Advice to a New Faculty Member

(delivered at a University of Regina – New Faculty Orientation  session:”Surviving Your First Year”. September 2 2016)

There is a lot of generic advice out there for new faculty members (and here, I’m assuming this is your first real faculty gig – which is probably wrong).

Among the troika of teaching, research and administration, there’s lots to be excited and anxious about.

On administration: there will be meetings; oh, there will be meetings. I teach a course in strategic management in the public sector which, in my own little way, is trying to insert into bureaucracies viral agents who may someday get us to ask the hard question: do we really need an hour and a half meeting to read slide to each other? I have a dream!

On research and writing – again assuming this is your first faculty position – I am surprised to continually realize that the phd is over, the post-doc was a success, and they are actually letting me fly this plane on our own. There’s too much to talk about under research, but the most helpful advice I got was from my post-doc supervisor: you should not expect to start to feel like you have any idea what’s going on until about your third year.

On teaching, I love the quote I recently saw: we sit in rooms like this before being turned loose on unsuspecting students, feeling “a terrifying hysteria … that we would have anything to teach” the students in our classrooms. Last winter I taught a course I had no background in, and every week before class I would panic, thinking that the students were going to realize I had no idea what I was talking about, and they were paying good money to be here and how dare I pretend that they were getting value for money. The short version is that it is now my favourite course because I precisely took the view that they were paying to be here and I continually ask: “how can I make this course the best academic experience they have ever had.” I don’t know whether that’s good pedagogy, but my chilli pepper score on ratemyprofessor grows every term.

Just a quick note about the university’s commitment to internationalisation: I have come to really appreciate the breadth of experience that our international students bring to the University. Some of your colleagues will cynically think that the University’s focus on international students is all about the money. International students do take extra effort – to understand them through their accent, to understand their cultural context, to understand their norms and expectations. But I truly believe that we are immeasurably better because of our international students.

All this stuff – teaching, research, and administration – you will hear elsewhere and they generally apply at any university. But the thought I want to leave you with today is specific to the University of Regina though not unique: the Uof R is a very small place. It’s not the smallest university, but the UofR is a very small place. And while some may see that as a detriment, I have spent that past year coming to understand the benefits of that smallness.

So before I came here last year, I had spent the previous couple of years at NYU and Arizona State University. While NYU is a very big university inside a colossal city, ASU is a colossal place in the middle of nowhere. And then I came here … to a very small university in – what I like to generously call – “the middle of everything”. (That’s my proposed new slogan for the university: “The University of Regina … In the middle of everything!”

But it wasn’t until about 6 months into being here that I understood what the value of that smallness and isolation was. As I was putting together a grant application last winter that required numerous collaborators at both the UofR and the University of Saskatchewan, I was struck by how rich the social network among faculty here is. If there are more than three degrees of separation between you and every researcher at the UofR relevant to your interests, I’d be surprised. And that’s enormously valuable in being able to understand what your collaborator network can look like. At ASU, every week I’d hear by happenstance that “oh, there’s another person doing the exact same thing as you”. And nothing would come of it, because of the internal competitiveness of an institution like that and its vastness. But at a university of this scale, it’s possible to see the Associate Vice President, Academic and Research, in the hall and ask her to join you for an impromptu coffee to discuss your research agenda.

So we need to stick together, and it’s easier to do that here than at other places. It’s an old Garrison Keillor joke that the reason people from small towns in cold climates are so nice to each other is because you may die in a snowbank one day if you’re not. That may well be true. But I do think that the greatest strength of our community is what we can accomplish together. Don’t mistake smallness for weakness. Peyak aski kikawinaw – together, we are stronger.