Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Invisible (Wo)Man: Or, Thinking About Your Year As a Visiting Member of a Faculty

Visitors are at the top of the contingent faculty depth chart, in my view, perhaps slightly below post-docs -- unless you believe, as I do, that post-docs have become a way of institutionalizing contingent faculty. But they are right up there, status-wise. What's good about such positions? A living wage, for one thing, and health insurance. Sometimes there is a little money for conferences or research expenses. Access to a university library would be another. Gaining experience without having every false move entered in your tenure dossier, and getting to apply for what we call "real" jobs with letterhead stationary would go on the list.

In my previous post, I mentioned some things I learned from Year One as a Visitor. There was actually Year Two as well, at an Urban Ivy, that helped to catapult me into the job I have held here at Zenith since 1991. One of these days I'll write about that, because I really liked those people, and they did a lot of things right. So drawing on this experience, and on my many years of hiring visitors, I offer the following suggestions to counter the problem of "visitor invisibility."

Work in your office at least two afternoons and one morning a week. More if you can really work there. I know, I know. Your former dissertation advisor has told you to compress your teaching, stay home as much as possible, and get a jump start on your book. Well, aren't there some things you could work on in your office? If you are not there, you will be technically invisible. Because you won't be there. Shall I emphasize this further?

And how can people invite you to lunch on the spur of the moment if you are actually never there at lunchtime?

Go to Campus Events. Talks, panels, receptions -- anyplace you might be able to introduce yourself casually. Watch the university calendar like a hawk, and bookmark the websites of interdisciplinary programs where there are events listed. Go to IT demonstrations of new teaching technologies. Not only are you learning something cutting edge that you can unveil at your next job interview, but the great secret of university life is: the IT people are really smart, funny, nice people who make great friends because they are not stuck up and they can be trusted not to compete with you constantly. They are often academics who decided, wisely, that the tenure-track mill wheel was not for them. Knowing such people can ease your fear that, in the event that you do not get a t-t job next year, you will be forced to live under a viaduct selling counterfeit DVDs.

Talks, symposia and the like are a particularly good venue for a new face because, with the right touch, you can ask a question and make people curious about you. They will then come up and introduce themselves (this is after they poke each other and whisper sotto voce, "Who is that?") If you don't want to go alone, find another visitor -- or that new, tenure-track person cowering in her office -- and suggest that you go together.

And speaking of people on tenure-track lines.... At Zenith, these are the most fun people, the most socially inclusive, and the most heterogeneous as a group. Ask them for advice on the best supermarket in the area, where to go dancing, if they know a good baby sitter -- whatever you need to settle in. And a lot of these people have recently been, well -- you. In the figurative sense. And they will also be some of the best people to give you advice as you pull yourself together to go on the job market again.

Get yourself on the women's studies' program mailing list. I cannot emphasize this more strongly. Gender Studies, or Feminist Studies, or whatever they call it at your university -- women's studies programs are unfortunately not the hotbeds of radicalism that they used to be, but they have also not entirely shed a political past of including people on the basis of a desire to be included. You don't study women? OK, here are the following conditions under which you might plausibly associate yourself with the women's studies program and get on the e-list for intellectual and social events:

You are a woman; your work encompasses the fields of gender and/or sexuality; you don't work on women but you would like to; you think you could benefit from a dash of feminism; you are a man who works on gender; you are a man who is supportive of women and/or feminism and/or queer people; you are a woman whose intellectual interests do not seem to overlap with the women's studies program at all but you need to get into a feminist space once in a while; you are a woman who likes to drink cheap wine and tell dirty jokes; you are a non-sexist man who can happily sit there, talking very little, basking in the light of female friendship, while feminists get drunk and tell dirty jokes.

"But what about my career?!" you shriek. First of all, never underestimate the power of social events to make connections that will make a difference to your career sooner as well as later. You get to know people who will not only give you the benefit of their experience, they also have networks that can help you on the job market. And not just the senior people -- untenured people have lots of friends who you can call to find out about an institution, what they really want in that search, who serve on search committees, and could be the person (as was the case at one of my interviews) who grabs your arm at the on-campus interview and says, "I'm so glad to meet you! Charlie told me all about you." It won't necessarily get you the job (didn't get me the job) but this guy set aside the better part of two days to make sure that everything went ok for me during the interview process. And that, my friends, does give you a better chance of getting the job.

If someone asks you to give a talk, or fill in on a panel, or give a guest lecture -- say yes. Yes, yes, yes. If there is a writing group that you can join -- join, join, join.

Finally, I am going out on a limb here, but: the people who hired you owe you a little something because, although they have lifted you out of the kind of adjuncting that means you are holding office hours on BART, SEPTA or the Metro, you are doing them a favor too by stepping in when they need help. So the first person you should make contact with is the person who hired you; the second is the senior scholar in your field; and the third is anyone else you admire. And these people should be willing to offer you one or more of the following things:

Looking over your job letters; sitting in on a class and writing a letter for your dossier; assembling a few people for a practice convention interview; listening to a practice job talk. It is not out of line to ask someone to read your work, and if you are paying attention to the advice you are getting from the untenured people, that individual might even write a letter on your scholarship for your dossier. If you are lucky, someone will offer; but you might have to screw up your courage and ask. People are busy, and sometimes when you feel ignored, it can be the case that when asked to make time for you, they will. But not until then.

The last thing you must remember is that when you become a tenured person, and you hire visitors, remember how others treated you and improve on it. When you are untenured, and get a job, remember that the visitor in the office next door isn't someone who "didn't make the grade." It's someone who wants a chance to show who they are, and what they can do.

Just like you did.

Oh yeah: and just because I would not be here without their kindness and advice, I would like to give a very belated shout out to Don, Jane, Demie, Drew, Michelle (and the other SWAPS), Carroll, Stephen, Ruth, Mike, Lisa, Evelyn and Marc.


Anonymous said...

TR: I knew you'd have some very wise things to say on this matter so thank you for taking time to reflect back on what it felt like to be "visiting". I am especially happy to read your encouragement about attending lectures given by invited speakers. I already have a few on the calendar but wondered if I'd be as invisible there as I feel in the dept. I guess that's ultimately up to me, right? And working in my campus office more, well, that's just obvious. But it's challenging because I have a great office set up at home, from which I worked during the past two years while adjuncting in the same city because they made me share a crappy little office with a twenty-year-old computer with other adjuncts and/or TAs. I now have this huge, gorgeous office and need to begin making it mine, but I don't feel like I deserve it, somehow, so it's not like I've really claimed it as my space. This is in part due to the fact that I am visiting at an institution I could never hope for a t-t job at--several tiers above where I got the PhD. (Do I need therapy?)

This weekend I am forcing myself to attend the fall departmental party. This will be a good opp. to meet those whom I have not yet met, but I would be lying if I said I didn't have anxiety about going. One of the new faculty members is someone who I once took a class from in the early days of grad school, some 11-12 yrs ago (and three jobs ago for her). I really hope she'll be there and remember me. I might feel legit if she says something like, "Wow, I'm so impressed you finished and ended up here. Let's have lunch sometime and dish about the pigs at the old institution."

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous,

We all need therapy. If your health plan pays for it, get it, even if you think you have little to say. Start with your mother.

But seriously -- using your new office does not mean abandoning your beloved home office -- and you can get into the swing of things at your job without overinvesting in a job that is temporary. And viz this former teacher of yours: I find, even at my age, it is wise to begin with: "You may not remember me, but..." and also know who you are going to talk to next. Old social hint from grad school days: if you see this former acquaintence you are talking to start to look over your shoulder, say graciously, "Excuse me, I need to say hello to Y before I go!" and rush off. In other words, dump her before she dumps you. It will make you feel very powerful.

Good luck!


ks said...

You crack me up.

Oso Raro said...

Pretty good stuff here. In the race to make the grade, many of us act like the latest starlet when we crash-land on the tenure track and start high-hatting any who seem below is, inculcating shrewdly the unpleasant dynamic of the institution. But the heart of the matter, as you point out, is that visiting and post-doc folks can offer vital perspectives and be strong colleagues, as well as become good friends.

And, any social or professional event is also a moment to network in whatever way one can. As much as butt-munching Big-Time Visitor, networking is also making a thoughtful comment, looking alert, and being optimistic AND active. Just being nice and present, smiling mysteriously, won't cut it. You gotta open that mouth. I recommend mints (Altoid Minis are my current favourite) at talks, so you're always extra fresh!

And let's face it, some visiting positions have more opportunity for this than others. Private institutions usually are more clubby, in my experience, than huge R1s where visitors and adjuncts are just passing thru a revolving door. So it is also important to understand the lay of the land, and work it as appropriate. As important as some of the points here are, at some places you'd be wasting your breath, so focus on what is important and move on, taking your paycheck and keeping your eyes on the horizon.

Anonymous said...

TR, thanks so much for this post. It makes me feel good to reflect that I did a lot of these things instinctively while I was on a one-year visiting position at a SLAC, and reminds me that there's a lot I can do along these lines at the R1 where I just picked up a course for next semester. (Also, I am reminded that there are quite a few people at the SLAC I'd like to catch up with, including an IT person who's one of those humanities Ph.D.s you mentioned, a librarian, and a colleague who has since moved on to another place.)

The Combat Philosopher said...

TR, your advice here is good. Your advice on the IT people is especially important. More on that in a moment.

However, I would add to this list the janitors and the office staff. All too often, these are the people who hold the real power. They also have their own information systems. What is going on with 'famous prof who is now acting odd'? It will be the office staff and janitors who will know about the medical conditions and the personal situations. Many line faculty (if they are none too on the ball) treat these people badly. Yet, they often can hold the keys to the kingdom. They are also often extremely interesting in their own rights and have a wealth of wisdom, having been (relatively) passive observers for many years. Getting to know them should not be underestimated.

As for the IT staff, these folks are real power players. If they do not like you and you have a problem, they can make your machine disappear for months at a time. On the other hand, if you are nice and polite to them they can sort problems very fast. A word of warning though, if you are a computer novice, then admit it! There is nothing they hate more than the person with a small amount of knowledge, who pretends otherwise. That is the short route to the techno 'kiss of death'.

To cite two concrete and real examples, there is an upitty adjunct who will wait 3 weeks to have their computer connected to our campus networks, when it could be done in 5 seconds. The problem? They were rude and demanding and their chair is a techno-fool was also overly demanding. Result, they both get screwed. Simple common sense would dictate otherwise, but this pair of idiots did not know any better.

In another case, a tenured faculty member lied about their rank on their web page (they never got promoted beyond Assistant, but claim "Assitant/Associate"). Consequence, no support. The tech guys track this stuff. They also hate presumption. So, currently, requests for minor assitance from this individual are answered 'eventually' (the current requirement is 3 calls). However, the techs are waiting for 'the big one' (which they know is coming). For that they are working on a 'healer, heal thy self!' line. The tech folks hate fakes. (Needless to say, the tech folks and I get on like a house on fire -- this is how I know such things)

The point here though is that there are many people, who are not tenured, or of (full) Professor rank, who can make a huge difference to the quality of life. One can learn a great deal from these people. Asking them about their 'war stories' can be especially instructive, if only for a 'visiting' person to learn about the mistakes to avoid.

The Combat Philosopher

Anonymous said...

Yes, don't be too optimistic about the IT people. They may be willing to help. Or they may be people who think they should have been professors and get spit on all the time by professors and so they take it out on the people they can.

Anonymous said...

TR, thanks for posting this.

Siva Vaidhyanathan said...

Hey, TR. I will never forget the generosity and friendship you extended to me when I was a visiting prof at Zenith way back in the last century.

Like for you, that year helped launch what has turned out to be a very nice career. I learned good habits and met some great role models up there.

Keep fighting the good fight!