Making It out Alive: The First Semester as an Assistant Professor

I had every intention of writing a blog post at the end of last semester, but I thought the post would be more victorious than how it kept writing itself in my head.

After I called a suicide hotline for the first time in my life, after my students called me crazy, after I cried in a department meeting, after I got yelled at for bringing an aggressive dog to the dog park, after I got asked repeatedly whether or not I’m married or have kids, after teaching four classes a semester for the first time ever, after admitting that I need anxiety and depression medication…after all of that, this blog post seems so much less glamorous than I thought it would be. Where was the champagne?

The first semester as a new assistant professor is hard. It’s really hard.

It’s hard to move halfway across the country with only your canine best friend (who has not yet been named an aggressive dog) and a philodendron that you’ve been trying not to kill for seven years now.

It’s hard adjusting to a new region of the country (and learning what cockroaches are). I have never lived anywhere in the Bible Belt, and there is nothing about me that suggests that I belong here. I get weird looks in Target. People stop me when I’m walking, when I’m teaching, when I’m shopping to ask me where I’m from and if I like “wearing all that black?”

It’s hard adjusting to a new school with a new student population. I thought teaching four classes a semester would be comparable to teaching two and taking two as a Ph.D. student. I was wrong. Teaching new students and multiple new classes is hard. Even teaching a familiar course with a new student population feels like trying to make sense of a new language that you kind of understand but can’t quite figure out.

It’s hard leaving behind a support structure. Syracuse is where I became myself. It’s where I started dealing and working with my issues rather than shoving them in the corner. It’s where I built a support system of friends with whom I could make myself vulnerable. It’s where I learned about my passions. I knew leaving would be hard, but I didn’t know how hard.

I’m making it sound bleak. I mean, it was…but it’s not all bleak.

We’re five weeks into the spring semester here, and I am still full of nervous excitement. I am still halfway across the country alone in a weird town that I can’t quite figure out at a new school that is in the midst of a lot of institutional restructuring teaching four classes.

But I know more about this place now. And I’m not sure what I think about Arkansas, but there are things to love here. I have a favorite Chinese take-out place that offers mean vegan dishes and a diner that I like to go to for people-watching. I’ve hiked at some state parks and have dragged the dog up (and carried her back down) giant rocks just to look out at the bright blue Arkansas River. I found someone who houses the dog and sends me texts and video updates of her playing when I have to go out of town. I have an overpriced coffee shop where I like to buy my beans. When the farmer’s market was open in the fall, I had good rapport with an old man who believes that computers have ruined young people’s ability to write in cursive.

I have taught some of these classes before. I have interacted with some of these students. My students ask me where I buy my lipstick and talk to me about things that matter in their lives. I know who to go to in my department when I have random questions. I have colleagues who ask me to go to lunch with them and friends who get me to stay out too long on a weeknight drinking whiskey.

I have a therapist and antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.

Vague advice based on personal experiences will only ever be vague advice based on personal experiences, but there are two things that I wish past Allison knew:

One: It’s going to be really hard.

Actually, I did know that. I had been told that. But I didn’t believe it. Starting an M.A. program a few months after my mom died was hard. Taking four classes my first semester as a Ph.D. student was hard. The job market was hard. This is a different kind of hard. One way I regulate my anxiety is carefully preparing (perhaps over-preparing) in all other aspects of my life. But you’re not prepared for the first semester at a new job. And I don’t mean that you’re not qualified—you just don’t know quite what to expect even if you think you know what to expect. It’s like being a newborn bird in a grandpa cardigan and corduroy pants.

Two: Find a support system ASAP.

Before I even moved here or had my breakdown in September, I knew I needed to find a therapist. At first, I was concerned what it would look like that a faculty member brand new to the school was seeking out therapy, but that’s my reality. Change is hard. Depression is hard. Finding a support system and practicing self-care are not simply nice things that I do for myself: they are necessity.

The first year is far from over, but the first semester is behind me. And there’s champagne in my refrigerator because I published a review essay and received an award for my dissertation. And my comp students are submitting their first essays tomorrow, and I’m honestly pumped to read them. And it’s only February, but the flowers are already starting to bloom.


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