- Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year
The diversity among U.S. postsecondary institutions and between various academic disciplines fosters experiential differences for new junior faculty. Thus, writing an autobiographical account of one's unique experiences as a first year faculty member in an English department at one particular institution in order to introduce and prepare graduate students and newly minted members of the professoriate for academic life anywhere might seem too ambitious. However, James Lang demonstrates that there are many largely universal survival struggles and self-doubts which are shared in common by most of us embarking on a new career in the academy.
Regular weekly readers of The Chronicle of Higher Education will recognize the author. Since 1999, he has been periodically writing first-person columns about the academic job search process and the subsequent life as an assistant professor. This book is not a compilation of those essays, but the reader will note threads from a number of these informative well-written and entertaining Chronicle columns. The book, with the benefit of four years of hindsight, documents the "adventures" of his first year as a faculty member.
Lang's first tenure track position is in the English Department at Assumption College, a small liberal arts Catholic church-affiliated institution in Worcester, Massachusetts. As a recent graduate of Northwestern University, Lang documents the challenges of adjusting to a different kind of institutional environment in what he characterizes as a small provincial city without the cultural and gastronomic amenities of a Chicago. Among other anecdotes, Lang notes his routine meeting in the middle of the fall semester initiated by Assumption's president so he can discuss how he's settling in. Lang appears unaware that even such a cursory meeting with the institution's president should not be a routine expectation of a new faculty member at most institutions, including those such as Northwestern.
Nevertheless, in most respects the book covers what might likely be typical experiences by first-year faculty members. Included are several chapters on teaching, grading, and evaluations. Tensions over scholarly roles and writing are shared. The book exposes the inevitable time conflict for married faculty members between professional expectations and family obligations. Readers preparing to newly enter the professoriate will be offered a glimpse of the universally [End Page 742] experienced seemingly interminable meetings and committee work expected of faculty members. Lang's first year account also documents the likely value conflicts between faculty and even the occasional inexplicable tirade by a departmental member that new faculty will almost inevitably encounter.
The emotions associated with the teaching role that are described in this book are ones to which new faculty can readily relate, and for which they can be reassured that their struggles in the pedagogical role are not aberrant. There is the stress of new course preparations, the "moment of terror" when meeting the first day of classes, the thoughts of retreat to lecturing when interactive classroom exercises fail, the frustration of writing extensive comments on students' papers which are then ignored by the students, and the fear of running out of material before the class time is over. Lang is candid in admitting he wants his students to like him, really like him. While not an ideal lesson for a new teacher, he admits he's willing to trade off giving low grades in exchange for the adoration by his students, and, perhaps, as a means to enhance his student evaluations of his teaching at the conclusion of the semester.
The end of his first year brings another common dilemma: does one like this job, this department, these colleagues, this college, and this town enough to stay? Or does one begin to think about re-entering the job market? Lang devotes a chapter to his struggles in considering the pros and the cons of remaining at Assumption and in Worcester.
Another chapter addresses a unique series of...