Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Dr. Amelia on the New Folks.

We did a round of hiring here, and have some new folks coming on board. If their experience is anything like mine, or that of anyone else I have known throughout my career, it will be, um, disappointing. So here is some advice for various people in the "welcoming" department:

New people?
Administrative staff: It's actually really important to people who will be teaching that they have access to an office and to needed electronic resources as soon as possible before they arrive. Work backwards. If it will require re-painting or moving a phone or Internet line to get an office ready, put in a work order early. For pete's sake, go ahead and order keys (a friend actually had to borrow the Dean's master key to get into her own office THE WEEK BEFORE CLASSES STARTED before moving in books). Alert HR to process contracts and IT to process access. Then e-mail the newbie to tell them when all of these things will be done. It's summer. It's quiet. Don't wait.

Department chair: It is really great to know what you will be teaching more than 2 weeks before a semester starts. Before newbie gets that electronic access, he/she can't just look it up like everyone else does. You already know. Don't keep it a secret. If you really want to be awesome, ship off an e-mail with helpful info like how to order textbooks, how large the classes will be, etc. Everyone loves surprises, but not all surprises are loved.

Colleagues: If you have taught newbie's course before, get in touch. Offer to share a syllabus, if you are willing, or to make book suggestions. A quick conversation about what works well with your school's students would be good. If your discipline has a summer meeting and you are going, see if newbie is, too. Meet up. Have a tasty beverage. (pro-tip: Don't say "that class is a nightmare. I'm so glad I'm out of there!" like someone said to me. Twice.).

If you know newbie's life situation and yours is the same, feel free to write and offer advice on school districts, day cares, good places for significant others to look for work or places to live where newbie and entourage will feel comfortable. That would be superheroic.

If you are the person who is good with the classroom tech and feel like it, an offer to spend 20 minutes on how to work it when they get on campus would be gratefully received.

- amelia from abilene


  1. Before assuming a newbie needs help, however, make sure to ask whether they do. I was grateful for much advice and help that my chair and colleagues provided at each job, and most places were organized enough to have an office space ready for me and to tell me what I was teaching (most places) the day before classes started.

    But one time... I politely sat through a long unnecessary session on how to use the old Blackhole Board (before we switched to another LMS) when a 'helpful' colleague wanted to show me the techie ropes, not realizing that I'd been using it just as unsuccessfully as they were for years. Every time I tried to interject that it was the same as what I was used to, she would say, "Yes,but here, we login where it says 'login,' as opposed to at other schools," or "To add new content to the course, you click here now. It used to be a black button, but now it's green." Finally, after determining that it was, in fact, similar and that no major differences existed, I simply said, "OK, I think that's all I can handle for one day without getting overwhelmed" and left it at that.

    1. I wish I could opt-out of sessions like the one you describe. My new district uses the same (crappy) software as my old district, but I still have to attend the training sessions. I don't have a choice, as new-hire training and orientation is mandatory. =(

    2. Rule #4: Hire people who actually listen.

    3. This wasn't one of those mandated sessions. I had already sat through those. This was a colleague who thought I could benefit from MORE one-on-one training because...??? she wanted to be helpful???

  2. Some of the best advice for oldsters regarding new faculty is: this isn't a fraternity initiation. The point of the exercise isn't to create as much stress as possible for new faculty. Much better for everyone involved, students in particular, would be to be as helpful as possible to the new faculty. If they don't ask for help, at the very least STOP making things more difficult, in particular by heaping extra requirements on them, especially necessary-but-not-sufficient ones, very especially ones that are thought up on the spot.

    I offer copies of my class notes for new faculty, even though it's a bit of work for me just to make the copies. (And likewise for electronic files.) When I hand them over, I observe that, "...Of course, these are no substitute to making your own notes before class," which is true. They sure can help, though, especially on those occasional days when other things got in the way, and the new faculty member will have no choice but to "wing it." This isn't to be encouraged, and if happens often more than three times per semester, something is wrong. Still, it did have a nasty way of happening, when I went through it.

    1. Those are good points, but they're not always practiced.

      When I started teaching, my colleagues made no effort whatsoever to make my life easier, almost as if I was being hazed or, perhaps, encouraged to seek my fortune elsewhere.

      For one thing, I quickly encountered a closed-shop mentality, almost as if the department was a private club and I didn't meet the requirements for membership. Maybe it was because I was better-educated than anyone else, having a master's degree. Perhaps my being single and unattached when the rest of my colleagues where married and had families was an irritant.

      I preferred to write my own notes, even if a colleague offered his to me, though I might have used them as a reference. I figured that doing so was the best way for me to learn the material, but that was somehow interpreted as a sign of disrespect. It was as if I was rejecting some holy writ and had become a heretic by not deferring to my "betters".

      I also found that many of my colleagues treated the department as a pre-retirement training centre, behaving as if they were on the gravy train for as long as they wanted to be. Unfortunately, that led to a rather slack attitude towards their teaching. When I spoke to one of my colleague about it, he had a "Who cares?" attitude, and why not--he didn't have to work hard, he was getting a steady paycheque, and life was good.

      Once I received permanent status, that sort of thing didn't bother me as much.

  3. Regarding IT: Make it a policy that newbies can test out of training. Then make the test a reasonable assessment of the routine tasks involved with the LMS, or the best practices of distance teaching.

    Admin: Besides what Amelia mentioned, offer a temporary parking pass and make sure the parking office has the newbie on the faculty/staff list.

    Colleagues: Offer to help the newbie move in to the office if you can. At the very least, don't hide in your office when they're obviously moving in. My first TT position didn't have an office assignment until a week before the semester started. I started moving boxes of books up three flights of stairs (due to a broken elevator), and saw a future colleague glance at me, duck into his office and close the door. My second TT position assigned the office early in the summer, and a future colleague saw me and my young son struggling with a bookcase and lent us a hand. Guess where I felt more connected?

  4. Here is where I've seen the most ridiculous Kafkaesque bureaucratic wrangling. Everyone who works in our department has been sidelined for the first 3-4 weeks of the summer when we were hired, as we arrive to an office that lacks a working phone line, internet connection, a chair to sit at the desk, and, similar to above, a key to get into the office! When we hire someone new, we always go to the departmental office ahead of time and say "The New Professor is arriving here next week. They're an excellent, productive researcher, and they want to hit the ground running when they arrive. Can you have their office ready to go for when they first get here?" The answer is always "No, we can't, they haven't started yet, we can't issue any sort of work orders for the office of someone who isn't actually yet an employee...". Ye Gods. I doubt that sort of shit gets thrown around for dealing with the office of a new incoming Dean from another uni.

  5. Be sure to supply the newbies with Kleen Kanteens full of their adult beverages of choice. It'll help them make it through all the indoctrinformation meetings they will have to attend.

    1. I started my teaching job about 3 weeks before lectures began. During that time, I suffered through a series of in-service "how to teach" sessions.

      Our first one was a collective gathering of all the new instructors and things went quickly downhill soon after it began. We were told that our job was to ensure that our students didn't have a "negative learning experience", which made me wonder if I had somehow ended up on the wrong planet.

      You're right. Having access to a secret source of booze would have made those 3 weeks bearable.