How First-Year Faculty Members Can Help Their Chairmen

September 08, 2000

Your doctorate is freshly minted, your first tenure-track position is secured, and you are emptying out boxes in your first "real" faculty office. As you begin to prepare to teach your first "real" students, there are some things you should think about doing to help your department chairman.

I have just completed my first year as chairman of an English department with 10 full-time faculty members. In addition to filling out mountains of forms and planning activities, I also have had the responsibility of helping two "newbies" learn the ropes in their first teaching positions. I have been fortunate to have two very eager, very energetic young teachers, one a Restoration scholar from Louisiana State University and the other a medievalist from the University of Cambridge. Their attitudes and abilities have made my job easier, but I wanted to make certain that they did not suffer from having a first-year chairman guiding them through this early stage of their careers. That's why I have made these suggestions to both of them, and now, to all first-year faculty members.

Talk to your department chairman. I never cease to be amazed at how many first-year faculty members just sort of float through their early years in a department, never speaking to colleagues, administrators, or other important persons. I asked my newbies to come by my office every couple of weeks just to shoot the breeze about classes, professional issues, prime-time television, or anything that helps us to create a rapport.

I have learned so much about these individuals as we have just chatted for 15 or 20 minutes about whatever comes up; often I get ideas about career-development steps I would like to offer down the road or I give them advice to help them bypass trouble that might be looming. More than anything else, though, I have found that I genuinely like them and enjoy having them as colleagues.

Ask for multiple mentors so you can get the benefit of experts in more than one topic. Many professors are overworked and overassigned, so getting a single, good mentor can be a pretty tall order. Instead, work with your chairman to determine four or five topics on which you would like to receive guidance from several mentors.

Some suggestions: Find out who the whizzes are at teaching the various kinds of courses in your department and ask to meet with them. Believe me, most good teachers will find time to talk about their own approaches to teaching; it's quite flattering. Ask to be linked with someone who can help you to understand how to balance scholarship and good teaching, or how to make the service expectations of the institution jibe with the teaching expectations. After you meet with your colleagues, talk about these things with your chairman. By doing this you will get to know your colleagues in the department and the "real " expectations of the institution now that you are on the "inside."

Look ahead to committee responsibilities. Most institutions at least try to protect you from heavy committee assignments for the first year. Rest assured, though, that the administration is looking forward to your involvement in the process. Get a list of the committees that are assigned and see which ones best fit your interests. These assignments are often made during the spring, before anyone has been able to learn your interests and abilities. If you can share this information with your chairman, he or she may be able to alert the appropriate administrators or committee personnel who can best match you with work assignments that interest you, thus allowing you to do better, more productive work.

Give your chairman opportunities to help "publicize" you. Have you been invited to consult or to give a speech to a community group? Have you had a paper accepted at a conference? E-mail your chairman. If you let your chairman know these things orally you've done well (you'd be amazed at how many of your colleagues never tell their chairmen about their successes), but if you do it through e-mail, your chairman can then forward it to the dean and maybe even the chief academic officer.

Trust me, administrators love to have good news (affirmation!) about their new hires. Additionally, let your chairman give you some ideas about what public events would be good places for your face to be seen: student-recruitment events, important lectures, and other such activities. Your attendance at such events is seen as an indication of willingness to pitch in when help is needed.

Learn how the academic calendar works. I don't mean just the holidays and examinations. For instance, when are personnel evaluations completed for the following year? When do student evaluations first come in? You will be amazed at how fast evaluations come along. At many institutions, your chairman's first evaluation of your progress may be due in November after you have first begun teaching in August. That is before teaching evaluations are in, grades are turned in, or even conference-paper acceptance deadlines are fully under way.

That's why the previous suggestions can be so important. Also, if you have a midtenure review during your third contract year, remember that it probably will be done two falls after you start, not three full calendar years. If you wait until your second fall to start gathering information and working with your chairman, you will find that you already are in a crunch to get ready for midtenure review the next year.

If you will take just a small amount of time and a slight investment of energy, you can help your chairman look good, and that in turn will make you look good and will start you on your way to successful pursuit of tenure.

Gene C. Fant Jr. is chairman of the English department at Mississippi College.