How to Get the Most Out of Faculty Orientation

by Justin Zackal

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As Nick Artman was awaiting the birth of his second child, he was starting his first job as a tenure-track faculty member. He knew he had to be prepared for both transitions, so he contacted his new employer, Slippery Rock University, to get a head start on some of the common housekeeping tasks new professors must complete before their first day in the classroom, such as obtaining a parking pass and accessing email.

A former instructional designer and adjunct professor, Artman helped plan faculty orientations at his two previous institutions. Additionally, he earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, an institution, like SRU, that is a member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

For anyone with no previous ties to the SRU, Artman could afford to miss the university's new faculty orientation, scheduled on three successive days the week before the semester began.

But that didn't stop Artman from attending.

"It helps you get acclimated to the culture because each university is so wildly different than the next," said Artman, an assistant professor of communication at SRU, who previously worked at Gannon University, a private Catholic university, and Penn State Behrend, a public institution that is a commonwealth campus of the Penn State University system. "I knew a lot about the state system and I had some background on the union and how the university is run. But at the same time, I learned a lot of things that I didn't know."

SRU's faculty orientation has evolved under the direction of Mary Hennessey, assistant to the provost in academic and student affairs. Prior to her organizing faculty development, the orientation was three solid days with virtually every office on campus getting their three minutes or so in front of new faculty.

"It was a lot of quick information and talking heads," Hennessey said. "It was just too much. Most faculty don't even know where their classrooms are yet."

SRU's orientation was reduced to a day and a half before expanding back to one full day and two half-days with each of the four half-days serving as a theme:
  1. general knowledge (combined with staff employees);
  2. technology (library resources, security, intranet);
  3. faculty development (union representation, electronic portfolio, evaluations); and
  4. student success (student services, panel discussion with current students).
"We framed it so they knew why they were meeting with different sets of people each day," Hennessey said. "Our goal is to get faculty comfortable, get them through the first three weeks, and then we start building things in after that."

Rather than introducing some topics during orientation, such as navigating the advising system, they are part of monthly meetings that take place later in the semester when they are timelier. Also, Hennessey's office sends bi-weekly emails to faculty called "Fac Hacks" that provide tips, helpful articles, and other resources.

Still, no matter how an institution conducts orientation, faculty can feel like they are being asked to drink from a fire hose. However, beyond the housekeeping tasks, focusing on these takeaways can help you get the most out of the faculty orientation experience:

Clarify expectations. Ask questions and don't leave any doubts for how your new institution treats circumstances, such as student-athletes missing class for games, or faculty evaluations. For Artman, his greatest takeaway was being reassured expectations for tenure. "Not only understanding the promotion and tenure process but what's expected from me from a scholarship standpoint was helpful and calming for me," Altman said.

Embrace the culture. Students have the same classroom interaction with an adjunct who teaches one night class than they would with a tenured faculty member who has been at the institution for 35 years. Respect the power you are given to be the face of the institution by learning and personifying the values that distinguish it from others. "If you work at two different institutions and you don't see a difference between them, then we are doing something wrong," Hennessey said.

Put initiatives into action. You may have read the institution's strategic plan before you were hired, but now is the time to find ways to put it into practice in the classroom. If an institution emphasizes student success, ask the student panelists at orientation to describe how professors can help them succeed. If a strategic goal is, say, increasing students' worldview, Artman recommends using that in the classroom. For example, he teaches an advertising production course and he could compare how advertising in America is different than in other countries.

Make connections. Yes, corporate icebreakers seem corny. But research actually shows that they are effective at team building and enhancing workplace satisfaction. Don't take for granted any opportunity to get to know your new colleagues during icebreaker exercises or by simply opening yourself to organic conversations. This may be your only chance to make connections with faculty in other departments who can help you in the future. "People would stay around and talk afterwards or they would talk during the 15-minute break," Hennessey said. "We're putting more of an emphasis as a university on bringing all employees into the family and providing support for each other."

In the future, your department may need assistance incorporating parts of its courses into an online environment. If you were to meet Artman at SRU's orientation, you may call him for advice because you know he did that as an instructional designer. But first, ask him about his baby. Emmeline Grace was born just two days after her dad attended orientation. Mom and baby are doing well, and dad smoothly transitioned to his new job.