“Being An Active Junior Faculty Member” – Advice From Dr. Manya Whitaker

Dr. Manya Whitaker, an education professor, regularly offers personal reflections, advice, and critiques on her blog, the other classA few examples (of many great, honest posts) worth checking out are on the exhaustion of being the token minority, dating (or at least hoping to!) as an academic, and maintaining personal boundaries in professional relationships. 

Below, Dr. Whitaker provides advice for being active, and possibly even making meaningful change, in one’s department as a junior faculty member.

Being An Active Junior Faculty Member

AfroWhen I was choosing graduate programs I was barely 20 years old and was motivated to get a PhD because I wanted to teach and make more than 32k doing so. Naturally, a PhD was the solution to my problems. Like many other bright-eyed open-hearted undergraduates I had a vision of graduate school that turned out to be misaligned with reality. I was one of about 60 graduate students in a sizable department at a Research I institution. I was one of three African Americans and by far the youngest student in the program at 21 years and 1 month on the first day. I learned from my experience in graduate school that I needed to put a lot more thought into how I chose my professional institution. I wanted to be somewhere that was a good fit for me pedagogically and scholarly, but also where I felt like I was needed and valued.

I found that. But that doesn’t mean everything is rosy.

I’ve been at my present school for two years as a post doctoral fellow and am now beginning my third year as tenure track faculty in the Education Department. Despite being the youngest faculty member (even in my third year I remain the youngest faculty member on campus), being black, having an afro, being single, having no kids, and being a woman, I’ve managed to affect significant change in my department. When I look back over the last two years I admit I am surprised by what I’ve been able to accomplish despite my fear that my marginalized identities would be ignored or subjugated.

When pressed to think about how I helped change the future of the department, I come up with quite a few things: I was instrumental in creating a major (with the addition of 8 undergraduate courses), revising the Masters Thesis for the graduate program, recruiting students from other departments to the education department, designing two new courses for graduate students, developing and conducting seminars/workshops for students and colleagues in the department, revising the undergraduate capstone requirements, and building relationships with other departments with whom we’ve historically struggled to engage meaningfully. I realize that all of this was accomplished by doing a few key things: observing, listening, planning, and suggesting.

I have many conversations and read many texts about the state of economic/racial/sexual/gendered/religious minority faculty members in the Academy. One common trend is that we are all worried about rocking the boat. That is a valid worry, yet I wonder how much our trepidation has inhibited us from fully doing our jobs. Here are a few suggestions for how a junior faculty member, occupying a marginalized space in the Academy, can truly affect change:

  • Learn the history of the department, paying close attention to who is invested in what. You don’t want to offend your Chair by saying ‘I don’t know who thought it’d be a good idea to ___’.
  • Figure out the vision for the department. It is a waste of time to suggest ideas that are already in the works.
  • Build relationships with everyone—including adjunct faculty and staff—in your department. You never know from whence an ally may emerge.
  • Create buy-in from your colleagues. Volunteer to chair mini-committees or small initiatives in the department. Show them you are engaged and invested in the department.
  • When you see a problem, don’t react immediately. Think about the cause of the problem, brainstorm solutions, decide upon a course of action, and outline the necessary resources to solve that problem (timeline, people, money). Also consider the sacrifices that must be made to enact change (e.g., dropping courses or altering methods of teaching or changing offices).
  • Test your idea on a small audience. This person doesn’t have to be affiliated with the institution, but a good test subject is a cohort member from another department. Remember to leave out names and to present your idea as objectively as possible.
  • Make sure your idea is something about which you are knowledgeable. You don’t want to appear to be overstepping your boundaries. You want to use this as a way to build credibility with your colleagues (while also demonstrating your knowledge and skills in your area of expertise).
  • Present the idea to your Chair before presenting it to the larger department. He or she may have feedback that could improve or change your idea. Also, it’s good to follow the political hierarchy as a junior faculty member.
  • Be willing to do the work. If you are suggesting a change in how you write job descriptions, be prepared to be the one to write the new job descriptions. Or to design and teach the new course. Or to take on more advisees. And please don’t expect to be compensated for the extra work.
  • Realize that you may have to drop your idea. No matter how thought out and great your suggestion may be, it may not be the time to create waves in the department. File it in your good idea folder and come back to it later.
  • Keep a record of your ideas—even those that weren’t accepted. These are great talking points if the time comes for you to part ways with your institution in search of a better fit.

All in all, I think junior faculty can certainly be vital members of a department. It’s mostly about knowing when to step up and when to hold your tongue. If you spend a couple of months observing and listening, it will become clear who cares about what, what no one really cares about, and what no one has time to care about. Then, you choose your choice.

One thought on ““Being An Active Junior Faculty Member” – Advice From Dr. Manya Whitaker

  1. Dr. Whitaker,

    I have no business replying, for I have been outside of my little corner of the academy for 22 years. I was an “early retiree” from a position as tenured “Professor of History” at Oakton Community College, Des Plaines, IL. I was a member of the founding faculty of that institution that was organized to be “a change agent.” There were no Divisions, Departments, and “F” grade in the institution organized on the “Student Development model.” Sadly, the economic-political state and community forces altered that model after a dozen years,

    First, the secondary status of institutions that offer the first two years of post-secondary education is an unnecessary discrimination. Illinois mandated 85% college r transfer courses at it community college. It was not a trade/vocational feeder, exclusively for business and corporate. In a hierarchical society this is to be expected, but there is societal blindness–and agreement to this take-over.

    I have a long tale to tell, but won’t bore you except to say that during the course of my tenure in higher education I was hired to teach in a program that prepared second master degree students for positions as Multi-cultural facilitators, by the Chicago Consortium of Colleges and Universities. I received exposure, tasks and roles with Ph. D. level responsibilities in Illinois. I have a Doctor of Education degree, as well.

    I applaud your achievement, to date,and am sure that “to date” is merely the beginning.

    Choosing the uninvited role of “elder academic,” I read your suggestions for moving upward in the academy with interest. As a designated “change agent,” I understand your choices and positions. I am, though, concerned, that important changes in academia are not apparent. The institutional-structured system is, itself, stale, static, and limiting, intellectually and socio-culturally, a deadly state for education/educare, as “to bring forth,” Revolution does not occur overnight, but, bringing new wine into the old skeins is not designed, nor will it make productive change in a moribund institution. The worst enemy of the institution, the academy, in my observation and caring experience is the control exerted by the corporate model.

    Recently, I wrote to my undergraduate institution, and made the same plea at a recent alumni meeting, decrying the adaption of business names to academic leaders. Universities betray their once, long ago role by using CEO, CFO, and similar names. Yes, money is needed. Selling-out to the corporate ethos hastens the day that education is only training to become cogs in the controlling “disaster capitalist” model of society.

    I came to this site because of my friendship with Dr. Amie Breeze Harper-Zhan, and the conversation around “fat studies,” one within the entire panoply of academia–un-separated from society.

    Thank you.


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