To New Faculty (and those who hope to join us): what life is like at my small private liberal arts college

Private colleges were never really on my radar. Everyone in my family attended a state school. I taught in a public school, as did about a half dozen family members. A hefty dose of public school pride, mixed with the slobs vs. snobs zeitgeist of the movies of my childhood, had convinced me that the private college life wasn’t for me, and the feeling was probably mutual.

Students making ziplines on the first day of calculus at Hood College, because this is how fun my job is.

And yet I’m beginning my seventh year of teaching at small, private, not particularly selective liberal arts colleges, and I’ve genuinely loved it. So I wanted to write a little post for two audiences of people who also may not have any experience in this world: those of you starting a job at a school like this for the first time, and those of you on the market this year and wondering if you should apply at a place like Hood.

  • The students may not be what you expect. I figured the students were all entitled, high-maintenance, helicopter-parented rich kids. I’d spent a decade teaching students from disadvantaged groups, and I was reluctant to leave behind students who I felt really needed me. It turns out there are a ton of students from all kinds of backgrounds at private colleges. Many of my students are working multiple jobs outside of class, caring for family members or children, even dealing with food insecurity and lack of housing. They value their education, and they value the people working hard to help them learn.

When I was applying for jobs, I specifically sought out schools that valued diversity and providing inclusive environments for students, and who had well-developed programs for supporting students of color and first generation college students. If that’s something that’s important to you, mention it in your application materials, and not just in a diversity statement.

  • The faculty may not be either. You will see people with staggeringly impressive pedigrees who turn out to be humble and gracious and generous with their time, and people who look like nobodies on paper and act like tin pot dictators (and, of course, vice versa). You may find yourself on a committee with people who have been sparring in meetings for twenty years and have no idea whose side you’re on. Or a small dispute with the administration may come up in a faculty meeting, and suddenly encoded grievances from a decade ago bubble to the surface. You get to ignore all this as a graduate student or a postdoc, but as faculty at a small school you need to keep an ear to the ground.

You’re entering a very, very small collective of highly intelligent – and possibly maladapted – colleagues, and you will probably need a little guidance about which ones to pay close attention to and which ones to put on the back burner. Your fellow new faculty will be very helpful in this, and any effort you put in to establish a strong bond among your cohort will repay itself many times over. Get email addresses and phone numbers as soon as you can and invite people out to dinner or happy hour or bowling, and then keep inviting them to things until you have a strong network established.

  • Your priorities may have to change. You will be teaching more, and probably teaching more preps. You may not get to teach four sections of the same course, because there may not be four sections of the same course. Your courses won’t be giant lectures, but you will probably be expected to be considerably more hands-on with your students than if you had big classes. For instance, I would not be able to get away with only using online homework for my students. The classes are small, so I should be able to provide them better feedback on their work. Delivering pure lecture classes is strongly discouraged in my department, if not straight up forbidden. Active learning, or at least a willingness to begin to move in that direction, is becoming more and more the standard. If you’re applying to a place like this, you need to at least know the buzzwords and have some thoughts on how you would incorporate non-lecture techniques into your teaching, even if you haven’t had the opportunity to try yet.

Keeping up with all this work will require a reshuffling of your priorities, and probably a long, hard look at your time management. Between teaching, service, and – oh yeah, that – research, you will have more work than you can comfortably do in a week. You can fix that by spending all your nights and weekends grading and prepping and trying to write, or you can figure out how to fit your obligations into a standard work week without getting fired. There are people on your campus who are doing just that, even untenured ones. Find out who they are and ask them how they’re doing it. The academy is a tough job and we’re all lucky to be working. But this is still just a job. It doesn’t have to be your entire life unless you want it to be.

  • You won’t ever feel completely comfortable. This is a scary time to be in higher education period, but small colleges like mine feel especially vulnerable. Sweet Briar College managed to stay open, but it seems pretty clear that this is just an unsustainable business model (for lack of a better phrase) for a lot of colleges, and nobody knows who will be next to close. Or your school may decide to restructure and suddenly axe the math major. Or your accreditation may fail to be renewed. Or your state (or country?) may make state schools tuition-free. Or your state university may decide to open a branch in your community. As in the above bullet point, you will suddenly find yourself paying close attention to your enrollment reports, the state of your school’s endowment, and how to increase your retention rate.

Also, you will constantly see your friends and colleagues moving on to new things, and making way more money than you. Many people hustle for years for a job as a professor and find out that it just wasn’t what they thought it would be. Or they burn out. Or want a job where they can comfortably spring for guac on their burrito without thinking about when payday is. So even if you think you’ve landed your dream job, it might not hurt to keep your website updated, and maybe start up a linkedin. You never know when you might need it.

This post got a little longer than I intended, but I hope somebody out there finds it useful. Every semester when classes start up again I feel excited and renewed, because the energy I get from (most of) my students is infectious. My colleagues are amazing and I rely on their wisdom and support every day. This life isn’t for everyone, but if you think it’s for you I hope you’ll give it a shot and make it your own.

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