Teaching on the Tenure Track

A new professor resolves to start his career with less of a wall between him and his students—but how?

David Cutler for The Chronicle

May 06, 2013

One of the things I was most looking forward to in my first year as a faculty member was seeing how the dynamic between my students and me would change and evolve. I had looked for a job at a small liberal-arts college because I wanted to work closely with students. While my graduate-school friends mooned over posts at research universities, I hoped for a college in which I could contribute meaningfully to students' lives.

I feel strongly that professors should play a role not just in teaching students but also in guiding them through the complex process of becoming college students and preparing for the eventual demands of the real world. That belief took shape after I earned my bachelor's, as I reflected on my education.

As an undergraduate, I attended an elite private institution whose faculty members were too busy with research and graduate students to really pay attention to me. I freely admit that it took me a while to figure out which areas I needed help in, and then to ask for that help.

But when I did seek out guidance from professors, they just didn't have enough time for me. My teachers were affable, friendly, supportive, helpful, and encouraging—in the five minutes they had to give me. I once went to office hours to talk with a professor for the purposes of getting some clarification and also to try to build a relationship with her. I went armed with relevant questions and topics so that we wouldn't sit there staring at each other. At her office, she answered all of my questions in short order. By the time I had finished writing down the information she had given me, she was already escorting me to the door.

I later had to ask her for a reference letter, and knowing the drill, I ambushed her in a stairwell in order to ask her face to face. She was gracious, but again, the entire interaction took perhaps three minutes.

Those "visits" were like going to see a medical specialist: You wait for about an hour, and the consultation is over by the time you silence your cellphone. In both cases, one loves the player but hates the game—and wishes the system were more responsive to the whole person, not just to the task at hand.

I still admire that professor who quickly sent me on my way, but because of the institutional demands on her time, I never formed the mentoring relationship I sought from her. I left college swearing that I would never be an academic, because professors were not only weird but also socially dysfunctional.

Eventually I changed my mind about joining the profession and decided I wanted to offer my own students a richer experience than the one I'd had.

When I began teaching as a graduate student, I intended to devote time to both my teaching and my students, most of whom were freshmen. I wanted to connect with them especially because I was a graduate student at a large, elite public university, and I knew that many freshmen often felt lost on large campuses. But you know where this is going: The main goal of doctoral students is to finish their dissertations, graduate, and get a job (ideally in quick succession). So I had very little time then to devote to teaching, never mind to the whole student.

As we all soon learn, teaching is very labor intensive—conceiving a course, doing the requisite reading, structuring and sequencing readings and assignments, grading—especially when you start out. Honestly, the easiest part of teaching, for me, anyway, is being in the classroom itself, which is immediately followed by an adrenaline hangover and reflecting on what worked, what didn't, and what I need to do to improve the next class session.

As a graduate student, I could keep my students at the center of instruction, but there really wasn't enough of me to go around to establish advising relationships with them. At most, I was able to work with two or three students closely. In office hours, I would help students write better theses or practice their Spanish-language skills, but when the tears came—and anyone who teaches at a college, especially in the humanities, knows that tears always come—I made sure they composed themselves, asked if they had a support system, and sent them off to either that support system or the counseling center.

No, I don't think it's a faculty member's job to talk with students about issues that require professional counseling. But most students are helped by having someone they respect listen to them, someone who will give them a different perspective or who can help them plan a course of action for typical college-life challenges.

With my experiences as an undergraduate and as a graduate-student teacher in mind, I resolved to start my life as a professor with less of a wall, less distance, between students and me. However, figuring out exactly how to do that has been mystifying. I may have watched Dead Poets Society one too many times, because I thought students would be as interested in connecting with me as I am with them, but my office hours are often as empty now as they were in graduate school.

I don't expect students to be constantly after me—and I wouldn't want them to be. I also know that what looms large for them are their friends, families, and personal lives. But I'm beginning to learn that if students at large universities are starved for personal attention and connection, students at small colleges have so many opportunities to interact with faculty members that they may not feel the need for more. I could even see how some students might feel a little suffocated by running into a professor everywhere they turn on the campus, especially on those occasions in which they skip your class and you later greet them as they frolic with their friends.

To be sure, I have developed informal advising relationships with some students. But I often wonder why students who attend a small liberal-arts college, ostensibly to interact more closely with faculty members, do not at least take more advantage of office hours. (I realize that, as time goes by, and more and more students seek my attention, I may indeed rue the day I wrote those words.)

Another difference between teaching as a graduate student and as a tenure-track faculty member is that your relationship to students changes because of departmental and institutional reasons.

As a graduate student, you teach a class here and there. You don't have the long view of the department's needs and student concerns in mind. No matter how hard you try to impress upon your students that "me gusto" is definitely not the same as "me gusta," ultimately it will be someone else's burden to remind them that the latter means "I like" and the former "I have the hots for myself."

As a faculty member, you're not just gaugingstudents' progress in your course. You're also assessing their likelihood of success in later, more advanced courses: Do they have the requisite skills to continue? If not, are there resources to support their learning? What kind? Can students in our program do what we want them to do by the time they finish a particular course, sequence of courses, or degree?

What all of that means is that I'm a part of the institution now, and it speaks through me to either encourage or discourage different plans for different students. It also means that the gatekeeping function I have as a teacher with regard to grades is now expanded and ties into other parts of the college.

Students, however, understand that dynamic implicitly, and it can make them nervous and skittish. After all, how much trust can you build with a student after you've withheld your signature for something they either want or feel that they deserve? Or worse, after you've signed off on a course or a project that turns into a negative experience? No amount of cupcakes will get back that trust.

Despite these thorny and sometimes unpredictable issues, I do believe in a role for faculty members—or at least for me—that deals with the academic needs of students as well as their emotional and social needs. Figuring out how exactly to turn my theory into practice will no doubt continue to be the tricky part.

Ultimately, I am trying to work out more meaningful ways not only to reach them, which is at the basis of good pedagogy, but also to figure out what they need from me (again, another key aspect of good pedagogy).

One thing that has helped me a great deal is to relax and share with students enough of my life outside academe to help them know me as a person. As a result, my connection to students has become richer and more productive. I will continue thinking about these issues as I develop as a professor, but right now I am excited about honing my advising skills and contributing to my students' lives beyond the classroom.

Javier Jiménez is an assistant professor of Spanish and director of Latin American studies at Marietta College. He is chronicling his transition to his first tenure-track job.