Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Ask My Readers: Advice for the New Kids

A longtime reader writes:

I have a question for you and your wise and worldly readers. My husband and I have been at the same campus for many years, a VH (very high)-research state university. We are now moving to a VH-undergraduate state university in a different state. Serious culture shock... He will direct an academic program there, and I will be professional staff working to "support" faculty. My question is, among all the thousands of things we will need to learn very fast in order to "hit the ground running," as they say, do you have any thoughts on what we should try to learn before we get there, and immediately upon arriving? Anything we definitely should, or should not, do?

In a subsequent email, she clarified that they're both going to be doing the same jobs at the new place as at their current one; they're just switching employers.

I'll have to ask my patient (and wise and worldly!) readers for help on this one, since the two institutional milieu (milieux?) they're dealing with are not my own.

Having said that, I can offer a few basics.

Early on, do a listening tour, and focus especially on the longtime administrative staff (admin assistants and the like). They're often remarkably good sources of information, if you're willing to try to filter out personal hobbyhorses. A little early, respectful attention can go a long way with folks who, though low on the official org chart, are absolutely indispensable when you need to get things done.

If you find some 'low-hanging fruit' early on, use that to set a constructive tone. Most people have some sort of blind spot that manifests itself at work. Since your blind spot is unlikely to be identical to your predecessor's, you should be able to find some sort of long-standing staff grievance that you can rectify without real cost. (In my case, for reasons I've never been able to suss out, my predecessor often took months to do writeups of class observations. I do them within 24 hours. It works better for me anyway, but the faculty really appreciated the change.)

What I would not do – and this is especially true in an academic setting – is immediately throw my weight around and do the “new sheriff in town” strut. Bad Idea. If you do that, you'll reinforce the common organizational pathology of focusing on personalities, rather than solutions. If you come in as somebody who will listen to anybody as long as the input is constructive, you stand a chance of shaking loose some of the good ideas that have been buried for fear of the “shoot the messenger” syndrome.

I've had very good luck with building relationships across silos. Get to know people in the registrar's office, student life, and financial aid, as well as the usual suspects (the faculty). It takes a little extra effort, but those relationships can make your working life a lot easier over time.

I'd also use your status as newbie as a free pass to ask lots of questions, both Socratic and informational. (Honestly, if I had it to do over again, I would have done much more of that at my current college.) Frequently the new kid asks the question that everybody is sort of thinking, but doesn't want to ask for fear of looking ignorant. The new kid is allowed a certain ignorance, at least for a while. Play that to your advantage.

Wise readers – especially wise readers who work in institutions like those – what would you add or change?

Best of luck in the new jobs, btw.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

At my school, student government holds Friday parties, late afternoon, with food and music, to which everyone is invited. Go. Talk to the students. If student government doesn't provide these kinds of opportunities, then figure out how to meet students on their own turf.

That kind of connection is crucial at my place, which is also a primarily teaching, rather than research, institution.
I couldn't agree more with DD regarding support staff. There are a few here who know literally almost everything about the campus. They know who to talk to about any possible problem, including who to maneuver around.

Ditto on the registrar and other professional staff. I'd add librarians, career services, and student life people for such an undergraduate-focused institution.

Managing students who arrive with very high expectations about availability and "service" requires some getting used to after a large R1 school. They won't necessarily come to office hours more, but they will need to be approached a little differently. They sometimes have a more structured curriculum, perhaps with fewer choices, which can play a big role in their attitude about certain classes and campus services. If it's undergraduate-centered, I imagine there will be small class sizes, so any interaction through a classroom will mean names are easy to grasp quickly. Make sure to greet any students you have met as you walk around campus.

We got a new dean last year, and she took what seemed to me a very reasonable approach of leaning about the campus for the first semester or so and promising to change nothing in the first year. Changes were minimal and focused on getting traditional practices in writing and questions posed to get traditional practices to be reconsidered. I think this approach made a lot of sense.
As Dean Dad suggests, snatching some "low-hanging fruit" in your first year isn't a bad idea; otherwise, do nothing. No major changes. Nada. Use your first year to find out who's who and what's what on campus.
Go to lunch and sit at interesting tables. If you work out, go to the gym and sit around the faculty/staff locker room.
One question to perceive (perhaps more than to ask) is if VH-ugrad is striving more towards VH-research status.

One thing to look for is if faculty at VH-ugrad, particularly new faculty, attended schools such as VH-research as grad students. If so, you may have a particularly sympathetic audience if you bring along creative ideas from VH-research.

In general, young faculty may be particularly attuned to local traditions that are "unusual" in comparison to those at other universities. They may be helpful in providing fresh viewpoints, though they also may be naive about the history that has led to the traditions.
Thanks everyone! We are very excited and also a bit nervous of course, with such a huge change coming. Dean Dad's url will of course remain my first bookmark in my new computer!

New Kid
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