Monday, January 22, 2018

Balancing a new job

Writing today’s post, I am acutely aware of how often I failed in my struggle to achieve balance in the various requirements of a new tenure-track job: teaching, research, and service (and in some cases, outreach or administration). So LHB readers, you might want to take any advice offered here with a snicker or a grain of salt. I do hope that my struggles might result in some useful insights for those of you facing a similar challenge. 

I started my job teaching at Auburn in the fall of 2010.  My first semester involved two large (200 students in each) sections of World History I (from the dawn of time to the 18th century!) and a 13-student graduate seminar in Southern History.  Prior to starting my position, my independent teaching experience consisted of a 9-student summer U.S. survey and a 7-student senior writing seminar in my research area, both at Duke. 

To say I was unprepared for what awaited me in my new job is an understatement. My first semester was crushing—I was nervous, overwhelmed, out of my league. My research and writing seemed like a distant memory. My manuscript was one final, impossibly large task on my never-ending to-do list. I never forgot about it, but I also never got around to doing much research or writing. Luckily Auburn kept my service load pretty light. I was on one department committee, but it didn’t require much time.

I have no magic solution to the craziness of the first year of teaching. I do have a few words of advice that I followed as best I could. Much of this advice still applies to my regular challenges of balancing my workload.

My first point could (and should!) be repeated in all of my posts on the struggle to achieve any type of balance. First and foremost, be willing to forgive yourself and let things go when you fall short of your expectations. Even the people who seem the most on top of things sometimes—or often—miss the mark. Lawyers, professors, and grad students are usually highly motivated people. But the tenure-track asks a lot of new professors, and sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all. Dwelling on what you have not managed to accomplish or what you wish you had done does you no good. Forgiveness and moving on are how I get through most of my days.

A strong support system is another element that allowed me to adjust to the new faculty workload. I was fortunate enough to start my job at the same time as another history faculty member. We became fast friends. We spent many late nights in the office together, and made plenty of fast food runs as we logged long hours to get the lectures written, the reading done, and the emails answered. She has remained a source of advice, encouragement, and commiseration over the years, as our workloads have only gotten heavier.

If you don’t make that kind of instant connection in your department—or even if you do—finding people outside of your department is helpful, too. Look for opportunities to mingle with other faculty and make new connections. Orientation, college/school functions, or groups connected to particular hobbies or interests can all help one meet faculty outside of your department. My partner Kevin was also a big help with my home workload, as the dishes and laundry piled up. He continues to provide enormous support, both with housework and also listening and helping me sort out my challenges. Like many academics, I now have family and friends spread all over the country. Regular phone calls to friends and family members can be a huge help in coping with the stress of the first year.

Here’s some advice I wish I had followed: when you start teaching, less is more. Less reading can still make for great discussion. Shorter writing assignments allow for more quality feedback and focus on skill practice for your students.  Keep lectures to outlines, unless you’re teaching something completely outside of your comfort zone, as many of us do sometimes. You don’t have to be great at all of it right away. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is an amazing teacher. There will be hiccups along the way. Your best bet is to innovate and experiment a little at a time to see what works best in your new job with a new population of students.  For me, teaching is always about experimenting and being open to adjustments.

Seek advice from senior colleagues when you can. At Auburn, our department has a strong tradition of sharing syllabi for ideas and regularly discussing teaching issues as they arise. Finding a trusted colleague who has been there a while to approach with questions is an invaluable asset. Our department does not have a formal mentoring program for new faculty, but if possible, seek out these kinds of opportunities to learn from others’ experiences and get to know the department culture.

I have read lots of advice about making time for research.  This advice includes scheduling regular research and writing time, getting up early to write, and prioritizing writing before you begin you class prep and meetings.  I’ve never been great about this balance, but I continue to try. (More on some of my strategies in the next post.) One of my goals for 2018 is to make regular time every week for research and writing, even if it’s not a lot of time. No guarantee that I’ll be able to make that a reality. But I do believe that the best practice for balancing writing with a heavy teaching load is to make it a regular part of your schedule.  A bit more on this after the jump break.

The advice for law faculty or people working at other universities is likely different than my experience. Here at Auburn we fully expect the first year to be lost to research and writing time as new faculty write lectures and adjust to teaching.  Losing a year of research and writing, as I did and many new teachers do, makes it vital to get going during breaks and in subsequent years.

The task of making time for writing only got more interesting for me after my first year. In the summer of 2011, we welcomed my daughter Olivia. I spent much of my first year of teaching pregnant. In my next post, I will discuss the challenges of being a parent and an academic. The balancing act of research, writing, service, and other responsibilities at work is always complicated by our personal lives and responsibilities—whatever they may be. For me, the main responsibilities soon became my daughter and her baby brother Alex, who arrived two weeks after I sent in my first full book manuscript submission.