Reflections on my first year on the tenure track

Everything I read in The Chronicle is about how people are struggling in the academic job market right now. Nonetheless, I managed to hit the jackpot: a tenure-track position, right out of grad school, in a top-ten department in my field, at a flagship public R1, in a great city. I was lucky to the point of embarrassment, and it was not at all fair.

Despite all this privilege, my first semester as a new assistant professor was… I wouldn’t just say it was “challenging,” I’d say it mostly sucked, full stop. There I was, in this awesome, coveted new position I’d worked hard to achieve, but I was unhappy and nearly convinced I couldn’t hack it at all. Absolutely nothing seemed to be working well in those first months: not teaching my first course; not getting my lab set up; not navigating how the department worked; and certainly not making progress on my research and writing. Everything from R coding to choosing the right paint colors for the walls in my lab was a source of doubt and anxiety. I didn’t get a lot done.

What surprised me more than the fact that things were initially very hard (which I had anticipated, though not to such an extreme degree), though, was how quickly and drastically they turned around. My first Spring semester was nothing like my first Fall. I taught a different, more “experiential” course on Cognitive Development, which I’ve genuinely looked forward to each day. Austin Thought Lab has gradually come together into a fun and productive place to work. I can write and code again without distress. Some papers are getting submitted. I enjoy and am extremely grateful for my job.

There are two lessons from this first-year experience I’d like to share with other brand-new faculty.

First, if your first semester is anything like mine was, you’re not alone. But know this: not only can this get better, it might even get better a lot sooner than you think.

The second lesson comes from the most useful piece of advice I was given during my first semester, when things were so rough. When my former PhD advisor asked how things were going in my new job, I told the truth: the teaching and administrative stuff were harder than I thought they’d be, and they were taking all my time, and I didn’t even feel like they were going well at all. (And I wasn’t getting my writing done! And I couldn’t even think straight! And I just couldn’t do this!)

Somewhat counterintuitively, what he advised was to just stop trying to write, and accept the fact that those papers weren’t going to get finished any time soon. He didn’t say to take a break for a few days. He said, take a break for a month, maybe two months, maybe the whole rest of the semester!

When academics struggle, our academic friends like to argue with us about how well we’re really doing. We say, “Oh, it’s imposter syndrome, everyone feels that way, but just look at your CV! Look at this award you won! This grant you got! These papers you published! You might not feel it, but all these accomplishments are hard evidence that of course you can do it. And you will!”

I’ve said all this many times to colleagues who’ve confided their anxieties to me.

But as a new assistant professor, that approach wasn’t helpful at all. Presenting me with a list of all the things I had somehow managed to do before just reinforced the idea that now I was failing and falling behind. What did help was to have a senior colleague — someone I trusted, who knew very well what deep scientific work actually entails — listen to me and believe me when I said I couldn’t do it. By telling me to stop trying, he gave me permission to relax, at least a little. I’m sure that was part of what helped my productivity and enjoyment to return, a couple months later.

Returning to practice

One of the things my therapist recommended to me after my mom received the diagnosis and my whole life was up-ended and I was worried about losing it was to take yoga classes, because it’s been helpful for me in the past. There is a studio down the road from my parents’ that offers a 30 days for $30 special for new students. I wound up taking 12 classes in the 30 days, and wrote this a few days into it:

One silver lining of being in an emotionally difficult situation and away from home so much these last weeks is that I’ve started practicing yoga and meditation again, taking 3 or 4 yoga classes a week and sitting on my own, like I’ve been saying I would for years. This has been good for my mental health, and it has also made me realize the truth og something one of my very first yoga teachers once told me: You can always come back to your practice, because your body will always remember.

I started practicing yoga in 2001, when I was 18, and got more seriously into sitting meditation when I was about 23. When I practice now, that entire 17 year history is still there. The first yoga class I ever took in the NYU gym shortly before 9/11; the years I worked as the assistant to the director of a yoga studio in DC, the 200-hour teacher training program I did there when I was 20; the sweaty classes at Jivamukti, where I practiced after I moved back to NYC in my early 20’s (back when it was still on Lafayette Street); all the other yoga studios I’ve practiced in; the meditation retreats I went on and the monasteries I visited in my mid-to-late 20s… it’s all still there. It’s all still there even though I practiced so little in grad school, especially after F was born. My body still remembers all of it, and starting to practice again even after a long break is not at all like starting over from scratch.

(2018)

Kate Zambreno

“How can I remember this? It was so long ago. The only thing that can be confirmed are these words on the page, is the way I have told this story to myself and reframed and rewritten it over the intervening years.”

“We are again at the cabin. My mother and I are alone in a boat on the sparking blue lake. It is a moment of calm between us, of intimacy. You are either hot or cold, my mother tells me. You are either up or down, never in between. I don’t know why she is telling me this.

–My childhood was unhappy.

–You had a wonderful childhood.

–That is not what I remember.

–But look here, at this photograph. You are smiling. You are happy.

We never remember the moments our pictures are taken.

We think we do, but we don’t.

Photographs do not reflect the turbulence underneath.”

“Palliative care. My father spits out as if the phrase itself were poison. No, your mother is going to live.

Radical treatment.

I hate you and after this is over I never want to see you again I scream at my father. I am screaming to save my mother from all of us. Save her from her treatment. For a percentage rolled into another percentage.”

Book of Mutter (2017)

Flannery O’Connor

“[W]hat one has as a born Catholic is something given and accepted before it is experienced. I am only slowly coming to experience what I have all along accepted. I suppose the fullest writing comes from what has been accepted and experienced both and that I have just not got that far yet all the time. Conviction without experience makes for harshness.”

Letter (1955)

Mary Robison

538

“I meet up with Hollis on my sun porch. He’s got Gray’s Anatomy opened on his lap and his arm is up as he examines the parts of his wrist and right hand.

“Were you always like this?” I ask him.

‘Always,’ he nods. ‘What’ve you got there? he asks me.

“Oh, a parting gift […]”

He squints and says, ‘You’ve got to budget your time on a thing like that. When hours become days? Now it’s kind of a tangle, isn’t it? The girl might hurt herself. Were you always –‘

‘From day one,’ I say.”

Why Did I Ever (2001)

Virginia Woolf (2)

“She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in her hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge or tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as down any dark passage for a child.”

To the Lighthouse (1927)

New Testament

“Love never faileth; but whether there be prophesies, they shall fail; whether there are tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, Love, these three: but the greatest of these is Love.”

First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. xiii

William Faulkner (2)

“I know the answer to that and I know that I can’t change that answer and I don’t think I can change me because the second time I ever saw you I learned what I had read in books but I never had actually believed: that love and suffering are the same thing and that the value of love is the sum of what you have to pay for it and anytime you get it cheap you have cheated yourself.”

The Wild Palms (1939)

Marjory Williams

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does is hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

The Velveteen Rabbit (1922)

Marilynne Robinson

“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone.”

“It is one of the best traits of people that they love where they pity. And this is more true of women than of men. So they get themselves drawn into situations that are harmful to them. I have seen this happen many, many times. I have always had trouble finding a way to caution against it. Since it is, in a way, Christlike.”

“[T]hat was the first time in my life I ever felt that what I thought I was amounted to the clothes on my back and the books on my shelves and the calendar I kept full of obligations waiting and obligations fulfilled. As I have said, it was a foretaste of death, at least of dying. And why should that seem strange? ‘Passion’ is the word we use, after all.”

Gilead (2004)