Review: Life on the Tenure Track

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James Lang's Life on the Tenure Track

I have a terrible confession to make: I’ve been giving away copies of a book that I had never read. For the past two summers, we’ve surveyed ESN members about their past year, and members who had made a recent career transition – earned a degree, started a new job, received tenure – have been offered the free book of their selection. I included among our offerings a book, James Lang’s Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year, based on the high recommendations of others, and I promptly (18 months ago) ordered my own copy. I’ve even been known to carry extra copies in my bag to give away spontaneously, yet it’s been sitting on my own “to read” shelf for well over a year.

But my shame has been lifted. This afternoon, I finished reading the final chapter. Even better: I’m glad that I’ve been giving it out.

Lang’s book is not meant to replace the myriad other advice books that are available to young and aspiring faculty. While Lang has studied the art and science of teaching, his book is primarily a memoir of his first year as an assistant professor of English at Assumption College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Worcester, Mass. The book takes the reader through the entire first year, with each month matched up with a dominant theme of academic life from that time period: teaching, grading, writing, and so on. While Lang includes general advice to new professor, he mostly focuses on his own experiences of learning how to teach a full schedule while trying to fulfill service and writing commitments, balancing his work with the needs of his young family, navigating relationships with faculty colleagues, and learning his way around a small college in an unfamiliar city.

ESN members, in particular, may benefit from Lang’s perspective. Lang is Catholic and chose Assumption, in part, because of its Catholic identity. Though his faith remains mostly in the background (with one exception late in the book, in which he compares his experience with those of less religious faculty and students), his faith shapes his values and choices in ways that I think will be familiar to many ESN members. Towards the end of the book, as he’s reflecting on his first year, Lang considers how his work has affected and will continue to affect his wife and children, as well as their attempts to find community in their neighborhood and church. Through the year, Lang also suffers from a chronic disease (Crohn’s) that leads him to consider the inherent limitations of being human. Faculty at schools that place more emphasis on research may find the book less helpful than faculty at liberal arts or teaching-oriented institutions, but the book is a light read that you will likely enjoy anyway.

But enough of what I think. Have you read Life on the Tenure Track? What did you think? And what other books would you recommend for young faculty?

Bonus recommendation: You might also want to check out Lang’s other book for young faculty, On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Prior to coming to Assumption, Lang worked at the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence, so this book draws on his academic expertise as well as his personal experiences. But take my recommendation with a grain of salt, since I haven’t read it yet. :)

5 Comments

  • M. Hron commented on August 25, 2009 Reply

    Hi Tom —

    I must say, that if I were to give a book to a new faculty friend or peer, I think I would go with Boice’s _Advice for New Faculty Members_ rather than the Lang. Lang’s is chatty, a bit rambly, funny at times and has some good pearls among the straw. Boice’s is much less sober, practical, but in the end, I found, much more useful. A string of wee gems to consider.

    Boice’s overriding message is “Nihil Nimus” — nothing in excess. Hitting on that crucial prob profs face –the life/work balance. But a message that is even more important for Christian profs. Because living your faith — with family, friends, serving others etc. — is just as important (if not much more important!) than work, publishing or perishing? or getting in another article or another committee… In all, I found many of the guiding principles Boice covers to relate very nicely to the Christian spiritual walk — learn to wait patiently, be mindful and attentive, serve with compassion etc. Of course, Boice focuses on the 3 areas of teaching, research & service… but his overall message — nothing in excess — really helped remind me that there are other areas in life than just those 3! After all, the Bible doesn’t mention what great carpentry products Jesus made… ;-)

    • Micheal Hickerson commented on August 26, 2009 Reply

      M. Hron, thanks for the recommendation. I haven’t read Boice’s yet, but I will. (And I’ll take being called “Tom” as a compliment. :).

      That’s a good point about Jesus’ carpentry. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? What kind of carpenter was Jesus? In The Passion of the Christ, there’s that great scene of Jesus explaining to Mary how to use a table (which was a Roman innovation in Galilee). In other fictional accounts that I’ve read, I remember Jesus as being portrayed as a maker of crosses (was that The Last Temptation?) and another (Norman Mailer’s Gospel According to the Son, perhaps?) in which Jesus was portrayed as a migrant construction worker in the big Roman building boom in Capernaum and thereabouts.

  • Hannah commented on August 26, 2009 Reply

    I remember Dorothy Sayers said (maybe in “Why Work?”) that the work which came out of Jesus’ carpentry shop must have been excellent, with the sense that our work as His followers should be as well, even if it’s not obviously “religious” work. I like that idea a lot.

    Hannah

    • Micheal Hickerson commented on August 27, 2009 Reply

      By coincidence, I heard a completely opposite take last night from the comedian Jim Gaffigan, who is Catholic. I won’t write it out here for fear of blasphemy, but here’s the link if you want a good laugh. (Only some mild, TV-level profanity.)

  • M. Hron commented on August 26, 2009 Reply

    Yeah — it’s interesting how films & books represent Jesus ‘in own our image’, ie that of our culture. Which deems one’s job as a defining part of one’s identity…
    On that note, I’m sorry mistook your identity Michael. ;-)

    Madelaine H.

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