Monday, August 31, 2009

One Enthusiastic Student

I have not received the official hiring paperwork for my adjunct professor job, or heard much from the department chair, or finalized the syllabus, but at least one of my students is excited about the course. Just as I was realizing that the course would start in three weeks, and perhaps I should get back to work on my preparations, I received an email, and a chance to make someone's day.

Someone who was not required to was interested in taking my seminar. She was a non-traditional student, not enrolled in the department but in a related real-world business field, thought this seminar would be an extra piece of professional development. How could I possibly pass up the chance to have a student who volunteered for the class?

Of course, this request also highlighted all the things I do not know about my new job. I do not know how to check the enrollment, to find out how many students I already have. I do not know how large the room for the class is, and how many students it can fit; in fact, I don't know whether we have a classroom assigned at all. I certainly don't know the procedures for providing official instructor approval for a student to enroll. I don't even know which of the two department staff members who have emailed me should be asked about these things.

The enrollment request spurs answers to some of these questions. I have 5 students enrolled, of 7 who expressed interest in my course; my non-traditional volunteer will make 6 or 8, helping to fill a classroom designed for 11. The staff will produce a form for special enrollment. And presumably, someone somewhere is making sure I am officially hired, and will tell me if I need to acquire a faculty ID card. Otherwise, I might just show up the first day of my class with some syllabi, and just get on with teaching.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Mistaken For An Undergrad

The curse of the graduate student is the word "student"; most people I meet seem to lump us in with undergraduates, as not having real jobs, or incomes, or being adults at all. If I were a few years older, I would be pleased to be mistaken for a teenager; as it is, I'm usually amused at my ability to blend in.

On Tuesday, the second day of classes, I cut across the dorm lawns on my way to the administrative buildings. I blended in perfectly, just another person wearing jeans, t-shirt and sneakers, carrying a backpack. I doubt anyone thought I was a freshman - I overheard two upperclassmen carrying on the college tradition of being surprised at how young and/or tiny the freshmen looked - but I could certainly pass as a senior. My appearance hasn't changed much in the past four years; if anything, I probably look more like a college student than I used to, thanks to my recent rediscovery of denim.

That same afternoon, I was mistaken for either a high school senior or a college senior, I'm not sure which. I took three manilla envelopes to the post office, each containing the hopes and dreams of a job application. The postal service employee, noting the college addresses on each, asked if I was applying to school. I don't expect USPS personnel to recognize the subtle clues of packages addressed to "search committee", but I am going to assume that he was aware of graduate school, and assumed I was applying instead of trying to get out.

At some point in the next year, I shall have to decide what I should do with my wardrobe if/when I get a job. The faculty dress code is indistinguishable from the graduate students'; our department chair once caused quite a stir by showing up in a suit instead of his usual khaki shorts and socks-with-sandals ensemble. Faculty seem to rely on their extra experience to set them apart from their students, and I won't gain that much gravitas in the next year. I will either have to modify my wardrobe considerably, or decide that I don't care about blurring the faculty-student lines.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Timing Recommendation Letter Requests

Would you rather worry that a professor will forget to write your letter of recommendation before application review begins, or discover that a professor has sent out your letters when you haven't prepared your application yet?

Four years of graduate school have trained me well when interacting with faculty. I know that if I show up five minutes after the scheduled start of any weekly meeting or colloquium, I will not be "late", because many faculty will still be on their way. I know that my committee members want any drafts at least one and preferably two weeks in advance, but will not read the drafts until the night before, or possibly the morning of the meeting.

Knowing the usual turnaround time for requests from faculty, I made my requests for recommendation letters as soon as I found jobs worth applying for, all with deadlines in mid-October. Two and a half months' notice seemed about right: Enough time for the faculty to write two or three pages enthusing about my teaching or research skills, but not so much time that they might forget or misplace the request. The challenge is that with three different professors, I get three different responses.

The first letter was requested of my advisor. Her response typifies what I have come to expect of faculty; hardly surprising, I suppose, when she's the faculty member with whom I interact the most. She responded by instructing me to keep our lab coordinator copied on all these emails, a necessary step to make sure she meets the deadlines. Two and a half months is cutting it a bit close for the busy faculty member just starting her sabbatical.

The second letter was requested of the instructor for whom I taught an advanced laboratory course. I asked in person, and received an enthusiastic agreement and instructions to tell him exactly what he wanted me to say. I emailed the list of addresses, and have heard nothing since. In a few weeks, when the hectic start of the semester is over, I'll arrange to pass him in the hallway, and check up on the letters as part of the small talk.

The third letter was requested from a the director of my school's graduate teaching office. Here is where I got my surprise, a faculty member who had been trained to deal with student requests in a timely and efficient matter. Barely a week after I made the request, I got an email - the letters had been sent. I had barely thought about my cover letters, and colleges would receive a letter endorsing me within a few days.

This certainly provided the impetus for me to get on with my applications. A week and a half later, I had written, revised and finalized my cover letter, and finished revising my teaching and research statements. Surely the search committee, or whichever staff member was delegated to deal with the incoming mail, could not hold such a brief delay against me. After all, there were graduate schools who received my GREs and nothing else.

As panicked as I was the first three days after I learned the letters had already been sent, I find I much prefer the faculty member who is completely on top of such things. I will spend the next two months worrying whether the other letters have been written or sent; given the choice between a brief panic and a lingering mild worry, I'll take the brief panic any time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Requesting Recommendation Letters

The first time I TA'd a lab course, my professor mentioned how much more confident I seemed. My first TA with him had been Intro, my second semester of grad school. Although I had already TA'd for one semester of Intro at that point, the first year of graduate school was not particularly distinguishable from college, except for the lack of a supportive social group. It was gratifying but hardly surprising to discover I appeared more confident several years later; by the time I started requesting TA opportunities I was a grown-up, or at least I felt like one.

Being a grown-up does not help with some chores. I've matured enough to teach confidently with excellent FCQs, and even request time at the next faculty meeting for my Lead TA duties. Time comes to ask faculty for letters of recommendation, though, and I'm back to being a college student. Twenty minutes to compose a three-sentence email, loitering around office hours trying not to appear to be loitering...oh, college Student. How I do not miss thee.

Perhaps next time it will be easier. Asking for letters is hard for two reasons: First, because it's asking an unrequited favor, and second, because it's presuming a positive opinion. There is not much I can do about the second, beyond watering my ego and hoping it grows (though not too much), but this time at least I had ways to repay my writers. My prof, upon hearing that I could provide my course materials for his reference and declaring me one of the best TAs he's had, asked for copies he could give out to future TAs. And asking my Lead TA boss put me on her radar, as someone to turn to when she needed a last-minute training assistant.

If I do not get a job, it will not be for a lack of good references. And it might not even be due to a lack of confidence.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Dorothy Syndrome

Somewhere on the Top 10 Signs It's Time to Graduate there must be: You return to school from a trip to Kansas and spend days dreaming you could go back.

I never really understood Dorothy's insistence on getting back to Kansas. Oz was cool; she got to explore, meet talking animals, animated scarecrows and tin statues, and experience magic. Sure, often that magic was started by the wicked witch and aimed against her, but that should just add to the adventure. I blamed this on the late-19th-century opinion of the good girl and a female's place in the world.

Now I find myself drawn to Kansas for the same reason she was, or a very similar one:
my sister, brother-in-law, and brand-new nephew. And grad school is no Oz to distract me. There is no magic or sense of adventure, just a list of chores to be completed before the new semester starts, the continuing drudgery of Dissertation Experiment 3, and a great deal of will required to show up to work every day. It's hard even to get excited by the prospect of applying for jobs, because the jobs seem scarce and it's just more work to cram into a busy semester.

I'm still not certain I would ditch Oz in favor of my family, but I'd certainly ditch grad school for them. Which provides a great deal of motivation to get through