Careers: Nod, smile, and say inconsequential nothings

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The first week of being a new faculty member, everyone will invite you out for coffee or lunch. It's quite nice to feel so welcome. Your first year is the honeymoon period when the rest of the faculty wants to see who their new bride is. You'll want to be humble, friendly, and happy to be part of the new family.

They are also testing you. Are you going to be the kind of faculty member who causes problems? Can you take jokes? Can you take mild flirting without accusing them of sexual harassment?* While on the surface, all is friendly and fine, you need to really watch yourself to make sure you don't get trapped into anything later on.

*One of my more memorable new-faculty coffee sessions at a previous job was with a male senior faculty member who launched into a discussion of his sexual frustrations with his wife (hint... hint... hint...). To say I was uncomfortable was putting it lightly. Yet he was someone who I needed to work with in the future, so I used my Teflon Deflector Array to thwart him. Oh what fun. Once he realized I wasn't game, he ceased, and was actually a pretty good colleague.

Some faculty will take it on themselves to tell you the "real dirt" on the college -- the equivalents of the crazy aunts and uncles in the attics. Believe me, every college has them, as well as the faculty who haven't said a word to each other since the summer of 1967. This is good gossip to know, but beware of the Rashomon Effect. Some of my best friends as a faculty member at a previous job ended up being the people who were being bad-mouthed by others. I'm not sure what that says about them... or me...

For the first few months, be the blushing bride. Learn how to be passive-aggressive, how to say 'no' without saying 'no'. Don't get trapped into any committee assignments,* especially if you're a woman or a person of color. Use the magic phrase: "I'd love to, but I need to ask my chair first, he's really concerned that I put all my energies into teaching/publications/my-home-department."

*I swear, committee assignments breed like rabbits. Once people realize that you're a woman of color/queer/minority who says 'yes' to committee assignments, you won't have another free Tuesday/Thursday afternoon for the rest of your life. Academic committees count for zero when it comes time for tenure, regardless of what anyone says about the "importance of service at this college." I have seen many people fired for lack of research, occasionally for poor teaching, and usually lack of "collegiality" (the universal catch-all), but never for lack of service. Just say no, sister.

Note: I drafted this article before taking my current position, so please don't read into this any indication about the state of my current department! It applies more to liberal arts colleges more than state universities or research institutions, where folks tend to leave you alone more. Your mileage may vary. Things may appear smaller in the rear view mirror. etc.

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on December 8, 2005 9:14 AM.

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