Friday, April 15, 2016

First year as an assistant professor

Today marked the last day of classes here at Yale-NUS College. On my walk home along the bridge over the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE to locals*), it hit me that I had made it. I just finished my first year as an assistant professor.


Now, that's not quite true, since tomorrow I will be teaching two sample classes for "Experience Yale-NUS Weekend", my students have papers due tomorrow evening for me to grade, I have a couple of Sanskrit exams yet to grade, and there's a week of curriculum design meetings here at the end of April. However, the last class felt like some kind of accomplishment. I've gotten used to my students saying, "Thanks, prof!" at the end of each class (the students here are very friendly and very respectful) and I no longer feel like people are talking about my dad when they say "Professor Keating."

Thus I thought this evening would be as good a time as any to reflect a bit on the year. The Philosopher's Cocoon has a series of posts entitled "Real Jobs in Philosophy" and you can find plenty of advice  around the Internet about how to survive and what to expect and how not to spend all your time teaching in your first year as an assistant professor.

My experience may be useful to other people, but keep in mind it's also pretty specific. I'm coming from the perspective of someone at a brand-new four-year liberal arts college which is the joint venture of a large research institution in Asia and an Ivy League research university in the US. The college is in an island city-state in Southeast Asia, and I am one of a host of new, mostly junior, faculty who are developing curriculum for an international student body. So I'm in a fairly unique place, institutionally.

On the other hand, I've also got the same kinds of pressures as many assistant professors at colleges and universities elsewhere. I have the responsibility of giving lectures and leading seminars. There are regular faculty meetings, students to mentor, committee meetings, and so on. Somewhere among the teaching and admin, I am expected to produce excellent research which will result in tenure in another five years (it was six when I started...time is already flying by).

So what have I learned in this first year?

1. I really love my job. Maybe this seems too obvious to state, but I think it's easy to get lost in the day-to-day nitty-gritty of meetings and grading and deadlines. My path to the Ph.D. and this job was lengthy. I spent two years in an M.Div. program which I left, then restarted my studies a year later in an M.A. program. After two and a half years in that program, I spent a year as an unaffiliated student taking Sanskrit, teaching as an adjunct, and working. I then spent seven years finishing my Ph.D. After over a decade, I finally got the job that I was training for--and I am glad that I persevered. Despite my introvert tendencies, I am energized from teaching my students and seeing them grapple with new ideas. And I'm in a place where the common curriculum has me teaching Śāntideva, Mengzi, Hannah Arendt, Annaṃbhaṭṭa, Nietzsche, Zhu Xi...all together. Not only this, but my colleagues genuinely care about good pedagogy. At the same time, I look forward to sitting down to read or write in a way that I wasn't sure would be possible when I was in the thick of my dissertation process.

I say all this not just because I think I wound up in a good job (though I believe that is true) but because I think it's important. At some of the darker points in my dissertation-writing, I was worried about whether I would want to continue on, and if maybe I shouldn't just call it quits. A few people counseled me to hang in there, too see if, on the assumption that I did get a job, I would still feel that way then. This advice may not be right for everyone, and it's not clear how long to keep trying on the market, but in my case, I'm truly glad that I persevered.

2. I need to be less hard on myself. This is probably true for other academics, too. We tend to be perfectionists about our own writing and teaching. In this first year, I had to let go of expectations that I would understand all of the institutional intricacies in the first, second, or even third faculty meeting. I had to be okay with the fact that finding my way around campus would take a while, and that most things I wanted to do would take me twice as long. Not only does setting more realistic expectations make life easier, it also makes me a more enjoyable person to be around. If I'm constantly focused on whether I'm failing, I'm probably not engaged with other people as fully as I could be. And in this first year, it's been really important to make connections with colleagues.

3. Social life as a professor is tough. A recent study reported that professors lead lonely, sad lives, full of dusty books and no friends. Well, maybe it's not quite that dismal, but we do spend a lot of time by ourselves. I genuinely like my colleagues here and have spent some time socializing with them--but it's very easy for a week to go by in which I've only seen people in passing or in meetings. It requires a lot of effort to make connections--and to make those connections beyond complaining about the last faculty meeting. One thing I appreciate about YNC is that since I'm housed in a Humanities Division not a philosophy department and our physical infrastructure houses our offices by residential college, I do get to know people who are not philosophers by training.

However, I also want friends who are not part of my working life. That's been much more difficult to attain here in Singapore. I took a fencing class and met some Singaporeans, and last week went out for drinks with some locals that one of my literature colleagues knows--but otherwise, my life is very insular. I've also been doing a long-distance dual-academic relationship for the past year and a half. That compounds the sense of isolation. One of my goals for the summer and next school year is to find some local clubs I can join to find activity partners who aren't associated with the college.

4. Scheduling precision is crucial. One habit I established in graduate school which I'm very grateful for is having a quasi-GTD system. Somehow this first year I managed to get an article published, collaborate on an annotated bibliography for OBO, get a two-year grant, write another article (which is in the R&R stage), draft an encyclopedia entry, and complete another grant proposal for an edited volume. Now, I know some of this was possible because I had a 1/2 load. Next year I will be teaching a 2/2 and both semesters will include teaching new preps of my own courses. However, when I look at this last semester, I spent almost 20% of my time doing administrative-related work---that's meetings, meeting preparation, and etc. Weeks ranged from 15 to 20% doing admin. Teaching preparation ranged from 30 to 50% of my time. That leaves just 30% of my workweek (which, to be fair, is seven days a week) for research.

Given that I was used to having my teaching prep take up more like 20% of my time as a TA, and maybe 30 to 40% as an instructor--without administrative work--that's a big change.

What I did first semester was to try to carve out a sacrosanct day for research. The problem was that guarding that day became very difficult. My course preparation for a team-taught meeting requires weekly meetings. I'm involved in an interdisciplinary workgroup which meets regularly. Students sometimes can't make office hours. And etc. Further, there was then a lot of pressure on that single day (see point #1).

This semester, then, on the advice of the author of How to Write a Lot, which I recommend (it's short and easy to employ his advice), I set up a regular morning schedule of writing/research. I started tracking my words for each session (I don't any longer) to see if I was actually making progress. Having a routine and regular schedule for writing and research meant that not only was I able to keep chipping away at writing, but it was much easier to guard that time. Getting up early and writing also starts my day in the right frame of mind. I then sometimes will go back to my work even for short little spurts--twenty minutes here and there. That may not seem like much, but it adds up.

On a related topic--for me, at least, though others differ, blogging became something which was more of an obstacle to writing than a help. I prefer not to post half-formed new ideas online, and the energy I spend writing a blog post, while it may result in writing which leads to publication, more likely will lead me to a false feeling of accomplishment. So I have pulled back from blogging as much on the Indian Philosophy blog, except for pedagogical topics and more news-related items. I am still mulling over ways to integrate the two--as I like the connectedness of the blogosphere and I see people who blog a lot and still manage to publish frequently and well.

5. I  have a lot to learn.  This is a good thing. At the end of my Ph.D., I felt like I was starting to get the hang of things. After all, I'd been there seven years. Now, I'm starting in a completely new context--and the stakes are different. My responsibilities are greater. I had never been in a faculty meeting before (this is something I really think Ph.D. programs should find a way to rectify). I had never written a grant proposal. And so on. However, I think that this fact, combined with 1 and 2, should be a reason for excitement about the years to come.

*If you're interested in the system of acronyms, as I was when I got here, check out this email from the Land Transport Authority about the naming process.

Edited to add: I'm thinking maybe I should write a little blurb about what I learned about Singapore in my first year!