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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Institutional character

I've been thinking about this a bit since reading Mon's good news and Academic Coach's comments on Mon's approach to her career--and now after researching and thinking about the six schools with which I have interviews it occurs to me that I really don't know what kind of institution I would most like to be at. I have interviews with big schools, small schools, urban schools, rural schools, public schools and private schools. I have interviews with schools with 2-2 teaching loads and one with a 4-4 teaching load. And I'm honestly attracted to aspects of all six of these schools. The thing is--how does one know what's most important?

As faithful readers of this blog know, I went to the same university for both my undergraduate and graduate schooling: a fancy R1. I'm also teaching at an R1, but one about as different from my alma mater as you can get: it's a public school, it's extremely diverse, and it has a predominantly commuter population. (And then there's the fact that I'm not exactly living the life of an R1 faculty member, as I'm teaching 3-4 and mostly intro classes.)

I don't really have any experience with smaller schools, except what I observed when I visited the liberal arts colleges I applied to when I was 18, what I've gleaned over the years from talking to GWB (who attended a LAC), and what I've gathered from the experiences of my friends who teach in LACs or predominantly teaching institutions.

And the thing is, I often feel that my academic experience would have been totally different--and in many ways better--if I had gone to a smaller school than INRU; I felt it during college, and I feel it now, though at no point have I ever actually regretted my decision. I took great classes and I had great professors, many of whom were very encouraging in inviting undergrads to come to their office hours, to set up lunches, etc.--but I never did, and neither do I know anyone who ever did.

By the time I graduated, I knew two English professors just well enough to say hello to and to ask for recommendation letters. I didn't talk much in most of my classes, always being intimidated by the kids from fancy prep schools who seemed to me much smarter than I. I was surprised when I got general honors at graduation, because I didn't think I was anywhere beyond the 50th percentile, gradewise. I was even more surprised when I got into INRU for grad school.

Some of that comes down to personality--call it modesty or call it insecurity--but I really do feel that I'd have been a much more confident scholar, at a younger age, if I had come up through a more intimate and personalized environment. I suspect that my writing and thinking would have been better, too, for having had someone actually take the time to teach me how to (say) construct an argument rather than just letting me muddle on through as best I could.

Consequently, then, one of the things that I value most about teaching is the opportunity to really work with and develop relationships with my students. I'm not trying to make them my friends, but I like to know where they're from, what classes they're taking, what they hope to do with their lives. I remember very clearly how tough college was, psychologically, and while I have no interest in becoming a counselor or a confidant, I do want my students to believe that I care about them in a more holistic way.

For those reasons, I think I'd really enjoy being at a small school. Even though the teaching load would be heavier, if the classes were reasonably sized and there were enough repeat students, I feel I'd have the chance to really get to know my students and perhaps make more of an impact. I also feel that the departmental culture, in a smaller school, is often much warmer and more supportive. I can't THINK of a more dysfunctional department than INRU's, though the anxiety and snobbery and jockeying for position that I saw there are probably generally typical of higher-powered institutions.

Although many aspects of teaching institutions appeal to me, I also really like research and I really like writing. I have several projects that I want to get underway or finish in the near future, and I don't know whether I'm prepared to slow down the pace of my own work when I'm only just now feeling that I'm good at it and that I have worthwhile things to contribute to my field.

There are also the values of the academic community to consider, and these teach us pretty emphatically that working at an R1 (or maybe one of a handful of super-selective liberal arts colleges) is the only thing that counts as success. I don't buy that message, but given its strength and given that R1s are what I know, I worry sometimes that I might be inclined, even against my own best interests, to give priority to that kind of school over one at which I might actually be happier (this is, of course, assuming that I'm lucky enough to be in the position of deciding between them!).

There are also other very important factors, like location. I'd like to be in or near a city, but most importantly I'd like to be near GWB; we've been dating for nearly five years, and all but one of them have been long-distance. Lemme tell you: it gets old.

In the end, I guess that I wish I knew my own mind better. However, I trust my gut instincts about people and situations, and I think that meeting a school's hiring committee and visiting on campus (if it comes to that), will make clear to me everything I need to have made clear.

At least, I hope so.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 12:37 AM |


Blogger Tiruncula commented at 10:00 AM~  

Really interesting post. When I was first on the market, I interviewed at MLA with 4 schools, 1 SLAC, 1 fancy private R1, one state flagship R1, and 1 state branch campus with a good reputation in my field. I had campus interviews at 3 of those. I think it honestly did not occur to me before I started arriving on campuses for interviews that there was a choice to be made about what kind of school I wanted to teach at. It certainly wasn't for lack of experience of different types of institutions: I'd got my BA from a tiny, elite SLAC, Master'ses from US Urban U and Ancient UK U, and my PhD from Huge Urban Northern R1. I just honestly believed I'd never get a job in my field at all, much less have any choice about where. The SLAC was the second campus interview (after fancy private R1), and as soon as I hit the campus I realized I was home. SLAC! This is my history; this is where I belong! It was entirely a gut instinct. I took that job and have been extremely happy there, although now I'm moving on to a second job at a fancy R1. I think you're right that your gut will let you know what to do. So much depends on the personalities of individual departments. And it's also useful (if hard at this point) to remember that you may move in the future, and where you'll do the best work now may not be what suits you best at some later stage. When I was leaving a huge and very research-oriented university with not so much teaching experience under my belt, what I wanted was a supportive place to develop myself as a teacher without closing out the possibility of keeping up my research. Seven years later, and much more confident at the whole being-a-prof schtick, I'm looking forward to teaching grad students and focusing more on my research. So enjoy the interviews, and think of this as a chance to look for a good match to present itself to you.

Blogger Ianqui commented at 10:29 AM~  

Yeah, interesting post. I wish I could say more without giving my field totally away, but suffice it to say, it's great that you have so many options. I can see how weighing a large teaching load against a strict research requirement is kind of a difficult thing to do. My only advice would be to not downplay the location issue. Where you live is such a important aspect of all of this, and not just because of GWB!

Blogger What Now? commented at 10:55 AM~  

I think you're wise to be taking into account the values of the academic community. I hadn't really realized how much I had internalized those values until I moped around for the first year of my job at St. Martyr's, feeling like a failure because I wasn't at an R1 or a selective liberal arts college. It was a gradual process for me to finally realize that I really like being part of a functional, non-anxious, non-snobbish department, that I enjoy doing research without institutional pressures on me about what kind of research it should be (something Tiruncula has talked about in the switch she's now making from SLAC to R1), and that, as Ianqui points out, location can be a huge factor in one's happiness. I wish that I had known myself and what I was looking for more clearly at an earlier stage, but three years on the job market did such a number on my sense of self that I consider it almost miraculous that I ended up in a job that suits me as well as mine now does.

Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway commented at 11:51 AM~  

Yeah, when I was on the market (the year I actually got a job, not the first two abortive attempts before that) I really didn't think about actually having choices about where I'd work - I figured, I'd take any job I could get! And I kind of did that, though, interestingly, my background and experience ruled things out for me that I didn't realize would be ruled out. That is, I only got interviews with teaching schools, and it wasn't until after the fact that I realized how much, unconsciously, I was selling myself as someone for a teaching school. Which made sense, because, like Tiruncula, that was where I'd gone for undergrad and it was what I'd imprinted on as the "right" kind of education. (Which is all ironic b/c I went to grad school for the research, not the teaching.) In any case, I think so much does depend on the individual institution, and who your department members will be, and so on, that it's almost hard to generalize.

Actually, the one thing that I will say is that, if you have choices, location is a big thing. At least, it became a huge thing for me. I left my first job largely because of location (and money), even though there were many things I loved about the job, and while there are things I actually miss a lot about that job, that my current job doesn't have, being in a more livable location makes up for a LOT.

In any case - good luck! Here's hoping that you will be in the enviable position of making choices!

Blogger ABDmom commented at 8:13 PM~  

I could have written this post. Like you, my interviews span a wide range of schools. I attended a SLAC for undergrad, a "Public Ivy" for my MA, and as you know, am now at BSU--state flagship R1. I feel very torn about what type of position I want and am honestly not sure where I'd be happiest.

I guess I'll just wait and see if I have a choice--who knows on that--and if so, it will probably come down to location and money for me, as well as (obviously) if the school felt like a good fit at the campus visit. I want to be as close to my family as I can be, and we want BH to be a stay at home dad--which means I need to make enough to support us. Those factors are extremely important to me.

Good luck! Perhaps we shall cross paths at MLA. :)

Blogger academic coach commented at 2:22 PM~  

Very thoughtful and important point (sorry I'm just now seeing it)
Keep me posted on your choices and feel free to ask questions.

Blogger academic coach commented at 2:25 PM~  

further thought - at good R1 institutions profs make those important one on one connections with grad students -- so another question is which age group (grad or undergrad) appeals to you.

individual issues -- esp departmental dynamics are sooooo key...

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