A year ago I was wrestling with a large roll of orange bubble wrap and a faulty tape dispenser as my partner and I prepared to relocate from Connecticut to Nebraska. We had been living in our quiet corner of New England long enough to gain a large circle of friends but we knew absolutely no one in the Midwest. I was also wrestling with syllabi, assignment prompts, and textbook orders as I braced myself for the teaching load at my new institution. The scale of my professional life was about to shift drastically as I transitioned from teaching a few sections of composition as a graduate student at a large public university to developing three different literature courses per semester as an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college. Many of us will meet similar professional and personal challenges as junior faculty: as I reflect on my experiences, I hope that some of the strategies I have relied on will also prove useful to you. Specifically, this post will suggest possible approaches to handling course preparation as a new faculty member and re-building your social life in an unfamiliar environment.
Too Many Courses
While teaching three or four courses concurrently has been its own challenge, I have found it hardest over the past year to build so many new courses at once: both my first and second years at Hastings College will involve teaching seven entirely new courses, and I have also been required to propose several future courses for the department’s newly overhauled curriculum. As a generalist with a teaching role that demands breadth, I have often felt overwhelmed by the reality of simultaneously developing such varied courses as LGBTQIA Literature, Introduction to Creative Writing, and 18th/19th Century Literature. There are some shortcuts available that have reduced my workload: this Spring, for instance, while I couldn’t teach more than a few identical texts in two survey courses because I had a considerable number of students enrolled in both, I was able to implement a similar assignment structure. I have been able to recycle many elements from my own graduate courses and I am relieved that I had the foresight as a PhD candidate to observe a range of undergraduate courses.
I have also found myself much more prepared through taking Robert Boice’s advice that faculty always record possible ideas for teaching as they occur, for example, noting a bizarre behavior by your dog for use as an anecdote in a psychology lecture. Texts, activities, questions, assignments, and so on are always popping up inchoately in my mind at inconvenient times so a messy ongoing note on my smartphone entitled “Future Classes” has proved very useful. Conferences and other professional development events have also been effective for collecting pedagogical as well as scholarly ideas. Having a sense of what I might teach in the future at the back of my mind over several months means that, when I sit down to plan a course more intentionally, I do not have to stare at a blank screen.
New faculty need to remember that developing courses is not the work of an individual genius but of a curious magpie willing to adopt and adapt the collective insights of others. I listen to podcasts such as Teaching in Higher Ed on long drives; I talk to former professors and colleagues; I browse Open Educational Resources online; I discuss ideas with students and friends. When I was choosing a modern horror film to conclude a course proposal on the Gothic, my crowdsourcing included social media, lunch with the college president, and a class discussion with students studying British literature. The title of this blog series is “Balancing the Personal and Professional Post-PhD” and I would argue that non-academic friends tend to be wonderful resources for planning courses. This might be a little easier in my field as lots of people do read novels or go to the theatre, but a “lay” person’s take on economics or anthropology—especially when this person is one of your informed and experienced adult friends—can be incredibly useful as you consider how to mediate your expert perspective for students struggling to comprehend difficult material.
Too Few Friends
This recommendation, of course, begs the question of how exactly one finds such friends. I have been lucky enough to bond with many of my new colleagues. Inviting another faculty member out for lunch or coffee can lead to a very necessary and supportive conversation with someone who shares many of your passions and challenges, regardless of their length of tenure or primary field of study. Some of these work-based connections may become genuine friendships over time, but they also serve a real purpose even when they are contained within the workplace. I have found during and after graduate school that my sanity depends on both trusted academic colleagues and friends with a very different perspective on life. My husband unites these qualities perfectly as a former graduate student and college lecturer who pursued a career in music and community organizing. However, when we moved to Nebraska, he quickly became frustrated with “shop talk” and motivated me to widen our social circle.
A recent Twitter thread led by the Junior Prof for @AcademicChatter included a very comprehensive range of suggestions for how to accomplish this. People advocated for finding groups of like-minded people, whether a church congregation, a book club, a sports team, or a volunteering organization. Social media and online tools such as MeetUp can be very useful for discovering possible networks to join. Seven months of attending a few Jazzercise classes a week mean that I now regularly enjoy brief chats about life with a few other women—whom I also occasionally run into at a local bar—and it’s not only my physical health that has been improving. My husband’s bowling team has often organized board game nights or pizza socials. It has helped to be part of an extroverted couple with two different professional homes, but the closest friend I’ve made outside of work was actually someone I met at a women-only social event hosted by a local outdoor center.
A colleague recommended I attend one of these events last fall and I have now become the one who sings their praises to other local women. At my first event, drinking red wine and making gourmet s’mores over a campfire, processing the most recent Supreme Court nomination hearing, I felt less alone and more myself than I had since we moved. A dinner plan followed and then many more. Now this particular friend lends me volumes of poetry and suggests community partnerships for my classes while also making the whole complex world in which I exist a little easier to manage. We need our work, but we also need people. It requires us to invest time and emotion, which always involves risk, but persistence in offering ourselves to others does lead gradually to rich rewards. I have been rebuffed and slighted by some, however unintentionally, but I have also been welcomed by others and so, now, Nebraska has begun to feel a lot more like home.
Not Merely Surviving But Thriving
My first year as an assistant professor was a largely positive experience. I recognize that communication and relationship-building are strengths of mine, which has made the transition more natural to me, and I’m also aware that I love giving advice that I’m already taking and may omit the recommendations that I am less ready to follow. To be honest, the last few months of the Spring semester were extremely tiring: I found them tougher because I had both promised and expected too much professionally. Social challenges were also presented to me, many of my own making. For example, I saw friends choosing not to bring their children to our home as a sign that, as a childless couple, we were not trusted rather than such friends enjoying a rare opportunity for an adult-only evening! Our roots are still very shallow in Hastings and I need to nurture their growth patiently.
This summer may not have been as rich in scholarly output as I had hoped, but seeds sown earlier have made it a productive experience as a teacher and a human being. I’ve been able to explore texts and brainstorm lessons at leisure, always drawing on the skeletal outlines I had created and the resources I had already bookmarked for my Fall classes. I was also able to enjoy working and playing hard in the heat at a local music festival, having volunteered for the planning committee in the winter. I can only hope that another year here will mean lower stress levels and even deeper friendships!
About our guest columnist
Dr. Eleanor Reeds is an Assistant Professor of English in the Dept. of Languages and Literatures at Hastings College.
She received her undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge and PhD from the Department of English at the University of Connecticut. Her scholarly interests span Romantic and Victorian British literature, genre theory, children’s literature, and creative writing. She has also been a Writing Center Coordinator and continues to advocate for composition’s crucial role in the liberal arts curriculum.
Dr. Reeds has published in a range of peer-reviewed journals including Victorian Poetry, Twentieth-Century Literature, American Literary Realism and Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Her current project explores issues of genre, voice and the reader in the nineteenth century. She is also working on a poetry chapbook and enjoys watching baseball in her spare time.