From an R1 to a SLAC: Notes from the First Year on the Tenure Track

Panoramic View of Alfred University. Photo Credit: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 us https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en

For those of us trained as a historians in a Research I University (R1) graduate program who choose a career in a small liberal arts college (SLAC), the first year can be a culture shock. The American Historical Association (AHA) reports that only 7% of doctoral programs in history prioritize teacher training. History departments at R1 schools, which produce most PhDs, prepare graduate students for research-oriented career tracks and teach them to identify and defend historiographic territory for their research. History is essential to an educated citizenry, we learn to say, and my unique way of studying my specialization matters. Yet, many faculty positions require historians to focus primarily on undergraduate education; the AHA’s database “Where Historians Work” shows that only 19% of new PhDs in recent years worked at R1 schools. As I settle into my second year on the tenure track at Alfred University, a SLAC in Upstate New York, far from my R1 alma mater in Florida, I am learning that my specializations in gender, sexuality, and medicine do matter, but many other skills and responsibilities comprise my professional life as well. New faculty from graduate programs in R1 schools should expect to make significant adjustments. Here are some suggestions for those transitioning from an R1 graduate program to a tenure-track job at a SLAC.

Apply yourself broadly.

A successful faculty member in a history department at a SLAC must emerge from the depths of their specialization and be willing to create courses outside their time period and region—and I don’t just mean World History surveys. The SLAC environment encourages faculty to harness their knowledge base to create varied and dynamic courses beyond the scope of their dissertation. This is when comps fields and graduate seminars—and the notes I kept from all those books—become useful resources for writing syllabi and lesson plans. For example, my book project on the medicalization of men’s sexuality in the Gilded Age has served as a foundation for several (new-to-me) courses in my first three semesters at Alfred University: History of Sexuality, Women’s History in the U.S., Mental Illness and Treatment in the U.S., and The Civil War Era. These courses complement my colleagues’ diplomatic and global history offerings aimed at history majors; they also attract psychology majors and women’s and gender studies minors who have interest in the content. There is room to experiment with secret areas of interest and new methodologies because teaching-oriented institutions encourage faculty to build research projects around future classes.

Collaborate rather than compete.

At bigger schools, history programs present courses with evocative titles and elaborate projects to combat dwindling enrollment in the face of the clear competitor: STEAM majors with much better PR, higher starting salaries, and fewer dreaded writing assignments. At a small school, however, the competition for enrollment comes from within the college. When a student picks up a history minor, that’s one less student who might choose gender studies or criminal justice, or another carefully designed history course. This means that faculty at teaching-oriented schools, especially small ones with few faculty members, cannot afford to think of courses as individual extensions of their expertise. Rather, all courses function within an interdependent web of curricula, and courses in history will affect colleagues in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in general.

Practical applications of this sort of thinking result in cross-listed courses and team-teaching which can expand visibility of the courses you offer as well as draws students from different majors into history. More importantly, collaboration permits (requires, even) the boundaries of history to stretch to fit the needs of the institution. As one of my teaching mentors, Dave Tegeder, once told me, “history includes everything; studying history allows you to study everything.” Colleagues outside of history are natural allies and will welcome earnest attempts to collaborate on curriculum development. Inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches are essential. The strength of smaller schools lies in their ability to offer a holistic approach to education. In contrast to the thrust of narrow specialization in R1 graduate programs, it can seem uncomfortable at first (maybe even wrong! Gasp!) to zoom out to consider the ways history courses, guest lectures, and events can augment already-existing programs. But we train history majors to prepare for careers an interdisciplinary world; it’s exciting to be able to model that in their curriculum as well.

Be ready to pivot.

When a student saw the U.S. history of sexuality books in my office and asked for recommendations on early Christianity and homosexuality, I was perplexed and prepared to deploy a quick, canned reply: “that’s not my area.” My R1 graduate program trained me to see silos of expertise where my student saw interconnected subject matter that a historian ought to know. Mentoring students at a SLAC requires embracing the vastness of the discipline of history rather than retreating into a specialization The PhD credentialing process trains historians to read quickly, glean historiographic threads, and discern credible information. Expertise, therefore, is not only about content knowledge but about research skill. So while I may not have been able to pull a book off the shelf to lend to my student, I could model ways I identify and locate reliable information to answer historical questions.

This willingness to be intellectually flexible applies to campus citizenship as well. Faculty at a SLAC will serve on panels, join committees, and act as liaison with other departments on behalf of their disciplines. They will sponsor field trips and service-learning projects that take students into the nearby community. This means that you, as a faculty member, can finally relax the defensive squat you have been holding throughout graduate school and embrace the breadth of historical methodologies and subject matters that likely drew you to the profession in the first place! I can attest: it’s a relief to abandon the tired qualifier so often tossed around in graduate seminars about how knowing so much about X means that I must admit to knowing nothing about Y or Z. I know stuff. I have a PhD in history. The SLAC wants me to flex it.

In addition to important teaching responsibilities, SLACs increasingly demand their tenure-track faculty produce scholarship at a level that is competitive with R1 schools. When you pivot away from campus to attend conferences, join writing groups, and court publishers, you may define the trajectory of your expertise however you wish. Your university is invested in your professional success, however defined. If you decide your second book will depart sharply from the subject matter of the graduate research that landed you this SLAC position (perhaps because one of your new course preps inspired an unanticipated set of questions), you are free to pursue it. Conversely, if you want to dig deeper into your area of expertise, that’s great! The career track at a small liberal arts school has many pathways to a successful, fulfilling career as a tenured professor that will involve rigorous research and publications in history. But it also cracks the door open to interdisciplinary scholarship, project-based work, investment in new pedagogies and programs, and any number of things you could not imagine from within an R1. For any graduate student who has suffered under the crushing weight of imposter syndrome, the power to “choose your own career adventure” that a small liberal arts school offers may seem daunting at first. Try to silence that critical voice and, instead, see opportunity. Research grants can propel teaching interests and expand one’s intellectual horizons. There is joy in this work, after all, and the SLAC environment nurtures it.

Finally, the pivot necessarily needs to face outward, beyond one’s institutional home. Regional institutions present networking opportunities with scholars whose work can complement the interdisciplinary coterie of colleagues on campus. Scholars in similar situations will welcome the opportunity to cultivate working relationships with like-minded people. These professional alliances with other writers provide a crucial reminder that a teaching-focused career needs to accommodate a research agenda as well.

Redefine “good teaching” as a team effort.

Because teaching is secondary to research at R1 schools, graduate students in history rarely receive formal training in pedagogy. The assumption is that strong scholars benefit students by imparting their expertise. From this perspective, good teaching is a solitary effort, arising from the intellectual chops of the individual and existing independently of the student population or campus culture. At small liberal arts schools, however, teaching is a team effort because programs thrive only when faculty willingly cross-promote your classes, send students to your minor, and support new curricular developments. For example, I developed a U.S. History through Film course that could appeal not only to history majors but also those looking to complete the new interdisciplinary Film Studies minor housed in Communication Studies. The class comprises students in history and film studies—and one or two for whom the class might be a gateway to one of these programs. At SLACs, faculty must consider multiple moving parts when structuring curricula: student impact, the standards of respective academic fields, and the university needs.

Furthermore, history professors must consider their colleagues when they decide which courses to offer and how to frame them. For graduate students who may have developed only one course of their own, it can be a challenge to think holistically about the skill-building and content they need offer in each course so that a graduate from the program has a well-rounded education.  Will every course teach writing skills? Which classes will require significant primary source research? When will classes take students off campus? Who will teach the World War II course this semester? These answers will change with new hires and individual faculty development. At a small institution, each person’s contribution matters, and will profoundly affect not just one class in one semester, but the wider department and how history is taught at your institution.

Show up as a human.

A small campus is necessarily interdependent, so members of a SLAC community are invested in—in fact, they rely on—your success. New faculty at small liberal arts schools can expect that their well-being will be promoted by chairs and administration. This job is hard, and it’s especially hard for new faculty from R1 schools who jump right into a 3/3 or 4/4 teaching load with very little teaching experience. Faculty in a SLAC environment should bring their expertise and enthusiasm, but also humility, empathy, and a willingness to evolve as a teacher-scholar. Colleagues will likely be less interested in hearing about a prestigious journal article and more invested in innovative classroom projects and student-involved research. faculty with decades of institutional knowledge can be especially valuable allies in helping new people adapt to campus. They will also see recent PhD training of new faculty as a valuable window into current trends in the field that can inform conversations about the objectives and outcomes of the history program. Your specialization matters, indeed, but in a small liberal arts college, you matter more.

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