Academic Life: Second Year Reflection

Grades are in, the office is (relatively) clean, summer schedule is now slowly taking form. Catching my breath and looking back on my second year on faculty, I can honestly say the second year was far more difficult than the first year. While I have heard horror stories of first year teaching experiences and my first year was not any easy year by any means, this second year confronted me with some unexpected challenges that I found far more difficult than my first year. There were three realities that converged to make this a challenging and exhausting year, but with these difficulties also came incredibly meaningful reminders.

First, while the relentless grind of new lectures was somewhat lessened, the reality is my classes were far from perfect on the first few go rounds and required almost constant tinkering. Even my bread and butter course was not engrained in me enough to go into class with a few notes and a memorized lecture. I was still working out details, making connections, trying to fill in holes that were patched together in the frantic pace of my first year. Looking at the coming year with several new courses and still a lingering dissatisfaction with my already repeated courses, the third year is going to be more of the same.

Second, I was not prepared for the subtle demands of higher expectations of university service/participation and the blessed fruit of student conversations that arises from trying to get to know students and make them feel welcome. In my first year I was sheltered from the wider university as I got to know my department. But in my second year I began to dip my toes into the variety of lectureships, social events, and the implicit expectations held for tenure-track faculty. This was combined with wonderful, curious students with wonderful questions that always seemed more interesting (and pressing) than papers to grade and articles to write. The convergence of these two moments did not create a wave of pressure, but more an accumulation of snowflakes that, taken individually seemed weightless and beautiful, but slowly gathered on the roof of my metaphorical office. I am happy to say there was no cave-in or catastrophic danger, but there was a noticeable shift in pressure as the walls pressed out and the ceiling warped in a few times during the year.

These were all lovely, welcome additions where I learned more about the university, more about my colleagues and more about students. But students’ questions and faculty interactions also accumulate, they introduce questions and ideas and problems that sometimes do not simply dissipate when the person leaves the office. There is always an imprint of these conversations, residue left behind that needs to be sorted and decided upon. This sorting, reflecting, praying is blessed work, but more than I had expected.

Lastly, in my second year I went from the stress of getting to know colleagues, trying to decipher the many inevitable conversations that lay unspoken in faculty meetings or university wide events, to knowing a bit more about the unspoken conversations, knowing my colleagues (even if only a bit). The transition from ignorance to partial-knowledge was not an easing, but a complicating reality. These people were no longer strangers whom I needed to please, but partners in an endeavor that I was now connected to.

In all, I found the second year more challenging because I found myself more invested, in my teaching, in my students, in my colleagues and my university. Yes, such investments cost time which I found far more difficult to protect and manage in my second year. But even more than this, such investment drew me to care for these people in ways that made it difficult to protect time for research, to let conversations pass, to not let myself feel elated or disappointed at various points of the academic year.

The question I am left with this year is this, how do I manage this academic life without forsaking the level of  and connectedness that drives my teaching, advising, and writing? This is becoming a pressing question as I stare reluctantly at year three with pre-tenure review, a suite of new courses to teach, and more programmatic realities to negotiate in the midst of trying to hear my children, serve my wife, and be faithful to my church.

I am honestly not sure what balance or rhythm looks like as I reluctantly look upon the third year and the years after. But in the midst of these questions I have also been reminded of the benefits of such investment. Relationships with students and faculty have certainly been sources of tremendous satisfaction. Through these relationships, time in the classroom, reflecting on evaluations and hearing students’ stories, I have also been reminded of my calling and the privilege I have to introduce students to the wonder and power of theology.

I am also realizing that one of the fruits of doing a job well is that people give you more to plant, and that is a good thing.

In my second year I am coming to terms with the academic life, not as a season or a series of tasks to work through. The academic life is just that, a life that must be lived into with perseverance in some moments, being open to surprises, and in other moments simple wonder and awe that God has set me to do this work. In the end, I am realizing there are no bullet-pointed plans, no checklists, no promises of it getting better any time soon. This is a life that must be lived into, embraced, worked through, and listened to.

Maybe at the end of the summer or at the end of my tenth year teaching I might have a few more actionable suggestions, but for now this is the best I can come up with.