It’s not easy being green, especially as a woman new on faculty. Personal experience led Dr. Julie Carlson to focus her research on new women faculty and use it to build networks of support. She titled her session at the University of Nebraska’s Women in Educational Leadership conference “If I Had Only Known.”
With a background in elementary education, outdoor recreation and horses, she earned an EdD in educational leadership at Stephen F. Austin State University TX in 2002. She joined the department of educational leadership at Minnesota State University in Mankato, and in just three years won promotion to associate professor.
Even in her very supportive department, she found questions she wished she’d asked and realities she didn’t expect. To see if her experiences were widespread, in her third year she started a qualitative study of other women’s first-year faculty experiences. Besides contributing to the literature, she wanted to give first-year women a forum to discuss the challenges they faced.
Focus groups involved 18 new women faculty in four groups. Each met three or four times during the year, using their final session to consider preliminary results.
First year challenges
Time was by far their greatest challenge. “People came in with the perception that they were going to teach and do research,” she told WIHE. There weren’t enough hours.
Class preparation and grading chewed up time. Course schedules were intense. Office hours with an open door policy, meetings, committee work and email left no uninterrupted blocks of time. “Time management flew out the window,” she said.
Second was the challenge of teaching effectively, especially for those without teaching experience. They might be handed a canned syllabus or create one that needed constant revision. Some had to adjust their expectations about students’ ability, behavior and interest.
Students seemed difficult to engage. Assistant professors from elsewhere were thrown off balance by “Minnesota reserve,” a quality of quiet politeness and non-disclosure that made it hard to elicit excitement.
Lack of institutional knowledge was a third challenge. A culture holds informal answers to when, where and how; few are codified as policies and procedures. New professors don’t know what others expect of them, what resources are available or where to turn for help.
Finally, many factors contributed to work/life stress: relocation, money, health, caring for partners and children. “They thought they should be able to do all this,” she said. Blaming themselves only compounded the stress.
Ask before you start
Support for new faculty varied by department. Hers was great, but elsewhere women were denied summer teaching opportunities or put on committees no one else wanted. One mom had to teach at 8 a.m.
To save yourself, ask appropriate, respectful questions about the department at the interview stage, such as:
- What resources exist to help new faculty? Is there a handbook, or someone to ask for guidance?
- What are the expectations for first-year faculty regarding research, advising loads, office hours, service on committees and other departmental responsibilities?
- What opportunities are available to teach summer or overload courses?
- How are individual course schedules determined? Do new faculty have any input?
“I came in to my position very blindly. I didn’t ask a single one of these,” she said. Questions don’t need be adversarial, but if they aren’t answered, think twice about taking the job.
Strategies on campus
Women in the focus groups met challenges and gradually invented strategies to address them. “After the first semester they were much wiser,” she said. Anticipating challenges would have greatly simplified their first year.
“Come in with strategies in hand, instead of getting yourself knee-deep in mud and then looking for a strategy to pull yourself out,” she said. If you have young children whose care falls mostly to you, put time management strategies into place before the teaching year begins.
She suggested first-year strategies:
Designate uninterrupted time each week for reading and research—and honor it. Don’t check email or answer the door or the phone. Those who stuck to it found this strategy successful. Just because email works 24/7 doesn’t mean it has to rule your life. Tell students you’ll answer email only between specific hours, or offer 24-hour turnaround.
Level out the time demands across your course load. To avoid grading conflicts, don’t make assignments for two classes due the same week. After students turn in an assignment, show a film or bring in a guest speaker while you grade them.
Ask good teachers for permission to observe as they teach. Some departments had a peer evaluation program where teachers observe each other and offer feedback. Ask good teachers to review your syllabi. They can show you how to include enough detail while leaving yourself room for flexibility.
Find out where to go for answers. It may be a senior colleague; it may be the department secretary. Locate resources for new faculty and use them. “You need to use them even if you don’t have time, because they will help you in the long run,” Carlson said.
Some hesitated to participate in her study because they thought they didn’t have time. Those who joined the focus groups gained peers to share frustrations and strategies. You deserve all the help you can get. Ask the right questions early on, plan in advance and have a great first year!
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Mary Dee Wenniger, Editor and Publisher