this is my own impatience and self-doubt. I do not like appearing new (read: inexperienced) because I am afraid of not being taken seriously, or being challenged, or being dismissed. I do not like feeling new (read: inexperienced) because I face too many external challenges to my credibility and authority. On my absolute worst days, I stopped seeing impostor syndrome and started feeling unqualified and incompetent in a real way. So, it takes a lot more self-talk to remind myself that I am qualified, but of course have room to improve, become more experienced and wiser.
I know it will get easier over time. And, eventually I will no longer be the new girl in town.