Especially With Advice

The last few years the provost's office has asked me to offer a few words of advice to new faculty members at their August orientation session.  The idea is for them to hear an old-timer's perspective (that would be me) and the view of a junior colleague who has been around just a few years.

The session is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon and I've been mulling over what I should say.  The problem is all of the advice I think worthwhile sounds awful or lame.  I mean really awful and really lame.  It's certainly not what I would have wanted to hear when I began.

For starters I would tell new faculty that their hard-won expertise is not the most important thing in the classroom.  And that's not an easy thing to hear, especially if you are fresh from graduate school and have spent a lot of time and money acquiring that expertise. In some ways, expertise can become an impediment. You forget that not everyone shares your great intellectual passion or that the raison d'etra for your discipline isn't blindingly obvious.  Certainly it's important to know your stuff and know it very well, but it's just as important to know your students and how they think and tend not to think. It's important to remember that the job is to get the students to think, not necessarily for you to display your thinking.

Sadly, the best teaching I do seldom takes the form of a life-changing lecture or an insiprational moment with a student.  Dead Poet's Society was just a Hollywood movie.  My best teaching usually occurs when I'm not saying or doing anything at all.  I have to remind myself time and again--almost every few weeks in fact--to shut the hell up and let the students do the thinking.  It's not about me.

Secondly, I would advise new teachers that they may have to get used to failure and maybe guilt.  There's just no getting around it.  Most of the time you will fail.  A shocking number of your students will be singularly unaffected by your efforts and most of them will promptly forget the bulk of what you taught within weeks of completing your course.   The reality is that you will never be as good at this job as you would like to be.  And you may secretly feel very, very guilty about this.   Like I said, get used to it. 

Try to remind yourself that the guilt is actually evidence that you give a damn about getting it right. Besides, there will be a few modest successes along the way and you are going to feel really great about them.  Indeed, the high from such moments may even last an entire afternoon. You will probably try to tell people about your amazing breakthrough--a spouse, a colleague, some random stranger on the bus--but, trust me, they won't really get it or be as excited by it as you are.  Even so, you'll just have to tell someone.   And you should be grateful for these rare but ultimately lonely successes when they come.  Just don't start to expect them.  That way lies madness.

Lastly, you may realize along the way that teaching tends to be permeated by fear (fear of your colleagues' judgments, fear of your course evaluations, fear of your inadequacies and fear that you're not making much of a difference in the world).  It's actually pretty easy to keep this hidden from others, but don't do it.  Find a colleague you trust and share your fears, failures and frustrations. Even share the occasional success.  And be prepared to listen to your colleagues' failures and fears with empathy and generosity.  Sharing won't make any of these feelings go away, but it will make you feel a little less alone.  In this job, you get by with help from your friends.  So find a friend and be a good one to others.  Kindness counts for a lot, especially at a small institution.

So there it is.  I would advise new faculty to profess less, expect to fail a lot and get used to feeling guilty and fearful.  Also, do try to be nice.  See?  I told you my advice sounded awful and lame.

But as Mark Twain once said, "When it comes to advice, it's always better to give than receive."


T.J. Brayshaw said…
I'm not sure this is particularly helpful…but I do think it is spot on.

Anonymous said…
as a new teacher what was valuable to me was asking me to rehearse the first thing i was going to say to my classroom full of students.

that helped a lot. (i also had a memo of the sequence of events i would take them through - i still do that today, decades later).
Alan Peel said…
I think you should tell them almost exactly this. It's perfect in a meta kind of way. But end with, "I told you it would sound lame, and I bet it does. But it's right."
Professor Quest said…
Thanks for the comments, T.J.. Alan, et. al. As I recall, an older faculty member gave me three pieces of advice when I began. 1. Don't cancel classes. 2. Don't boink the students. And 3: check your fly before you walk in the room. This was probably about as useful as anything you could say to a first year professor

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