Becoming a Faculty Member at W&M

What I wish I had known before my first semester began...

These tips and suggestions are provided by your colleagues from around the campus (as told to Susan Grover, Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs).

  • Take really good notes of what you covered in class so you don't have to do it over from scratch next time.
  • Write an exam question after every few classes so that you remember exactly what you covered and so you're not swamped with exam drafting at the end.
  • Don't be afraid to say "I don't know" or "I was wrong." Students respect it if you come back to the next class with an answer you looked up or corrected.
  • Things always take more time than you think. Students have questions and ideas during class; research takes you down a rabbit hole that may or may not be productive.
  • Try to plan your classes so that they have a narrative arc: a beginning, middle and end. What do you want the students to take away as the theme of each session?
  • Be vulnerable. Ask colleagues to help you think through early ideas; invite colleagues in to watch you teach. Be true to yourself, but be willing to consider helpful suggestions.
  • Become a member of your academic community, not only here at W&M but in your field. Send your work to others; provide comments on others' work. By the time you go up for tenure, you want people to know who you are and what you do. Here at W&M, that means getting involved to an appropriate extent in governance. Act as if you have a stake in the future of the school and the future of your field.
  • I wish that I had known how important taking the time to study up on the scholarship of teaching and learning can be. In graduate school, we often focus on the research in our area or fields, but now that you are a professor, take some time to study the research about college teaching! It'll make every day go easier and ultimately give you more time to do research and to enjoy yourself!
  • It's a big transition to come from a graduate program (where you may have had multiple faculty and grad school peers who shared your interests) into a department in a small town where you may be the only one studying and teaching what you study. If you need to go to other locations to work with the people who share your discipline, let your colleagues at William & Mary know about those activities. Let them know that you are off working with colleagues on research.
  • Before the first day of class, a lot of faculty members told me that W&M students were "high maintenance" and could be "harsh" in their reviews of their professors. These comments definitely had me worried. So, on the first day of class, I jumped right into high-level, theoretical work. In retrospect, I wish I had spent a little more time on the first day getting to know my students, because I eventually discovered that I had made a lot of assumptions about what the students knew. I then had to spend a bit of time backtracking and getting them up to speed on some basic knowledge. So, I guess I wish that I had not made assumptions that just because students are at W&M, they already know everything ;) This year, I'm going to have my students fill out a questionnaire at the beginning of our first class that asks them about their background and interests, their goals for their careers after graduation, what they see as their biggest gaps in knowledge and so on. I'm hopeful that using the questionnaire will help me get to know my students, and what they need, more quickly than last year.
  • I'll also share that several of the professors in my new faculty group from last year told me they had low teaching reviews their first semester at W&M as they adjusted to students' expectations, etc. Luckily, I used a strategy my first semester I learned when I taught high school: formative assessment! I asked my students at the end of every month to email me the answers to the following questions about the class: "1. I like x about the class, 2. I wish x about the class, 3. What if....?" I found that students responded very well to having a say in what was and was not working in the course. I could then adapt my class mid-stream, and not wait until the end of the semester to find out what students didn't like about the course. I also found that students really appreciated sharing their ideas in the "What if..." section. I got some great ideas from students that I was able to implement immediately into the class. And, my evaluations for the first semester were great, which was a big relief.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions of your more senior colleagues; asking for advice is how you make mentors both on campus and off campus.
  • Here is what I wish someone had told me: “Cover less so you can really teach something; write less so you can really say something; and enjoy!”
  • I wish I had known from the beginning that teaching is really all about expectations--that is setting up my own, discerning the students', aligning both and managing them in order for the learning experience to be fruitful.
  • Know thy audience. Students come to class with various misconceptions, knowledge of the subject and expectations. Effective teaching is more than mastery of the material; it is also about effective communication and motivation. Above all, try to avoid the novice's (mine, really) mistake which is often triggered by the orientation propaganda about the super W&M student (applies to about half of them).
  • If you are too independent-minded, shy and a minority (like me), extensive networking is invaluable for meeting the research expectations of tenure (late bloomers are penalized by the system since you have only four solid years to prove yourself). So, stay in close touch with your advisors, grad school friends and even closer with helpful colleagues at W&M. They will help you immensely by reading your drafts and advising you about the right publication outlets. In my discipline, less than 10% of submitted papers are published and it is now taking as long as a year to hear from editors! Also: present papers in your pre-tenure years until you lose your voice--department seminars, area schools, regional workshops, conferences, etc.--in order to master the art of scholarly communication and win lots of admirers.
  • Don't lecture very much, or over prep/script class. Be prepared, of course, but find ways for students to engage with each other for brief periods of time during class, and then with the larger class. In other words, make class as active as possible with applications/thought experiments/creative jaunts etc. This will be a much better experience for you, for students – and they will likely learn MORE by your "doing less."
  • Be comfortable with silence – after probing questions etc.; people need time to think before responding. Don't let your nerves drive you to fill the silence. One great specific technique is for everyone to take 60 seconds to write a quick response down on paper, and then you ask students to participate. This is a great way to get the students who are normally quieter to engage (and they often have more to say than the others who speak quickly!).
  • Make your topic relevant today and across disciplines. Combine depth/rigor with interdisciplinary integration. Bring in other faculty (from other fields) as guest speakers, and reciprocate with their classes.
  • I think the most important thing to think about is that the students here, while definitely driven by grades, also really reflect an intellectual capital that can be harnessed and used to great effect in the classroom. Also, know that students will show up at office hours, will test you with questions about assignments, etc., but are ready and willing to engage in making the class their own and will participate in meaningful ways if given the opportunity and some help (not all know how to discuss, analyze critically, etc., but are quick to catch on if helped)!
  • Think about systematically teaching both content and the disciplinary skills of your field.
  • Remembering that each lecture and discussion requires a coherent narrative to be imparted to the students as simply and as directly as possible.
  • Preparing for classes the first time is a huge commitment, and thus you can't expect yourself to be excelling at scholarship and service at the same time.
  • Find ways to communicate to your students that you care intensely about their learning the material, as well as their overall well-being. If they know that you really want them to learn and feel the same excitement about learning that you feel, they will have a much better learning experience, and you’ll have a much better teaching experience.
  • Explain to the students why you teach the way you do. If they understand the reason for a particular exercise, they are more likely to pursue that exercise with enthusiasm.
  • Be organized. Have a clear syllabus that you carefully follow. Start class on time, and end on time.
  • If you don't know the answer to something a student asks, then say so. But promise to find the answer, go find the answer and report back at the next class. The students love it that the teacher is engaged in the learning process.
  • I wish that I knew before stepping into the classroom for the first time that quite often less is more. Meaning, instead of trying to cover "everything" in lectures, or over the semester, focus more deeply on select themes/topics and think more deeply about best ways to communicate those points and to stimulate fruitful student engagement and interaction on presented topics. As fast as it goes, the semester is a marathon, not a sprint, and slow and steady often wins the race. I've also learned to lecture less and to discuss (with purpose) more, asking questions of students and presenting material in more open-ended ways to facilitate student engagement.
  • I also wish that I knew at the outset of my first job how to reserve a dedicated space and designated time for daily research and writing and to train loved ones around me to honor that sacred writing time. Especially in the first year or two, when one is adjusting to teaching demands, acclimating to new environments, attending to family matters, and generally figuring out "how things work" on campus and in their fields, without an inviolable scheduled writing time, it is easy for productive research and writing to be unintentional casualties, leading to increasingly stressful realizations by year 3 that the tenure clock is ticking ever more loudly and more publications are needed for tenure success. . . . Incoming folk must be reminded that they really only have four years to build their tenure file, which has to be sent to external reviewers after year 5. At least in my field, it now generally takes longer to get articles and manuscripts accepted and published these days, and if that is the case in other disciplines, year five can often be about just getting already submitted articles and manuscripts into actual print so that they can count in the tenure review.
  • Having said that, I think incoming faculty should also reserve a dedicated space and designated time for non-academic hobbies, interests, etc. that bring them balance, perspective and deep fulfillment. Our academic and professional lives are obviously important to us and are often central to our lives and sense of self, but the other nonacademic, non-intellectual parts of ourselves also need nourishment. Steady exercise and other stress-reducing favorite activities are critical and allow us to engage our work from a recharged and reinvigorated place. Such activities may also facilitate relationships with non-academic folk, also good for perspective and to avoid being in a campus/academic bubble. Last, to paraphrase Robert Boice, who writes on these matters, "Start early, work consistently, purposefully, and mindfully but in moderation, so that one can have some necessary work/life balance."