Young faculty member battles for respect, acceptance

On nearly a daily basis, Dr. Alane Sanders is mistaken for a college student.

In reality, she has a doctorate degree and three years of teaching under her belt in Marietta College’s Department of Communication and Media Studies. Though being viewed as youthful is flattering, the implied notion of inexperience, which is often linked with youth, can be hard to overcome, particularly when it comes to higher education.

Young faculty members have a unique set of benefits and drawbacks.

“I’ve always said that I think the thing that defines me professionally or has kind of been my hurdle is to get over is my age. People have always noticed my age. It’s the first thing they react to,” Sanders says.

While in graduate school, Dr. Sanders began teaching at a community college, where most of her students were 20-plus years older than her. The age difference was so extreme that she contemplated how they would perceive her. The perception of one student became apparent when Sanders entered the class the first day to teach. He looked at her and said with disdain, “Ah (heck), what are you, 12 years old?” She realized she had to begin by acknowledging the age difference and reassuring her students that she could make it work.

“I had to be up front about it and set it out on the table. I said ‘Yes, I am younger than you. I don’t have the same life experiences that you do. But in my short life, I’ve gotten the opportunity to study this discipline in depth. It’s something I’m passionate about. So let me work with you to help you learn the material and maybe we can all learn a little bit from each other.’ ”

After completing her doctorate, Sanders was hired as an Assistant Professor at Marietta College. However, the transition into full-time professor wasn’t an easy one.

“When I first came here I was really concerned because this was my first real full-time, tenure-track job. I remember I went to a faculty meeting and another faculty member said to me, ‘Oh honey, you can’t vote, only faculty can vote.’ I said ‘I am a faculty member, in the communication department.’ It was hard at first, feeling like they didn’t take me seriously.”

The issue of gaining respect from fellow faculty members is one Sanders struggled with a lot in the beginning, and one that still concerns her today. “I am always wondering how the senior faculty members perceive me. Not being taken seriously has always been a big, big worry.”

Dr. Suzanne Walker, Chair of Communication and Media Studies, agrees that young faculty members are presented with different obstacles. The first challenge they face is dealing with this outsiders view, the perception of the senior faculty members. Walker says, “When young faculty come in, they’re full of energy and super excited about ideas. It’s sometimes hard for existing faculty to get them out of the grad student mode and into the undergraduate teaching mode. This transition takes adjustment.”

Aside from faculty perception, Sanders cares deeply about earning the respect of her students. She wants to find a way to gain their respect and trust while remaining true to herself. This task is a difficult one.

She elaborates, “I think I always have this paranoia that people won’t take me seriously because of the fact that this is who I am: I wear jeans to teach a lot, I joke around, I tell personal stories. I do these things because that’s how I am, and that’s how I connected with people and learned about them when I felt like I really knew who they were. I want my students to connect with me in the same way.”

The balancing act for young faculty is connecting with their students while effectively maintaining the role of being the educator.

“I worry about earning the respect of students because I want them to have fun in my classes but I want them to take me seriously too,” Sanders said. “So that’s always my quandary of trying to walk the line of being professional enough in the things that I do and the things that I choose so that people respect me, but being myself enough that they can connect with me.”

Additionally, young faculty members must juggle the responsibilities of family life and teaching. 

Being a young professor does have its advantages, particularly the ability to forge good relationships with students. Oftentimes young faculty are of the same generation as their students, so they share similar tastes in music, television shows, movies and activities.

“They’re still fresh, still excited about the discipline. They have a fresh perspective, know the new research,” Walker said. “Because of this they have the ability to have new, up-to-date examples and experiences. They’re young enough to relate to being a student and know what is relatable to students. She can be of better assistance when helping students explore graduate school options because her graduate experience is still fresh.

“Alane brings in fresh ideas to the department, and new ways of thinking about the curriculum. She is a wonderful asset to the department in those ways.”

Brenna Goethel ’13 (Vincent, Ohio) adds, “I love having Alane as a professor because she is easy to talk to and relates her lessons really well to the students. You can tell she’s really excited about what she’s teaching. Her passion is contagious.”

Sanders has at least one advantage over most of the newer faculty members on campus. She is originally from Marietta and knows the area well. This benefits her and her students because it gives her the ability to better help connect students with internships and service opportunities.

While the balancing act may be a difficult one, Sanders receives a bounty of rave reviews from students and faculty alike. The job has both its advantages and disadvantages, which she has learned to manage accordingly.

“If I could rewind back to when my perfectionism first started to become a great liability, I would give myself permission to be great at some things and good enough at others,” Sanders said. “People say they have no regrets; I have significant ones that I have just recently turned into learning opportunities.”

Now she enjoys offering her own advice to students.

“Do not second-guess what feels right. As a young professional, there are many messages, both formal and informal, about how you should be,” she said. “I’ve learned that to wake up everyday and feel comfortable doing my craft, it must come from an authentic place—and for each of us, our unique style is different and we can each be successful at the same thing doing it different ways. So, define yourself; don’t allow others to define you.”

Walker offered Sanders some sage advice. “Sometimes when you have so many responsibilities, so much of your focus goes to students and work, that you often leave no time for yourself,” Walker said. “Alane works so hard to be the best she can be. She doesn’t give herself enough credit. She expects 210 percent of herself all the time. My wish for Alane is that she would realize that she is wonderful at 100 percent.”

Even when she’s mistaken for a college student.