Feb 08

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, weeks 22 and 23: in which I continue a new project

Most of my posts have been about teaching, so I want to devote this post to writing and research. A VAP is hired to teach, and there’s no immediate pressure to keep up with one’s research. But of course that’s a short-term outlook, and it’s the scholarly work I do that’s more likely to determine my future career.

I’ve always been pretty self-motivated, and to be honest I’ve not found it too difficult to find research time. I set aside at least one day a week (Thursdays, last semester; Thursdays and Fridays, this semester) when I try not to work on day-to-day teaching activities, like reading or class prep. (When papers are due I find I need that time to grade, but not all of it, and that’s only a few weeks). If you find yourself struggling with time management, there are lots of resources designed to help faculty make the right choices. Natalie Houston’s blog is especially good, or you can participate in a productivity chat on Twitter.

My dissertation book project is still a focus — I’ve been making some revisions and considering publishers, and will submit it early next fall — but much of my research time this year has been devoted to something new. I came up with idea for this project over a year ago, and the challenge has been more about direction than about time. I began the dissertation amidst a community of graduate students, with the support of a committee who helped guide me through the early stages. Starting a new project without that same guidance is tricky, and I’ve jumped at chances to get immediate feedback without having to travel to a conference.

Last week I posted an excerpt from a talk, which I delivered yesterday. The occasion was an interdisciplinary scholarship series, designed to let faculty members share their current research with each other. It was nice to have an audience of law professors, librarians, and political scientists. Of course I haven’t completely severed ties with my friends and mentors from graduate school, and I continue to seek out (and value) their input. But part of leaving graduate school behind is determining one’s own trajectory, and I’m glad to have opportunities to present my work on campus, even as a visiting professor

How did you get started on your first post-dissertation scholarly project? How did you find support and feedback?

Jan 25

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 21: Local Scholarship Presentations

With the spring semester starting up, this has been a busy week for me and, I’m sure, for you. So I’ll make this post brief.

Coming from a big Ph.D.-granting university, I got used to attending several talks a semester, whether at special events, from visiting scholars, or from professors or graduate students sharing their own research with the community. Sometimes these were aimed at general audiences, but fairly often they were field-specific: either within the English department, or even a sub-field like “nineteenth-century studies” (my own). Since moving to a SLAC, there’s still plenty of opportunities for generalist talks, and a few literary ones (N. Scott Momaday will be here soon, as part of a winter program that invites established, well-known writers to work with students). But the chances that a scholar in my specific field will be here are slim.

I realized this last semester, I think, when I attended the Victorian conference. But I’ve been thinking more about it lately, as I prepare my own talk, which I’ll be giving as part of an interdisciplinary scholarship series (more on this later). Were I still in graduate school, or presenting to an English department, I’d want to focus on the contributions I’m making to particular fields — indeed, I signed up for this time of year as a dry run for a job talk. Having now been to some of the series, though, I’ll definitely be shifting my focus for a more general audience. I’m still excited to be sharing my work, and maybe even more so — I mean, I have plenty of chances to talk to experts at conferences, but fewer to speak to broader crowds. But it’s a shift I didn’t think about when I initially signed up.

Have you shared your research with groups far outside your discipline? How do you change your presentations for non-expert audiences?

Jan 17

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 20: in which students shop for courses

This, the first post of the new semester, will be very brief. But one thing I learned at the MLA a few weeks ago is that people are, in fact, reading this blog, and finding it useful. So I want to make one, important point:

  • If you want to control the enrollment in your courses, then when you get to a new job you should find out how, and do it early.

While working for the Teaching Resource Center at UVA I taught several workshops on “teaching the first day of class.” The first couple days are critical, as they set the tone for the whole semester, and I like to hit the ground running: in addition to important administrative tasks like covering the syllabus and course expectations, we dive into content on the first day. Absent students miss a lot, and will have a lot of work to do to catch up.

Last semester two of my courses were under-enrolled, and the third had no waiting list (either by coincidence, or because I was new and an unknown factor). This semester, though, all my courses are full, with a few people trying to get in. So I face a problem Mark Edmundson cogently summarizes:

Students can also float in and out of classes during the first two weeks of each term without making any commitment. The common name for this time span — shopping period — speaks volumes about the consumer mentality that’s now in play. (Edmundson, Why Read?, Bloomsbury 2004, 19)

I don’t stress about students floating out of my classes: during the “shopping period” some students always enroll but don’t show up, and if they attend but decide not to stay in the class, I don’t take it personally. Ideally I’d like to fill the open spots with students who made the effort to come on the first day. The way the computerized system works, however, if a student drops a spot opens, and is filled by whoever gets there first. The paper course slips I fill out, letting in the students who came, have a time-lag. The result: I have students “floating in” who have missed a full week of class or more.

I knew about this problem from past experience, and it’s a solvable problem. But in the rush of the first week I didn’t think about it. I’ve since had the registrar (who was very nice and very helpful) drop the enrollments to below the current numbers, so a spot won’t open when someone else drops. But I’ve put myself in a position where I’ll probably go over the  cap by one or two students. And more importantly, some students have missed critical information.

Not the end of the world, I know, but a minor frustration. So future VAPs (and new faculty generally) take heed: you should ask this question during orientation, and find out just how much control you have over enrollments during the “shopping period.”

Did you have any similar experiences when you began a new position? Tell me about them in the comments.