John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Popular listserv aims to prepare academics for faculty jobs
Richard Reis is a pusher. And while there is nothing illegal about his product, academicians may find it addictive. Plus, it's free.
A longtime educator and program director at Stanford, Reis maintains the Tomorrow's Professor Listserv, which distributes biweekly e-mail messages with tips on how to make a successful career as a professor and information about current issues in higher education.
Rather than just letting the material grow stale on a website, he "pushes" it to subscribers. "The key is keeping it simple," Reis explained. "It's got to be brief, and it's got to be meaty enough so that when they finish reading they can say, 'OK, I learned something.'"
(Past messages are available on the web at http://sll.stanford.edu/projects/tomprof/newtomprof/postings.html.)
In addition to maintaining the listserv, which is sponsored by the Stanford Learning Laboratory, Reis is executive director of the Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing at Stanford (AIM) and a consulting professor in the departments of Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering.
"I think faculty in particular, and graduate students to some extent, feel guilty that they're not doing enough in terms of professional development, keeping up with the changes in teaching and learning and academia," he said. "They know they're not. They also know they don't have enough time, and don't even know where to go. So what they like is something pushed at them, but not too often."
The listserv is billed as "desk-top faculty development, one hundred times a year," and it has readers in at least 110 countries. "I used to be able to say we had subscribers from A to Z, from Australia to Zimbabwe," he said. "The student who helps me with this came in one day and said, 'We lost Zimbabwe.' ... And I said, 'We've got to get him back, or we've got to get someone else, because I have to be able to say A to Z.'"
The idea for the listserv came to Reis after he finished writing a book titled Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, which was inspired by a series of seminars he started in 1994 to prepare future professors of manufacturing for jobs on a university faculty. After the book was published in 1997, Reis began getting e-mail queries from scholars who wanted his advice on their particular situations.
The listserv targets scholars in all disciplines, not only the sciences and engineering. It began in 1998 with roughly 400 subscribers. That number has since ballooned to a little more than 15,000, and continues to grow. Reis estimates that about 70 people subscribe and between 10 to 15 unsubscribe each week. As of this month, the countries with the most subscribers are the United States (9,252), Canada (799), United Kingdom (177), Sweden (171), Australia (162), Germany (153), Kuwait (150), South Africa (121), Jordan (110) and New Zealand (102).
Reis culls most of the material for the 750- to 1,250-word excerpts from books. He said he has a quid pro quo arrangement with several dozen publishers: They supply the texts, and he includes their URL in the message.
Other excerpts come from journals and, occasionally, someone will produce an original piece for the listserv. A typical message begins with a quote from the excerpt. For example, last Thursday's message (No. 420) opened with these terrifying scenarios: "What if all your questionnaires are sent out with the wrong return address labels? What if your data logging equipment is stolen and you lose all your data? What if the organization in which you are working refuses to allow you continued access?"
Then, Reis will provide a brief introduction, which always begins with the collegiate address, "Folks." On Thursday, he wrote:
"Folks: The posting below gives some excellent advice on what to do when [your] research goes wrong, and how to prevent some of the disasters in the first place. It is from a nifty little book, 500 Tips for Research Students, by Sally Brown, Liz McDowell and Phil Race."
Subscribers have a lot of praise for the listserv. "I only wish I knew about it from the day I decided to pursue an academic career," said Victor Seidel, a doctoral candidate in management science and engineering. "There is a wealth of insight to be had from the postings, and I appreciate that it comes in regular biweekly installments that I can read during a break in the day. I keep copies of those articles that I know I will refer to in the future."
Sheryl Staub-French, a doctoral student in the Construction Engineering and Management Program, said she plans to remain on the listserv after graduating this quarter. "The listserv covers a variety of topics, and I don't read all of them but I read most of them," she said. "I often forward them on to other new faculty that I know."
Mark Wilkinson, a doctoral candidate in management science and engineering, said he reads 20 to 25 percent of the messages. "I don't plan to be on the job market for another 18 months; I have too many details with my research to focus on, rather than worrying about life as a new faculty," he said. "I would expect that I will read more of the articles next year, as I get closer to graduation/academic job market."
Eric Mazur, a professor in Harvard's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, said, "Tomorrow's Professor is something I read religiously and recommend to many of my colleagues."
For his part, Reis said what he finds most encouraging is the large number of unsolicited e-mail messages he gets thanking him for the listserv.
"I've made contacts with people all over the world," he said. "And wherever I go if I go, say, to Washington, D.C., to meet with the National Science Foundation -- people say, 'Oh, you're that Tomorrow's Professor Listserv person. I get your e-mails twice a week. I feel like I know you.'"
By John Sanford