Ask the grumpies: New Faculty triage

Stacie asks:

I said something today in a faculty meeting and now (7 hours later) am starting to freak out about it. I was wondering if I could get some advice and/or comfort.

The rundown: My department does not have a workload document. Combine this with when I asked my Chair about my promotion requirements I was told “3, 4, 5, or 6 articles and being a good member of the community.” My Chair talks in riddles and is very evasive. It is very difficult to get hard numbers/fact out of zir and there is a tendency for zir to get upset if you go to the Dean to ask questions w/out ze’s permission.

When I talk to other faculty they seem to also be confused and irritated by the lack of a workload document or say they have never heard of such a thing, but think it would be useful – however, when I brought it up in faculty meeting today, I received ZERO support from them. I tried to give the example that this is something that helps prevent inequitable loads and is a good idea and NOBODY liked the use of the word inequitable and they started shaking their heads. The chair said “we, at this institution, would never let that happen.” This is complete and utter BS, but everyone just nodded and smiled along w/ the chair and I felt like I looked like a huge troublemaker. Yet, I’ve heard them ALL complain about unfair workloads. So now I’m worried that they think I (new faculty) think I am overloaded and they will think ill of me bringing this up.

Overall, I am feeling like I can’t win and am wondering what my strategy should be? I vacillate between “speak my truth” since I’ll be criticized no matter what I do or fall in line, don’t speak, and be miserable along with many of my other faculty members.

Do you have suggestions regarding feedback/composure/assessment of personal contributions related to faculty meeting participation?

I’m so confused!

There are a number of things going on here:  How much should new faculty talk at meetings?  How should faculty talk at meetings?   How do you figure out what expectations are for you without getting overloaded?  Should there be a written document of expectations?  Should there be a general idea of expectations?

We have to admit that one of us has also not heard of a workload document, which appears to be one of those documents that breaks apart expectations into Full Time Equivalents (FTE) and details how many FTE should be devoted to service, teaching, and research.  As Stacie notes, these are used to clarify the desired distribution of effort and to create consistency.  How well they work at either is unknown, but at least if you’ve been given an unfair load, you can use the document to point out the inequity (and that might give you further confidence to say no to things when you’re already overloaded).

The other of us has a workload document.  They seem to be popular with unionized faculty, which makes sense as they can demand them, and are more common with schools that are not top-10 research institutions.  At-will states and top research institutions want to keep that extra flexibility.  They want to be able to let go someone who hits all the boxes but doesn’t make a big enough “impact” or to keep someone that is on the margins, but everybody likes.  (And, recent research suggests this will have a positive impact on white guys, less so on everybody else.)  It’s much harder to do things that are unfair if you have documentation explaining what fair is, and places don’t like to give that up.  Additionally, fields move, things change, budget cuts create more service, research expectations creep up… some places don’t want to have to change this document every year to match the new reality.  (You may have noticed that meetings and getting people to agree are difficult.)  There are strong reasons that administration is resistant to creating such a written contract.

So, given that a written document is unlikely to happen, how can you figure out how much service you should be doing?  There are a couple of ways to go about this.  You can, as you’ve done, observe how much service everybody else is doing, keeping in mind that you should be doing less than what full and associate professors are doing.  Don’t take an average, but look at the lowest amount of service someone is doing, then the next lowest until you hit someone that nobody is complaining about as selfish.  You can also do the minimum until someone tells you that’s a problem, and then you can step up based on feedback.  Do you have annual reviews that discuss your progress on service, teaching, and research?  The standard recommendations for junior service apply– do something visible, important, that has a finite number of meetings and accomplishes something.  I like admissions, but there are other similar committees.  Volunteer for the good service so you can say you can’t to the bad service.

So what if they think you think you’re overloaded?  You probably are overloaded!  If they stop asking  you to do additional service, that’s a good thing!  Why do you think so many people complain about service loads to begin with?  If you don’t have enough service, you can always volunteer for something.

In terms of whether you should speak up at faculty meetings… The standard advice is to keep your head down for half a year to a year until you understand the lay of the land.  Some suggest keeping a low profile until tenure.  Our suggestion is to do a cost-benefit analysis.  #1 often spoke up at early faculty meetings, including one memorable time when we were going on and on and on complaining about another department and she flat out said that she didn’t want to be part of a faculty that always focused on the negative, and unless there was something we could do about these problems, that we should stop wasting time ranting.  Also that we should think of them as our allies rather than enemies as we’re all on the same side.  (She said it a little more politely, but not much more.)  #1 was able to do that because she really was willing, at that point, to seek new employment if she was going to have to listen to bitching for a minimum of two hours every month.  #2 spoke up frequently, but also accidentally offended some people pre-tenure because of it, even though I was being very polite and professional.  They’re just touchy.  But I apologized and it worked out.

If you’re going to speak up, you need to be willing to deal with the consequences.  What is your walk-away point?  And remember, the more you focus on those 4, 5, 6 articles, the more likely you’ll be able to walk-away to a better position.

In terms of how to communicate, a certain level of detachment helps.  Stay calm, rational, not frustrated.  #1 is reading an excellent book now called, Crucial Conversations— get yourself a copy!  At some point I will write a more detailed review on it.  The first step the book recommends is to think hard about what you are really trying to accomplish– in this case, the work document isn’t your main objective, it’s knowing what your expected service load is and to make sure you do not have an unfairly large load.  A work document would help that goal, and have positive spillovers for others, but there are ways to work within the current system that will help you achieve that goal as well.

Other general things to remember, use “I” statements instead of “You” statements, remember that you’re all on the same team, don’t just vent to vent, try to find solutions and create action items.  A good mantra is, “stay professional,” especially when those around you are not.  One sneaky thing I’ve been doing lately is mirroring language of the person I’m talking to– that’s supposed to promote buy-in.

#2 suggests reading a Ms. Mentor book that will tell you some advice about meetings and soothing ruffled senior feathers.  Not everyone agrees with her, but it’s a useful perspective.  Ms. Mentor might say that the problem was that you made the senior faculty take a stand in front of everyone without asking them first.  When you had conversations about “wouldn’t a workload policy be great”, you might have also asked, “Would you be willing to spearhead a committee to write one?”  Maybe they don’t care enough to put in the time and work, in which case, they’re not going to be much help in a meeting.  As a junior person, chairing such a committee yourself is asking for trouble and for people to get grudges against you, both faculty and administrators — don’t do it.  But maybe you can orchestrate for someone else to do it.  Otherwise, you’ll have to wait it out and publish, publish, publish.

Another tip:  senior faculty tend to like to be asked for advice.

All in all, don’t worry too much about this faculty meeting.  It will blow over.  We suggest stopping pushing on the work document, at least until they can’t fire you anymore.  You have better things to do than to sit on interminable meetings trying to figure out what such a document would look like anyway.  Focus on your research, getting the minimum teaching evals, and doing the minimum service.  If you can’t figure out what the minimum service is, wait until someone says you’re doing too little and then step up your game.

Good luck!

Grumpy Nation:  Are we totally off-base?  What advice would you give Stacie?

13 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: New Faculty triage”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Two things I have learned:

    (1) Never bring something up in a meeting that you don’t already have a very good sense of what the response will be, either because the matter is straightforward, or because you have had prior one on one discussions with the relevant people.

    (2) If you’re at a research university, the relevant audience for your performance is your peers in your field, not your institutional colleagues.

  2. The Frugal Ecologist Says:

    Good advice on the service front. I would second the recommendation to do the minimum service (see what your male junior colleagues are doing) and to volunteer for something you want to do, so that you can say no to the rest of the stuff.

    I have also never heard of a workload document. My department and college is quite transparent in what each % FTE requires though. Each 20% teaching = one 3 hour course and each 20% Research = 1 first authored paper per year. I am very appreciative of these guidelines.

  3. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    The promotion and tenure guidelines of my institution are laughably vague. They basically say that excellence in teaching, research, and service are expected, and that different people will achieve excellence with different balances among them. But the good part is that they make sure to point out that there is no level of teaching and/or service excellence that can make up for research that is less than outstanding.

  4. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    What CPP says about meetings.

    About workload documents: they do appear to be getting more popular, but not necessarily for the reason you might expect. At least in some circumstances, they are not really about the faculty; they are a CYA device designed to be deployed against encroaching state legislatures. LRU’s administrative structure has actually had legislators say to them, “So explain again why faculty can’t teach more than 4 courses per semester.” (LRU is a research university. The legislature doesn’t care. They think all faculty do, or should do, is teach, and they count classroom hours, not prep and grading hours.) In self-defense, all LRU units—departments, interdisciplinary divisions, colleges, and the university as a whole—are now working on workload documents that will make clear what the work of a professor is, and what we do that is not classroom teaching yet is equally important to the running of a university.

    Now, YMMV, especially if, as n&m suggest, you have a union. In that case, the workload document may really be something you can wave at a chair or a dean. But if you’re at a school like LRU, that’s really not going to fly.
    My general advice for junior faculty is to steer a course shy of paranoia but in the direction of figuring out how things have historically worked before getting all up in arms about something. It is true that there are departments where paranoia is necessary—but they may not be so common as you might think. Everybody in your new place has been getting stuff done for years, the place hasn’t fallen apart, and they’re used to doing things in a certain way. They may have just reformed something and they’re waiting to see how it works; or they just reformed something else and they’re tired; or they reformed something and it worked badly so they’re reluctant to try again and make something worse. IOW, it’s not about you. Don’t make it about you.

  5. Stacie Says:

    Thank you for the feedback… It is really nice to hear that others have vague promotion requirements because then I can “let go” of that issues and just focus on my job. There is still a lot to learn… I am actually most surprised to see that there are so many articles about how new faculty should keep quiet and their head down rather than try to intervene and speak up. So… it is a balance I’m learning re: what to care about, prioritize, and speak up about. This was the 2nd thing I had spoken up about and so far they don’t react well to me speaking, in general, so I will have to figure that out. But, a work document I can live without and will choose a different battle. Thanks, all!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh yes– as you saw earlier this week, in our department we’re still arguing about when a book is a book! Nobody really knows what the article path requirements are either, but so far everybody who has gone that path during my time has published enough.


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