The CEA Forum
Winter/Spring 2006: 35.1
AN ASSISTANT ENGLISH PROFESSOR'S PERSPECTIVE ON THE PROFESSION
The Charlatan: Part II
Why It Feels Weird to Sit at the Big Table
In a previous column, I discussed the ways in which the imposter phenomenon manifests itself (assuming, of course, that it has a self) in the daily lives of untenured academics. Here now I would like to explore the possible origins of this outlook as well as the potentially positive impact of it on one's teaching. Then, I will call for help, which is to say I will invite input on how we might minimize the often debilitating effects this sense of self can have one's ability to teach and to produce research.
To begin, I suspect that there are an infinite number of causes when it comes to reasons why assistant professors feel less self-assured than they should, and I've no doubt that some of these causes are common to nearly all disciplines and some fairly unique to English.
On the whole—meaning, in this case, regardless of academic discipline or department—assistant professors are, during the first couple of years on the job, both literally and figuratively lost. After attending that day-long orientation that began auspiciously with meet-and-greet games and concluded ominously with bulging folders stuffed with catalogues, maps, and glossy pamphlets, we staggered off in what we hoped was the direction of our offices, looking more than a little like those good sports who, after spinning ten times with their forehead pressed to the end of a baseball bat, stagger off toward first base. Overwhelmed, we did not have the time or energy to commit to memory such things as our office phone number, computer password, departmental copy code number, email address, or important meeting times and places. Consequently, we then went about our business uneasily, haunted by the feeling you get when you walk into a room and wonder why you went there.
Somewhat out of sync with those in the know, we can't help but worry when the departmental hallway seems strangely, suddenly quiet, fearing that a meeting is underway that we should be attending. Likewise, we often lament that we cannot and do not know the easy answers to the obvious questions, especially when our students are the ones doing the asking—nothing undercuts one's already shaky confidence like having to confess to a student that you don't know the name of the building where your office is…“Look across the quad,” you say as the two of you stand in the classroom and look out the window. “See there in that three-story red-brick building the window with the air conditioner? The office next to that is mine.” “Oh, you mean you're in Memorial Hall?” “Yep, that's it,” you agree, wondering why the student would subsequently bother coming to you in search of answers for more difficult questions.
Meanwhile, we must learn the shorthand of our clever, though cryptic, institutions, which is to say that we need to figure out what all of those exasperating acronyms stand for; otherwise, we find that we feel still more overwhelmed and unqualified when we hear, for instance, near the end of the faculty meeting something along the lines of, “FYI, CTL is sponsoring PTP luncheon in the Marshal Room, and those on SNAP and HUFF committees are expected to be there.” Confused, you turn to ask one of the orientation leaders that you recognize from the name-game activity (the woman whose name you've forgotten) if you're supposed to attend and she says, “Just check with your LFC or go to the FacStaff Support page.” “Whatever,” you don't say, smiling.
Additionally, there are the logistics of life itself, with which we all must deal in great detail at the outset of our careers. While (over) populating the planet (congrats to me, for I've just welcomed with my wife's help, to say the least, yet another screaming baby into the mix), and while raising kids that come with no handling instructions or gift receipts, we must make the time after teaching classes and grading papers to figure out such things as where to live, where to shop, where to park, where to get our teeth cleaned, and, on occasion, where to pay a parking ticket.
And, more specifically, when it comes to being a tyro/trainee/dilettante/assistant/English Prof. Type, the causes of our psychological discontent are perhaps more subtle but, on the whole, no less pernicious, I think. To begin with, we are often generalists as opposed to specialists, which is especially true at small colleges where instruction typically takes priority over research and where teaching assistants are as common as bonuses. If you pay your dues, you will in due time teach in your areas of expertise (a term used loosely in this instance). Until then, you will teach the other classes, meaning courses in freshman-level composition courses and sophomore-level lit. Unless you're a rhetoric composition specialist, this predicament makes it difficult at the outset of one's career to feel as if you are an authority in a given area of academics.
Second, we teach writing and reading but, ironically, we seldom have time left over to write or read (anything other than what's listed on our syllabus and what our students submit). Also, we don't have the luxury of reading around or of reflecting extensively on what we've read. In fact, we might be better off working in a patent office for, as Einstein once stated, “A practical profession is a salvation for a man of my type; an academic career compels a young man to scientific exploration, and only strong characters can resist the temptation for superficial analysis.”
Finally, a third source of this unease and insecurity we can reasonably attribute to the difficulties that accompany getting published. As assistant professors of English, we are very often caught in various catch-22's when it comes to researching and writing (if you're reading this in a journal, consider me ecstatic and no longer insecure about my status as a professor, for the most part). While in many ways a prized publication in a peer-reviewed journal represents a palpable means of moving from an assistant/imposter to associate professor, finding time to produce that which is of publishable quality is dauntingly difficult. Furthermore, publishing that which you wrote when you did have time—meaning, your dissertation—is an increasingly demoralizing task. When asked why it is less and less common to see dissertations published as manuscripts, an editor at the 2005 NEMLA convention in Boston explained to a group of eager young academics that technology has made doing so unnecessary and financially unappealing for publishers: “Why bother reproducing something that is already available on line and through interlibrary loan?” he asked in a way that struck me as very irritating, and when I come up with an answer I'm going to track him down and give him a piece of my mind.
What's the upshot of this situation? How, in other words, can we make lemonade here? And what, if anything, should be done to help those of us starting out in the profession feel more at ease and in control?
In my experience, having relatively little time, still less information, and almost no marketable stature on campus has helped me be a bit more humble (I might be the most humble guy I know!), more understanding of my students' needs, and, I hope, more effective in the classroom. I have learned to appreciate the difficulties my students experience as they struggle to redefine themselves and as they attempt to make their way in this strange place. I have also learned by necessity to empower them. My students lead the discussions, help determine the texts we read, the assignments we produce, and the lessons we learn—the reason being: I don't have time to handle all of these tasks, and they seem every bit as capable (and, at times, incapable) as I do.
Of course, if I could enjoy these benefits of being new in the profession without the side effect of insecurity and exhaustion, I would do so gladly. In essence, if I could find a shorter, more pleasant route through academic purgatory I wouldn't hesitate to follow it, especially if it meant helping me reconnect with my confidence. I would, were the opportunity offered, pair up with a full or associate professor in a mentoring (and maybe even tormentoring?) relationship; I would, were it available, participate in a longer, more rigorous and practical orientation program; and, given the chance to learn about the odd and intimidating business of publishing (a “business” that seldom pays its employers, mind you), I would gladly co-edit or co-author an essay or collection of essays with somebody from within or outside of my institution. Of course, I would also take a semester-long sabbatical during my six-year stint in academic limbo so that I could read, research, and write my way into various conversations, but I suspect I would be a fool to wish for that kind of “time off” when I'm currently last in line in a department that is part of a college that is, I'm told, strapped for cash.
If, in short, there were (and perhaps there are, though not where I teach) programs designed to empower young professors, and if there were ways of helping one survive the often ugly, ongoing process of orientation, I would enthusiastically give any one of them a shot (I'll still be very humble, I promise). If there are not, of course, I will take my mom's advice and try to “quit being such a big baby.”
Colin Irvine is not an expert on any topic related to composition, literature, pedagogy, or tenure. He is, however, an assistant professor of English at Augsberg College, where he specializes in American literature, ecocriticism, and English/education methods. He says, "I am interested in talking in and through a column to other professors about various issues related to teaching freshman and sophomore-level courses. I'm also interested in exploring issues related to what it means to be a non-tenured assistant professor of English. My hope is that I could touch on serious, significant topics pertinent to these subjects in a sincere, insightful, and, perhaps, original manner."
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