Still from the movie Mean Girls

Who Will You Sit With at Lunchtime?

When I was a kid, we moved every few years. My father was in Corporate America, in Middle Management, and in what at that time was this growth industry called Data Processing. This meant, he was relocated every 2-3 years until I was about 13. When you’re a kid, making friends is pretty easy. Nearly all the members of your peer group are open-minded, still, and while politics will emerge as one grows older, there always seemed to be someone who would latch on to the new person and claim “friends.”

Interestingly, many of the survival skills I learned on those painful first days in a new school translate to situations in my professional life. Most people I know did not have nearly as nomadic a childhood, unless their parents were military. While I resented being put through that horrible “who will I sit with at lunch today” ordeal so many times, eventually, it dawned on me that childhood trial often gave me a leg up on those who had less experience with being “new” at work, in school, at their church or in a club.

And so, new faculty, I’m going to share a few of my observations with you. I hope they help

1. Don’t eat alone in your office all the time. It’s so depressing to see in movies, the first day of school, the awkward teenager balancing her hot lunch tray on her knees in a stall in the ladies’ room, crying around her little carton of milk. What a relief as a grown-up professor to have an actual office, with a door that closes, behind which you may retreat! And sometimes, as a grown-up, you do have work that can be done while eating a sandwich. However, most of the time, at least walk over to buy your lunch. Walk over to get coffee. Learn your campus geography and try out the food and drink in another building. You will see people whose names you don’t recall and they’ll say hello. You will get to know the cashiers (or, they will get to know you, on sight.) In lieu of a “new best friend” you will still be establishing an identity beyond your relationship with your students, and this is helpful in maintaining your self-image as a “grown-up” and as someone who “belongs.”

2. There are stages of friends. There’s always a first-wave contingent of the super-friendly. They may not turn into your super friends, but don’t fear their curiosity. Make no mistake: they want the goods on you, but you have nothing to fear by letting your colleagues know who you really are (because, duh, you’re awesome, right?) Go out to coffee and dinner with these early social adopters, because everyone on your campus knows they’re the Welcome Wagon faculty and what they’re up to. They will introduce you to a whole bunch of those more reserved types who may be more your cup of tea, if you’re overwhelmed by, or don’t click with, the first wave.

3. Sometimes one will join a department where there’s an odd duck. Maybe you find out, the “odd duck” is actually your academic soulmate, and everyone else has banded together in dysfunction you can’t endure alone. Other times, the “odd duck” is really just odd. But give that person a chance – odd does not necessarily mean untrustworthy. Keep an open mind about your colleagues. In academia, when things go well, we all work together for a very, very long time. Allow others to show you who they genuinely are, inside, over time.

4. You will not get along, or like, everyone. This is okay. This is a workplace. Choose your battles carefully and wait until you know all the facts before allowing anyone to convince you to choose sides in any disagreement that requires voting. Your coworkers may have long histories that color their opinions. Form your own, based upon your own observation and whatever data you can get your hands on.

Be yourself

5. This is the last piece of advice, and it comes from my mom, who, on every “first day” told me and my two sisters, “Just be yourself!” Sure, we wanted to punch her, and you probably want to punch me, but you’re going to be here a long time and being fake till you’re tenured is going to be super exhausting. Put your best energies into teaching, scholarship and campus service, and everything else will take care of itself.

Alison GatesAlison Gates
Associate Professor, Arts & Visual Design, & Women’s & Gender Studies
Faculty Consultant, CATL

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