Thoughts on starting over on the first day of school.

Last week my two kids started the school year in a new state, in a new town, in new schools. Today, it’s my turn.

Well, for the most part. There have been a number of preliminary moves up to this point: acquiring the new office and the new e-mail address, meeting with my new department chair, attending start-of-the-year orientation meetings and barbecues for faculty. But today brings Zero Hour. After spending fourteen years at my previous small liberal arts college, departing as a tenured full professor with a slate of class preps in the can and administrative experience, today I begin the next stage of my career as a non-tenure-track teaching faculty member at an R1 flagship state university. I’m doubling my teaching load from last year, with courses I haven’t taught in over a decade. Even the calendar of the academic year is different. And I’m shaking in my boots.

Oh, I’m sure all will be well, especially after launching my classes today and tomorrow and not collapsing in a wet heap immediately afterward. And it’s not quite like I’m in the position of my wife, beginning her new career at midlife as a newly minted Ph.D. and tenure-track assistant professor at same said flagship university. She’s teaching classes she never has before, and also navigating the strange new world of transitioning her research program from member of a grad student team to master of her own domain — which will involve managing projects and graduate students of her own. She, like so many new faculty colleagues across the nation, are beginning a new adventure.

And so am I — but the adventure is different. I’ve braved these seas before, both as new faculty fresh out of grad school and as a laterally mobile junior faculty member switching colleges. But even in the latter moment I was young and still building my career. I was still finding myself as a teacher and struggling to move forward on a research agenda.  But today is different. It’s a radical sea change from last year, when I had deep experience, and institutional stature, and colleagues who were longtime friends. Today I feel my way through courses that seem brand new, though I’ve taught them before once upon a time. Today I meet students living in a very different academic culture from what I’m used to working within, though they resemble closely the students I’ve taught for over two decades. Today the lion’s share of colleagues I will smile and wave at in the hallways are either active R1 researchers or grad student TA instructors, not like me, though they teach the same students and experience the same day-to-day concerns.

And this is good, though it terrifies me. Because this experience is reminding me that, despite my expertise and experience, I still have much to learn and much to live as an educator and academic professional. Before today I would feel the comfort of familiar routines and practices made easier by the frequent repetition, but I would also sometimes feel the rut of, “What, this again? Sure…” The complacency of feeling okay about a course or lesson executed competently but without significant innovation or revision. The predictability of the moods and rhythms of my familiar colleagues in faculty and administration. The rut. I would often try to move past the rut by taking on new challenges, increasing my workload and my stress level. “Different” could only come through “more.”

Not today. Today is undiscovered country.

Well, sort of. Earth-2, for DC comic books fans, or the parallel universe of the “other side,” for devotees of the cult TV fave Fringe, or Jules Winnfield’s Paris McDonald’s in Pulp Fiction, where they serve the “Royale with Cheese” and mayonnaise with the fries. “They got the same s*** there that they got here; just there it’s a little different.”

And it’s those differences I need to navigate. But it’s also those differences that will help me learn and grow. What do state university students expect of me that liberal arts college students might not? How will the teaching rhythms change from the 75 minute classes over a 10 week trimester I used to teach to my new 50 minute classes over a 15 week semester? What are today’s college freshmen like, compared to the predominantly upperclassmen I’ve taught over the last few years? What will departmental service be like as a teaching faculty member working with R1 tenured and tenure-track colleagues? How will the day-to-day environment of a state university inform my understanding of the culture of 21st century higher education? What sorts of things can I learn from the fresh eyes of grad students, with whom I will now interact regularly after not working with any for over 14 years? And how will reconnecting with the basics in my discipline, while teaching courses from so long ago, reinvigorate the way I go about the craft of teaching? The complacency of one who has been comfortable, and comfortably in the position of mentoring new faculty in my familiar home, is gone. Now I must seek new mentors of my own, and continue to be enriched by the wisdom and hard-earned experience of others.

As I set sail. my rudder for this voyage will be the experiences and knowledge I bring with me from my years at sea, and my sextant and maps for navigation will come from those who can help me, should I have the introvert’s courage to seek out their advice. I started this process last week, chatting up my new faculty colleagues and grad students who have been around the block (not to mention the department’s administrative assistants and a helpful IT ed technologist, both crucially important folks to get to know in a new place!). This week, I continue the process by opening myself up to the moment, being mindfully present in the classroom, and listening attentively to my new students — many of whom are beginning their own scary and wonderful new journeys today.

For them, as for me, it’ll be just like starting over.

 

By the way, if you’re in my boat with me (particularly if you’re junior faculty), you should check out Cathy Day‘s series of two columns of advice for starting-over faculty in last year’s Inside Higher Ed. Helpful stuff! And if you have any advice for me and others that are starting over in new positions, please share them in the comments below. I need all the help I can get!

 

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this Steve! As you know, I’m I exactly the same spot- for the second time- with some differences! The feelings are the same- excitement, anxiety, fear, insecurity, confidence, curiosity! Ready to be settled. Love the way it has changed and improved me as a professor. Hate to feel like I’m starting over from scratch! Can’t wait to meet the students and get going. Let’s do this! And let’s stay in touch!

  2. This is an excellent post, and I share so many of your same thoughts and feelings! Some days, I would give anything to feel “the rut” again… but the excitement and newness of everything is pretty cool too. This year will certainly keep us both hopping… looking forward to reading more about your transition.

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