I sometimes find myself in conversations with faculty job candidates or young faculty, launching their academic careers. I spend hours reading the tenure and promotion dossiers of faculty. I write reviews of faculty on other campuses. These events often force attention to the choices that all academics make during their careers. Sometimes I think about what conversation I would have with my younger self, knowing what I think I now know.
One of the discussion topics would be about the value of breadth of thinking, exploring different approaches to the intellectual passions that drive us. From my new perch, I see over and over the possibilities of the great things that could happen if faculty and students traverse discipline and school boundaries. My younger self felt so deeply the need to impress others with scholarly accomplishments in my narrow area of expertise. I judged that the time spent on crossing over boundaries, even if it merely meant attending a lecture on an interesting topic in another school, had too high an opportunity cost. I’d probably counsel my younger self to take more time to learn different methods and perspectives on issues related to the ones I was studying.
Another discussion with my younger self would be about risk taking. Every faculty member is constantly judging how their next step in scholarship fits within the dominant thinking in their field. For every next step there are safe, usually smaller extensions of insight and understanding and there are also bold moves that could be attempted. The latter have high risk of failure but often can have a bigger impact. My younger self had mixes of these; looking back, I’m proudest of the higher risk ventures, even when they failed. Only in retrospect is it obvious that the failed bold attempts yielded unanticipated smaller impact products. In addition, they often led to a different contribution later, never imaginable without the initial big failure.
A further talk I’d have would be about how valuable sharing research experiences with students can be for a scholar’s own development. I personally made mistakes of keeping my research life a little separated from my student life. I now realize every time I engaged students in the research I was conducting, it turned into better research. Sometimes the very research project I was working on produced better output. At other times, the students prompted me to see an issue from another perspective, producing a new research product later. I’d tell my younger self to integrate research and teaching as much as possible.
Finally, I’d tell my younger self to be as active as possible in the relevant professional associations of my field. Looking back, I cannot imagine that I would have found the same kindred spirits on my own campus that I encountered in national and international meetings. There, I found collaborators, critics, and mentors who I would not have found otherwise.
I generated these reflections in speaking with younger faculty around campus, searching to find the best ways to ply their trade. Maybe some of these thoughts are relevant to the choices they’re now making.