Friday, May 29, 2009

So You're about to Start a Job with a 4-4 Load

A while back, I'd offered to impart what wisdom I had on not just surviving but thriving with a 4-4 load to Maude, and I'd intended to email her privately about that, but then I thought, "Self, why not just do a blog post because lots of people might find this useful!" Also, I'm procrastinating. Procrastinating is part of my "process."

Anyway, having just gotten tenure with this teaching load, I feel like I might have some things to share, though do put all of the necessary caveats in place about this just being one person's experience, that institutions do vary even if they're of the same basic type, that personality and personal life situation does influence how well any of the things I'm about to say might work, etc.

Some of what I may write will probably repeat things I've said on this blog before, so I apologize for that in advance. Also, lest I forget to do this later, I do welcome people to add advice or additional points or challenges to whatever I write in the comments. Again, there's no one-size-fits-all model for this stuff, so lots of voices are a good thing.

Becoming a colleague

When you first start on the t-t, your inclination might be to keep your head down and to work like a maniac. I'm not saying that you shouldn't do this. However, it's important to develop relationships with your colleagues, too, and too much working like a maniac with your office door closed (or too much working at home) can make people see you as aloof, disconnected from the life of the institution, etc. So I suppose the first piece of advice that I have is to be friendly with your colleagues. This isn't an "extra" that you can put as last on your priority list: it's crucial.

Now, some departments are more touchy-feely than others. Mine isn't a particularly social department outside of the job (I think in part because we all are at work so much that when we go home we don't want to hang out with one another all the time), but we are friendly with one another at work. We greet each other in the hallway. We have conversations. We leave things of interest in one another's mailboxes. We share syllabi and assignments.

In other words, be in your office with the door open. Take time to chat in the copy room. Have lunch with people. Ask senior colleagues for input when you're thinking about new courses or tweaking old ones (though do spin this as "I really value your experience so I wanted to see what you thought about this idea I have" as opposed to "I'm an incompetent nincompoop and I need you to teach me how to do my job"). Show interest in your colleague's teaching and research. Basically, get to know people, and let them know you. And try to be as positive as possible, even when you're feeling frazzled. (Now, in my department it's totally ok to be frazzled on occasion and to express that, but you need to get the lay of the land before you just let loose with the bitching. Bitch to your friends, bitch to people from grad school, bitch to yourself, but don't be the colleague who is always bitching. That just brings everybody down.) Oh, and especially in your first year? Accept social invitations and go to a fair number of events (though don't feel obligated to go to every single event - feel out your department culture to see what "good colleagues" do in terms of event attendance).

Basically, this is the advice about "visibility." But don't think of it like this chore to be visible. Think about it as developing relationships with people who will mentor you and give you support when you need it. Think about it as making yourself at home.

Yes, It Is a LOT of Work in That First Year

Now, you might be saying, "No shit, Crazy!" And yes, we all imagine that the first year will be hard and intellectually we know all of that. I will say, though, that as much as I knew that intellectually, I didn't really know what that meant physically until I went through it. (You may be different, or have greater powers of imagination than I. I'm not saying that all incoming t-t folks will be as I was, or that life is "easy" in grad school.) That said, it really does get better.

Anyway, though, here's what I hadn't anticipated, in terms of the LOT of work.

  1. I hadn't realized how physically exhausting it is to have face time with 75-100 students a week. This isn't even about the prep or the grading: just about being connected to that many students at one time was a total shock to me. And I'm a pretty extroverted person, and yet it still leaves me exhausted. Every year I have a rough re-entry in the Fall. Just learning their names and getting to know them is an effort. Now, it's a positive effort - one that reaps many rewards - but it does sap one of energy.
  2. The volume of email that one receives - from students, colleagues, committees, administrators is... wow. Now, a lot of it is just white noise, but still, I hadn't anticipated how much of my life would be spent dealing with email, and it took me a while to learn how to deal with email efficiently. The best advice I have for this is a) if you need to write more than 2 paragraphs in response to an email, set up a meeting instead; b) limit the amount of time you spend reading/responding to email (like set aside 1 hour for that a day and stick to it); c) set strict rules about when you will respond to student emails (I don't respond outside of business hours).
  3. When I started I had absolutely no idea how to multitask in terms of research/teaching/service throughout the academic year. I actually think this is ok, for the first year, but I did need to learn skills in the first year about how to do different sorts of tasks all at the same time. What I learned was that teaching would always be the "legitimate" thing that would stop me from working on anything else, so I had to be merciless with myself about limiting the amount of time I would devote to teaching. After teaching, service is my next big time-suck. There is an infinite amount of service "opportunities" to which you can say yes. You cannot say yes to them all. Research for me always comes last, and that's why I have to make myself schedule it in, doing little chunks of research-related stuff throughout the year. In the first year, I didn't schedule research, and that was a mistake. It meant any time I thought about research - even research I was excited to do - I felt like I might die. Not cool.
You May Be Inclined to Say Yes to All Things Immediately, But That's Not a Good Idea

Now, it's true that when you're new on the tenure track you don't want to make a first impression of being the person who says no to everything, who's so worried about protecting her time that she's a crappy colleague. But, if you make a rule that you don't say yes to anything immediately - you always first think about the request and then give a response after a 24-hour thinking period - you will thank yourself later. This goes for service requests, but it goes for requests from students, too, or requests to teach a new prep, or whatever. The idea here is this: availability and visibility and being a good colleague do not equal being a doormat. It's ok to take time to think, to figure out how a particular task will fit into the broader picture of your cv, and to figure out how a more immediate request from a student ("I need to meet with you to talk about this paper right away!" or "I need an advising appointment immediately!") will fit in with your schedule of things to do. A lot of times what seems urgent just isn't. A lot of times taking that 24 hours to think about the request will show you that this particular request isn't, in fact, urgent, or that it's not in your best interests to say yes at all. (I know this stuff seems obvious to a lot of you, probably, but I'm a person whose first impulse is to say yes without thinking, so I need to remind myself that it is totally ok to think and consider before committing myself to things, and I need constantly to remind myself that I have permission to take my time and that doing so is actually being a good teacher and colleague - not being a jerk.)

You Are the Only One Who Can Get You Tenure and Who Has Your Professional and Personal Welfare As the Top Priority

Now, I work in a very supportive department, where I have a lot of people who are truly invested in my professional success. That said, I'm the only one who has my success and welfare as a top priority. What this means is that you have to advocate for your own advancement and your own well-being. Sometimes, people can be well-meaning and still give you bad advice ("Don't worry about publishing! You'll be fine!") or ask you to do something that's not in your best interest ("How about you teach this lower-division class that's out of your field and would be a totally new prep next semester if your upper division class doesn't make its enrollment?"). You've got to speak up for yourself in the latter case (suggesting a substitution of a course that would be more reasonable for you to teach in place of the crazy course), and smile pleasantly and ignore the advice in the first case. You've got to take care of yourself first. Nobody else will. (And this goes for personal life stuff, too. Your relationships outside of work are important, being healthy is important, and relaxing is important. Schedule these things in if it's in your nature to put yourself last.)

I Think Not Having a "Real" Research Agenda in the First Year is Totally Ok

This is not to say that you should just drop research, but if you're at a teaching-intensive gig, with little support for research, maybe you shouldn't be holding yourself to some crazy goal to get three articles out and to polish the draft of your book. Maybe in that first year the thing to do is to plan to do a couple of conferences, to know that you need to transition into the job and to focus more on getting your teaching solid, and to figure out what kind of research you can achieve successfully in this particular job. This is also a good time to try to find ways to link what you're doing in the classroom with research interests that you have.

Look, I've got colleagues who believe that they could never possibly connect their research in a meaningful way to teaching the often underprepared students that we encounter, especially when we teach at least three service courses a semester. Some people think that unless they're teaching graduate students that they could never possibly do teaching that connects to their research interests. Here's what: these people don't publish very much. The people who publish the most in my department (and I'm among those people) are people who find ways to bring their research interests into the classroom and who allow what happens in their classrooms to influence their research. Nobody ever taught me about how to do this in graduate school, and I had no models for how this might look in graduate school. I just sort of experimented until I figured out how I might be able to do this. Teaching comp has been hugely important to me in terms of how it has allowed me to think about my own writing process and my approach to scholarly writing when I have so many other demands on my time. Teaching books that I want to write about (in both lower- and upper-level contexts) has given me a context that's fairly low-pressure to think deeply about those books and to figure out why I think they should matter to people and why I think that they're of particular interest. Teaching survey courses and intro to lit has allowed me to put my research interests into a broader context, and it has definitely influenced and fleshed out my interests in canon-formation and periodization. Teaching is not the antithesis of research for me: it is, a lot of times, where I find my research.

Find a Mentor

Some departments (or institutions) force you to find a person who will mentor you through your years before tenure and who will mentor you toward tenure. My department does this. However, I think it's a good thing for any new t-t person to choose a mentor from within their department who will help them navigate the mysterious tenure process. You can take your time with choosing this person (and you probably should - get to know people a bit first), but I think doing so really helps in terms of feeling supported along the way.

Now, who should such a person be? 1. It shouldn't be your department chair. Your department chair will mentor you in some fashion regardless. The idea is that you want a person who is not responsible for your annual review every year, but rather a person who will mentor you out of the kindness of his/her heart. 2. It's good to choose a person who has tenure, and who has served on P&T within the past five years. 3. It's good to choose a person who when you look at their career, you think to yourself, "I hope that when I'm at their point my career looks like that." Don't pick your department's service-learning afficianado if you have no interest in ever doing service-learning, for example. 4. Pick somebody whose judgment you trust and who you like and respect. I love Mentor Colleague. He is just filled with positive good vibes, he does super interesting work, he cares about students and research and is just a great person. He made my time on the tenure track so much less scary.

It Will Take Time to Transition, So Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

If your first year is anything like what mine was like, you will have moments of deep self-doubt. You might get a bad batch of evaluations, do something stupid by accident like miss a meeting, speak up when you should have kept quiet, or not speak up when it would have been in your best interests to do so. You might not really know what's expected of you all the time. You might feel overwhelmed. That doesn't mean that you're in the wrong job, that you made a horrible mistake in pursuing this career, or that you're a fraud. It doesn't mean that you'll never be happy or never feel at home. In the first year, it just means that you're new. Now, if these feelings persist, it might mean other things, but in the first year, you need to be kind to yourself. Cut yourself some slack. You're not going to just jump in and be perfect. There is a learning curve. That's totally ok.

Making Teaching Less.... Well, Just Less of Everything

With a 4/4 load, you will teach a lot. I think it's pretty common that this means 3 preps a semester for people in English (often 3 different preps each semester, so 6 preps per year), though that does vary by institution, and even within institutions (I have colleagues who do 2 preps, and I now typically choose to teach 4, though 3 is probably most common). Whether you're coming directly from grad school or whether you're coming from time on the adjunct track, you might not have experience with this number of preps, or you might not have had a lot of freedom to develop courses on your own. In my years on the tenure-track, I developed - wait for it - 13 brand new preps. Yes. 13 distinct courses. A few of those I only taught one time, and I'll likely never teach again. (Remember that whole learning curve thing? Yeah, that.) And I'm developing a 14th new course now, and I've got a 15th course in the offing. This may mean that I have ADHD when it comes to teaching, but it also seriously is about the fact that one of the reasons I was hired was to teach a range of courses and to develop new courses, and I like doing it.

But so as you might imagine, that means a lot of work. So how does one make sure that teaching doesn't take every ounce of your time, blood, sweat, and tears? In no particular order, I recommend the following:

  • Always type up your notes for any in-class activities, lectures, etc. You will then have these at the ready when you go to teach a course in the future, and you won't need to reinvent the wheel every time you teach. This is where teaching repeat preps saves time, and where allowing prep-work to do double-duty saves time.
  • Use checklists, rubrics, or any other means that work for you to limit the amount of time that you spend commenting on student writing. Try to develop these so that they can work across courses with only small amounts of tweaking (same goes for writing assignments and handouts).
  • Use in-class activities, handouts, and parts of lectures (slightly modified) across courses. When possible, teach texts across courses, modifying what you emphasize when you teach a text in a particular course in case you have people who take multiple courses with you. (Example: I've taught Jane Eyre in intro to lit and in the survey, just emphasizing different things.)
  • Let students do the work for you. A well-designed presentation assignment allows students to be "experts" on background material for a day, and it means that you don't need to spoon-feed that material to the class. Designing the assignment takes lots of time, effort, and skill, but once you've figured that part of it out, it's a life-saver.
  • When you teach a text for the first time, take careful "teaching" notes. With novels, I tend to do brief plot summaries at the end of each chapter, I make big notes about important scenes on the pages where they occur ("Bertha laughs for the first time here" or "Stephen uses the word tundish"). With poetry, I note poetic devices, I list three things I need students to understand about the poem. I rarely use my "research" copies of texts for class, because they are too marked up to be useful. Doing this, I do not need to reread every single time I teach a text.
  • After you've taught a course a couple of times, develop a slightly modified syllabus so that you can switch back and forth when you're feeling like a course has become "stale" for you. When you feel like a course is stale, you'll be a less interesting and engaged professor. (Or, well, I'm a less interesting and engaged professor.)
  • When teaching sections, keep the sections on the same schedule no matter what. Sure, that may mean letting one section go early on a given day, or spending less time on something in another section. But do not for any reason allow yourself to turn one prep into two by getting off schedule. (Note: I suck at this, and I hate it, which is why I'd rather teach 4 preps now than teach sections. However, sections were my friend in my first couple of years on the tenure track once I figured out that I needed to stay on the same schedule in both classes.)
  • Where possible, teach things that you've done research on. I can't emphasize this enough. It means that your research is in fact prep for teaching.
  • Use a timer when you grade. Do not cheat.
  • Make appointments to meet with students, even if they're planning to come by during your office hours.
  • Be organized (HA!)

If advising is part of your job duties, do try to get some training about how to advise students, and familiarize yourself with the course catalog and the advising software before you ever meet with a student. Nothing makes an advising appointment suck more time than learning as you go (and students hate it). Also, I usually give new advisees "homework" to do before their advising appointment, so that they come in prepared and having thought about what courses they need, what they'd like to take, and questions that they have. When an advisee comes in and just says, "I'm here for advising," and they've got nothing.... yeah, that takes a really long time.

Ok, that's a lot of stuff. But it's everything I can think of at the moment, and if there's more - god, how overwhelming! But so I'll stop here. I really need to stop procrastinating and get to work!


Via an email from a regular reader, you should also check this post out.


EmmaNadine said...

Thank you so much for this. I'm still waiting for final board approval, but should be starting a 4-4 teaching load this fall at a new university, with three preps a semester. This is great advice!

Sisyphus said...

Yay! Great advice that I shall bookmark from the Crazy. Someday it shall come in useful!

Now, if you have any good advice for how to get off the couch and get working when it's a terrible, gray, mucky, cloudy day out, let me know ... ;)

Dr. Crazy said...

Sis, I just awakened from a 2-hour nap and the day is sunny and gorgeous and not even humid. I will say, the technique I favor most frequently is making myself feel so bad that I can't do anything other than work without deep self-loathing. Clearly, I'm not there yet.

Oh, and it helps to leave the place where cats are lazy. They are bad influences :)

Janice said...

Even though my load was only 4-4 when overloads hit, your advice would work well for people in teaching-intensive jobs anywhere. Learning how to balance your worklife and to handle the loads wisely is a rare skill!

Susan said...

This is great advice. All I remember about my first semester teaching is that I didn't breathe. I finished one class and prepped the next. (I was on a 3-3, not a 4-4. . .)

Academic2 said...

I will say one thing about the whole 'getting tenure' thing.


Even if your department isn't social--ESPECIALLY if your dept isn't social--show up to meetings! It's a chance to see and be seen, to discuss your work, to show your interest in your department's work, etc etc.

You don't have to do a lot of service work, if you can get away with it. But DO the work that you say you will and suit up/show up.

We hired a tt person who can't ever seem to make it to meetings. I can't tell you how negatively it has affected this person's reputation among the more junior faculty who will have to deal with such habits should tenure be granted. What does this person do? Where do they stand on major departmental issues such as new programs or new assessment issues or new technology or new grants?

Meetings are a mandatory *part* of the job, not an optional part of them.

Dr. Crazy said...

YES, Academic2! It didn't even occur to me to write that because it just seemed obvious to me but seriously: YES. Any meeting of the department when you are not teaching? YOU MUST BE THERE! Any meeting required of all faculty? YOU MUST BE THERE? If you're assigned to committees in your first year (I only had one committee assignment; some places require more in the first year) YOU MUST BE AT THOSE COMMITTEE MEETINGS! The ONLY legitimate excuse is if you can't come because you teach at that time. Office hours are not an excuse, needing to write is not an excuse, an individual meeting with a student is not an excuse. YOU MUST GO TO MEETINGS!!!

(And meetings are annoying. And long. And often boring. But yes, they are mandatory.)

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and let me add: this holds true even if you're not scheduled to be on campus that day. In other words, the whole "But I only teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays" things means nothing. If a meeting is scheduled on Wednesday, you've got to find your way to campus and be there. Period.

Maude said...

hey crazy! thanks for this!! i am copying it and putting it in a file for my teaching so that it is readily available. i'm glad, at least this first semester that i only have 2 preps and i think a great schedule. on M/W is the comp class, back to back, not too early in the am either. T/R is the lit survey course, same times as the M/W schedule, so i think that i'm fortunate enough to have consistency throughout the week. and that they were willing to do a lot of work to get me such a schedule when i asked to have the same times across the board. i'm already thinking about how i'm going to schedule my time in the fall--when i'm going to carve out time for research and working out--two things i want to make sure i have scheduled as part of my weekly life to keep me sane. and then i can relegate teaching and grading to afternoons. i can get my "me" time out of the way, first thing so that teaching won't interfere.

one thing i am nervous about is spring semester because my job comes with an administrative responsibility (i thought it was something i was going to be "encouraged" to apply for in the next year or two--but no, it's part of my job as a new t-t, weird, but it is). it comes with a course release and an added stipend, so it's likely i'll still have two preps and then this administrative thing, which really makes me nervous.

thanks again, and sorry for such a long comment!!

PhillyChief said...

Thanks for this. I'll no doubt refer back in the future. I was just hired for a t-t which starts in the fall, and I'm pretty in the dark about what to expect.

Bavardess said...

This is all excellent advice, especially the parts about thinking for 24 hours before saying yes to anything and putting yourself first. Those both seem to be simple matters of common sense, but they're all too easy to forget when you embark on a new role where you're acutely conscious of being judged and having to make a good impression.

jeans said...

So. So. Helpful. Sign me, "am there, doing it."