Beyond the Bullet Points: Confessions of an Assistant Professor (15 years later)

0 Comment

I am often asked by academic librarians how to partner with tenure track faculty. I always tell them to help them with their tenure cases. Not just teach an untenured professor or his or her GA how to search: help them. Do the searches. Help them brainstorm beyond Google Scholar for citations. Look at holdings in WorldCat for books, find example packages. Many wonder if this isn’t way too much work for the relationship built. I would like them to know where this advice comes from. I apologize for the rather self-reflective nature of this post, but you need to know the honesty with which I give this advice.

I have tenure. I have rank (I’m a “Full” these days), and it seems an unspoken tradition that I can now complain about the state of the field, my colleagues, my students, loss of some focus, and the myriad deviations academia has made since I started out in this profession. Yet I’d like to tell you what I remember most from when I started: I was scared out of my mind. I felt alone even though I had the rare chance of being hired into the same school in which I received my Ph.D. In fact that made it worst. I was now sitting next to Jeff Katzer, Mike Eisenberg, and Chuck McClure! I was nothing.

In the opening week of my first year we had a series of progressive dinners to meet other new faculty members. They were all smarter than me. We were received by the provost at the Chancellor’s resident – the same provost who had welcomed me as a freshman to campus 11 years earlier (I am truly a survivor of academic incest). He knew my name. It didn’t feel like an honor, I felt like a target.

Would I ever publish? Would I ever get a grant now that my advisor was leaving for a new job? When would they realize that I was fake; an unprepared kid who bluffed his way through the final defense, and felt about as scholarly as a rock. In my first year of my new position my father died. I was even more alone. My wife had her job and was of great support, but come on – this was tenure and I was special (don’t worry she has since beaten this out of me).

In my first year evaluation, with nothing to really evaluate, my peers asked what my theoretical framework was. My what?!? I used Complexity Theory in my dissertation, does that count. My insecurity grew as my tenured peers reached out with advice and honest attempts to help. Every word of advice only served to make me feel inadequate. I tried to cover my insecurity with arrogance. “Who needs to publish a peer reviewed article? So old fashioned.” “I may not have a lot of publications, but I bring in a lot of research dollars, they’re all just jealous.”

It was with arrogance that I went into my third year review, where the tenured faculty had to make a determination if I could make tenure at the end of three more years. The first vote was negative…I couldn’t. I was angry. I was indignant. I was an idiot. In conversations with my former advisors, and my previous, and as it turns out, my present dean (then chair of the committee), I broke. I was mad, but I listened. They gave me very good advice. They talked about what it took to get my attention, and how that is not what they want in a colleague, and who would.  The second vote passed, I would get my chance at tenure.

After three more years, with a much better record, with listening, with a lot of work, and working with my fellow faculty, I received tenure. Five years later, promotion to full.

Why this long prolog? If you are an academic librarian, I needed you. All your new faculty need you. They won’t say that and they will certainly not say that to someone else on their faculty. They will be arrogant, they will be dismissive, but it is very likely because they are scared. Be a friend. Be a helper outside of the peers they are most likely either avoiding, or desperately trying to please. Give them an escape. Give them and ear. Give them hope. Once you help one, use it as an endorsement for the next, and then the next new face. Team them up with other folks facing the same challenges. Host writing clubs and tenure clubs. Host briefings of specific journal titles with accept rates, rankings, trends in articles published, and contact information for editors. Hell, if the faculty’s dean is anything like mine, they would help you do it. These new folks feel like they are fighting a war…they probably feel unequipped to do so. Help them with strategy.

The foundation of conversations, or facilitating knowledge is trust. As I said in the Atlas your most valuable tool as a librarian is your credibility. Before any conversation happens, before any partnership is formed, before any relationship can be struck beyond stereotypes and misunderstandings, there must be trust. That scared assistant professor needs to trust you. They need to know that you know they are scared, but trust you won’t give them up. You can be their hope. Their hope that maybe, just maybe, they can catch up by the time it comes to prove themself. Give them cover.

Today I admit to still being scared sometimes, and inadequate. However, I have learned that that fear is my trigger to listen and learn. It is hard. I will still lash out. I apologize.

For those assistant professors reading this and not relating. Congratulations on either being better prepared, or better at denial. But for those who relate. Courage.

8 responses on “Beyond the Bullet Points: Confessions of an Assistant Professor (15 years later)

  1. Teodora Constantinescu

    Thanks for this heartfelt post! Applies to any (young) newbie struggling out there. Building relationships and trust takes time. Compassion breaks us free from our barriers.
    Solo librarian