Building a better faculty orientation

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I don’t remember my New Faculty Orientation that well. Why is that?

I’ve done this a few times. Each time, I was excited, exhausted, and overwhelmed. I had just moved to a new city. I was dealing with finding new housing, moving all of my stuff, getting finances in order, helping combobulate my spouse’s professional situation, and the most recent time I was dealing with a kid getting adjusted.

The professional side was a hurricane, too. I was gearing up to teach a new class. I had a research lab to set up. I had a brand new set of colleagues, my office had someone else’s stuff in it, my new computer hadn’t shown up yet, I didn’t know where any basic stuff was.

You know what would really help at this moment in time? How about locking me in a room with other professors for a whole day or three to tell us every single thing we needed know about being a professor at this university.

I hope you know that previous sentence was sarcastic. But maybe not, because it seems that’s what most universities seem to do!

Here’s what brand new tenure-track professors need before the start of the first semester:

  • an email account
  • enrollment in direct deposit, health insurance, and retirement benefits
  • a parking or metro pass
  • some coffee with other new faculty
  • a handout with information about student support services
  • any immediately required legally mandated training (e.g., sexual harassment)
  • a friendly person in the office nextdoor to answer stupid questions
  • time to get stuff done

I dare say you can knock these things out in a couple hours.

Here’s what brand new tenure-track faculty don’t need:

  • a short speech from every upper-level administrator on campus, none of which end up being short
  • a lesson in pedagogy
  • a speech from the person running the grants office
  • a speech from the person running the campus writing center
  • a speech from the person running the campus disability office
  • a speech from the person running the faculty development center
  • a visit from the person running the bookstore
  • a visit from the person running student health services
  • a visit from the campus police
  • a formal meal involving tablecloths, some powerpoint, and table service. (If anything, we’d just like the 50 bucks this lunch cost the university instead)

Does anybody do orientation in a way that really meets the needs of new faculty?

My answer to this is YES. On sabbatical I’m visiting the University of Otago, and my colleague here told me that she just finished her new faculty orientation. I was puzzled, because she’s been here for a whole year! And then she explained:

Here, when she first arrived, she dealt with all of the necessaries with the department admin personnel. Keys, ID, parking permit, other paperwork.

Then, nine months after working on campus, the new lecturers (aka assistant professors) are ready for a proper orientation. They’ve gotten to know their peers, taught some classes, research labs are ramping up, been applying for grants, have gotten to know a bunch of students. The know where to go for coffee and for lunch, and have an idea about the challenges and opportunities they face. And they have a feeling for what the campus is like and what the priorities are.

After a year on campus, when faculty talk to the people at the grants office, they are armed with specific questions about university funding programs they weren’t able to ask at at the outset. When faculty meet the campus disability office, they will be able to ask about specific resources that they couldn’t have anticipated earlier. When the faculty hear about the partnership with (say) the Pacific Islands outreach program or the (say) Service Learning office, then they will have very specific ideas about how these resources may anneal with their teaching and research agendas.

New faculty can get a lot more out of orientation if they’ve been on campus for at least a semester. This is because the faculty are already familiar with the campus, so they know what they need to hear from the people at the front of the room.

I think most faculty members think new orientations are mostly a waste of time, with a lot of fanfare, but little useful substance. If you take the same exact thing, and delay it by a semester or two, I think it could be more substantial.

What do you think? Does your campus do this, or would you like them to? Any ideas or suggestions?

6 thoughts on “Building a better faculty orientation

  1. On our campus, NFO is a semester long effort that is treated like a class. New faculty typically attend in their first semester. The class meets once a week for a couple hours. If you attend most of the classes, you are awarded a decent sum of money that you can apply to research, travel, etc (not for paying yourself). I thought this was a better approach than cramming everything into one or two days.

  2. Our institution does the firehose version of orientation (maybe over a span of 2 days?) before New Student Week, but then they also do a follow-up over Winter Break after fall term ends. It’s been long enough since I’ve gone through it that I don’t remember much of the content of the follow-up workshop, but the central activity has always been micro-teaching demos that each new faculty member does to get feedback from their other new faculty peers plus the facilitators. For a teaching-oriented institution, this always struck me as appropriate, and I remember getting pretty useful feedback at the time. There are also optional lunches once or twice each term for first and second year faculty where they bring different people in to talk about new faculty concerns like applying for grants, dealing with student issues, evaluating students, getting effective feedback from students on your teaching, etc. I’ve always strongly encouraged the junior faculty in my department to take advantage of those lunches and I even participated in one of the lunch conversations (which was great fun for me because I learned from my fellow panelists and I met some new faculty too!).

  3. This sounds like it would be a great model!

    I remember at my university our orientation included the usual fancy tablecloth lunch about a week in, and part of that was a baffling activity where we got into groups and came up with three suggestions for things that could be improved at the university, and then we shared them with the whole orientation group (and the deans promptly shot them all down by explaining how they actually aren’t good suggestions, or aren’t feasible, or how they’re already being done). Well duh we can’t think of useful suggestions for things to change here, we’ve been here a week, we don’t know how anything works!

  4. The best induction I ever had was at the University of Sheffield, where they told us the bare essentials via an online tool, peppered with links to more information if we needed it. We were also given a CD with all the guidance, documentation, forms, maps and instructions one could ever need. This was ideal because it meant you could select what you needed, in your own time, and ignore the rest until it became relevant.

    The second-best induction was at my current university. I didn’t have one.

  5. Markus described what sounds like a great orientation. Our university does a 2-stage fire hose. The first part happens the week before classes start. It’s about 6 hours of all of the non-research offices on campus talking at all new faculty for 15 minutes each. The “lunch break” involves a panel of slightly more experienced faculty talking about their experiences while new faculty consume box lunches. The second part is just for tenure-track faculty and covers presentations from the research-oriented offices. It’s held once classes start, and you can only take it your first year. If you teach during that window or are out of town, you will not be able to take it. At no point is time set aside for necessary training or even to hand out a list of training that is required. And woe to the faculty member who missed a point or forgets something. . . .

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