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Opposite Day: Counterintuitive Advice from Chairs to New Faculty for Professional Growth

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Once you’ve taught a class once or twice
you really don’t have to revise your lectures
or other methods every time. The marginal increase in the quality of the class is gained 
to the detriment of everything else you should be doing.



The posting below gives some insightful advice for beginning professors on getting started on the right foot in their departments. It is by Wayne H. Bowen* and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Winter 2017, Vol. 27, No. 3. Copyright © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone:  (203) 643-8066}



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Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

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Opposite Day: Counterintuitive Advice from Chairs to New Faculty for Professional Growth

One of the responsibilities of a department chair is to encourage  professional activity among colleagues, especially those faculty members beginning their careers. New PhDs might have had opportunity to hear sage comments during their graduate school experiences from senior professors about the keys to success, including some or all of the following: maintaining a work- life balance, scheduling regular time for research, putting teaching first, and taking responsibility for developing as a scholar.

Let me be a contrarian. What I advise instead is to:

• Embrace episodic chaos.

• Know when enough is enough.

• Realize that more is not always better in teaching.

• Become one with the herd.

Let’s now examine whether there is merit in these counterintuitive points.

Embrace Episodic Chaos

Creativity is not something than can be scheduled for Thursdays from two to three fifteen. I’ve seen the most success in professional activity occur not as a result of Steven Covey-like time management but rather from frantic scrambling to put ideas to  paper in order to meet a deadline approaching too rapidly for work at a normal pace. These are the phases of voluntary sequestration away from human contact. Work like mad when you can, and accept that there might be days—even weeks—when you put no words to paper, craft nothing beautiful, or solve any mysteries.

I recommend episodic chaos rather than regimented time management. For most of the year, be the mild-mannered, responsible professor who attends meetings, chats with colleagues in the hallway, and is a reliable mentor to students. However, be prepared to be an academic lycanthrope, transforming into a scholarly werewolf when the full moon demands it. When that clear moon emerges from behind the clouds—in other words, when the ideas that have been bubbling in your head for the next big article are ready, or when you realize that the deadline that once seemed so far away is imminent—shut your door, fortify yourself with coffee late into the night, and howl.

For short periods of time, you can ignore work-life balance, trading it for bursts of productivity. Devoting time in this way may be far more efficient than seventy-five minutes each Thursday, and it is certainly more realistic, given the likelihood that a chatty colleague, needy student, or bossy department chair will decide that is the time to stop by. “She’s always here on Thursday afternoons,” you can hear the helpful  student worker saying.

Know When Enough Is Enough

Accompanying the chaos is my insistence that you should become comfortable with calling something “finished” before you think it is. Too many times, I have heard junior colleagues say, “My article isn’t ready; I need a few more months to work on the conclusion, refine the intro, improve the style”—or something similar. My answer is almost always: “Send it now.” Far too frequently, it is fear of failure, or unmerited self-criticism, that prevents academics from submitting their work. Editors and peer  reviewers expect to recommend changes; wait to find out what they want you to do before you spend six months pre-editing what you speculate someone else might want to see. Even if you are not working on something, having it on your desktop, in your studio, or in your lab inhibits your ability to achieve closure and move on to the next project as well as to receive the external feedback you need. Be done: don’t let something good sit until it becomes perfect, because it will never be, and you will spend too much time hoping to make it so.

Realize That More Is Not Always Better in Teaching

Once you’ve taught a class once or twice you really don’t have to revise your lectures
or other methods every time. The marginal increase in the quality of the class is gained
to the detriment of everything else you should be doing. If a lecture falls short in
an apocalyptic way, then do correct it, but frequently, “good enough” is just that. Most students are honestly not capable of grasping or benefitting from your best and more brilliant performances. When possible, aim for 85 percent of what you can do. Recognize the abilities of your audience, and pitch to their level rather than aspiring to achieve perfection. Over time, without deliberate effort, most instructors will get better in
the classroom. The reward for incremental improvement is the same as for geometric improvement, assuming you are sufficiently adequate not to be fired for teaching mal- practice. I encourage this approach not to promote mediocre teaching but to say that the difference between inspiring students and ensuring boredom does not correspond to the amount of time spent in preparation but instead to how passionate you are about the material, how much you care about your students, and how you connect with them. A good lecture on the Congress of Vienna delivered with attention to your students will be much more effective than a meticulously prepared one in which you are focused not on them but on ensuring you get all of Count Metternich’s titles exactly right. Furthermore, give assignments that require less effort from you and more from your students. Learn legitimate ways to grade holistically, such as those used to grade advanced placement exams. Use the tools embedded in learning management systems to create content quizzes. Embed programs such as Turnitin to catch plagiarism so that you don’t have to Google to find the sources your students now claim as their own writings. We often hear the phrase “work smarter, not harder.” It should be the slogan for junior faculty.

Learn when to say no to students. Just because students ask for an independent study or for a letter or reference doesn’t mean they deserve a yes in all instances.
Be selective. If a student proves unworthy of your time due to poor performance in your classes, then you have a clear case for declining the request. If students want to take your time when there are other options available to them—a course on the American Civil War when all they are really interested in is medieval Japan—then tell them to take advantage of an unexplored country. Universities have set menus, I’ve been known to tell a student, not meals on demand from executive chefs. Similarly, if students are mediocre but persist in asking for a letter, then it is legitimate to steer them to other options: “I do not believe I can write a strong letter that will be of any service to you.” If they insist, then you are free to write truthfully of how entirely  average they are. In most cases, they will look for easier marks.

Become One with the Herd

Don’t be a lone predator. Many of our fields encourage—even reward—solitary activity. When I am researching in Spain, I can go days without a meaningful conversation, other than inquiring about the locations of Inquisitorial documents. However, just
as few animals are truly alone in the wild, neither should we be. If you are a senior faculty member, chair, or dean, then protect the younger and weaker members of the herd. Fight for resources for them, praise them to students and other faculty members, if deserved, and be helpful without hovering. In my department, we explicitly discourage faculty members in their first few years from engaging in more than the absolute minimum amount of service. Eager to participate, new assistant professors can take on hours of committee work, thus sacrificing time better spent on what is for them essential—their teaching and research. If you are junior, then follow your elders in the herd. Let them be the ones to volunteer for time-consuming committees and task forces. Ask advice, request not to be given heavy service obligations, say no when you can in safety, and be protective of your time. As in the wild, younger members of the herd should stay on the inside and let their elders take on the predators who attack the periphery. At professional meetings, new colleagues should divide their time between consorting with peers and learning from the elders of the profession. I say this not
to encourage hero worship, because it is just as important to learn from the cruel, the dismissive, the intellectually arrogant, and the consistently wrong scholars—and not be like them—as from the gracious and accomplished scholars among us, who share their time with the next generation without expectations of tribute or glory.

Should every new scholar follow the advice I have provided in this article? I should hope not. My suggestions are an offer to show that there is more than one path to academic success as well as to illustrate that department chairs and senior professors bear responsibility for our junior colleagues. Offer suggestions and advice, explain the path you took, but above all, encourage the newest entrants to our professions to find their own way to scholarly success, even if it is on Thursday afternoons at two. ▲

* Wayne H. Bowen is director of university studies and professor and chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University. Email: