What advice you would give new faculty starting out at your institution? Or phrased another way, what do you wish you would have known when you were first starting out? I was recently asked to serve on a panel of “established faculty” at my university’s new faculty orientation. Having just attended orientation only two years prior, I was surprised to be considered an established faculty. Regardless, I was happy to serve on the panel. I’ve learned a lot in the last two years and I *think* I can offer some valuable advice. I love opportunities like these to give back to events/organizations that I greatly benefited from. Also, when I attended orientation, I would have liked more of a presence from Engineering/CS to offer perspective on topics like incorporating the university mission statement into Engineering. It is helpful to hear from the well-spoken and experienced liberal arts professors, but sometimes it can be hard to generalize advice from one discipline to your own.
Before the panel, the event organizer sent out the following ideas for topics she’d like us to touch on for the new faculty.
- The importance of the mission to your work as a faculty member
- Things you wish you knew/had been told sooner
- Your least well-founded concern
- Pleasant surprises
- “Balancing” teaching/research/advising/service/your actual life
To help all new faculty, whether at my institution or somewhere else, I’m going to offer my thoughts regarding each of these five topics. In this post, you’ll find a gem or two that you can use to help you survive and thrive in a new environment.
The Importance of the Mission to Your Work as a Faculty Member
If you are interested, here is a link to my university’s mission statement: Gonzaga University Mission Statement. To summarize, here are some important keywords from the mission statement:
- “intentionally develops the whole person — intellectually, spiritually, culturally, physically, and emotionally”
- “for reflective and critical thought, lifelong learning, spiritual growth, ethical discernment, creativity, and innovation”
- “dignity of the human person, social justice, diversity, intercultural competence, global engagement, solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, and care for the planet”
We have a great mission statement. The majority of the first day of orientation is to instill its importance into new faculty. I remember attending this first day of orientation two years ago and having a mini panic attack. It was easy to appreciate the importance of the mission statement but was hard for me to envision integrating it into my CS classes. During my interview, I was prepared to answer questions related to how I would uphold the university mission statement. I mostly talked about how my interdisciplinary research uses technology to help people. But now that it was time to incorporate the mission statement into my class that was starting in a week, I realized I had was far from ready to teach the mission statement. Thankfully, I was able to find multiple ways to incorporate the mission statement that worked for me.
Teaching programming involves a lot of objective course content. For example, the if statement is just the if statement and the while loop is just the while loop, there is not much room for interpretation there. There is also not much room for developing the whole person. “What are the broader cultural impacts of the if statement?” is not a question I plan to ask my students to write about any time soon. There can be subjectivity in terms of code styles and tradeoffs between different solutions, but that is still objective in terms of the mission statement. However, if you consider the big picture, there are several opportunities to bring in the mission statement.
In the words of Uncle Ben:
We can and should talk with our students what they do with their programming skills. Throughout their career, they will be given opportunities to build software that helps people and they will be given opportunities to build software that hurts people. They need to think about the larger, ethical impacts of their work. A university mission statement can be a fantastic segue for starting this conversation with your students.
Since the majority of the panel audience will not be CS faculty, I plan to share a specific example of this type of conversation from my first semester in which I taught two sections of Android App Development. About two-thirds of the way through the course, my students had learned enough to be dangerous: they were ready to go rogue and build that killer app they’ve been thinking about for years. At this point, I ceased the weekly programming assignments and shifted over to a large project that I let the students propose in pairs. I provided some constraints for the proposal and app, such as technical rigor requirements, but the students are given fairly free reign. I also required their project proposals to provide evidence that their app was in line with the mission statement and that it supported a community is some way. We talked about how their proposal should identify a community and a need within that community. They needed to argue about how their proposed app would help address their identified community need.
After this conversation, a pair of students came up to me after class and said, “But Gina, we were planning on implementing this cool new idea for a dating app for our project, does that count?” 🤣I asked what their idea was and they told me and I liked it, it was a great app idea. I noted how the idea was really a model that connects people and that model could be applied to different contexts. I suggested they implement their model, but with a focused community context. Specifically, one need in our community was to provide more help to new transfer students who want to socially integrate more. When students are new to GU (transfer or even freshman), they could use the app to meet new people. I also made a note to the students that after the class was over and they had some free time, they would already have their dating app model built out, they would just need to swap in a different context. They bought into the idea and made the app. It was called “Bulldog Buddies” and it was fantastic.
Things You Wish You Knew/Had Been Told Sooner
We have a center for teaching and advising on campus. They run the new faculty orientation (before you start), the new faculty learning community (during your first year), and the advising academy (typically during your second year), among other wonderful events. These have been so helpful for me and I would’ve fallen on my face it wasn’t for this office. I highly recommend new faculty get involved in these types of organizations. Mentorship outside of your department can be just as helpful as mentorship inside your department.
Looking back, I wish I knew more about advising before attending the advising academy my second year. Official student advising for me started in my second year, but the students didn’t know that (especially the freshmen)! My first year (as soon as the first week) they came to me with all kinds of advising questions and I really didn’t know how to answer most of them. For these cases, I deflected to the department chair, but after I while I started to feel like I wasn’t doing right by my students. I knew I had to learn the details about the curriculum and registration eventually, so I sat down and did some reading. It didn’t take much time but I wish I would’ve done it sooner and more comprehensively. You’re always going to be an unofficial advisor for your students, so you should do what it takes to be a good one early on. Attend an advising informational meeting or sit down with your department chair. That first semester can be PACKED with learning new things but don’t brush off learning the pertinent information your students expect you to know.
Your Least Well-founded Concern
This was the question the panel organizer told me she thought was the most important, and I agree. What was your least well-founded concern? What was something you worried about only to find out later was no big deal? For me, it was worrying about students challenging me because I was new.
I extremely overprepared my first semester, to the point where I would start prepping Monday’s lecture Sunday at 4pm every week. I wanted to be ready to answer their super deep and super insightful questions. I didn’t want to lose my credibility in my first semester at a new place. Well, guess what? The students did not challenge me in class (or ask super deep/insightful questions that I couldn’t answer), in fact, the opposite happened. The students helped me survive that first class and they were SO SWEET about it. I opened up my very first class with something along the lines of, “I’ve never taught a class here before, this is a brand new class that has never been taught here before, and I’ve never taught this class before.” I delivered it somewhat dramatically and the students were getting increasingly nervous as I paused after each of the three statements. I then asked them if they were nervous about what to expect from this course and some of them nervously nodded. How did I respond? I told them I was nervous too but I was going to listen to them, be super flexible, and work hard. I told them I had as much to learn from them about this new place as they had to learn from me about app development. I said we were all going to learn a lot and have a good time. And we did! My first-semester teaching evaluations were much better than I thought. I attribute it to being real with my students and not trying to come in with a fixed mindset.
I might repeat this a few too many times, but I have to say it again, the students were SO SWEET helping me out my first semester. Here is the most memorable moment of my first-day teaching: I was on a MWF schedule, teaching two classes, one from 11:00-11:50 and the other from 3:10-4:00. I was nervous and for some reason was watching the clock thinking the class ended on the hour. At 11:55 students started to pack up and I was like, “Wait!! We have 5 more minutes of class!!” And the students stopped packing up and kinda looked at me and each other funny but no one said anything. I was about to carry on when it clicked that I didn’t have 5 more minutes of class, I was OVER by 5 minutes already!! The students were SO SWEET and didn’t interrupt me to tell me, nor did they start sending me subliminal messages of packing up until I was already over by 5 minutes. And then they still didn’t want to correct me after I was dead wrong in telling them there were 5 more minutes of class. Anyways, they were SO SWEET and some of them thanked me for the class as they scurried out, probably running quite late to their next engagement.
I’ve repeatedly been pleasantly surprised about how GOOD undergrad students can be at research. Coming from your PhD institution, you likely heard professors comment on how hard it can be to work with undergrads on research and such. I mean, it makes sense, compared to grad students their time is split between a million more classes and they are less mature in some ways, possibly including programming and time management. They also aren’t as convinced this whole research thing is for them. So far, I’ve found CS undergrads are curious about research but are leaving grad school as a back up to landing their dream software engineering job.
This May, two of my undergrad researchers graduated. One of the students and I got two full conference papers accepted. He even went to Chicago and presented one in front of 50+ people! He did amazing. The other undergrad student took the lead on a project that ended with him releasing open-source software and him being a co-author on a paper I submitted this summer. We won’t know if it is accepted for some time but he did a really great job regardless. Besides these two who just graduated, I have four other undergrads working for me and they too are intellectually curious and produce high-quality work.
If you can find creative ways to incorporate students into your research, do so. It will be a mutually beneficial experience. One of my aforementioned students emailed me this summer thanking me for that project experience. He attributed getting his job at Amazon mostly to that project. In addition to publishing with undergrads, I find advising undergraduate research projects to be a great way to get research done during the school year. I may not have time to do some number crunching myself in the midst of teaching, but I can task a bright undergrad with such a project and they will get it done and learn a lot along the way. By the way, a great read on the subject of being productive that will help you make progress on research is Deep Work by Cal Newport. His books are nice reads for folks in CS because he too is a computer scientist (he’s a professor of computer science at Georgetown University).
“Balancing” Teaching/Research/Advising/Service/Your Actual Life
This is something I should be receiving advice on, not giving advice on. I haven’t quite figured this out yet because I have a major downfall: I tend to overprepare. I’ll waste so much time on simple things that don’t really matter, like making sure all of my posted notes have the same heading format (I can’t help it, they all have to match!!). In order to maintain some healthy personal time, I’ll share with you two strategies I follow. First, I reserve my Saturdays for ME TIME. This usually means no grading, no prepping, no work, no email, and pretty much no thinking about work (easier said than done, I’m not perfect and you won’t be either). I find Saturdays are much better than Sundays for me because on a MWF schedule, the nights before I teach are pretty much reserved for prepping. That means Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday are off the table for relaxation.
Secondly, I’d also like to mention the importance of learning when it’s okay to say no to committee/service work. Your first year, you are going to be pulled in a million different ways and it is going to be hard to know what you can and cannot say no to. You don’t want to overextend yourself but you also don’t want to say no to the wrong person/opportunity. You need to be available to rise up when called upon, but you need to know what will get you the most return on your time. If a request comes from someone other than your department chair or dean and it’s not something you are too interested in doing, ask your department chair for his/her advice.
Here is a strategy a colleague of mine uses: seek out committee/service work that you are genuinely interested in and sign yourself up for those opportunities. That way, when someone tries to sign you up for something you are not as interested in, you can say, “Thank you for the consideration, but I’m already serving on X, Y, and Z and my schedule right now doesn’t allow me to also serve on A, B, or C. I recommend you reach out to…”
And with that, G out!
Here’s to always learning new ways to figure new things out,