Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Janice from Jacksonville on The Invisibility of the Assistant Professor.

I hide in my office so I can avoid my colleagues. I do it for no reason because I'm invisible to them already.

Older colleagues assume I won't stay, but I don't know why. I've never given any indication about my desire to go anywhere. I just got here. I'm afraid for my life almost every minute. The idea of going anywhere else, trying to find a new location, going to the end of the year conference, none of that appeals to me.

My voice is a whisper in our meetings. Even if it were loud I know it would be ignored. I'm new. I don't count. It drips out of every pore of every colleague's body. If someone were to sit on my lap because they failed to notice me, it would not come as a surprise.

I hide in my office so I can avoid my students. But I don't have to worry because I'm invisible to them as well. I might be seen as an impediment to their fun and freedom. But I'm not real. I'm nothing to them.

They lie like I'm brain dead. They run off in the middle of instructions. They pass me by in the cafeteria like I'm not even there. I smile and wave sometimes and get blank looks.

I don't feel like myself, really, until I'm off campus. Then I go home. And, yes, I have two cats. They have clever names. I won't tell you.

I rest and eat and mark essays and when the morning comes and I'm on campus, I disappear again.

It's not what I want.


  1. I'm not sure if this is incredibly helpful, but it's not as if you'd be instantly respected, listened to, appreciated, and/or noticed whatsoever as a new hire in the private sector, either. Trust me. When I was in my last IT job, the guy who relieved me for the day shift didn't do more than grunt at me for the first six months I worked there. Finally, he actually spoke to me - to ask my name, which he admitted he felt he should finally learn since it "didn't look like" I was going to "get fired anytime soon."

    Charming person.

    I get why you'd want collegial colleagues and appreciative students - I had both in grad school, and neither now. But then, I don't have an assistant professorship, either, so it's hard to feel an enormous amount of sympathy.

    I hope things improve for you. But since you start off by stating you "hide" from your colleagues, I have my doubts about whether they will. Maybe you feel like you've never done anything to indicate that you aren't staying... but maybe those who've used their little university as a short-term stop-over in the past were also accustomed to hiding in their offices and refusing to try and make friends.

  2. Wylo makes good points above, especially about your colleagues. You're hiding from them. Of course you're invisible. Notice I'm not talking about students. They really do see us as invisible. That's normal!

    But I'd say you have an easy fix here, Janice (and what is it with the mods and their place names!) from Jaxonville!

    Make yourself known to your colleagues. If you've made it this far, grad school, job market, interviews, and then a job, then you're in, kid. Don't sweat the worry. We've all been there. Your colleagues probably want to give you space, that's why they're not knocking. But the longer you wait the more distant they're all going to be. Don't hide. Get in and take your rightful spot.

    They rejected a lot of candidates before they chose you. I guarantee you that they want you to work out.

    Step up some. Who did you like the most during the interview process? Who's got the yummiest smells in their office at lunch time? Who do you bump into the most. Pick a colleague, any colleague. Your life is going to be so much more rich if you make some contact. If you were on my floor, I'd want to see you and meet you. I wouldn't want you to hide.

    1. I second what Kimmie said: we hired person who threw us for a loop. S/he presented well during the interview and seemed gregarious and outgoing, like a perfect fit. And s/he has now spent three years hiding from us and acting like we are a scary bunch. We want to get to know this candidate (and in my mind, s/he is still "the candidate" because s/he has done nothing to distinguist him/herself), to have this person be part of our unique department. This person did so well in the interview and now we feel like we have the ghost of the person who interviewed living in the office. S/he peeks out from time to time, but not very often.

      It's probably easiest to start with a single person, so I'd do what Kimmie suggests and start talking to people individually.

  3. I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't think Janice's colleagues sound very welcoming. When I was new I was not allowed to hide. I was invited to lunch, asked to join in a card game, offered all sorts of welcome to town and welcome to college events. We want new hires to work out!

    I don't doubt that some deadwood colleagues may be ignoring you. Don't sweat that. Go the path of least resistance. Look for that person who seems friendly. They probably are. It's probably someone like me. I'm waiting for your new person questions and your new person anxiety. Everyone on your floor has been new, Janice. Just reach out.

    1. I can only speak for my experience, but the new faculty we hired three years has hidden from us and refuses all overtures of interaction. We've invited this person out (each of us in various ways), the chair has spoken to this person about how grateful we are to have them here, and asked for opinions during meetings from this individual (no no avail). I live near this person and have gone over to their house with treats or just to stop by and chat and am always treated as if I'm intruding. It's kind of sad.

  4. The culture of a department matters. Some are close-knit and include your best friends. Other departments are just places where you do your job. It doesn't mean that people shouldn't respect you but they may be providing a different type of professional relationship than you want.

    There's no need to speak of "student culture," unless you are talking about the cultures that grow in Petri dishes and cause me to get a flu shot each year.

  5. I think Beaker Ben is right. You may have a quiet department. Do your job. I found it best to just move forward like I belonged. I did. I was hired. They gave me that chance, and I had to make the best of it. Not every job works out, and those people may be dunderheads. But you can give it all you've got and feel good about yourself.

  6. Oh dear Janice, don't worry about the students. They are in their own world. Many of them feel even more invisible than you do.

    But the colleagues. I say, like the others, give them some chances. Get more involved. Dammit, don't be invisible - until those days you want to be. I have seen all kinds of new people and I've been a new person twice. It IS hard. It is daunting.

    But you got hired for a reason. Show them your stuff! SHOW UP and be SEEN!

  7. I've never been an entry-level TT proffie, but, from what I can observe from the outside, many, if not all, departments are more welcoming than this (and are at least polite and/or encouraging when newcomers speak in meetings). On the other hand, at least they're not so dysfunctional that they're all inviting you for tete-a-tetes to tell you the real story of the department and make sure you're on their side in department feuds that began before you were born. Many people (including, if I'm remembering correctly, Ms. Mentor) advise being pretty quiet until you get the lay of the land, so maybe you're actually doing the right thing (or at least not the wrong thing).

    Kimmie's got good advice, I think, though I realize following it can be hard if one is not particularly outgoing (I'm not). Still, even making a connection with one person with whom you have something in common -- a committee, a class, a research interest, an outside interest -- would be a good start.

    It's also probably worth noticing how your department members treat each other. Maybe it's just not a particularly friendly department? Or, conversely, maybe many of them were hired at the same time, and have spent many years passing the same professional and personal milestones together? Hiring patterns do matter, and it sounds like you may be the only recent hire, which can be hard (it also sounds like they may have a problem retaining the people they hire, and have decided to put all the blame for that on the new faculty members, rather than looking at their own selection and/or welcoming practices. That's a bad sign.)

    If there's someone still relatively new in your department, perhaps that would be a good person to approach? You'd have some built-in reasons: e.g. preparing for the first major review, deciding what and how much committee work to take on, etc. You have the same excuse/reason for talking to the last person who got tenure. (And if the last time someone actually made it to the 3rd-year or tenure review is over a decade ago, you may just have confirmed that that is part of the problem -- a problem which may be a matter of coincidence, or budgeting, or department dysfunction, or all of the above feeding each other).

    You could also seek out new/relatively-new hires in other departments. Doing so too publicly while not connecting with established members of your department might exacerbate the problem, but you don't have to be too obvious about it (heck, if you're all invisible, then nobody will notice, right?) If you want to be formal about it, make it something like a writing/research support group (or, if you're at a more teaching-oriented place, a pedagogical support group).

    Also, finally, don't forget to do some research & writing of your own in between marking all those essays. If publication is required for retention/promotion/tenure, then success in that area should eventually make an impression (and serve as a sign that you want to stay). And even if it isn't, it sounds like you may need an escape plan, and publication will help pave that path (but perhaps isn't something to emphasize if it's not required. Just do it, quietly.)

    As for the students, their attitude seems pretty normal to me, too. Just deal with them in whatever way the local culture dictates (it doesn't sound like you're in a place where making highly visible connections to them is key to success), and concentrate on other things.

    And if things don't improve in another year to two, then consider following your predecessors' lead and going back on the market (on the other hand, you may find that you suddenly become visible if you stay past the point when the last two hires left. You might try to figure out when that was -- or even quietly seek those people out and ask for their perspective/advice, then make your own judgment about whether their departures point to any department pitfalls of which you need to be aware).

  8. Not what you want, you say. Well, get used to it. It goes with the job.

    What do you older colleagues want from you? Two simple things: (i) Publish. Either lots of average papers, or a smaller number of highly visible ones. (ii) Get used to how much weaker the students are where you are now, compared to where you went to school; don't scare too many of them off. Primarily, your colleagues don't want your presence to create additional work for them. If you're invisible, they can remain invisible too: to each other, their students, administrators, busybodies of all kinds. Local invisibility is much better for creative work than the alternative.

    Faculty meetings? Having your voice heard there right now would be a very bad thing. When you're an assoc. prof, slightly less bad. When you're a full prof, well, somebody has to say something, but it's more like "tell me whom you hate". The less people talk, the sooner we can all go home.

    Notice I said "local invisibility" above. Local, intramural. The people I care to remain somewhat visible to ("I'm here! Still trying to do new things!") are the people in my research area, my specialty. The people who think and discover new things about problems I care about, the people I meet at conferences. That's the only "visibility" that matters. In my department? Please, leave me alone (and all my colleagues are like that.)

    1. A lot depends on the size of a department. You can't leave the department alone if it's just 6 people. I really respect Janice's problem because I've seen it. New faculty especially. Sometimes it's too much politeness, sometimes it's just that they are different creatures than us old farts - me at least. They are used to, the youngest ones, a different sort of social compact.

    2. You're right, and reading what I wrote, it sounds harsher than I intended. It depends on the department, and also the field. Mine is math, and most of us really are like that. Where I went to grad school, any time of the day you'd think the building was empty: you never saw anyone in the hallways (except maybe at tea), office doors always closed. To talk to anyone, you'd have to knock, and most of the time the person inside would ignore it. The message "casual interaction not desired" was very strong; and later I found out all "high-powered" institutes were like that. So when I got my TT job (at a different kind of place), being left alone seemed natural.

      And it's not just the size, it's the "personality" of the department. At the kind of place you'd be proud to list on your vita, where there's already a group of people in your specialty, there's a level of professional self-confidence that makes new people, new ideas, new energy, welcome. At a different kind of place (like where I am, as the only person in my area except for a newly hired assist prof) the older people are not so active, and generally don't want to her their sleepy glide to retirement disrupted by someone who's young, enthusiastic, and good at what she does. This creative drive may seem threatening to the older people already there, especially if Janice is the only one in her specialty. Maybe this explains what she's feeling.

  9. Janice, your cats got me thinking.

    One day years ago I had to go to school to do some grading. It was a Saturday and my fat Beagle and I went together. The chair happened to be in her office doing her own work and came down.

    We'd never said much except school talk for the time I'd been there, and then she was pulling out pictures of her dog and telling me about her kids. We became PEOPLE to each other that day.

    I've always remembered that.

  10. "I hide in my office so I can avoid my students."

    You should seriously rethink your career choice.

    1. I did this in the beginning, so great was my own feeling of inadequacy. It is something that wears off, whether you get smarter or not! (And we all do.)

    2. That was posted by Fab, by the way. Should have used my own login instead of the scary RGM guy.

    3. Hiding in your office can be the right move, depending on your responsibilities. Helping students figure out which figure to use when picking their noses isn't a productive use of your time when the promotions committee expects lots of research.

  11. Hi Janice! Living as I do in New England, I know a thing or two about social cultures that are less than.....warm and friendly. It can take a couple of years, here, for neighbors to begin acknowledging they can see you.

    I'm thinking the culture of your place might be like that (hopefully not as bad).

    There is a lot of good advice here, already. As has been said, try to reach out individual to individual. Find something you have in common (the cat thing is a great idea, if you can find another cat lover, and darn, I want to know their names!!!) and just try making a little conversation. You might also try (people here might slam me for this one) volunteering for a committe that interests you. We actually have a couple of interesting committees here at my college.

    And also, just remember, it's a job. People are not always nice. Work on your research, if that is the kind of place in which you landed (lucky you!). Get involved with professional organizations. But outside of work, hopefully, you can also try developing some social or at least interesting activities. All the usual things there, that we've all heard before, apply. Check out a church, a hiking club, a biking club, a charity. A political group. An animal shelter. I am not trying to sound condescending....of course you know all this already, and none of it makes up for feeling ignored, completely ignored at work.

    Best of luck to you, Janice, and WELCOME!

  12. This is distressing. As an assistant professor, you're supposed to be one of the new leaders, fresh blood for the department to keep its intellectual vitality. Is your department really so dysfunctional that you're not allowed to do this most important aspect of your job? Mine has its problems, but it isn't this bad. Quiet, little assistant professors who stay in their offices and don't interact with people are frowned upon. Something is seriously wrong here and needs to be fixed.

    1. It may or may not be your fault, but whatever it is, it needs to be corrected.