#firstyearfaculty Episode One: “Time”

I had high hopes to be able to put down in words what the transition–actually, transitions–is like for the first year on the job as a new Assistant Professor.  Alas, the trials and triumphs of said transitions have pretty much kept me pretty busy and pretty tired.  Even if I had a Time Turner, I don’t think I could get it all done.  I certainly would be way too exhausted.  It makes sense then that my inaugural #firstyearfaculty post be about perhaps the most precious resource and forever foe: time.

Academic time.  When I was an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Maryland, we were on semesters.  When I started at the University of Washington, I had to adjust to the quarter system, which years later still feels too rushed and harrowed.  Now, at Drew, I return to the semester.  The way I imagine the arc and breadth of the academic term and year, the way I design and revise my syllabuses, and the way I relate to the biorhythms of student energy, engagement, and attendance are once again new to me.  It is definitely strange to realize that I have been teaching for months now but my friends and colleagues at UW have only just started the term.  It is strange to be in week six knowing that I still have eight weeks or so to go.  And it is strange (but delightful) to know that I can spend two weeks (instead of one) on a novel or text in class.  Even the facts that I have a fall break or that I have to accommodate Jewish holidays are a wonder.  I understand that one of the downsides of the semester is that if you have an underperforming class or a challenging student that fourteen or fifteen weeks is a long time to endure.  But I still prefer the semester system.  It is nice to be able to linger a little, to meander, and to be able to scale and scaffold assignments that give students time to explore, make mistakes, and improve.  And given that I am in a new place, a new role, and a new job, I too can use the time to do the same.

That said, I will say that I am busier than I have ever been as a graduate student.  I had hints of it toward the end of my graduate career as things shifted from being a student to being a “real” person.  Life at a small liberal arts university also makes a difference in how much time gets devoted to the day-to-day of teaching and service.  I have many more meetings than before.  They are of various flavors: Drew has all faculty meetings, division meetings (smaller caucuses of allied departments), and of course departmental, new faculty, and even checking-in with the chair type meetings.  I hold office hours and more appointment times with students because the culture here is about more personalized, one-on-one attention.  Teaching itself is absorbing (as it always is).  I teach three classes.  And even though I have fewer students than I have ever had at UW, I put more time into preparation and practice.  I think because this is a “real” job, the stakes seem different.  And because the classes are smaller, the need to be ready, agile, and attentive is also increased.  I certainly answer more emails than I have before.  This is not just because of student contact but because my academic and professional circles are growing, changing in quality and quantity, and people are actually reaching out to me with queries, proposals, projects, and commiseration.  Again, it feels different because I am taken more seriously, more respectfully, and perhaps more critically.  I enjoy it, for sure, but it is a lot to track, schedule, and juggle.  The investment of time is different because the investment in my goals, my duties, and my priorities is different.  I even find that I just spend more time on campus, in my office, even if it’s just to get out of the house or because it is mine.  This new investment of time and energy as a new faculty member is because  I earned it, I achieved it, and I want to do everything to inhabit it.

Professional time.  Speaking of which, I have to face it: I have a tenure clock.  And it is ticking.  Before this point, there were other clocks, of course.  The getting-your-coursework-done clock.  The various writing clocks–seminar paper, conference presentation, exam rationales and lists, prospectus, and the biggest one of them all, the dissertation.  Then there is the job clock–waiting for the job list to open, applying, interviewing, booking tickets to MLA, site visits, contract negotiations, and start dates.  But of course in this life, this business of being a scholar and a professor, it is all about the next deadline and the next thing to be done.  In grad school, certainly, I felt the professionalization clock, but it is present in a way now because the game has changed, the stakes are higher.  It feels that way at least.  Even the convention, the term tenure clock bespeaks of a heftier tick-tock.

I think I also am more sharply aware of the tenure clock because I am not tenure track.  Though my title is officially Assistant Professor and though I am expected to minimally participate in the activities and duties of said position, I am technically in a kind of professional purgatory.  The hope and goal is that my job will be converted to a tenure track line, and when that happens, what time I have put in will be counted (if I want) toward my tenure process.  In other words, I have to act as if I were on the clock and yet am reminded that I am not ostensibly.  It is this weirding double-consciousness that impels me to take tenure seriously, to make sure that I take full advantage of my position.  Luckily, the first year is usually light in expectations.  At Drew, I must focus on my classes, on my teaching, arrange for observations each semester, and demonstrate that I am participating (though not quite actively serving) in my department, at the school, and ideally at large in my field.

The tenure clock is exacerbated by the fact that I am on the job market again this year.  Just in case.  Just to protect myself and my career.  I want to be tenure track at Drew (and Drew has expressed that it wants me to stay, too), but I know that I must position myself as best as possible.  And given that I am on the market, it means things like professionalization is even more important.  I have to show that I have continued to learn, grow, and produce.  Not surprisingly, the most pesky and persistent of these expectations is the drive to publish.  I think coming out of my Ph.D., I was prepared for the market.  I had enough on my CV and could show scholarly, teacherly, and colleague-y potential that I could land a job (and did obviously).  Now I need to up my game.  One solid publication would suffice.  Alas, I do find myself getting caught up in the doubts, in the fear, and in the frustr-exhaustion of academic life.  I know I am supposed to be working on revising my dissertation for the book.  I know I am supposed to simultaneously be sending out article-length pieces to the journals in my fields.  And I know I am supposed to be presenting at national, note-worthy conferences.  But where is that time and energy supposed to come from?

Work-life (a perennial topic for academics, one that I will address another time) is really about time management.  Among teaching, writing, networking, faculty meetings, and just plain old life, there just seems to be not enough time in a day or a week, even a month.

Quotidian time.  It’s been a little over two months since I moved from my life in Seattle to New Jersey.  Six weeks.  Seventy-two days.  It does not seem like much, but it feels like time and space and all sorts of wishes, worries, tears (and wonder, laughs, and wisdom, too) are rushing in to fill the gap between there and here, then and now.  It has been a little over one month since I started as an Assistant Professor of English at Drew University, and I am still adjusting to what it means to no longer be a graduate student and what it means to be an academic and a professional.  But the biggest adjustment, I think, has been to life in the day to day, in the hour to hour, the moment to moment.

My life has not only changed dramatically geographically but also temporally in lots of little ways.  After living in Seattle for almost nine years, it’s surprising to wake up in a totally different house, different town.  And it’s funny how getting used to a new place is marked by little things–unpacking one more box, getting mail for the first time, walking to the grocery store, hanging another picture on the wall.  Familiarity is a function of time.  These are all physical markers but also markers of time.  They are little ticks that say you’re moving on, moving forward.  New experiences overtake old ones and new memories of just the other day or last week are fresher, present, a powerful antidote (although sometimes bitter) to what came before.  And there is guilt, mourning (a topic for another blog post) because I feel like I am forgetting, abandoning, replacing the past with every meal I cook, every Top Chef episode watched, every new friend I make.

All of this is punctuated by the fact that I am separated by time and distance from my partner (another topic to be explored at a later time), whom returned to Seattle after a week or so here to help me get settled and set up.  Thus this everyday time is also measured in waiting–waiting for the next Facetime call, the next care package, and the next visit.  (Even as I am writing this now, I am on my way back to Seattle for my first visit since moving to New Jersey timed with Drew’s fall break.)  But the waiting game also expands to include waiting for the furniture to arrive, for the first paycheck (because the expenses and the bills are racking up), and ultimately, for things to feel normal again.

Luckily, all in all, two months later, things do feel mostly normal.  I have a routine, a schedule, and as you can see, lots of things to take up my time.  (Like this blog post.)  As a first year faculty member, as a new professor, I do think there is a lot of up-front investment–of time, money, friendship, relationships, anxiety, and even of health.  Hitting the ground–hopefully running–is an apt metaphor.  I don’t think my life is totally different.  Graduate school at least inoculates and inures you to certain kinds of academia-induced aches, pains, bumps, and bruises.  But, it is different and there is culture shock.  Though, as they say, time heals all wounds.

Really, I just want to take a nap.

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