What I’ve learned in my first three years as a college professor

I’m still at what I hope is the beginning of a long career, with lots of things left to learn. But here are a few little things I’ve picked up along the way so far (three and a half years, actually), and that I thought might be worth sharing.

red pen
Photo, cellar_door_films

Getting hired for a job in academia is about being the right match. I applied to a lot of jobs during the final year of my doctoral studies. A few seemed like good matches on paper, but for a number of others I thought I could perhaps offer something better than what was listed in the requirements. For example, I applied for quite a few single-woodwind jobs, and tried to emphasize in my cover letters and CVs that I could potentially take on responsibilities with additional instruments. I got virtually no response to those applications. The jobs that I got interviews for were specifically multiple-woodwinds jobs.

A highly-qualified and very talented friend of mine was hired for a teaching position. I had opportunity later to speak with one of his new colleagues, who raved about my friend’s lively and outgoing personality. “The other person we interviewed was so boring,” she moaned. I suspect that had I interviewed for that job, I would have been the “boring” one. At some other interview, my friend’s energy and humor might have been seen as frivolous or flippant, and my more muted social style might have won the day.

Since being hired myself, I’ve had several opportunities to serve on committees that have sifted through applicants for other music faculty positions. There are lots of people looking for those jobs, and when the applications start to pile up, anyone who doesn’t meet the specific requirements of the job gets set aside pretty quickly, no matter what other strengths they might bring to the table.

Once I started my new job, I discovered quickly that students, as a group, utterly defy my every expectation. Sometimes in negative ways, sometimes in very positive ways.

I have made a number of mistakes related to designing syllabi, assignments, and so forth, mostly because I have tailored them to the kind of student that I was (at least in my rosiest memories). But my students are different from me and different from each other. In general, the more smug I am about the cleverness and innovation of a teaching technique, the more quickly I can expect my students to poke holes in it.

I have made a number of changes to the way I grade applied (private) lessons, because the sort of idealized system that I started with was sometimes rewarding or punishing the wrong things, and sometimes misleading my students about what kinds of grades to expect at the end of the semester. A colleague who directs a performing ensemble explained to me that his syllabus now includes a “black socks” clause: specifying concert attire including black shirt, pants, and shoes proved not to be an adequate level of detail for some of his students.

Documenting everything for the various higher powers is a way of life in academia. Annually, I am expected to submit a report detailing my work during the past year. This includes what courses I have taught, how I have improved upon them from previous semesters, what performances and presentations I have made on and off campus, what I have done to continue my own education, what service activities I have participated in on campus and in the community, and a number of other things. Every two years, I sort through all of this information again and organize it a little differently for submission for the tenure and promotion process. Several times a year, some subset of this information is needed for some kind of departmental or university report, preparation for re-accreditation, or some other type of data-gathering. Additionally, I’m expected to submit updates to various newsletters and to file press releases. Sometimes it seems as though I spend half my time doing my job, and the other half explaining how I did my job.

Some kind of organization system is a must. One thing that works well for me is to spend some time each semester going through the archives of my calendar and to-do list, which I maintain obsessively using various electronic tools. Anything that’s not 100% routine gets looked at carefully, and most things end up filed under teaching, service, or faculty development: did I develop any new handouts or other materials for a course? attend a lecture or workshop on campus? spend any time on a high school or community college campus? do committee work? come up with an idea that was implemented by my department? Small or large, it goes into the records.

As it turns out, the ten years and three degree programs that I finished in college were just enough to get me started. Clichéd as it sounds, it may be that I actually do learn more from my students than they do from me, and that’s certainly true of my various bosses and colleagues. Here’s to another 30+ years of my education.


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