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Ask the Professor

The Letter:

Dear CSU Professor,

Like so many others, I'm a new Assistant Professor, and I look forward to a career of at least 30 years in the CSU. I see many CSU faculty who have developed productive careers and who have strong personal and intellectual relationships with students and colleagues, but I also have met some senior faculty who seem to be disconnected from campus life or who are unhappy and bitter about how their careers have developed. How can I plan a fulfilling CSU career?

--Eager to Blossom

Four CSU Professors Respond:

Ted Anagnoson · Vince Buck · Susan Rice · Louise Timmer



Ted Anagnoson responds:

On Building and Sustaining Your Career:

I taught for the University of California for almost eight years, I spent a year at each of two universities in New Zealand, and I've taught at Cal State LA for 20 years. During that time I have had some colleagues who were bitter and alienated. Most of my colleagues, however, have had what they consider to be very satisfying careers. I think ultimately that they have accentuated the positive features of their environments and just ignored the negative ones. How to do that?

  1. Unless you absolutely must do your professional work alone, build and sustain ties on research projects with colleagues from other institutions. The most professionally productive faculty I have known in CSU--and these include some faculty members with professional profiles that rival those at the University of California--are people who have developed and maintained research ties with teams of colleagues from other parts of the country. At most CSU campuses, you will get full credit or almost full credit for jointly authored pieces. Any ties you can build or keep with coauthors at other institutions will help you a lot in sustaining your career.


  2. Regulate your teaching so that you are doing both courses you enjoy and those where the workload can be reduced through efficiencies of scale. Teach two sections of the same course if you can. Teach the same course two quarters or semesters in a row. Don't do what I did one quarter: I taught one overenrolled statistics course where I graded/checked off 700 statistics problems and another overenrolled information management/spreadsheet course where I graded 1,300 spreadsheets. The next quarter I quit teaching for that program.


  3. Develop informal ties with some students whose company you enjoy. Advise a club (but don't do the students' work yourself). Have pizza for the final exam meeting in your seminars while the students present their papers. These activities will encourage the better students and provide the informal relationships that you will enjoy later.


  4. Keep good records for your RTP file--don't leave putting your file together until the last minute. I have colleagues who couldn't put together a vita at this point if their lives depended on it. Don't be one of them. Keep these records together so that you can assemble materials quickly if need be.


  5. Avoid pain. The statewide Academic Senate CSU recently finished a study of department chairs in the CSU and found that three-quarters or more of their time is spent on paperwork; the overwhelming message is that the bureaucratic grind wears chairs down. So, unless you like this sort of thing--and there are people who do--don't be a chair at all or be a chair for one term only.
  6. Find what you like and do more of it. I found several years ago that student assessment projects needed someone like me (a quantitative social scientist), and I have done several over the years with support and release time.

--Ted Anagnoson
Professor of Political Science
Chair, Academic Senate
Cal State LA

tanagno@calstatela.edu


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Vince Buck responds:

Dear Blossom,

I have taught in the CSU system for nearly 30 years and have had a very rewarding career. I wish you the same. At times we all gripe about our jobs, but it would be difficult for me to imagine a career in which I would have been happier.

For me, the key to a rewarding career (and life) is to be importantly involved in my community, knowing the people that I work with and working with them to make the university a better place. I would not be happy only teaching courses, holding office hours, and going home to sit alone at my computer late into the night churning out research. I need to be a part of the institution and feel that I have some impact on that institution. I need to know my colleagues and be an integral part of the academic community.

Being a professor is not simply a job, and the university is not simply a workplace. (And the job of a professor is not just teaching and research.) The university is a community of learning and it relies on shared governance to ensure academic excellence. Shared governance in turn depends on a vital academic community. This community cannot flourish if its members work in isolation. Interaction between colleagues rewards both the individual and the institution. If you nurture your community, it will nurture you.

You will easily come to know your departmental colleagues and be involved in departmental governance. Getting involved in the larger world of the university may take some effort, but it will more than repay itself. Unless a mentor takes you by the hand and "volunteers" you for some university assignment, you may have to take the first step by yourself: participating in college or university-wide events, seeking a seat on a governance committee, or joining in any social event of which you become aware. You will find your colleagues welcoming. Most members of the university community whether new or well established enjoy meeting other colleagues. And faculty leaders are always looking for a few good faculty followers and committee members. The opportunities are endless. Take advantage of as many of them as you can fit into your busy schedule. It will make a difference in your life and in your satisfaction with your job.

Most good ideas in a university do not come from the top down, and most of the interesting and important things happening on campus are the result of faculty entrepreneurship and efforts by faculty. If you think the university is lacking an important program or has needs that are not being met, view that as an opportunity. It is an opportunity not only to make a difference and improve the university, but also to meet individuals who share your concern and who will appreciate your leadership.

I have met some of my best university friends through university work. It is rewarding to work with others on some necessary task. It is even more rewarding to be successful, or to have others recognize that you have valuable contributions to make. In time, it is especially fulfilling to look back and see that you have made a difference and that the university is a better place because you were there. And along the way you have made many friendships. That is what makes for a rewarding career.

--Vince Buck
Professor of Political Science
Cal State Fullerton

vbuck@Exhange.FULLERTON.edu

* * * * *


Susan Rice responds:

Dear Eager to Blossom,

I congratulate you on becoming part of a system that has the potential to offer you one of the most productive and exciting careers possible. The CSU certainly can be challenging; yet it IS negotiable, and many of its citizens spend the most valuable years of their working careers within the system.

How do you become one of the people who flourish rather than flounder? I have three magic "secrets" to offer you that really made a difference in my life. The first and (in my mind) most important secret is holding on to clarity about what makes you passionate and giving yourself enough time to nurture and grow that passion over the years. (It is true that sometimes passions change over the years, so a caveat is to allow yourself to change also.) Here's how it works: There are many, many expectations that CSU faculty must fulfill. The four-course standard teaching load is, unarguably, one of the heaviest in the entire country. Expectations for service grow exponentially as times get more difficult, and faculty are all asked to stretch themselves ever thinner. Scholarship is recognized to be crucial to good teaching and needs to be pursued all throughout one's career to maintain standards of currency and excellence in teaching. This list can be daunting and can paralyze a new professor who is trying to be a stellar performer in all three areas.

I would contend that recognizing on an individual level that it is nearly impossible to be a star in all three areas helps one make peace with the need to apportion one's time according to one's passion. It is very possible to perform more than adequately in all three areas and then choose where your energies will go. For example, do you see yourself as a "star" teacher, one whom students routinely remember as someone who has changed their life? If so, relish the pleasure of having contact with students. If the four-course teaching load becomes too burdensome, seek release time in ways that allow you to keep in contact with students. Many campuses have freshman orientation courses,and faculty members who teach in this area receive release time from a "regular" course. You still get the joy of working intensively with a new group of students but have less of the grading and preparation responsibilities that last for the whole semester. Or many campuses have mentoring programs; again, you can "buy out" time without trading the kind of work you really enjoy. Your scholarship can focus on teaching pedagogy, your service can be on student-oriented committees, and you can have a "workload" heavily weighted with the activities and issues that you are passionate about.

Alternatively, perhaps you see yourself as a "star" scholar, someone who has a topical area she cares about, is competent in, and believes has real value. There are ways to receive release time during the year and to pursue your research in the summer with institutional monetary and time support. The first few years are the most difficult: there is cumbersome paperwork involved with receiving scholarly and creative activity awards, and successful achievement in your area makes it easier to receive further awards. Yet, once you establish a track record, your specialties are recognized and nurtured.

If you see your greatest strength in service, "stars" are desperately needed to help carry out the functions of the university. Leaders in the Academic Senate, key committee functions, and administrative opportunities all are compensated with release time from teaching and give one the opportunity to pursue different paths. (And one of the most terrific things about university life is that none of these choices are lifelong.) It is possible--and encouraged--to try different avenues, and you'll always have the fallback position of returning to full-time teaching.

Although you as an individual have to be committed to the idea of not needing to be a "star" in all areas, the CSU system could also be more helpful in this area. There could be an "acceptable" measure to be used across the board in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service, and then faculty members could "choose" where they wanted to focus and excel. To some degree, this system exists on paper, but the subtle pressure to be a "star" creates an inordinate amount of pressure for new faculty. Yet, even without system change, you can decide that this typology makes sense to you.

There are also numerous opportunities for rejuvenation over the course of one's career. My second "secret" is this: Try not to get so locked into needing to work all year long (summers, breaks) for extra pay that you find yourself in the position of being unable to avail yourself of the many travel and study opportunities that exist. Fulbright scholarships, Rotary scholarships, teaching exchanges, and international residential directorships all can give you the opportunity to live and travel abroad while pursuing whatever areas of study you care about. How many professions allow you to take such "leaves," let alone support you in your pursuits of these opportunities? Personally, in my sixteen years in the CSU, I have lived and traveled in India, South Africa, Egypt, Israel, Germany, and Cambodia with support from the system. It means that I have not earned extra money in the summers, yet I have had invaluable learning experiences that have kept me fresh and invigorated for all of my time within the system.

The third and final "secret" that I have to offer is from a broader, perhaps somewhat spiritual, perspective. One chooses whether to focus on what one does have, or what one does not have. One chooses either to feel "lucky" to have choices to request resources, or to feel "entitled" to have resources without conditions. One chooses to see an opportunity to influence lives in the area of one's interest and expertise, or to see an endless list of obligations that must be fulfilled. Obviously the first choice along each continuum leads a faculty member to a more satisfied "life" in the CSU. That is what I wish for you.

Sincerely,

One Who Has Flourished Rather Than Floundered

--Susan Rice
Department of Social Work
CSU Long Beach

srice@csulb.edu

* * * * *


Louise Timmer responds:

Dear Professor,

I want to welcome you to the CSU system and to a very productive teaching career at your campus. As I look back on my 28 years of teaching in this comprehensive regional university system, it has been a very busy, extensive, and productive career. Let me begin by relating that my decision to teach in the CSU system was a very deliberate one. I had offers to teach at one of the top ten Midwestern state universities and at a UC university. I knew I wanted to have the majority of my teaching assignment in the classroom discussing my discipline, mentoring students, and preparing them for the work place and future aspirations. Research played a minor but nonetheless very important role in my career. I accepted the position in the CSU system and have never regretted it.

I soon discovered that I could have the best of both worlds through the variety of release time grants offered throughout the CSU system. I was able to achieve individual and collaborative research on a single campus and on multiple campuses, as the system boasts 23 campuses and 20,000 faculty sharing and partnering in research and creative activities. I became active first in campus committees and then in statewide committees to discuss the needs of students, faculty, and staff to maintain the system's excellence in higher education. With the assistance of very competent and delightful staff, I learned to apply effective teaching-learning methods using state of the art technology. In my later years, I became deeply involved in the community as a member of several local and state councils and advisory boards. I have always served as an officer in my professional organizations which subsequently opened an avenue for me to participate in legislative issues affecting my discipline and higher education.

If you plan your years wisely, you can have it all: teaching, research, community service, and a fulfilling university life with students. Using release time grants and sabbaticals, you may devote part of your career solely to research, community service, or creative endeavors. Take the time to plan the next several years wisely. There are more opportunities within the CSU system than at any other university system. Seek them out as you plan for tenure and the many years after that.

I wish you 30 years of personal and intellectual growth and fulfillment as you embark on your career in the CSU system.

--Louise Timmer
Professor of Nursing
CSU Sacramento

timmerlf@csus.edu


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Last modified December 22, 2006.