What’s it like to be an Assistant Professor? (Research University version)

I often jokingly tell graduate students that I wish someone had told me about the sheer number of meetings I would have to attend as a faculty member — not to dissuade me, but to clue me into the bureaucratic reality of what it’s like to be a faculty member. This is my attempt to distill my experience as a tenure-track assistant professor at two large, state research universities and the lessons I learned about the reality of what being an assistant professor is like with an eye towards preparing future faculty for the everyday reality of professorship. As usual, it’s largely based only on my experience — other people surely have different experiences (even at the same institutions), and the experiences of friends at other kinds of institutions clearly differ from my own.


Briefly, my own institutional biography: I accepted a job at Wayne State University while finishing my dissertation in early 2007. I spent a year there — I actually started teaching in the summer term — and then moved to the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was at UCSC from 2008 through 2015, and went up for tenure there in 2012. So, in total, I spent one year as an assistant at Wayne, and four as an assistant at UCSC. Generally, the experiences were not significantly different in their broad contours.

The big change from being a dissertating graduate student to being a tenure-track faculty member is that you move from being almost entirely self-directed to suddenly being beholden to the needs of others — in the classroom, but also in your department and the university and profession more generally. Usually, this is referred to as “service” and it can include everything from being a department chair, to serving on job search committees, to giving guest lectures in other people’s classes, to serving on M.A. or Ph.D. committees — and so many more permutations, especially outside of one’s departmental home. Service happens at the level of the department, the level of the division, the level of the university, and the level of the profession. So, on the one hand, I had ongoing commitments — like serving on Ph.D. committees, the number of which steadily increased over time — and new, one- and two-year commitments that changed with each academic year. In any given year, I tended to accept two to three new service roles, most of which changed the following year — and these included things like serving on the graduate admissions committee, the professionalization workshop I ran, prize committees for undergraduate and graduate students (both at UCSC and through the Society for Medical Anthropology), the academic review committee for students in danger of being expelled or suspended, the university’s committee on faculty welfare, and a variety of one-off activities (like guest lecturing, serving on external grant agency review panels, and a host of peer-reviewing for journals). On any given week, it probably amounted to 2-4 hours of work and meetings — sometimes, though, it was dramatically more, like when I had to write a report for a committee that I was serving on (which probably took something like 10-15 hours in one week). And any peer-reviewing I did tended to take 3-4 hours, usually once or twice each month.

There are many more meetings — and emails, and telephone calls (still — some people actually want to talk on the phone!) — which range from meeting with eager or delinquent undergraduates, to meeting with current and prospective graduate students, to meeting with teaching assistants, to faculty meetings, to university-level meetings. At Wayne we had biweekly or monthly Friday morning faculty meetings; at UCSC we had nearly weekly faculty meetings on Wednesday afternoons. Most of these meetings required no preparatory work on my part, and on average I would spend 3-5 hours each week in meetings. It could be dramatically more though, especially with university-level and meetings to support the discipline, and in a couple of cases I easily spent 10 or more hours in meetings in one week.

It’s easy to minimize the amount of time it takes to prepare and teach new courses, but it can be all-consuming. At Wayne, I was tasked with teaching a two-semester sequence of theory in medical anthropology at the graduate level — which was an entirely new course and not one that was particularly portable — and also an introduction to cultural anthropology for undergraduates. When I moved to UCSC, none of these classes were usable, in part because at UCSC the senior faculty protected the junior faculty from teaching the very large (~400 students) introduction to cultural anthropology course. But, also, I designed my intro class to resonate with the life experiences of students in Detroit, so a lot of the content would have needed to change as well. When I got to UCSC, I was asked to teach an introduction to medical anthropology course for undergraduates, and from there it was up to me to design my curriculum — so, I came up with graduate courses in science studies and experimentation, and undergraduate classes in the biology of everyday life, medicine & colonialism, and, eventually, I took on the service requirement of teaching the introduction to cultural anthropology, ethnographic methods, and cultural anthropological theory. (You can see my syllabuses on my Teaching page.)

Each of these preps took a few weeks of part-time work before the term began — and in most cases, took a lot of work at the stage when I had to propose the course at the departmental and university levels in order to get approval to offer the class and to garner general education breadth designations. During the term I first offered the class — and to a lesser extent with later iterations — there was significant work throughout the week, reading material, preparing lectures, writing assignments and exams. On top of service requirements, commuting, childcare, running errands, and everything else, this meant that I got very little new writing or research done during the term. (Over time, I was able to develop a rhythm wherein most of my writing and research would get done in terms with old classes or during the summer, and editing work or revisions on articles were saved for the intensive teaching terms.) Only late in my time as an assistant professor did I get to the point where I was teaching classes I had taught before, and then had more time for research and writing — but then started teaching more new classes, and also developed some fatigue related to teaching some of my steady classes. All told, it tended to be about 5 hours per week in the classroom, plus another 15-20 hours per week in preparation, emailing with students, office hours, and other sundry teaching support (which goes down to 5-10 hours per week with a retaught class).

Then there’s things like giving colloquium talks and attending conferences and workshops, all of which can be edifying, but also time consuming. Until The Slumbering Masses came out in 2012, most of my invitations were based on my social network — after the book came out, the invitations started to widen. I developed a rule pretty early on that I wouldn’t give more than one colloquium talk per term and wouldn’t travel to more than one conference per term. I also wouldn’t travel over the Mississippi River more than once per year, since I tended to lose too much time to travel. There were exceptions, but having the rule meant that I really paid attention to my schedule for the year, and that I would try and avoid excessive travel — and maximize the travel I did do. I also tend to only present new work at conferences and colloquia; if I recycled the same talk, I might approach things differently, but given that I was always working to produce new material for talks, I wanted to make sure I had the time to do the necessary writing. In any given week, these kinds of speaking engagements had little effect, but when I was traveling, it tended to take 3-4 days (plus the writing to support the talk).

Publishing also loomed large, and my tenure requirements at both institutions were about the same: a few articles and a book. I tend to write an article or two each year, as well as working on book chapters. I was fortunate to get an advanced book contract rather early, and had a handful of article manuscripts by the time I started at UCSC, so most of the real, anxiety-inducing pressure was off, but I did have to work on actually getting everything written and published. I tend to work in fits and starts rather than in a steady stream of productivity, so I would sometimes work on edits or small writing during the term, but most of the heavy writing was left for periods when I wasn’t teaching. The biggest challenge was writing the book, which took 3-4 months of intensive work — which I spent at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, while my partner was in India doing her own research — and then was followed by another intense period of revisions, which happened about six months later (at which point we had a newborn). That was followed by needing to work with a copy editor and then to correct the proofs of the book. The intensive writing and revision work often took all day, every day that I could fit it in (based on teaching and family schedules); the editing and proofing work also took all day, and because there was often a very small window (like 2 weeks) to turn things around, it often meant squeezing it in whenever I could. And when I’m just writing — articles, book chapters, talks — I tended to work a couple hours each day, but that could be anything from actual writing, to editing, to reading in support of the writing project or transcribing old research. When I could, though, I’d binge on writing and work all day, but that changed significantly after having our first child.

I’ve hinted at it throughout, but it’s worth remembering that there’s all the duties and joys of non-professional life too, and spending time dating or with a partner, parenting, having hobbies, grocery shopping, commuting, talking to your parents, reading for enjoyment, fixing the toilet, cooking, and everything else that life is really all about takes up a lot of time. Developing a schedule to make sure that you’re not just working is vital to staying happy.

I’m pretty low stress, and my departments at Wayne and UCSC were supportive of me and my work, but there was still stress enough during those four years at UCSC for me to develop shingles twice (which my family doctor was sure was stress-related). Know that if you go into the professorial line of work that there are significant demands on your time and all sorts of stressors — but approaching them deliberately can significantly mitigate their effects on you. And make sure you sign up for health insurance — just in case.

The N=1 Article Writing Challenge Starts Today!

Welcome to the inaugural N=1 article writing challenge! The goal is to produce a 6,000-8,000 word article in two weeks, by following these steps: identifying the right journal (and stuff to publish), analyzing a model article, and then writing the conclusion, literature review, case studies and introduction. If you’re participating, please post feedback as comments on the individual steps — or, if you prefer anonymity, send me an email. At some future point, I’ll put together an addendum to the steps, and include material from the comments and emails I receive.

ImageAfter years of editing a journal and serving as a peer reviewer, I’ve become very aware of one critical misstep most authors make: audiences are important. One of the things my steps to article writing try and address is how to conceptualize your audience and write for it. Having a clear sense of who you’re writing for and why can speed up the writing process — both in terms of working from scratch and revising the article when it comes back from the journal for revisions (which it will, and that’s perfectly normal).

The biggest challenge I see among junior academics is knowing what to publish. Most people seem to think that they need to make a big splash right off the bat. But that’s both unrealistic and misguided. If it’s in your dissertation, it’s probably worth publishing — especially if no one has written about it before; it just needs to find the right audience. The ‘big splash’ is generally intended for your whole discipline, and that can wait. What you need in your first couple of publications is to endear yourself to your subfield or regional colleagues, and publishing about obscure events or cases from your research is a great first step. So don’t get hung up on what to publish — find the audience you want to write for, and then figure out what they might be interested in. It’s in your dissertation, so use it.

Godspeed in your writing — and let me know how the steps are working for you!

The Mysterious Teaching Statement, Part 1

This is the first of a two part series on teaching statements. In this entry, I focus on my own expectations as a reader of teaching statements; in a future installment, I’ll present similar expectations from colleagues at other institutions.

My general sense of teaching statements as part of the job application process is that they’re principally used to separate the wheat from the chaff — that is, they’re used to disqualify job seekers on the basis of having little or no actual teaching experience, which can often be seen in teaching statements that include phrases like: ‘I embrace the Socratic method’ or ‘I believe that research papers are important in every class.’ Those are clear red flags that the author of the statement has spent little or no time in a university classroom, and might not be the best person for the job.


That all being said, I do think there are some key things to cover in a teaching statement, and they are (in no particular order): 1) how you would approach teaching a ‘service’ course, 2) the curriculum that you bring with you (including courses on the books that you’re prepared to teach), 3) examples of your actual classroom practice, and 4) your approach to research or mentoring experiences. I don’t think they necessarily need to appear in that order — it should be organic in its presentation — but as a reader, that’s the stuff I would want to see.

So, to explicate a bit:

Service classes are things like Intro to Your Discipline, Methods, Theory, and maybe Intro to Your Area or Subfield. Every department offers these classes, and they’re often the staples of the curriculum. Seeing that a job applicant has taken the time to think about their approach to one of these classes shows that the applicant has thought about one of the likely courses they’ll be facing in the short term; it also serves as a good way to see what makes a job applicant characteristic in their thought. For example (and please forgive the italics):

I’m committed to teaching Anthropological Theory, which, as I teach it, focuses on the relationship of imperial centers of thought and the colonies; as much as I find it necessary to include canonical figures and topics, I also include a number of thinkers from the postcolonies — anthropologists and not — in an effort to make evident to students how anthropological theory arises in dialogue with local forms of thought and expertise. Rather than organize the course historically, with theory progressing from Boas to the present, I instead structure the class around current ethnographies to make evident how anthropologists both produce and engage with anthropological — and cultural — theory. For example, I’ve recently begun teaching Elizabeth Povinelli’s Empire of Love as a way to approach ideas about globalization, postcoloniality, and indigenous rights. Alongside Povinelli’s work, we read pieces from Walter Mignolo, Achille Mbembe, Franz Fanon, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Spivak, and anthropologists George Marcus, Aiwha Ong, and Anna Tsing. Students are asked to stage debates between anthropologists and their interlocutors, and, to do so, are tasked with uncovering and explaining the theoretical underpinnings to their arguments.

A paragraph like that lets your reader know that you’re willing to tackle a service class, and that you’re able to bend it to your own strengths. Moreover, it also gives your reader a sense of your perspectives as a teacher, which may vary significantly from your presentation of yourself as a researcher. For instance, I don’t think my commitment to global knowledge production is necessarily apparent in my description of my own work (which is largely U.S.-based, and pretty Continental in its theoretical influences). That being said, being honest about my approach might not make me friends among faculty who think that Anthropological Theory begins with Boas and ends with Sahlins…

On the subject of your perspective as a teacher, it’s worth thinking about what 3-4 classes you could offer a department on a two year cycle. Most departments will expect faculty to teach 1-2 service classes each year (or more), but also give you some flexibility about upper level courses, particularly tied to your training and interests. For example, although I’m tasked with teaching Intro to Medical Anthropology every other year (as well as another service class) at UCSC, I also offer at least two classes that are directly keyed to my research. So, I often teach a course entitled The Biology of Everyday Life as well as a class on Medicine and Colonialism. It’s worth including a sentence or two about each of the classes.

In addition to teaching Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Ethnographic Methods, and Anthropological Theory, I am also interested in regularly offering classes related to medical anthropology and science studies. My Intro to Medical Anthropology is structured around four ethnographies, one each on Western biomedicine, Indian Ayurveda, African ‘folk’ medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. My interest in exposing students to these four traditions is to unsettle their ideas about the lack of history of Western medicine and the naturalness of non-Western practices. I find that students often naively assume that non-Western practices are more authentic, and also, paradoxically, acultural. Situating these four traditions alongside one another exposes how each is historical, cultural and influenced by contemporary politics and concerns. I follow some of the concerns presented in this Introduction in Medicine and Colonialism, in which I focus the class on the use of colonies as a space for experimenting with medicine, subjectivity and governance. My Biology of Everyday Life class allows me to teach content related to my research on sleep, but put into a broader theoretical context regarding how basic biological functions — reproduction, eating, defecation, breathing — become the basis for subjection and politics across societies and history. Additionally, I regularly offer topically focused seminars in medical anthropology and science studies; over the last five years, they have focused on ‘risk and insurance,’ ‘chronic illness,’ and ‘the brain.’

If it hasn’t already been covered, it’s also useful to explain how your classrooms are organized and what kinds of expectations you have of students:

My classes are highly regimented, and through a combination of reading questions (that ask students to identify key concepts in the readings and provide examples from other class readings) and reading guides (a set of questions designed to help students identify an author’s thesis, evidence, and theoretical commitments) I help students work through difficult empirical and theoretical texts. Because the courses I teach are often very theoretically focused, I regularly quiz students and rely on extensive exams to assess their knowledge of the course material. Students who take multiple classes with me and excel in them are offered the opportunity to write a research paper instead of taking quizzes and tests, and I ask them to write ethnological papers, relying in part on HRAF. Across my classes, I work to include documentaries, podcasts, and other multimedia learning experiences; between these media exercises and the format of my classes, I am able to engage students from diverse backgrounds and with varied learning styles.

Reading that paragraph makes it apparent that I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the classroom and that I know what my teaching style is. Near the beginning of your teaching career, it’s difficult to be so succinct and honest; instead, it might be best to take a look at syllabuses from faculty you’ve worked with. See what kinds of assignments they use, and, if you can, see how their assignments and classroom policies have changed over time. Often, by the time someone has taught for a decade, their teaching becomes fairly stable — so try and find an early associate or late assistant professor and take a look at their syllabuses for a few years of classes. And, if you can, look at some of their exams and other assignments to get a sense of what they actually ask students to do.

Finally, you should have a paragraph about your research opportunities for students, as well as your mentoring style. For primarily undergraduate institutions, the former is more important; for institutions where you’re be interacting with graduate students, the latter is more important (to the degree that you might cut any discussion of undergrads).

Much of my mentoring at UCSC has been designed around the problems that many students experience, and my own recent memory of being a graduate student. Broadly, I provide students with ongoing, direct intellectual support, as well as professional development opportunities, with the intent being that by the time they have earned their Ph.D. they will have published one or more articles, and they will have begun to work on a variety of individual and collaborative projects. In the category of intellectual support, I offer a monthly reading seminar for my graduate students, wherein we read an article or excerpts from a book of mutual interest, and use this as a centerpiece for our conversation; we then segue into conversations about individual work, and the status of writing projects. Along similar lines, I offer a professionalization seminar that runs fortnightly over the course of the school year, offering from 15 meetings. We cover topics such as writing job letters and preparing curriculum vitae to dealing with problem students and syllabus development, to writing articles and planning publishing trajectories. It’s a demanding seminar, but the students who participate find their anxieties about the transition from student to professional to be much less stressful through my demystification efforts.

Taken together, the document should be 1-2 single spaced pages. If the institution asks for ‘evidence of teaching effectiveness’ or has some other way to ask about teaching evaluations, it’s better to summarize what you have in a page or two (included representative comments from students) than it is to include copies of evaluations (which can vary significantly from institution to institution). Ultimately, it shouldn’t be too long, and, like a job letter, should not overstay its welcome.

Questions, comments, experiences? Post them in the comment section.