A week ago I posted "10 pieces of advice to former self", or "10 things I wish I knew when starting my TT position", as a Twitter thread. It turned to be a double failure: it didn't get any traction on Twitter, and yet it worried some of my colleagues, who thought that some of my statements “might be misconstrued”, and who were kind enough to reach out to me and say that. Basically, my “advice” sounded too negative and controversial.
I am not quite sure what to make of it: maybe I’m just not good in Twitter, or maybe indeed these topics just don’t project to Twitter format well. After all, any “advice to new faculty” is bound to be at least somewhat counter-intuitive, and thus, potentially, controversial, just by virtue of being a piece of advice. If something is obvious, it doesn’t get a chance to become advice, as everybody know it and agree with it to begin with. There’s no need of reminding people that they need to work more. However sometimes you may have to remind people to work less, or to shift priorities in some not-so-obvious way. Maybe Twitter is just not that good for that sort of nuanced provocative controversy.
Also, any attempt to give advice to “former self” may sound bitter. Revisiting failures, even relative, even perceived, is never pleasant. There’s a saying in Russian: “to bite one’s own elbows”, which means “to obsess about past decisions that can no longer be changed”. I’m guessing it is some sort of a meta-joke, at a folk linguistic scale, as obviously biting one’s elbows is physically impossible, making it into an awesome metaphor of anxiety-driven internal struggle. And casting bitterness and anxiety into 280-character sluggets just does not sound right.
So, here comes a take two: I’ll try to post same unsolicited “pieces of advice” as a series of blog posts. With more background, and more thoughts on the topics.
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The piece of advice number one:
- Don’t obsess about teaching. Remember that teaching occupies all space, time, and heart available. Fight it! You cannot make everyone happy, and you WILL get better with time, provided that you collect feedback and reflect. Fight to contain teaching strictly within 4 days a week!
Let me begin by saying that, of course, I heard this advice repeatedly when I started at Bard. it is, I believe, an integral part of any honest orientation for new faculty in a teaching-oriented institution. It may sound counter-intuitive, as aren’t faculty in a teaching institution supposed to care a lot about teaching? But that’s exactly the problem: they care about teaching a lot, they are chosen for this job by this very criterion, they are obsessed with teaching. If you, dear reader, have started in a SLAC this year, it means that you are obsessed with teaching!
Moreover, if you are in a STEM field, the chances are that you’re coming here from a postdoc. As a postdoc, you always wanted to teach, but probably could not dedicate enough time to it, and also, probably, you didn’t have the freedom to develop your own courses the way you wanted. So now you feel exhilarated; drunk on freedom. At least in my school, one can craft their syllabus pretty much any way they want, within some very reasonable limits, which is awesome, and scary, and awesome!
But the trick with teaching is that while it is fun, it is also a trap. For two reasons. One, it is a very open-ended task. You cannot be “done” with teaching on any particular week, you can always do more. You can read a bit more, develop a few more assignments, provide some personalized feedback, rework your next class, so on and so forth. There is no natural arc to your activities on any given week: there’s only the law of marginal returns that gradually fades your efforts into the fog. First hour of preparation is critical, the second one matters, the third adds some polish, the fourth takes care of details… There is no logical end-line to it, yet at some point you need to stop.
What makes it even worse, is that while teaching what you love, and especially when teaching it for the first few times, you cannot see this line clearly. You don’t have enough experience, and also you are blinded by the swarm of possibilities in your head. So the only trick I know is to set very hard, and very artificial limits on time periods you allow yourself to spend on teaching and prepping. These days, I have a target, trying to fit all teaching in 3 days, leaving 1 day for service, and 1 day for research. I also have a hard limit, in which teaching is restricted to 4 days, while for one day all teaching-related activities are forbidden. I have to admit that I failed to stick to my own plan on two weeks this semester already: during the mid-ways, and now, as the semester is ending. But at least I’m trying.
Another aspect of teaching that turns it into a trap, I guess, would not apply to all, but it does apply to people like me: those with a narcissistic streak, and high anxiety. Teaching is about interacting with people (students). The only way to get better in it is to listen to feedback: formal and informal, verbal and behavioral, solicited and spontaneous. Which means that you are sort of supposed to care about what other people think about you. Well, technically you are supposed to care about 1) how good your teaching is, and 2) what other non-student people think about how good your teaching is, which is not exactly the same. But because attitude towards you affects attitude towards your teaching, and because at this point you probably identify with your teaching, and because you are constantly “plugged into” this stream of feedback from students, it is a breeding ground for anxiety and impostor syndrome. Which makes you spend 150% of your time on teaching. Which is, again, a trap, and does not even help you with becoming a better teacher, necessarily.
Of course I was told all that. I wish somebody was more tough with me though, when I was only starting. Some people told me that “having 1 day for research is a good target”, but some said: “forget about doing any research during the semester”. These conflicting messages made me really confused about whether having a research day is even possible. I’ve seen it on some people’s calendars, but not on others. I wish somebody had pulled me away, shook me a bit by the shoulders, and told me in a no-nonsense way: fight for this day! Keep one day sacred. Don’t do any teaching on this day. If you start prepping in the morning, you won’t be able to stop. You day will be gone. Don’t do it. Contain it! I’m not sure I would have listened, but maybe it would have helped ;)