Discover more from #MHAWS: Mirya Holman's Aggressive Winning Scholars Newsletter
Advice for new assistant professors
In the middle of a f'in pandemic
Last year, I wrote the below message for new assistant professors. A lot of it still applies, so please feel free to read it, print it out, tattoo it on your body (esp be kind to yourself!), etc etc etc. (JUST JOKING)
But guess what? Shit is a leeeeettttlllleeee different this time around! Like, say, there’s a global pandemic, the US has shit the bed in dealing with it, there are much needed and very important racial uprisings everywhere, we have an economic crisis, and universities are in a competition for who is going to make the worst decisions about how to treat faculty right now. Also, I really fucking failed everyone in this old advice: there’s nothing about fighting for racial equality, nothing about changing racist and sexist systems, nothing about how part of being an assistant professor is not being a fucking racist. I’m sorry. Let me do better.
So - are you starting a new gig in the middle of a fucking pandemic?
Like I say below - BE KIND TO YOURSELF
This means, in a pandemic, understanding that your teaching is probably going to fucking suck. There’s nothing you can do to make it really good at this point. You don’t know the students. They don’t know you. You will be tempted to spend endless hours on your teaching because it is one single thing you can control. RESIST THIS TEMPTATION. This is the JV match. The world is not watching (mostly because they are dealing with the pandemic themselves). If you are at a teaching-centered place, work to develop relationships with students and cut yourself a fucking break. If you are at a research-oriented place, figure out what the minimum of time is that you can spend on teaching and hold yourself to that as the goal. Also, cut yourself a fucking break. And maybe get a pet? This is a good time to adopt a pet.
Find your people(ish)
One of the hardest things right now is that you are dumped at a new place (IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC) and you will know no one. That sucks. One option: Volunteer for some not all that time-consuming service that will allow you to meet some like-minded folks (Thanks to Matt Thomas for this idea!). Racial justice work is the perfect place for this - you get to know the good people on campus. Also, though: Keep your old peeps and just wait until next year to find new people. Think about it like your houseplant collection - you sometimes buy new plants, but you also have to take care of the old plants, even if they are nicely rooted and thriving. Check-in on your friends. Have a text chain. Do zoom calls. Have a socially distanced yard drink w a new colleague. Use a slack channel. Whatever works for you! But some regular human contact is key. And maybe get a pet? This is a good time to adopt a pet.
Don’t wait to be a good person
We often get the advice that pre-tenure people should be “seen and not heard.” That’s all and good but guess what? That’s how we reinforce sexist and racist systems. Now - I’m not suggesting you go out day one and record a tiktok about how your university president is racist. BUT - there are lots of ways that junior faculty can break down racism in the academy. Ways we can change the system. Normalize “if you see something, say something.” If you are white, don’t make your Black colleagues be the ones that call out racism all the time. Incorporate discussions of racism into your classes. Practice talking about race. Push your department, college, and university to compensate Black people for their time. Document any racist shit you see. Don’t hoard resources - tell your colleagues of color where to find $, support, and assistance. Don’t be a fucking racist. If you are Black, please please take care of yourself. Document the time you spend on telling old white dudes not to be racist. Document the time you spend with student groups, giving them advice about the old racist dudes. THAT IS SERVICE TO YOUR INSTITUTION.
This job is not worth your life or your health
If your university is pushing you to do anything that makes you feel like you will get COVID from it, fucking don’t do that shit. Wear a mask. Have meetings online. Limit your time indoors with students. But also, you should be able to make the decision that a face-to-face class in a COVID hot-spot might need to be moved online until the clusters go away. Just do it. Don’t ask permission. Similarly, this job is not worth your health if damages your mental health. Get a telemed therapist. Like, today. Also - survivor guilt is going to be at an all-time high this year. Just because other people deserve the position you have doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve it. It may not feel like it, but you belong here. Your job is now to work to change the systems that keep your grad school friends who want tenure track jobs from those jobs.
Take it month-by-month (or whatever else makes you happy)
I normally would tell everyone to make a 5-year, 1-year, semester, and month plan right now, but I have not idea what the future holds so I’m taking it month by month right now. That’s right - I have no plan going into AY 2020-2021 except to not lose my shit entirely. So - figure out what works for you and what you need to do to fucking cope right now. (circling back: be fucking kind to yourself)
Advice from the before times: (THIS ALL STILL APPLIES. BE NICE TO YOURSELF AND OTHER PEOPLE)
Now: these are things that I wish someone would have told me, right from the beginning. Maybe you already know all this shit! Awesome. Go knock on doors for a candidate. Maybe you think: not for me. Again, I’m accepted A LONG time ago that Mirya Holman is not a flavor for everyone. Go register someone to vote. Maybe only a little bit of this is useful – also fine. Call your Senators and ask for common-sense gun reform. For the rest of you, gather ‘round if you dare.
Five rules that I wish I had known: 1) collect and organize data; 2) Don’t reinvent the wheel; 3) Take care of yourself; 4) Figure out what your own rules are; and 5) be kind to yourself and others.
How the fuck are you supposed to do all this while learning how to be a professor, a job that it turns out, graduate school does not train you for one fucking bit?!!? Keep reading my lovelies for some tricks and tips:
Rule 1: Collect and organize data. That means: asking a lot of questions, observing social patterns, figuring out the written and unwritten rules. It also means figuring out who you can trust and who can be vulnerable with – both are SO important. Collect data on where the money is, where the course buy-outs are, how new classes work, what is the schedule of things. It means document the bad shit. It means knowing yourself. So: here’s what I would do:
Keeping track of deadlines: Anytime any important date comes up, put it on your calendar. This could be internal grant deadlines or when grades are due or when you have to apply for a 3rd year leave (if that exists). Put it on your calendar and make it a repeated date every year.
Collect data on who your wolfpack should be: Try to make friends at your level. Scope the situation at faculty orientation – who are the other people who seem like they won’t be assholes? (Or the right kind of assholes) Make lunch or dinner or drink dates with other junior faculty in your department if they exist. If you meet someone cool at a university event, send them an email the next day and invite them to lunch or coffee. Make connections.
Find mentors who will tell you all the important bits of data: This is tough. Sometimes you will get a mentor and it will be a perfect fit and the birds will sing (this happened to me! At Tulane! Shout out to Celeste Lay who is an amazing mentor. I’m super lucky.). But sometimes this most definitely won’t happen. So be entrepreneurial. Turns out, lots of us are very excited to have someone listen to us, so ask people for advice. If someone gives you really good advice, go back to them. If someone gives you bad advice, DON’T TELL THEM. Instead, hide an open can of tunafish in their ceiling tiles. Just joking. Kind of. After you find a good mentor, be good to this person!
Document everything. If you have a meeting with your chair where they promise you repeat preps for your first three years, follow up with an email that says “confirming the details of our meeting” with the exact details. If a student is being weird, send an email to someone about it. ANYTIME anything is weird – sexual harassment, racist shit, sexist shit, DOCUMENT IT. Easy way to do this is to send yourself an email with the details, especially information like day, time, witnesses, exact shit that happened. When people are assholes – keep track of that shit! It took me a long time to realize how correct Maya Angelou was when she said, “When people show you who they are the first time believe them.” So keep a list! (personally, I have a little black book entitled “People I want to punch in the face.” Go here to get yourself one.)
Code the data the right way from the beginning: Do it right from the start. Find out if you will have an annual or semi annual review and ask for a copy of the template. Put your shit in that template as soon as you do it. You know what? You are not going to remember in Dec 2020 that in March 2020, you attended a brunch with incoming students. But if you put it down, then you don’t have to remember! CHECK CHECK. Ask what kinds of documents you will need for tenure and promotion. What should your CV look like? (Mine had to be in chronological order. What asshole decided that?) If you start off collecting and coding your information the right way, you can save time and energy in the long run.
Rule 2: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t act like you are the first person to teach a class or try to submit an article. Don’t you dare think you are the first person to ever think that department meetings are the dumbest shit on the face of the planet. Don’t believe that you are the only person who has ever felt depressed and lonely in our jobs. Don’t believe that you are the only one in academia, in your discipline, in your department who has been harassed or discriminated against. That’s what the man wants. Don’t give it to him.
Ask for help from other people who have done what you are doing. DO NOT come up with a syllabus from scratch. Trust me, in the 10000000 times that someone’s taught Congress, there haven’t been 10000000 unique approaches. Or probably 1000 unique approaches. Think of this as a build your own burger place: you can go with one of the ones where they’ve already picked out the toppings that are good, or you can go with a classic, or you can be the wanker that puts blue cheese and pineapple on your burger.
Ask for help from other people (I’m putting it twice it is so important). Like really. Did you know that I’ll send you my syllabi, slides, and assignments from any class I’ve taught? I will! Just ask! Other people will as well! Did you know if you tweet out help for an assignment on XYZ, people will just respond to you with their assignments? SERIOUSLY. ASK FOR HELP. Did you know that there are entire journals on how to teach? FOR REALSY. Maybe not all of the stuff you get will work for you, but that day that you slept like shit and you forgot about a meeting and you have 15 minutes to prep for class – that lecture or activity is going to be FUCKING GOLDEN.
Ask for help from people in your department. This is harder. None of us want to seem like we are dumbasses in front of our colleagues. I’ve found that flattery is the best way to get assistance, but to still look like you know what you are doing. “I noticed that you have a lot of students working for you. That’s so awesome. Would you mind walking me through the process of hiring a student? You are clearly the expert here!” There’s also a ‘question window’ for your first couple of months where everyone assumes that you are just trying to figure out how stuff works. (But if you've worked at my university for 20 years and you try to get someone else to fill out a fucking form for you because 'you don't know how to do it', I WILL LOSE MY SHIT. True story.). Also, if you are nice to the office staff, they will answer your questions for you.
Ask for help from people on campus who are paid (really!) to help you. Go to all the orientations and afterwards, type up your notes about anything that was important. Ask HR questions about benefits. Figure out your retirement asap and start paying as much as you can into it as soon as you can (some places require that you be “vested” for some period before they match. Put that vesting date on your calendar and make sure they start giving you your fucking money!) Learn about free shuttles, when parking rules change, and whether you’ve been assigned a librarian (REALLY).
Ask for help from your advisors. Look, we all think of ourselves as baby bald eagles, pushed out of the nest, left to swoop – or fall – without assistance. But the reality is that your advisor is stuck with you FOREVER. BAHAHAHAH. But really. They are still around for you to ask for advice from and get a boost from. They’ve already read ALL YOUR SHIT so asking them to read an article revision isn’t actually asking all that much from them!
Rule 3: Take care of yourself. That means: exercise, eating relatively healthy, socializing, and seeing a therapist. How to force yourself to put yourself first:
Move your body. Pay upfront for exercise, whether that’s a monthly yoga pass, a fancy ass new bike to ride to campus, a block of lessons with a personal trainer, or a yearly discount on the gym. YOU KNOW your just out of grad school cheap ass isn’t going to let that money go to waste. Can’t afford this? Join a program like the November Movement or a running group. Don’t buy a parking pass so you have to walk. DO SOMETHING to make you move your body on the reg.
Make it easy to eat well. Meal plan like a mofo, especially for breakfast and lunch. Figure out healthy, easy things that you can make ahead of time and repeat. On a budget? Check out Budget Bytes. Want healthy and fast meals? Buy Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast. Here’s the doc that I use to plan my meals (Note two sheets: a template and a filled out example)
Talk to humans. Like face to face. Regularly. Make friends with people in your department, at your gym, by volunteering for a political campaign, walking in your neighborhood.
Get enough sleep and get good quality sleep. Invest in a good mattress. Get a good pillow. Buy nice sheets. You spend a third of your life there – make it an enjoyable experience. Give yourself a bedtime. Take naps. WHATEVER. You will not be healthy and happy if you don’t get enough sleep.
Use your fancy new healthcare. Go to the dentist. Get an eye exam. Get your skin checked. Buy life insurance (it will be CHEAP!). Go to all the doctors.
Find a therapist you like. Ask your HR department for information about therapists that are covered by your insurance (seriously – these exist. For some of us.) Ask junior faculty in your department. Try some out. Figure out what kind of therapy you like (hello behavioral modification therapy for me!) But seriously – get a fucking therapist. No, twitter doesn’t count. Neither does a devoted partner. Guess what? They are sooo sick of hearing about goddamn academia.
Get a hobby. Or hobbies. I read a lot of mass market fiction and see a lot of live music. And eat out a lot. And drink. And paint REALLY terrible watercolors. And hang out with my dogs and cat. And talk shit. Read some books (Get a library card ASAP). Join a sport team. Take an art class.
Rule 4: Decide on some hard and fast rules for yourself, and then let the rest slide. What do you really care about in terms of productivity this year? What are your absolute most important things for your personal life? What do you actually care about with teaching?
Research productivity: the tenure clock is long. Yay! Also our research takes fucking forever. Boo. It’s also really hard to figure out what tenure standards are, because they change over time and by your gender, race, sexual orientation, and national origin! So – rough to figure out just how productive you have to be. What you can probably figure out: do you need a book? Do you need a top hit? Do you need to get over some threshold of a number of publications? Understand these rules and then figure out how to start to make that shit happen. You don’t have to make it happen your first year. But you need to figure out the first steps. Set some minimum goals for yourself and get that shit done.
Teaching: What do you actually really care about in the classroom? You might not know! If you don’t, pick a few things. I like students to show up to class. I like students to have done the reading. I like students to have a relatively interesting time in my classes. So I have an attendance policy, I test and quiz on readings and discuss them in class, and find videos and memes and gifs. Over time, I’ve realized that I don’t’ really care about: students meeting some strict deadline (why do I care about 10:05 over 10? That’s some kindergarten shit right there), students on laptops (hello disability shaming!), and students showing up late. What will make your life easier: telling students what your hard and fast rules are and then following them. If you want papers in hard copy, bring a fucking stapler. If you care about papers being late, TELL YOUR STUDENTS. If you care about attendance, TAKE ATTENDANCE. This is not some plot twist show where the students will never see it coming. That's stupid. Don't do that.
What do you want your service to be? Sometimes this is hard to figure out, because some committees SEEM like they will be easy, but they will really suck. Others seem intense, but oh look, no one ever shows up! So – gather evidence about the expectations for service. It is going to be pretty easy to figure out who the laziest asshole is your department. Guess what? Lazy assholes have a highly tuned sense of which service tasks will be a pain in the ass and which won’t. Use that information as you will. But this is the big thing: figure out your service caps and then stick to them.
What are your hard and fast rules about self care? What can you absolutely not handle missing out on? Sleep? Time away from a screen? Weekends off? Therapy? (it’s okay if it is all these things). So set yourself up to make sure that you do these things. Put a reminder on your calendar to go home at 5. Use an app to block yourself off your devices for 2 hours in the evening. Book your therapy appointments several months in advance. Whatever it is – hold yourself to that rule. Turns out, if you NEED sleep and you don’t get sleep, you are going to be a crappy human being and a crappy assistant professor.
Rule 5: Be kind.Be kind to yourself. To others. To yourself. But seriously, cut yourself some fucking slack. This shit is hard. No one trains us for it. A lot of us manage to have both imposter syndrome and survivors’ guilt. We are in new places without social support doing a job we’ve probably never done before. SO:
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
Be kind to the office staff
Be kind to your students
Be kind to your colleagues
Be especially kind to contingent faculty
Be kind to your friends and your partner
Take advice from the late, great Toni Morrison: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” YOU HAVE THE POWER. USE IT WISELY.
Be kind to yourself, please?
Listen – you are a really fucking smart, capable person. Unless you do something totally illegal, they aren’t going to fire you this year. They can’t. So all you really have to do is make it through the end of the year. Just get through. Just by existing in academia, you are destroying a system built for jerkfaces and their sexist, racist ways and remaking it into something new and better. I’m rooting for you. We are all rooting for you. So chin up, forward motion, one stroke at a time. Eyes closed, head first, can’t lose. Get a fucking whiteboard. And get to work.