Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On Purpose

by Sarah Gutowski, Chair, New Member Mentoring Program

Welcome to the inaugural post of the FA’s blog for New Members! As you may remember from the little speech I gave at Orientation . . . way, way back on August 27 (doesn’t it seem so very long ago?) . . . this year I’m replacing an old tradition of sending out email blasts during the months of October and March with weekly posts to a blog hosted by the Faculty Association.
These posts will have much of the same information you would have received during the email blasts, but my hope is that they will be a little more timely and a little less overwhelming than an email-a-day during two isolated months of the year . . . and therefore a little more useful to you. The FA’s New Member Program, after all, stems from the FA’s intent to be useful to its members beyond the business of contract negotiations.

Hover Fly, Eastern Campus
This is one of the reasons I like, genuinely and without pretense, being a part of the New Member Program. I find it purposeful, and not just in a blanket-statement, yay-for-the-union, cheerleading kind of way. As I stress to all of my new students during our first class meetings: I loathe busy work. It’s beneath me to give out that kind of work, and it should be beneath them to accept that from their college professor. Likewise, I’m uninterested in performing service at the college simply because someone said, “Hey, you know what? This will be good for promotion.” Far too often, service in higher education is created and accepted reflexively, a knee-jerk reaction to a culture that assumes – surprisingly, oddly – that a legion of intelligent, self-motivated, highly learned and skilled employees will fall in line with a system that dangles title and salary like bait before them.

Of course, too often we find ourselves leaping for the bait.

That might sound like it’s coming from a kind of dark, jaded place deep down within my psyche, and perhaps at one point it did spring from such a place, and perhaps you’re thinking right now, “Wow, Gutowski. Isn’t that a little heavy for the first full week of school?” Mmmm, perhaps. But I would counter that perhaps there is no better time than now, as we begin this new academic year, in new jobs, among new colleagues, to remember that we can have it both ways. We can do what is required of us, contractually and as professional members of an institution of higher learning, (and because we do, after all, wish to get that promotion and pay raise) – but we can do so with intent, cautiously and intelligently.

For instance, eventually you’ll make your way to one of the Promotion Workshops held on your campus and you’ll hear Sean Tvelia, the FA’s new Vice President, tell you to focus on your teaching during your first year. He’ll tell you – as Kevin Peterman once told my own new member cohort – to save the committee work for your sophomore year, and the years that follow.

This is good advice. It’s going to prove difficult to follow, though, if you’re an engaged, enthusiastic, friendly sort of colleague (and I’m trusting you are, because our search committees look for just such kinds of people). The more you get to know your colleagues, and the more they get to know you, the more you’ll find yourself asked to participate in one activity here, which will lead to another commitment there, which will result in your joining one committee here, and yet another committee there. Eventually, if you’re not careful, by your second year you’ll find yourself on four departmental committees, three campus committees and two college-wide committees and absolutely no free common hours between Halloween and commencement.

Not that I would know anything about that. ** cough **
I’m not trying to persuade you to “do nothing.” Absolutely not! In fact, I think that apathy or ambivalence often can be more damaging and soul-sucking than over-commitment and burnout. Instead, I’m advocating – as someone who has tread this path before, as someone who is still walking this path toward promotion and the Fulfilling Career (caps necessary) – to walk this walk carefully, and at a pace with which you’re comfortable.
How does one do that? Remember to give yourself space to think about whether or not you want to invest your time and energy in any particular task. If someone asks you to be on a committee, or to participate in a long-term project, request a week’s grace period to consider.
But first, ask lots of questions. Make sure you know exactly what the committee or project would require of you in terms of meetings (including how long the meetings will be and where they will be located), workload, and expertise. Highlight the pros, and figure out if there are any cons to such a commitment: ask your mentor for his or her input, and talk to more senior colleagues and see what they know about the committee or the project in question, and take note of their perspectives.

Also, trust your instincts. If someone asks you to participate in a project, and you feel as if you have no business being there – you probably don’t.

This isn’t to discourage you from taking risks or from working outside of your comfort zone. By now, we all know that lots of people discover new loves and new talents when they push themselves to try something new, right? But there’s a difference between trying something new that excites and energizes you, and doing something that someone else decided would be good for you and for the college – especially if that something makes your stomach turn when you think about it. Prize your autonomy, and protect it. Don’t join a project because someone else said you should.

And try, if you can, to avoid joining a committee only because you need its particular kind of service. This college is constantly changing -- developing, evolving -- as all good institutions of higher learning should. The needs of the college are constantly going to be in flux and varied in number, but one thing that won’t change is the college’s need for its members to provide service.

For instance, maybe a year before you’re allowed to apply for promotion, you realize you lack any real campus-wide experience. Don’t go jumping into any old campus-wide commitment just because you need it and you fear you won’t have the opportunity again. You can always postpone applying for promotion – and move at your own pace. After all, there will always be work to do. There will always be another opportunity. And if you give yourself enough space and time to breathe, both literally and metaphorically, you may find that you’re the one who creates that opportunity.

I’m inspired and motivated when I see a colleague immerse him or herself in a project thoroughly, and with conviction and enthusiasm, because he or she has a clear idea of the project’s purpose. Over the past few years, I’ve tried to navigate my own career at the college with that kind of clarity and conviction. As you begin your own careers at SCCC, I wish for you that same drive, that same eagerness, that same palpable and irrepressible sense of purpose.

Have a happy and successful fall semester.

(Next week’s blog post will be more “nuts and bolts.” And shorter! Yay for shorter!)

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