What it’s like to be a new faculty member

Andy here –

I just finished my first semester at Sam Houston State University (Sam for short). My position is a temporary one. I have a contract to teach there for a single academic year (Visiting Assistant Professor). The ‘load’ is a 3/3, three sections each semester. I teach two sections of Historical Geology, together about 90 students. In the fall I taught about 23 students in my Stratigraphy & Sedimentation course, and in the Spring I’ll have 20-30 in my Paleontology of Invertebrates course. I’m also the instructor for the upper-level labs. Sam treats labs as a part of the same course, while many other places consider the labs a separate, so in another University or College this would be a 4/4 (four classes taught per semester). I have not taught any of these courses before, though I was a teaching assistant (TA) for a course at the University of Massachusetts that was essentially a combination of all three courses I’m currently teaching.

Preparing 11 hours of lectures or activities a week, a total of ~165 hours (that’s roughly a week) of talking and guiding folks through science, is a brutal non-stop experience. Here are a few things to expect:

You are going to be seriously bad at it.

I was the top TA at UMass in Geology for a while, at least according to the award and recognition I got. When I lectured for Physical Geology I had students say “He’s the best professor I’ve had at UMass”. I was invited to talk to the incoming TA cohort about how to be a good instructor by the University one year. I am really good.

I was not good this semester. I know this. More than just an ‘aw, I wanted to do better’, I was just an acceptable instructor. My Sed/Strat class barely got to Stratigraphy even though I personally am a stratigrapher.

You will make some really harsh choices.

I knew that I had to spend more time on one course than another. I could either do a boring, mediocre job on both, or do a passable job in one and a crummy job in the other. I have 90 students for two semesters in my intro class (~180 total) and only 23 in Sed/Strat. Historical is the last time many of these students are going to be exposed to science in a classroom. Therefore, I view it as a moral imperative to do a decent — no, a good — job on that course.

I chose to spend more time crafting a Historical course. Making that choice was horrible, and I could tell that that my upper-class students knew I was phoning in some days. There were occasional times where I managed to work far enough ahead in Historical that I could spend time developing an interesting day in Sed/Strat. When that happened, the difference in the room was noticeable. I had students come to my office and tell me that it was a much better lecture and fascinating. It sucks to realize that you are failing a certain section. Make your peace with that, because it will happen. Maybe not catastrophic, but significant issues will happen, even.

You will burn out long before the students.

Before Thanksgiving I was just destroyed. In a single day four or five different students told me that I looked tired and asked if I was ok. It’s honestly hard to write about that because the burnout was so bad. I have never experienced that level before. One evening I went basically catatonic on the couch. It was, frankly, scary.

The only reason I’m still standing is that I made time for my family and slept over our Thanksgiving break. My wife and I went to a movie, the three of us went to the zoo, had a nice Thanksgiving. [Note: this was written in between the last lecture and finals.]

You will fail your family.

I, with all the stress, was a less patient father, quicker to loud frustration with my four year old. My daughter picks up on that and has become more quick to loud frustration as well. I was also, equally as apparent, not the husband that my wife deserves. I wasn’t able to listen to her problems as I was constantly going over new tactics to reach students, or designing activities, or worried I was not communicating important ideas. Even while not actively working, you’ll have enough of a stress level that you aren’t shutting down. It’s a tough thing to live through, but it’s apparently equally difficult to cohabitate with it.

Yes, it can be harder than the end of your dissertation.

Remember graduate school? Remember the push to your dissertation, when you didn’t sleep, you got heart palpitations because of all the caffeine? When you stopped taking care of yourself because you just didn’t have the willpower or time? When you got writing tunnel vision and all you saw when you slept was the blinking cursor of Word?

This is that, but instead of just your partner, your family, your advisor, or whomever, if you fail you aren’t just letting those about 10 people down, you’re letting down the hundred or so students, the professors that get them next who need to clean up your mess. The students don’t understand the stress that you are under. It will not occur to them, even if they personally are naturally disposed to empathy.

“Dr. Fraass, why do you look so tired, it’s almost finals. We’re stressed, but aren’t the professors basically done?”

“…. No, I have two interviews to prepare for, a conference that I’m presenting at and organizing a session, and I also need to write two exams, grade them, then figure out final grades.”

“Oh.”

Your students will hate you.

I am a friendly person; I like to think of myself as very personable. If departmental culture didn’t dictate me using Dr. Fraass, I’d have all the students call me Andy, just like the departments I was in as undergrad and grad. I have students in classes that come and sit down during my office hours to chat, or make appointments for mentorship.

I was shown a private chat thread some of my students had going about the class at one point. Many of them hate me. I’m too hard, I don’t explain things, I don’t care, on and on. For the record, I hold nothing against those folks, at all.

With more than 200 people making an impression of you every year, many of them are going to hate your guts, particularly when you control their grades. Yes, some of it is griping or venting, or simply individuals dealing with stressful situations, not everybody likes everybody else. Nobody is 100% likable. With an N of >200, even 1% means somebody is going to be mad for a full semester. Factor in that when you start you’re going to hold folks to a standard different than other faculty, and it’s probably well over 1%.

Sit with that feeling. It sucks, but that’s part of the job.

What is this thing you call research?

I got the tiniest bit of research done. Even that was overly ambitious, but with a Geological Society of America talk and an invited American Geophysical Union talk to prepare for, I didn’t have a choice. I read a single (1!) paper this entire semester. It described the creation of a database, but didn’t have a strong analytical aspect to it, so it wasn’t like it was even a complicated paper to read.

I doubt I’m a unique case. Just accept that there’s a pause and you can’t do anything about it.

Advice

Create set pieces.

I am a stratigrapher, a paleoceanographer, a paleontologist, and a member of a number of other little subfields of geology. The most important issue of our time, and in my classes, is climate change. I carved out time to develop impactful lectures on past and modern climate change. I also spent time throughout the semester preparing for a week long mock-UN climate negotiation game.  It isn’t ideal, but by deploying a really intense, interactive game in a confined window, it minimized the amount of time I needed to prepare, while still giving the students an experience. I had them fill out cards, so I know it made a heck of an impact on several of them. I plan on developing a game for evolution myself (a significant minority of my students come to me as creationists, due to a lack of understanding science and evolution itself) since that worked so well.

It also feels great to really nail the ever living hell out of something. You are good at what you do, but much of the semester is going to be spent feeling like you’re not doing a good job. Doing a lecture about something that you really care about is going to remind you that you can be a good, or even great, instructor.

Get into a faculty writing circle.

Getting your next job, or tenure, requires publishing. Without the faculty writing circle I got in, I would have gotten no research done. A faculty writing circle is a group of faculty that come together once a week and meet to talk about research and writing. It helps to provide some accountability to be productive during the week. I still only managed 30 minutes on a really good day, but that’s more than nothing. Teaching is a massive time suck, and there is always more work that can be done to do better. Having a group of folks that constantly encouraged me to do more writing, more research, helped with the pull from the students and my department.

You have to look out for yourself. You won’t be active in publishing, but try!

Manage your stress.

Ride your bike to work. Do yoga, play video games to shoot some Nazis for that cathartic release. Find something that you can do to help manage stress because this is going to be rougher than you expect.

And I’d expect it to be really, really rough.

Have a shutdown time.

There’s been a 8:00 PM work-stop time in my family since my time working towards a MS degree. I can’t sleep for hours after I stop plugging hard on something, so if I stop at 8 I have some time to slow my brain down. It also gives me time with my wife, even if it’s just watching Brooklyn 99 or The Defenders. Work will be there in the morning, and you’ll be able to teach better if you sleep.

Teaching isn’t writing. Your students will be able to tell if you aren’t in the moment. If you’re on 4 hours sleep, you won’t be in the moment. You’ll be on autopilot. They will be too.

Be as specific as possible when writing exam questions.

Technically amphibians are ancestral to a dinosaur, but the answer is archosaur, man. Give me a break. Also make your answer keys as you write the test. It’ll save time in the future.

Be OK with a bad lecture.

They will exist. They will happen. You’ll have bad weeks or a bad month. Students will stop showing up, even after just one. It’s ok. My attendance was ~50% when attendance wasn’t a part of the their grade (Normal Sam attendance with it being a part of their grade is much lower.) You are there to do your best, no matter how many are in the room. I gave mine 5% of their grade just for showing up to the last week of school, which I told them about for the entire semester. Only 58% showed up for the full week. You can only do so much.

You have some time to fix things that come up. There is time, because you’re creating this material on the fly, to revise how you’re developing materials. I changed the format of my exams after my first in Sed/Strat. I changed how I was giving out review materials too. Don’t go overboard, though. Think of it as refining your aim, rather than shooting at a different target.

That said, strive to do better. A bad lecture is something to fix next time, and to try to do what you can to not have it happen again. But it will. Keep notes on what didn’t work, or what did. I wish I had, it’d be worth the time.

Lean into the lecture format.

They’re faster to prepare. It just is. They aren’t the most effective, the students don’t react well to them as they’ll bury themselves in their phones.

Do what you can. Don’t lecture when you have something great, but be ok with them. You are in survival mode.

I want to leave you with one thing. I was talking to a friend a little while ago. She, being far smarter than I, told me:

The first year isn’t about hitting a homerun. It’s about getting on base.


Survive. Learn from your mistakes if you can, but most importantly: Survive.

That’s the best you can do.

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