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Parking Your Hind in That Ivory Tower Seat

I’ve met more than a few English teachers who’ve had their eyes set on that plum university job because, apparently, “University teaching is the gravy train.” Only 6 classes a week, long vacations, generous research and pay packages, full medical, pension, and retirement benefits, … hell, you can even eventually enter the secret university faculty wine bar and Jacuzzi lounge! As a long-time member of this refined establishment, Lord knows I spend most of my days working on my backswing — when I’m not laid out on the massage table, that is.



But say you don’t have the published research papers that many such positions require, nor the ubiquitous ‘previous teaching experience in a university’ qualification. What to do then? How do you get around those shortcomings at the job interview? And, perhaps more pertinently, how do you go about securing that long-term position? Here are six axioms worthy of a CNN alert, designed to secure your butt’s groove in that leather office chair…



1. In a university position teaching is only a small part of your job. Contact hours may indeed only include 6 classes (9 hours) per week but you will be expected to use the remaining working time to carry out research and constantly upgrade your resume. If you come to an interview focusing only on your teaching hours you will not be hired. You must declare a research interest and a research plan. Do NOT wing this. Think it out and follow it through. If you do not produce research (followed up with papers, presentations, reports, FD — faculty development — involvement and other applications) you will not get past the first stage of your contract.


2. Create value. Yes, the first tenet of capitalism holds true in the academic ivory tower. A university job is not a factory position. You cannot come to the ‘paper mill’ and expect the boss to tell you what to do today, carry out that which is explicitly written in the union contract, and then punch out at 5 after a day’s work. If you merely ‘do what it says in the contract’ and/or exactly what the person-in-charge tells you, you will not be asked to stick around. You must create: a course, a syllabus, even a curriculum. Preferably, the value of your newly-designed course should extend outside the actual classes into international exchanges, extracurricular programs, extended activities, and collaborations with other faculty members. These are too things you can initiate. Find and establish your niche. It makes you that more integral to the university’s program and less easily replaceable. You have value. You are an asset. That initial 3-year ‘unrenewable’ contract suddenly morphs into something better. And when that happens, upgrade your Master’s to a PhD. that always adds another groove to your office chair.


3. Do not think too much about the contract. Initially almost anyone entering a university position — particularly non-PhD holders with little or no prior university teaching experience and no prior publications — will have a minimal contract — likely part-time, maybe ‘three-years non-renewable.’ This holds true not only here in Japan but in most countries. And no, it is not just a ‘foreigner’ stipulation or limited only to the academically peripheral EFL domain, these are standard qualities of contract for young, untested indigenous faculty too. The key point here is that the ‘unrenewable contract’ aspect represents your proving ground. If you use your allotted three years to create value, it is true, yes, that the contract in question will duly expire — BUT if you are deemed indispensable, a new contract will likely be proffered in your direction.


‘Shut up. Seriously.’


4. Join, and take an active role in, professional, academic, and/or community organizations (related to your field of course). You want to be compensated like a professional? Then do what the pros do! Take an executive position in some teacher/education academic/professional organization. Go to conferences, present, even help to organize seminars and related events of programs on your home turf. Help to compile or edit a journal. Almost every academic institution keeps an active record of what the faculty are engaging in and/or producing. There are very large sections on your academic record reserved for roles played in academic organizations. And there is another fertile spot in your academic record designed for social/community activities related to your field. As an academic you are expected to contribute either the academic community or to the local community in some concrete way. Expressing such intentions is another strategy that you should hold in your back pocket at that job interview.


5. Bring money into your workplace. The second primary tenet of capitalism now raises its head. Government funding is being cut everywhere. Thus, it is expected that one of the functions of academic faculty is to get grants, which is why expressing that concrete research plan is so essential in the interviewing process. If you have a plan that can attract money, a research goal that can subsidize something practical for your university, you will be a contributor. If you just stick to your contract six-classes-per-week routine you will not be considered a contributor.


6. Shut up. Seriously. If you are looking for a tertiary position in Asia (although this can equally apply to most places on earth) your overlords will most definitely not be impressed when you regale them at the interview with your sharply honed ‘critical thinking skills’ regarding what’s wrong with English education in their country, or, early in your term there, loudly proclaiming what’s wrong with the current system and how only if they listened to you, and followed your counsel, everything would be just like super swell. Learn the system, the inbuilt limitations, the parameters, and all the environmental factors that influence the institution’s policy and practice before you humbly and politely offer suggestions for improvement. Learn the local language and continually brush up on these L2 lingo skills. University teaching requires a fair bit of administrative work and if you keep passing it over to the natives, you’ll simply be making more work for others — which is another way of proving that you can’t do your job.


The Secret University Handshake


Carry out these six good practices for upwardly mobile teachers and, who knows, maybe you’ll be taking over my exalted position sometime soon. I’ll be sure to give you the key to the wine bar and Jacuzzi lounge, show you secret university teacher’s handshake, and, if you prove yourself worthy, somebody with Great Power might actually bestow upon you, The Code (aka ‘tenure’).

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Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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