The Colgate Scene
May 2000
Table of contents
Life in the tenure stream
by James Leach

Assistant Professor of Russian Ian Helfant is back on campus for the spring semester, having spent the fall in Russia with a Colgate study group.
Nowhere is a college's promise more evident than in the junior members of its faculty. Their passion for teaching, the quality of their scholarship, the value of their service to the community is the future of an institution.

     No wonder, then, the emphasis that colleges such as Colgate place on discovering and nurturing talented individuals who aspire to tenured positions -- seeking jobs that may well last a professional lifetime.

     Considering the half-dozen junior faculty members whose experiences and opinions inform this story, Dean of Faculty Jane Pinchin said, "There is nothing bland about the group before you."

     Most were the college's first choice among huge numbers of candidates for their positions. Each committed years to earning a terminal degree. All are challenged -- as were countless others who navigated the tenure stream before them -- with finding the time to have an impact in the classroom while they pursue their scholarship and serve their community.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion Omid Safi earned a bachelor's, master's and PhD during his eleven-year preparation at Duke. Assistant Professor of Political Science Michele Chang was drawn to Colgate by small classes and the chance for frequent interaction with students. Assistant Professor of Geology Karen Harpp.

Assistant Professor of Geology Karen Harpp taught at a college in Wisconsin for four years before joining the Colgate faculty in 1998.
The investment
"Studying for a PhD is a profound luxury on one hand and an incredible risk on the other," said Ian Helfant, an assistant professor of Russian who is teaching in his sec-ond year at Colgate.

     After earning his undergraduate degree, Helfant traveled Eastern Europe for a year on a fellowship. He returned to work as a researcher for The New Yorker, and later as a reporter for a Massachusetts weekly, before realizing "There was more I wanted to know." A Mellon Fellowship made it possible for him to enter graduate school at Harvard, and it was there, he said, "I realized I loved to teach."

     His doctoral program spanned eight years ("a short time, actually, some take as long as 13"), at the end of which he was faced with "a job market in the humanities, and Russian in particular, that is excruciatingly tight. It's really a scary prospect when you have put forth so much effort and made such financial sacrifices and put so much of your-self on the line."

     Typically there are from five to eight openings a year, nationwide, in Helfant's discipline, "two to four that you'd want." One recent opening at Harvard, Helfant recalls, drew 140 applicants.

     Michele Chang remembers spying two large boxes marked "applications" as she sat in the department office waiting to be interviewed for her position as assistant professor of political science. A Smith graduate, she had spent seven years in the doctoral program at the University of California at San Diego qualifying herself to apply for a faculty position. "It's a huge investment," she said.

Having successfully completed his third-year review, Assistant Professor of Mathematics Dan Schult has a semester's leave to focus on his research.
     After earning a masters at Princeton and working for three years at the Federal Reserve, Dan Schult -- the son of a professor -- realized that he wanted the academic life for himself: "The constant renewal you have in an academic setting, the excitement and energy of teaching young people, the freedom to do research as you think best -- those were factors that figured in my decision."

     Schult enrolled in the doctoral program at Northwestern. Six years later, in 1996, he was one of approximately 1,100 new PhDs looking at 800 jobs in mathematics nationwide. Colgate chose him from among roughly 450 applicants for its position that year.

     Lynette Stephenson taught art for 13 years at a college in Mississippi before giving up tenure there to come to Colgate two years ago as an assistant professor of art and art history. Karen Harpp was on track for tenure after four years at a college in Wisconsin when she was attracted to a position in geology at Colgate. Omid Safi spent 11 years at Duke earning a bachelors, masters and PhD before coming to Colgate to teach philosophy and religion: "It was a long haul," he said.

The attraction of teaching
Harpp's father is a legendary professor of chemistry at McGill; her mother is a schoolteacher, "a rebel with a tremendous social conscience"; her grandmother was a teacher. Throughout high school, whenever her mother said Karen would make a great teacher, Harpp "swore up and down" that the profession wasn't for her.

     But of all the campus jobs she held as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, the one Harpp enjoyed most was her work as a tutor and teaching assistant. The dream of one day teaching remained with her during a Churchill Fellowship at Cambridge, and later in her work toward a masters and PhD at Corn-ell. After four years of teaching at Lawrence University, and two years into her position at Colgate, she recently asked, "How many people get paid to do what they love to do?"

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion Omid Safi in class.
     When Stephenson began teaching she said she told herself, "'I'll do this for a couple of years and then go back to my art.' But as soon as I started, I knew this was something I had to keep doing.

     "I really enjoy the contact with students. I appreciate the small victories in the classroom. One little progression and the look on a student's face when they get it. Or the big picture of seeing a student grow from semester to semester. It's the students who pull me in."

     Safi was a pre-med at Duke -- already had a medical school acceptance, in fact -- when he fell under the influence of a charismatic teacher of philosophy and religion. Safi's experience in that class chan-ged the course of his life. Teaching as a graduate student confirmed that he had made the right choice. Today he says, "It is mesmerizing to be in the classroom and know that there is all this learning to do. It's still a great joy."

     For Chang and others, the allure of teaching at Colgate is also tied to class size and the chance for frequent interaction with students. As adviser to Euro Sim, the local chapter of a consortium of schools in upstate New York and Europe that join together to create models of the European Union, she continues her work with students outside the classroom.

     At the end of his first year at Colgate, Helfant was taken by the energy he experienced when many of his colleagues on the faculty gathered for a day-long seminar to talk about their expectations of teaching. "I loved being a part of that."

     Like many junior faculty, Schult was attracted not only by the notion of small classes, but also by the promise of teaching high-quality students. "Students here are very well prepared," he found.

Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Lynette Stephenson is on an accelerated tenure track.
Balancing act
While good teaching is essential, Dean Pinchin points out that it is but one factor in the selection of new members of the faculty. "We look for people who will make a significant contribution in the classroom, and for those who will at the same time make significant contributions to their academic communities and to their fields. If the search doesn't produce the kind of excitement we've come to expect, we will wait for another year."

     When the college commits to a new faculty member, it also commits the resources to help that person succeed. "Start-up funds" provide the equipment and materials that enable new members of the faculty to be engaged from the outset. "We try to provide junior faculty with the tools necessary for the kind of teaching and scholarship and service they want to do at the institution," Pinchin said. "In terms of the work they do with students and in their own research, we mean to support faculty as aggressively as any college with which we are compared."

     That support includes books and lab equipment, funds for travel and research, and collegial discourse as found around teaching tables where faculty gather to compare notes on such topics as grading, class discussion and technology in the classroom. "We have the wherewithal to allow faculty to work," Pinchin said, "even when they are in specialized scientific fields or need access to materials that are hard to come by. And a constant at Colgate for the past 30 years or more has been the emphasis first and foremost on a faculty that teaches hard and loves contact with its students."

     For as much as they enjoy teaching Colgate students, for as well as they feel supported by the college as they pursue their scholarship, for as dedicated as they are to community service, junior faculty say universally that there is a premium on one commodity: time.

     Lynette Stephenson taught ten courses each year at Jackson State; at Colgate she teaches five. One of the attractions of coming to Colgate was the opportunity it provided to focus more on her own art. One of the surprises, she said, was that, "In a way I feel busier. Living in Hamilton, in this small community, I'm basically living at work. There are so many opportunities to develop new experiences for students. Trying to be an artist while I'm teaching -- I feel like I'm trying to do two jobs at once."

Assistant Professor of Political Science Michele Chang.
     A junior faculty leave -- awarded when a faculty member in the tenure stream shows success after the first three years -- will free Stephen-son of teaching responsibilities next semester, allowing her time that she can devote to her art.

     For Schult the mathematician, who is on junior faculty leave this semester, the challenge of balancing teaching with scholarship at an undergraduate college has changed the focus of his research. "The hot topics become out of your reach," he said. "If somebody else can spend significantly more time than you on the problem, they are going to get it."

     That is not an issue for Schult, who, at a liberal arts college, can trade the high-profile problems for riskier projects. "I don't have five grad students depending on my support, or the other kinds of financial pressures," Schult said. "Summers and winter break are precious for providing blocks of time when I can concentrate on a problem."

     Scholarship expectations are not the only demands on the time of faculty, as Safi has found since arriving at the college last fall. As the only Muslim on the faculty, and a member of a very small Muslim population on campus, he is a point of frequent contact for a diverse population. "Especially for faculty of color," he said, "the issue of community is very important because it is never a neutral choice. There are always obligations that come along with it. As a faculty member, one chooses to be a part of the community and thus to be held accountable for certain things. I've come to terms with that."

     But for all the demands on his time, he said, "Everything has been as positive as I had hoped. The reception has been incredibly warm."

Assistant Professor of Russian Ian Helfant.
Personal philosophies
Junior faculty have in common a timetable that faces few other professionals. As they make their way toward tenure decisions that will determine their futures as members of Colgate's faculty, they know that their professional development will be taken into account formally at third-year review and at tenure hearings six years into their time at the college. The timetable can be shortened for significant teaching elsewhere -- Lynette Stephenson, for instance, has just passed her third-year review after two years at Colgate -- but the decision points remain.

     Dan Schult has developed a philosophy that helps him to deal with the question of tenure that is a constant in the lives of all junior faculty: "Sometimes this philosophy doesn't work," he admitted, "but when I arrived I decided I would work the same way I would work after I got tenure and let them decide if they want me or not. Sometimes that's hard to do because you know there are pressures now that won't be there later on. Like balancing faculty responsibilities with the needs of a young family. In some ways I think I will be even more focused on work once my family is a little older."

     Stephenson acknowledged: "The expectations are high at Colgate -- but that's what I'd see in my family, too. They expect a lot of you, but they support you to help you get to where they expect you to be."

     Helfant said that, during the pre-tenure process, junior faculty "learn what it means to be part of a community." He measures the anxiety of the process against the rewards of teaching, and draws a contrast to other professions.

     "Colgate is a place where I love teaching," he said. "I feel very much a part of what's going on here. As I approach third-year review next spring it's not that I don't worry about it, but I feel I'm on track. As long as I continue to do my best and juggle these responsibilities well, I feel that I will be judged fairly on what I've accomplished. And I don't think the expectations are unreasonable. Of course I think about it, but I'm optimistic. When I look at my friends who are working as engineers or lawyers or professionals in other fields, I think about how lucky I am to be teaching."

     For Karen Harpp, the pressure is there "every single day. It's a huge investment of your time and effort, but what a way to go. If it works it will be marvelous, and if it doesn't I will have given it my best shot.

     "In theory my philosophy is, I'll do the best I can across the board. If that works, great.

     "Being a faculty member is the world's greatest impossible job," said Harpp. "You're perennially behind -- you can never teach as well as you want. You can never prepare to teach as well as you want. You can never get as much research done as you want -- unless you have 50 or 60 hours a day -- because there are so many cool things to do.

     "In the middle of graphing up data you are going to think of some way to teach something that's in the back of your head for some other class. But it doesn't matter. It's not a complaint -- it's just a fact you deal with."

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