Thursday, August 09, 2007

Becoming the Old Guard

I started kindergarten at 4 years old. A tall child, I didn't look younger than the other kids, and my strong reading and social skills helped me be successful. No one ever suggested to my parents that I zhould be held back, so I progressed into first grade. Nonetheless, I always knew I was younger, and it often set me apart from the other children.

As a result of starting school young, I have always been the youngest in my year/grade/cohort. I graduated high school at 17 and went on to be one of the youngest students in my undergraduate and graduate programs. In my first grad program, many of my colleagues were just a little older, as they were also coming right out of undergrad. However, my doctoral program was in a professional academic field where most students had years of work experience. I was the youngest by far, the average age being about 15 years older than me.

This trend has followed me into my professional life as an academic. At both my first and second jobs, the majority of my colleagues were approximately 20-25 years older. That has all ended now, though, in my current position.

In the last 3 years, our department has hired a number of people. Almost a quarter of the newer faculty are actually younger than me. I find myself noticing several things about this turn of events.

First, I have moved, quickly and rather unintentionally, into the role of mentor. I am regularly approached by younger faculty for advice about managing student concerns, publishing and writing woes, teaching dilemmas, and office politics. I have found that I like being a sounding board and providing feedback as I can.

Second, I find that I occasionally miss being the "precocious" upstart who impresses simply because I seem extremely capable given my age/lack of experience. Luckily, I still get a little of the youthful luster from my work as an administrator and as the leader within our professional organization. At the last meeting of mid-level administrators at my university, most of the folks attending were older than me. One staff member told me that I was seen by others as an "up-and-comer," a moniker that is familiar and pleasing. I wonder sometimes what will become of me when I can no longer claim that role. While I do enjoy the confidence and sense of self that my life experience has brought me, I am somewhat worried about the day when I will be evaluated only on what I do--regardless of my age.

Third, I am beginning to identify with the older faculty. I recognize that we more senior faculty have our own fears, concerns, and issues. We get tied to "the ways we do things," and we sometimes resent young upstarts who think they have the answers without considering the history behind the questions. While it was hard to create a place in the department for myself as a young new faculty member, it is equally challenging now to develop relationships with the younger new hires. When they congregate in each other's offices, go out for drinks, and enjoy dinners and outings with their young families, older faculty like me awkwardly try to join conversations and connect across the years. The older we get, the more challenging the connection seems to be. Perhaps I am more aware of this shift because I am on the cusp of "older faculty" status--fearing the loss of my youthful status and yet not officially part of either group.

As regular readers know, I have been a part of a number of different university settings--8 in all (3 as an undergrad, 2 as a grad student, and 3 as a professional). This year marks the beginning of the longest time I have spent in one place as a faculty member. Reaching this mark has made me aware of how my role and my perspective have changed. I am becoming part of the "older" guard, and I am not quite sure I like it.

1 comment:

calugg said...

I have also become one of the old guard, after staying put for over 11 years. When I arrived at my institution as a baby prof in 1996, in my department there were only 2 of us under 50, and I was the only faculty member under the age of 40.

Now many of the senior faculty have retired and most faculty members are my age or younger. It's a startling change. All of us knew this would happen, but it's still disconcerting. I was the kid for so long that I get a bit of a brain freeze every once in a while.

But, hey! It beats being on the tenure track meat-grinder that marked the first 6 years of service. I guess I've earned all of that white hair (*GRIN!*).