Two Stories: What I Wish I’d Known as a First Year Professor

Here are two stories I shared with First Year Faculty at the New Faculty Orientation at Bucknell University in August, 2014

Story 1: The handbook Vs. The Gut

The faculty handbook is over 50 pages long. But it doesn’t cover everything.Don’t get me wrong. The handbook is a useful guide, and you should consult it often.You’ll find helpful information on university governance, faculty personnel policies, faculty benefits, and more.

But what I’d wish I’d known, and what I’d like to say to you today, is that some of the most important procedures at Bucknell can’t be codified. These procedures are determined not by a guideline, but by your gut.

As teachers, we know we can expect to find ourselves in an unexpected situation.

This might happen on the first day of the first semester, or maybe the last day of your last.It might be as simple as deciding how to respond to a student question, when you don’t have a good answer. It might be that day where your technology or teaching plan doesn’t work and you have to improvise. Odds are, you’ll experience these situations, and, probably, they’ll each happen more than once.

What I want to talk about is a slightly more complicated and unexpected situation. That is when I suspected a case of academic misconduct from one of my best-performing students.

I was shocked. What should I do? Of course, I reached for the faculty handbook.

And there were important protocols on this topic. I followed each one. There was a suggestion to talk with the student about the process, to be the voice that informs them of the case at hand. So I did that, too.

But the handbook doesn’t cover everything. It did not provide a script for me, once the student reported to my office.

When I was with that student face to face, I was going from my gut. The same was true when I attended the hearing to decide the case. And when I corresponded with the student over email afterwards or saw them on campus in the coming weeks.

There were two things that kept coming to mind in each interaction I had with that student: First, how would I want to be treated in that situation? And second, how can I point this student to the highest principles of academic integrity?

Looking back on this situation–and others like it– I would have wanted to know this:  teaching is ultimately about relationships. There are assignments and there are grades. There are lectures and evaluations. There are syllabi and teaching philosophies. And then there are relationships.

We inspire. We motivate. We coach. We mentor. We console. We celebrate.

When there is no script, when the technology fails, when you don’t know what the handbook says, we have turn to what best fosters that relationship.

One last thing to say here: These unexpected situations help us remember what it means to learn with students. Learn to learn from these moments. Learn to see them as a spaces for raw, unfiltered teaching–truly creative teaching. Later, when it is appropriate to reflect on yourself as a Bucknell teacher, use them as a mirror.


Story #2:  Enthusiasm is a Bridge

My other story, and my other piece of advice has to do with enthusiasm. Last year, when I was sitting where you are now, no one needed to tell me to be enthusiastic to be a good teacher-scholar, or to thrive at Bucknell.

I was enthusiastic. I was enthusiastic about being here, about finally meeting the students, about introducing them to ideas that turned my own world upside down. It seemed common knowledge to me that students respond to that kind of energy.

But, what I learned this past year is why Bucknell students respond to enthusiasm, and what it means to Bucknell students to have their professors show passion for their own work.

I took part in a Teaching and Learning Center discussion on student engagement this spring. There, I had the chance to sit down with students and chat about what gets them to invest in a course.

We might think that students spend time and effort on our courses because of the content itself. Those rich pieces of literature, those thorny problem sets, those real life issues–they pull students in. We just serve them up and let the feast begin. But, no, that’s not it.

Students need to see our energy. And not just jump-up-and-down excitement about the facts and figures. But the complicatedness of questions that have no answers. They want to see the power of concepts or equations that changed how everything worked. They want to see what interested us in our disciplines.

The reason they want to see this is because they are making decisions about how to spend their time. If they are not that interested, they will still work hard in your class. They might even do well on assignments. But they won’t be engaged. They will put their energy somewhere else.Students told me that, for them, engagement means thinking about course material beyond assignments. It means attending lectures that faculty recommend or stopping by office hours to talk–about class. And, they only do these things when they see the professor as enthused about the course matter. Our energy is what provides a bridge for students to the wonder of our areas of study.

We might get upset about this. We might think that students should be equally engaged in all classes, and especially above extra curriculars. But, when I think about how I formed my interests over time, and especially in college, I identify with Bucknell students. I was busy figuring out who I wanted to be, and the most energetic teachers helped me in that process. I liked a lot of the classes I took. But I only loved a few. I was a biology major before that History professor pulled back the curtain for me.

Even when students engage in your courses, don’t expect them to stay that way. One comment I heard over and again on my evaluations is that students found a new appreciation for history and the environment through my courses, but they don’t plan to take other classes in Environmental Studies.

I’m okay with that. That means someone else practicing some other liberal art on our campus has helped this student explore their world, and themselves. Score one for the team.


Those are my two stories, my two pieces of advice about life in the classroom. Think about teaching as a relationship, rather then a set of assignments. Or, better yet, think about those assignments as building a relationship with individual students or a way of thinking.

And, bring your enthusiasm. Not just to breathe life into dusty subjects, but to help students enter the worlds you find so fascinating.

Here’s to you and your first year. Welcome to Bucknell.


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