In a couple of weeks, my 18 year old son will be headed off to his first year of college. Ever the optimist, he tells everyone who inquires that he is excited. Just the other day he admitted to my husband and me that he is also a little scared.
As a faculty member, I have insider knowledge about the sphere he is on the cusp of entering. This is reason enough to feel a sense of connection to what he will be experiencing soon, as the New England air turns from humid to crisp. But there is another reason why I am feeling empathetic toward my son at this time: I recently left the familiar comfort of my old job, to start a new position.
I remembered the practical matters. I knew to expect that everything takes longer when you’re starting from scratch. You have to estimate how long a task would normally take, and at least double it. What I had forgotten about is the tendency to personalize.
When I was a graduate student and learning how to teach at the college level, I had a kind and able mentor. As I described to him how distracted I felt by a group of sorority sisters who sat together at the front of the class and seemingly poked fun at some of my new-teacher mannerisms, he coached me not to personalize their behavior.
I still remember, a few years later, when I came to grips with the fact that as hard as I strived to be the best professor I could be, I would never be the best match for every student in any given class, an insight that is much easier said, or written, than lived. I thought I had already learned this, so why have I had to learn it again recently?
I am not a cognitive psychologist, but I believe it has to do with the dearth of information available to us when we strike out on a new path. When we haven’t accumulated enough data to judge whether our experiences are common in this new landscape, aren’t we more likely to hold ourselves accountable when things don’t go to plan?
Imagine arriving to class with a set of discussion questions that would have been bullet proof at your last institution, but mostly fizzle and die at your new one, like malfunctioning sparklers. Rationally, you tell yourself it is just a matter of developing a new set of questions that speak to these students whom you are just getting to know. Lending an ear and good advice, your warm and welcoming colleagues confirm that you are facing challenges unique to the situation. But irrationally, without any other experience to draw from in this context, you wonder whether you’ve lost your touch.
Is confidence a state of mind that can be completely transferred from one work environment to another? If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said yes because it was all theoretical. Today I would be lying if I did not admit that there is a part of me who is facing those sorority sisters again.
This week I showed a group of my summer school students Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech, which he concluded by talking about the importance of staying “hungry and foolish.” I took some solace in it. Leaving a known quantity for a partially unknown quantity is always a leap of faith. I am glad I made this one. It has been humbling and uncomfortable at times. As much as I look forward to being more fully acclimated, I will try to keep fresh the emotional memory of what it is like to be new, somewhat unmoored, and in need of perspective — as many first year and transfer students will feel this fall. I hope it will make me a better person and professor.