by Cynthia Wu, Associate Professor of Transnational Studies, University of Buffalo
If you are reading this, it probably means that you have a job lined up for this fall. If not, I hope you’re still reading optimistically for a future when it will happen. The first year on the tenure track can be bewildering. You’ll need to cultivate mentors internally (at your institution) and externally (in your field at large) as soon as possible.
Once the year begins, start meeting people on campus both in and outside of your department. You’ll probably select one or more formal mentors as part of the protocol for junior faculty advising at your institution, but get to know others as well. Having these connections will help you learn the institutional culture. As much as a school’s official communication attempts to be as transparent as possible, there are always things that are more readily gleaned informally:
What’s an appropriate amount of reading to assign in a course at a given level? What will most likely generate success in an application for an internal grant? What are the finer points beyond the stated requirements for tenure? How smooth are the lines of communication between faculty and student services staff? How much and what kind of service is typical for junior faculty? What support is there for connecting with the community? These and similar questions tend to be discussed in unplanned and unscripted interactions.
To meet a wide range of people from the onset, spend your first year attending as many campus events as possible. If there is an opportunity for new faculty to give a talk, consider doing so. These presentations will grant visibility for your scholarship so that people won’t think of your presence only in terms of your service. All told, this face time will make you more familiar to your colleagues, and it will be easier for them to reach out to you so you won’t have to initiate all the time. In my first year, I tried to go to at least one talk or symposium per week, conceding that my research would temporarily slow while I got myself situated socially.
As Joycelyn Moody reminded us, mid-career scholars need mentoring, too. Mentoring goes both ways, so we often look to junior faculty to share new ideas with us. Although there are senior and mid-career colleagues who may feel threatened by more recently trained junior scholars, the vast majority of us want you to bring it. We didn’t hire you to sit back and coast along while milking us for advice. Make us better for having known you.
Now that your tenure clock is ticking, you also need to prioritize finding mentors in your field at large. Attend as many conferences as your time, travel funding, and personal budget will allow so that you can make these connections. At the end of your fifth year, your department chair will need to solicit senior scholars from your field to write a review of your work to go into your tenure portfolio. Although it isn’t necessary that you be personally acquainted with external reviewers (I didn’t know all of mine), having that face-to-face familiarity will increase the likelihood that someone will agree to do this important but time-consuming task.
Additionally, these external contacts can lead to opportunities for collaboration. One of them could be looking for a co-editor for an anthology. Another might need one more presenter to add to a conference proposal. An editor of a new journal might ask you to consider submitting an article or joining the board.
As with your internal mentors, these external colleagues will help situate you in the field’s unspoken wisdom. Which presses might be a good fit for your book manuscript? Which editors are the most responsive and easy to work with? How can you maximize your chances of getting a panel accepted for a conference? Should you even go to that conference? Which journals should you submit to and which ones should you avoid? What direction is the field headed in?
An external intellectual community is important regardless, but for scholars specializing in the literatures of people of color, it’s even more crucial because we’re often marginalized in our departments. If your department is indifferent to or actively hostile to your field, validation from external networks can soften the sting. These mentors can also give practical advice for navigating environments that are unfriendly to your work.
Lastly, try to approach finding mentors with a sense of fun. Over the years, many of the colleagues I’ve cultivated both on and off campus have become good personal friends. We can call each other on the phone or sit down to dinner and never say a word about work. We’ve gone on vacations together. Even within the context of professional relationships, we sustain one another in ways that go beyond.