From Freeway Flyer to Tenure Track

The 360 icon.jpgYou Finally Have the Full-time Gig. Now What?

For our inaugural edition of The 360, the editors of inside english asked three instructors at various points on the journey to tenure to reflect on their experiences. We asked them to consider questions like: In what ways is full time different from what you expected? What’s been surprising or unexpected? Looking back, what suggestions or guiding principles would you offer others just starting out? What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

First, Chris Cullen offers lessons learned from his first semester as a midyear hire at Santa Rosa Junior College. Next, Gabrielle Myers describes her first year at San Joaquin Delta College and the benefits of the opportunity to slow down and settle in. To wrap up, Kelly Fredericks looks back at the whole cycle, from new hire to her tenure year at Butte College.

New Role, New Campus, Similar Challenges

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Chris Cullen

As anyone familiar with the higher education job market knows, getting a tenure-track, full-time teaching position is a long strenuous journey. Exhaustion, jealousy, depression, discouragement, and bitterness will all probably pop up, possibly more than once. Then, after forever on this path with one goal in sight, everything lines up and you get it. You start, full-time, part of the club, and then it hits you: OH NO. NOW WHAT?

Just like the path to full time, the transition can be difficult to navigate. There are differences within differences, differences stacked upon differences, so many that at times I felt like I was spinning.

I was hired at a school I had never taught at before, and I moved to a community I had never lived in before. I was familiar with the area. I went to high school nearby, a few towns over. My cousin lived in the same county, about twenty minutes down the road. So it wasn’t like I was completely unprepared. Still, there was a lot to get used to. The students were diverse, which I expected, but in more ways than I initially anticipated. There were students from different cultures who spoke different languages, obviously. There were glaring socio-economic differences. Students had different backgrounds and goals and standards. Their home lives and support structures varied. Their responsibilities and obligations were at times overwhelming.

I think one thing that made the initial transition so hard was I wanted there to be no waves or setbacks. I know now this was unrealistic, but I didn’t know that then. I was learning a new school and new system, a new department with new students. I had a new boss, several new bosses in fact, and I was unsure of protocol, and who had my back, or how much I should let people in, or lean on others for support. Because of this, everyday situations seemed harder, more complicated, more stressful. I had made the expectations so high that normal stuff felt complicated. On more than one occasion, incidents happened with students, situations having to do with student behavior, their expectations or setbacks or frustrations, incidents that happen every day in the classroom and in the life of a teacher, stuff I had dealt with before, thought I knew how to handle, and would deal with again and again again. Except now I was the new guy, an outsider who was finally let in, and really wanted to be there, and this belief that I didn’t want to create any waves or have any setbacks made even typical challenges complex.

Then there was this thing called tenure, and believe me I wanted tenure. I had heard the first year was the most important and hardest, and that if you weren’t going to get it, this would be the year they wouldn’t renew your contract. Obviously, I wanted to do well. I hadn’t worked so hard to get here only to blow it my first year. So all of this weighed on me and little things seemed much harder and more stressful and this was just with everyday things in the classroom. Luckily, I realized that students and teaching are what I connect to best. I am good at this, great at this in fact. That was a major part of getting the job in the first place. So after a little time getting used to it all, the day to day settled down, I got more comfortable with the routine and my students, but that meant I was more aware of what was going on outside of the classroom.

Needless to say the school I was hired at I had studied pretty closely and knew quite a bit about. I knew the history, the student learning outcomes, the strategic plan for the future. I knew some of the philosophies and programs like they embraced learning communities and some cutting edge ideas like acceleration or multiple measures assessments. But still, there was a learning curve adapting to these. In addition a lot had happened over the past decade or so, including a transformation in what the county and the student body look like. The faculty was also changing with a little under forty-percent turning over within the last five years, mostly due to retirement.

Also what you see on paper doesn’t always reflect what people actually think and traditions that are in place. Doing research into the schools where you are applying, and hopefully get hired, is great; it gives you a head start. But the true complexity isn’t clear until you step in and meet people, until you   get to the know them, and start chatting about the ways things have been done before, about the debates and conversations and new programs attempted, about compromises made. It’s important to be aware of the stuff that’s taken place long before the short time you’ve been here, and it’s not until you see all of this, and experience it firsthand, that you actually start to grasp the reality of your new environment. A big part of the transition is realizing that you have a lot to learn, and furthermore that it might take a while.

I think what is so hard about all of this is you really want to make a good impression, to make friends, to fit in, to be the right fit, and you want it all to happen now. You have to remember this doesn’t happen overnight. You didn’t get the job in one day. It was a long and difficult journey.  So don’t expect the transition to be simple in comparison. I think the key is take your time, and ask for support from colleagues and mentors. First, reach out to the mentors who supported you in the past. They’re a great resource to help to you transition. They know you, you already have a level of trust established, and if you are at a new school, you can tell them almost anything because they don’t have relationships or conflicts with anyone at your new school. They can offer an objective, outsider’s perspective.

It’s also important to cultivate a support network on your new campus. One of the best things I did was search out a new mentor. Early on, I hit a crisis point. I was working on my tenure self-evaluation, I had family coming to visit for the weekend. As always, I had loads of papers to grade and readings and lesson plans to keep up with. Then, I had two fairly minor incidents with students, again, as I mentioned earlier, stuff I normally would have been fine with, but with all the stress, they  seemed bigger and more complicated. What I needed was to run this all by someone I could trust, someone who knew the students, and the department. Someone who could check my ideas and help me adapt them to the culture at my new college.

Luckily I knew someone from my hiring committee who I had worked with before, and who had been very welcoming and supportive, who was a good friend of one of my friends and mentors from one of my previous schools. She was nice and approachable, and we agreed on a lot. She believed in forward thinking and always changing, always improving as an instructor. She was  the kind of full-timer I wanted to be. Stressed out one sleepless morning, I asked if we could meet to discuss some classroom transition stuff. I shared my problems with her, asked for advice, formed a close bond, and the isolation and uncertainty faded. I felt like I had a friend, a close colleague and someone I could really trust in my own department. That made things so much easier going forward. When things came up I was unsure about, or I wanted to run something by someone, I now had someone’s door I could go knock on, someone I could go for coffee with and talk things out. You’ll need someone you can trust, someone you can count on to ease you through this transition. Seek out conversations and collaboration. Find people you respect, and reach out to them. You don’t have to go it alone.

Also you need to have confidence to speak up if you have something to say. You were hired because you had an opinion, because they heard what you had to say, and they respected what you had already done, they hired you for  your experience and perspective. Because of that, don’t be afraid to share. Sharing is good. Having a voice is good. But go slow, be patient, take deep breaths, and be precise.

You also need to be cautious not to say the wrong thing or make enemies. You will hopefully be working with these people, side by side, for a long time, so let them get to know you and make friends and relationships first. In fact, this should probably be your first goal. Get to know your colleagues and build relationships. Be careful not to offend anyone, to rub people the wrong way, to make enemies. Take it in, then be clear, be honest, and don’t change who you are.

In the end, your perspective does change. It does feel overwhelming at times. And it’s a little scary. My biggest advice is to be patient and go slow and don’t expect too much too soon. You were awesome enough to get the job, and you will transition fine, but realize it isn’t always easy, and you will make some mistakes, and it will be disorienting at times. I’m still transitioning and it is still disorienting at times and it’s still tough. But it does get easier.

Chris Cullen teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College. Previously he has taught at Butte College, Yuba College and Chico State. He has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and a Master of Arts in English and Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University, Chico. His primary fields of expertise are literature, composition, and creative writing, but he has extensive experience in publishing and journalism as well.

 

From Four Campuses to One: Pulling Off the Freeway

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Gabrielle Myers

For many years I drove from part-time position to part-time position and often worked for catering companies on the weekends and during the holidays. Teaching full-time at one institution rather than three or four gives you the ability to create programs for other teachers and students, to develop stronger relationships with students and other faculty, and improve your quality of life.

 

As a part-timer I had opportunities to participate in professional learning workshops and trainings; however, I did not have the authority or time to create these opportunities for other instructors. Now that I have a full-time job I am able to develop workshops and find funds so that my part and full-time colleagues have the opportunity to learn from each other in collaborative environments. With other colleagues, I am working on bringing Reading Apprenticeship, Habits of Mind, and additional Accelerated pathways to our campus.

Most of us stay in teaching because of our connections with students. Even ten or twenty years later we remember this student’s essay or that student’s challenging situation. Like many part-timers, I had many students take my lower level English class and then sign up to take the next course in the sequence with me the following semester. While these connections are important for the students, they also mean so much to the part-timers who are struggling to cover student loan payments and other expenses just so that they can teach for another semester. Now I am able to guide and be a support for more students at one school. I have time to be involved in student activities and co-chair clubs like the Writers’ Guild.

My last year as a part-timer I worked at four schools and taught eight or nine classes a semester. I would often leave the house before 7am, drive to one school an hour away, teach until noon, have lunch during my office hour or while I was driving to the next school that was another hour away, teach afternoon and evening classes, and then drive another hour home, often not getting back until 8:30 or 9:30pm. Most weekends would be pressed with grading and class planning. I still work long hard hours during the week and most weekends, but I can fit in quick evening workouts, cook and eat dinner, and take a few hours on the weekends to socialize, run on a trail, and write articles and develop recipes.

What tips would I give those applying this year? The advice on interviewing imparted by a full-time colleague was the most valuable as I applied for full-time positions. She said that interviewing is hard if you are someone who needs to think for a while before responding to questions or if you are more of a writer than a talker. She suggested taking notes after each interview, creating a list of interview questions, and then writing out responses. Study the questions and your responses the night before the interview and in the car in the minutes before you have to shine. No one wants to sound scripted, but if you are a writer, often verbal communication becomes easier if you have a chance to work out your ideas on the page first.

Gabrielle Myers is an Associate Professor of English at San Joaquin Delta College, writer, and chef living in Sacramento. Gabrielle’s memoir, Hive-Mind, which details her time on an organic farm, is published by Lisa Hagan Books and available on Amazon. Her poems, essays, and articles have been published in professional journals, and in literary and popular magazines. Access links to her poems, articles, essays, interviews, and gluten and dairy free recipe blog through her website: www.gabriellemyers.com

 

The Value of Security, Identity, and Community

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Kelly Fredericks

Before being hired, I, like most adjuncts, worked at multiple institutions. I applied to many more. We all know the circumstances—do we limit our opportunities for success by only applying to one or two local institutions? Or do we sacrifice any life we have built in exchange for opportunities elsewhere? As we build our careers, we each have to develop our own strategy. I think luck plays a factor. Opportunities ebb and flow and one needs to pay attention to cultural trends. For example, I survived the dry spell of the economic collapse where for years institutions did not hire. Once the recovery began, the floodgates opened and there were multiple opportunities. I was prepared, in that brief window, to grab one of those jobs. Now, it seems, that many institutions are again confronted with an inability to hire, at least within English departments.

Working primarily at two institutions, I was repeatedly passed over by one and eventually hired by the other. I have witnessed a greater percentage of colleagues being hired by new institutions and believe that simply by the law of percentage, a person has a better chance if s/he is willing to canvas the state with resumes. I do not offer new insight, but I do offer a friendly reminder that our default setting is to believe that trends don’t apply to us; yet, unfortunately, most of the time they do.

Initially, I had a combined sense of survivor’s guilt and imposter syndrome. Why me and not her or him? I’m in my fourth year and am finally settling into a new identity.  Working part-time, I primarily thought of myself as an instructor. Now, I have a deep sense of gratitude that our society carves out space for people to pursue an intellectual life. While teaching is obviously my vocation, my identity is now connected to safeguarding the integrity of the academic culture.

Transitioning into a full-time position within an institution in which I previously was part-time has, like anything, negatives and positives.  I was not able to reinvent myself and, as I stated earlier, I was plagued with a survivor guilt that would not have been an issue if I was hired at a new institution. At the same time, the mission of the community college system is to contribute to the community. Because I was hired in a location where I had already built a life, I felt an immediate sense of connection to the community. I did not have to start from scratch.

In addition, a large part of my job is focused on relationships with my colleagues. As a part-timer, I felt like a ghost—I simply floated to and from my classroom. My focus was on building relationships with my students. Now, I think of the entire institution has my workplace for the next 20 years. The campus has become my home turf and I feel an obligation to not only build relationships with everyone with which I work, but I also feel a sense of ownership in the campus culture in ways that I did not when I was part-time.

The hiring process wasn’t actually a surprise because I had been applying for full-time positions for about ten years before I was actually hired. I am surprised that other applicants don’t understand the process and don’t ask questions about the process. I’m not sure that I would ever be hired again—to be selected from a pool of highly qualified people feels more like luck than anything else. Why was I hired this time but not the previous ten times? I think much of the success in this bizarre obstacle called the interview is simply a random constellation that briefly converges then dissipates—a happenstance of applicants, personalities of the hiring committee, what the department is looking for that particular year, and the strengths and weaknesses of the person who was most recently hired.  I don’t know that a similar constellation would appear again.

I wish I had figured out earlier that the process should be a collaborative effort. My successful attempt resulted from the combined energy of many people across multiple campuses. I had people check my resume (I learned that a successful resume should be organized around the job description). I learned that the initial screening process involves a rubric, designed from the job description, in which points are applied to various aspects of the job application materials. I had friends ask me questions about my teaching philosophy and the ways I intentionally applied strategies of inclusion and diversity into my instructional practices and materials. I paid someone to proofread my application packet. And, when the time finally came, I had multiple audiences willing to give me critical feedback on the various drafts of my teaching demo.

As far as tips I would give those applying for full-time positions. First, understand the difference between the first and second interview—know your audience. Most of the people being interviewed have demonstrated strong teaching skills—what will make you different from the pack? Also, assume that everyone being interviewed is highly qualified. So, what unique skills and perspectives will you bring to the department? In other words, don’t sell yourself as an excellent instructor because you have to assume that all of the other candidates are excellent. Instead, think about how you will impact the culture of the department. I know it is a cliché to encourage you to be yourself. In this situation, that cliché actually means: figure out who you are as an instructor—what is your teaching philosophy? And then, demonstrate that identity. Being selected for an interview means you are a strong candidate. At that point, the interview is about fit.

Understand the significance of the second interview. If your name is moved forward, the committee is recommending you (and the two or three other candidates). The second interview is about your expertise in your discipline and what you will bring to the campus community. As such, be sure to research the campus community and think about how you align with the mission and values of that specific institution.

As an adjunct, I was involved in a variety of committees and projects. However, I did not realize how much time full-time instructors spend on work unrelated to teaching. Sometimes I feel that teaching is something that I do in the cracks of other types of work. There is, on some level, a luxury to being able to focus only on teaching. I make the previous statement with hesitancy because I know that many people teach seven and eight sections and there is clearly no luxury in that lifestyle. However, in terms of expectations, I had expected to be able to spend more time and attention to my responsibilities as an instructor and was surprised to discover how quickly the demands of department work saturate my weekly calendar.

I was also surprised to look back at my career and discover that my trajectory actually had hidden benefits.  The entire time that I was an adjunct, I was obsessed with obtaining a full-time position. I was stressed about money, especially during summer. My children grew up with “black August” because unemployment was not enough to sustain us and by the time August came we had run out of money. At the same time, I was able to stay home with my kids. My husband worked during the day and I taught night classes. When I finally landed the full-time position, my children were almost in high school. Now that I have to be available during all hours of the day, I realize that those part-time years may have had some benefits. I’m not discounting the struggles of being part-time; I’m simply saying that looking back, my years of “apprenticeship” may have had unexpected benefits.

In terms of making the transition, the tenure process has had the most significant impact. The process involves a team of colleagues and yearly, or bi-yearly, evaluations and teaching demonstrations. I wish there was a similar process for part-time workers. I feel like people are hired and then expected to fend for themselves. The tenure process, on the other hand, allows for constructive criticism. Yes, the process is stressful and sometimes awkward and uncomfortable. However, having colleagues watch and evaluate your work is ultimately an essential process for authentic development and growth.

In fact, when I was a teaching assistant at CSU, Chico, my first evaluation was conducted by my mentor Tom Fox. He praised me for demonstrating how brilliant I was. Then, with a gentle smile, asked “but what did you teach them?” When we initially begin teaching, our authority is in the expertise and knowledge that we have accumulated through our education—we want to display our brilliance. As we transition into the role of teacher, our authority is revealed in the types of experiences we create for our students—our brilliance is displayed in the culture we cultivate within our classrooms.

Martha Nussbaum talks about cultivating the capabilities of human development and, as I progress into tenure, I now realize that job security is one of the essential foundations for cultivating a sense of self. As an adjunct, I didn’t fully grasp the difference between “I have full time employment for the rest of my life” and “I have enough seniority to receive two classes each semester.” The difference in these two versions of job security has profound implications in the ways in which we develop our identities as instructors.  We know that the community college system is built upon adjunct labor and we are witnessing the state system rapidly embracing a similar approach. As such, we are thrusting the valuable cultural resource into an instability that obstructs the cultivation of the imagination and thought required to teach at the college level. Because I have had the opportunity to gain this larger perspective, I am deeply committed to making structural changes that maintain the space for “college instructor/professor” for future generations.

Kelly Fredericks is a faculty member at Butte Community College. She teaches composition. 

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