Somewhere along the way…

I became a professor. I’m not really sure how it happened, but it did.

When I started my current appointment at Kansas State University, the whole culture of the tenure-track college professor was pretty foreign to me. I had little understanding about how coveted such positions can be, and even less knowledge of what would actually be required.

I sort of fell into a great thing at K-State. I had been teaching computer technology at a nearby community college. In fact, I taught there for three years and would have, I presume, been awarded tenure there the next year. As long as you do a decent job and don’t make anyone angry, tenure was usually granted after three years. There weren’t to my knowledge any clearly defined requirements other than to teach well and get along well with others.

I was just getting used to the whole idea of teaching when I saw the advertisement seeking an associate professor at the Salina campus of Kansas State University. I seemed to have all of the qualifications listed: higher education teaching experience, industrial experience in my field, masters degree… well I was ABT (all but thesis) at the time, but I’ve long ago learned not to limit myself based upon qualifications mentioned in a job advertisement, so I applied.

Once I did arrive for my interview, I could tell that things would be different here. The expectations for my job were clearly defined for me early on. I must perform in three distinct areas: teaching, scholarship and service. This was new, but not entirely unfamiliar to me. It was new in that the requirements were clearly spelled out in a departmental tenure and promotion document. The part that was unfamiliar was the explicit requirement for scholarship that was not a required part of my community college experience.

In the community college environment my primary function was teaching and occasionally I might be asked to serve on a committee. If I remember correctly, the contract spelled out the teaching requirement, and included a catch-all clause that said, “and other duties as assigned” which covered the chief academic officer’s bases for the service requirements of the position.

I recall thinking that this new scholarship requirement was a fascinating challenge, and that my old community college would benefit from such a requirement of its faculty. By requiring a bit of scholarship, and it wouldn’t necessarily need to be anything akin to the 20% of your time requirement that my current department has, I thought the culture among the community college faculty would be significantly improved by that challenge.

In the first several years of my new job, I was very uncomfortable with the title “Associate Professor.” I don’t think I ever fully embraced my associate professor-ness. What does it mean, exactly anyhow? What does it mean to be associate? Am I a professor? When I wrote to my best friend from high school about my new job, he wrote back to me jokingly that I was now in the company of the most famous of all professors, Roy Hinkley, who for all of his extensive knowledge was never quite able to get the castaways back to civilization.

At my old job, the only possible rank for a faculty member was “Instructor,” irregardless of experience or educational background. I don’t think it helped my understanding having attended a small liberal-arts college for my undergraduate degree. My graduate coursework was primarily done through online and brief summer sessions at Fort Hays State University so I didn’t have any experience of the culture of a research one institution.

I always have had a feeling that somehow I had slid under the door of entry into this new world of professorship, particularly because I did not arrive with my master’s degree in hand. Come to think of it, I even began teaching college courses at the community college as I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree. I continue to be amazed at the amount of faith that the people who hired me have had in me and my potential.

There is a principle at work in my approach; in how these amazing things have happened to me. I must have read it somewhere along the way many years ago, probably from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Behave as if you are already the person you wish to become.

Yep, I just googled it. (Isn’t the internet awesome?)

If you want a quality, act as if you already have it. If you want to be courageous, act as if you were – and as you act and persevere in acting, so you tend to become.
― Norman Vincent Peale

Instead of a somewhat mysterious three year tenure process that hinges a great deal on whether or not your students, your superiors and your colleagues like you at the community college, earning tenure in my department at Kansas State was a six-year process in which I always had a strong sense of what was required. I simply had to demonstrate achievement in the three areas with the following time allotments: 70% teaching, 20% scholarship and 10% service.

As long as I could show that I had performed well in each of these areas, even if my students hated me, even if I had not one single friend on campus, according to the official tenure and promotion document I would not be denied tenure. Of course it is possible to achieve in the three areas without having everyone hate you (which incidentally is the path I tried to follow) after six years I was fully accepted into the tribe, earned tenure and became an associate professor.

Each year around this time, I have to turn in an annual report of professional accomplishments. Because I am not as organized as I could be, it is usually a hassle and usually a last-minute rush to get it done. It is getting better, and I do some things smarter, but it took me half of a day yesterday to put mine together. I have a spot in my office where I keep relevant documents in a pile (I’m a piler, not a filer) as the year progresses, and all I have to do is sort them into the three categories at the end of the year and put them into a tabbed binder. Knowing that this activity is coming each year, you might think that I would simply have a tabbed binder ready and place each item in the proper location as it comes up, but you would think wrongly. Hmm, maybe I should re-think my approach.

Anyhow, while looking through this tabbed binder of my activities throughout the last year, I noticed something peculiar and amazing. Somewhere along the way, I have become a professor. I do real professor work. I’m working towards a professor’s Ph.D. but in my particular department, that degree is a personal goal not a requirement. I talk with and work with other professors. Most importantly, I am on a path of ongoing self-improvement. This is definitely not a static situation where I feel I’ve arrived. There are always areas for growth and achievement, but as I wrote in my last post, achievement is only level 2 of a four-level continuum of happiness. Of course I will continue to achieve and strive for accomplishing great things, but I am mostly concerned with my growth happening in levels 3 & 4, where I am helping others and moving towards Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty and Being. Isn’t that after all what being a professor is really all about?


One thought on “Somewhere along the way…

  1. I think it is important to always strive towards self-improvement. I believe that if you ever become too content with where you are you will do more harm to yourself and your students than good.

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