The New Guy Needs a Break

January 21, 2000

During the hiring process for my new job as an associate professor at a private university in Florida, never did anyone say to me: "Once you get here you'll have to decide which group of faculty members you'll eat lunch with. You'll have to decide which ones you'll occasionally hang out with, which ones you'll shoot darts with, and which ones you'll actually invite to your house.

"In addition to teaching for us, you'll have to defend -- on a daily basis -- the last college you taught at, all of your graduate schools, your dissertation topic, your dissertation director, and your hometown. We'll make fun of you, of course; that's a given. We will pretend to have never heard of the school where you got your doctorate. And even if we have, we'll confuse it with another school in the same state. When we ask what your dissertation was about, we'll feign ignorance of the field. In fact, we'll tell you that even if your field ever was 'real,' at the very least it's not studied by anyone anymore. And certainly not here!

"And, regardless of how hard you work, or what you'll accomplish, for six months after we hire you, we'll talk a great deal about that 'other' candidate we could have hired. The other candidate, obviously, was better prepared for this job, with better experience, a better vita, thicker hair, a whiter smile, a better set of abdominal muscles, and a generous and giving spirit."

While no one actually said any of those things, they might as well have. Don't get me wrong. I'm no academic prize. Just a regular guy with a couple of books, 15 years in the classroom, a big belly, and a bald head. So I didn't walk into this new position thinking that I had it made, that I'd somehow be exempt from "new guy" status.

"New guy" status (in the non-gender-specific manner) is bestowed on every new faculty member when she or he arrives. I've been guilty, too, of propagating the status. The new guy gets treated as if the interview process were still continuing. Sure, he has a contract, but it's a natural tendency in academe to keep pressing on the new guy to see what she or he's made of. After all, this is new meat. We want to know what you can stand, what you can take. It's very rare that this kind of continuing interrogation is ever mean-spirited, but academics are a naturally curious lot. The problem is, the new guy needs time to settle in at the new institution. The new guy needs a freaking break!

In the six months I've been on this campus, I've been a sometimes-willing participant in a sort of academic mating/sparring ritual. And for the most part it's been great. After a career scarred by seven years of working as an adjunct, to feel a part of something has given me a tremendous lift. "Lunch? I'm in." "A conclave at the Falcon Pub after work? Sure!" "You need help moving into your new house? Uh, OK."

But as on any decent roller coaster, there's a hurtling fall up ahead. As I drink beer at the collegial table after hours, I hear: "I'm really interested in the work you've done with underprivileged children." "Uh, what do you mean?" I say. "Well, in your interview you talked about teaching writing skills to inner-city kids. Didn't you?"

Then it hits me. There's silence at the table. That was the other candidate. The good guy. The guy we could have hung our hopes and dreams on. The shoulda-been new guy.

But maybe I overplay that dynamic. In reality, all the attention I get is flattering, if also time-consuming.

Meanwhile, as I'm trying to get used to the normal give and take of academic discourse, I'm also getting used to the geography of my department -- specifically, my department's hallways. Should I leave my door open or closed? On one hand, I need some peace and quiet to grade those essays. On the other, I want people to know I'm here. The new guy is working. But for God's sake, don't actually come in. Just wave. Go to your own damn office.

And what of others' open doors? If I spy an old-timer in her office, am I supposed to go in and say hello? Should I wave? Does this person expect me to be deferential? Am I supposed to act like I belong, or do I have to continue acting like I'm grateful that you gave me my job?

I find myself avoiding the hallways altogether. I become paralyzed by my choices. In previous positions, I'd already gone through the drill. I knew who to avoid and who to seek out. Here, it's a mystery. What does it mean when someone says: "So, what do you think of so-and-so?" Does it mean, "I hate so-and-so, and you get exactly one chance to prove yourself by answering the same way"? Or does it mean, "So-and-so and I are blood brothers. He's the only other person on campus with a brain, and if you can't see that, then you're out!"?

So I smile at everyone. About everything. I figure a smile can show approval or a sort of mock disdain. "Why did you smile?" I may be asked. And I'll just wink. They'll know what the wink means, I hope. And by time they finally ask what the wink means, maybe I'll have figured it out myself.

Last week I was asked to join a search committee. We're looking for a new "new guy." Alongside my wedding day, it's the happiest moment of my life. I now know that some day this all will end. I won't be the freak. Someone new will be hired. She or he will arrive -- nervous, excited, and ready to go. The poor sap will be full of hope. The poor sap will think his or her troubles are all in the past.

I'll smirk. I'll start coming out of my office a little more often. I'll hitch up my pants and stride around the place like I own it. I may even test the new meat. "Hmm, so you went to what school? Eastern Something-or-Other University? Hmm, that other candidate had nice teeth; did you ever get to meet him? What a funny guy. Do you know where he went to school? Well, I won't tell you. It'll just depress you. So, your dissertation was about what? What's that? Is that a real field? I guess it takes all kinds."

But none of that has happened yet. I'm still the new guy. I'm still hiding out. What's worse, I can hear someone coming down the hallway.

W. T. Pfefferle is an associate professor of liberal arts and coordinator of the writing program at Nova Southeastern University.