Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Junior Faculty

Ah, junior faculty members.  They are the awkwards of departments in some ways.  It's got to be tough.  You have a "real" job now.  You have grad students to manage.  Some of the grad students are older than you.  You're just trying to become a swan but it's really hard to do because you are on an insane number of random committees that no one cares about.

I have heard some great stories and some horror stories from friends now employed (yay!  hope!) at various institutions.  The first year is the worst I've been told.  It's especially awful if you have a TA and now have to figure out what to do with them.  I have two friends that are at teaching schools who have been teaching a wide variety of courses but at least they are on their own.  They don't have to delegate to us lackeys.

And I know, cry me a river, you have a TA, right?

I'm not so sure.  I guess I will some day know (hopefully if someone gives me a job at the end of this) but for now, I actually feel sympathy for junior faculty.  Especially when it comes to dealing with TA's.  Why?  Well, let me explain.

Today I received my teaching assignment for the fall semester.  I have comprehensives so I asked for the least time-consuming option - an intro to American politics course.  I've TA'ed this before but it was an all essay section.  I had an excellent prof who I asked to work for again, mind you, but a hell of a lot more work than everyone else had to do my first semester - 4 sets of exams with 110 students under my charge.  I asked for a multiple choice section since never since starting here have I had that luxury.  Well, now I do, kinda.  I've been assigned to a visiting prof who got his BA at our school with our department.  He seems like an excellent candidate, has taught this class before, etc.  I'm excited to learn something from him but NOT so excited to have to work in tandem to make up exams as I have just been informed.  I get why the DGS is asking me.  He wants to hand me my own class possibly the following semester.  That's excellent news for me.  It's just annoying because I have a lot on my plate and not all junior faculty "get it".  It makes me nervous.  The first semester is the worst and I am not sure I want to be in the fray again.  I have been told by people who know this prof that he is an excellent guy, very personable, and will fit right in.  Still, it's so old hat to work with faculty that I already know.  I've worked for and with most of them by now.  This is a whole 'nother world and I'm an old person at heart that hates change.  I will no doubt learn a lot, though.  So, I have to just realize this is another learning experience in teaching that I will most certainly appreciate in the end.

I have TA'ed for a first year faculty member once before.  They guy was a great lecturer and he had an excellent rapport with the class.  I learned a lot about what to expect my first year because he did take me under his wing and was a great mentor.  However, he didn't understand workloads well.  I had about 2x's the amount of grading of ANY TA in my second semester of grad school.  The next semester, he knew better and asked to have his class designated writing intensive and got two TA's to do the work that I did myself.  It was hellish in that respect.  He didn't know how much to delegate to me and wasn't sure how to manage me.  I think he gave me too much freedom and let me deal with plagiarism cases in a way that I was uncomfortable having so much power over.  It was hard.  He's definitely changed a lot since then based on what he's told me and other TA's have told me.  He's learned and improved. I think he would be an excellent addition come tenure time and would gladly write a letter on his behalf.  And I am glad I got to see this whole situation over time because it gave me insight into dealing with these situations firsthand.

It HAS to be an awkward situation dealing with graduate students.  I mean, this new guy (from what I have been told by people that know him) is 3 years older than me but judging by his CV, we have a similar amount of teaching experience with similar subject matter.  I believe firmly in a strong chain of command.  I may not always agree with what a prof has a TA do or may not feel that everything is handled perfectly but I do know my place, I know how to speak in turn, and I realize there are 100 ways to skin a cat.  I can imagine that there are TA's that are not like this, though.  Some people seem to want to pull rank.  This really makes no sense to me.  You are a graduate student.  You have no PhD.  Unless you are asked to do something essentially wrong, you should listen to your superior.  This seems  particularly problematic ones that are older and feel wiser.  Even personally I can say I know of one situation that a faculty member told me about which mirrors this.  This was a senior faculty member with a first year grad student, though.  She felt very confident in pulling rank there, obviously.  It's got to be similar to the feeling you felt when you came into grad school and suddenly were teaching students that were pretty much your age.  You have to learn to deal with things as they come and assert that you are in charge.  Never admit that you feel intimidated.

Teaching grad students seems to be a similar quandary.  I am finally at the point where I can confidently think about teaching grad students - but only in stats.  I feel most confident in teaching methods.  The idea of teaching a substantive course still seems far off.  I hope after comps I will feel differently.  Regardless, it's intimidating.  That has to be the worst part.  We had one junior faculty member recently.  This was a wild card class out of my usual subdisciplines but it was relevant to some policy research I'd been doing and I had an open spot.  He is clearly still adjusting to graduate seminars.  The prof was a nice guy, he brought about interesting and new questions about gender and race which I so appreciated, but he sometimes tried to make seminar too much of a democracy.  Another faculty member in his first year of graduate teaching assigned far too much too soon for the first years and ended up frazzled and admitting it WAS too much.

It seems daunting to have all of these challenges on top of tenure woes and various bureaucratic "service" responsibilities.  I worry about this.  I've been told that it "gets better" but only after tenure.  That seems like an impossible dream to dream right now.

To all the junior faculty out there, what say you?  To senior faculty, what was it like?  Does it really just get so much better after tenure?

To all the grad students dealing with it, what have been your experiences with junior faculty?  Similar experiences to mine?  Different?  Better?  Worse?

I'm curious!


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