Whew! What a Semester!

My first semester at Lincoln was filled with ups and downs (mostly ups, fortunately), and I had to learn quickly to adjust to life at a small, relatively isolated historically Black university (HBCU). Of all the universities I’ve taught at, I think this was the most challenging first semester.

For starters, I had to learn to appreciate some of the generational gaps among faculty. Lincoln has committed professors but many of them are tenured, making a junior faculty such as myself a minority. To a certain extent, I had to realize assistant professors have to appreciate the institutional hierarchies that exist, particularly when it comes to how we express ourselves.

From a faculty interaction perspective, I’ve been friendly but quiet. Part of this is due to the fact that I’m still feeling my way around and wary of office politics. While these politics exist everywhere, they’re amplified at a smaller university because everyone knows each other. I’m looking forward to next semester, when I can more comfortably be engaged with departmental and universitywide policies (and politics).

I admit I had a rough start with students, especially since my pedagogy developed at Research I universities such as Temple and Penn State. As I have written before, some of this was due to the fact that most of my students had never interacted with an Indian-American, especially one whose upbringing and professional life has been rooted in and around the African-American community.

As the semester progressed, however, a number of my students began to have “Aha!” moments. I think their epiphanies were due in part to the fact they realized life after graduation would be tough, and that it’s better to be pushed in college than experience a rude awakening afterward. Some of my students turned up their effort and their commitment up a few notches, and as I graded their finals, I couldn’t help but marvel at their improvement.

I’ve been steadily working to connect my “star” students with opportunities in the Philadelphia area. I think a number of media managers have expressed dismay that they haven’t had more applicants from the area’s HBCUs (Lincoln and Cheyney), but I’ve been trying to get Lincoln students more exposure to professional networks such as PABJ (Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists) and PRSA (Public Relations Society of America). In these tough economic times, aspiring media professionals of color must take advantage of social networking to get an “in.”

Many of my students don’t have the ability to leave Lincoln’s campus and public transportation can take up to four hours to get to Philly (compared with one by car). That’s why I’ve brought in area professionals as guest speakers. The one difference I’ve found between Lincoln students and students at other places I’ve taught is that they do follow up with the guest speakers by e-mail or phone. I have plans to bring in more guest speakers during the spring in hopes of building the bonds between Lincoln students and mass media professionals.

I took the transportation issues for granted when I started here. I planned my syllabus and some of my projects around the idea that my students could access the outside world. When I realized that such as assumption was a mistake, it was a quick lesson learned and rectified.

Here are some other key lessons learned:

– The acceptable norms of being at a Research I institution – such as canceling class to take care of other matters – aren’t so acceptable at Lincoln.

– Being a (fairly) young faculty member doesn’t make me significantly more connected to the students. We live in a technologically advanced age and one where popular culture is a lot more in flux. I can no longer make popular-culture references and expect the majority of students to understand what I mean.

– One can’t expect to succeed in any situation holding firm to what has worked before. I think I was a bit stubborn to let go of my classroom approach, but as the semester progressed, I realized I had to be more flexible.

As I prepare for this much anticipated (and deserved) three-week layoff, I need to start planning for the spring. I will enter the spring a bit wiser for this experience.

Dr. Murali Balaji is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Mass Communications at Lincoln University.