Youth, Inexperience, and a Sense of Mission

Forty years ago this week, I arrived in Tallahassee to take my first full-time university job. It was a nervous moment. After nearly eight years of graduate school, I was about to learn if I was any good at the career I'd prepared so long to begin.

7 minute read

August 10, 2023, 7:00 AM PDT

By Bruce Stiftel @BruceStiftel

Photo of Bruce Stiftel as a young man standing in front of a green chalkboard

Bruce Stiftel / Bruce Stiftel

Forty years ago this week, I arrived in Tallahassee to take up my first full-time university job. At the wheel of an 11-foot U-Haul truck with my Gordon Setter and all my worldly possessions, towing the Avocado Bullet (my aging Chevy Vega), I was about to start work as an assistant professor of urban and regional planning at Florida State University. 

It was a nervous moment. After nearly eight years of graduate school at the University of North Carolina, I was about to begin teaching a full schedule of classes, ramping up a research program, and learning whether I was any good at—and whether I actually liked—the career I’d prepared so long to begin. I’d left a girlfriend behind in Chapel Hill, had little money to my name, and was a bit shaken by the landscape of southern Georgia I’d just driven through.

It was also an exciting moment. I was about to have my own classroom, to choose what students read and heard, and to have the freedom to investigate and write what I thought important. Florida’s environment was threatened by three percent annual population growth, the nation was in the midst of the Reagan Revolution, governments were reeling with austerity, inflation was out of control, and I had a pulpit from which to argue solutions—to train planners who would be key to guiding communities to better futures. 

The week before classes would start, there was a reception for new faculty which turned out to be a sobering experience. In the banquet room of a suburban Ramada Inn, a first-year biology faculty member expressed shock that I would be teaching three different courses that year. He would teach one and would rely heavily on the lecture notes given to him by his own graduate school professor. How could I create three courses from whole cloth? Then there was the associate provost’s wife who, learning I was Jewish, wondered aloud about my welfare in the afterlife. What had I gotten myself into?

Meeting my faculty colleagues and the staff of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning allayed my fears. I felt genuinely welcomed and could not have asked for more supportive coworkers. They generously gave of their time to help me navigate the new workplace and to anticipate and respond to the demands and oddities of the job. My chair, Richard Smith, reassuringly told me not to worry about my ability to teach: “You know so much more about this than your students.” Chuck Connerly, who’d joined the faculty just two years prior, let me know how pleased he was to have a colleague who shared his ambitions for advancing the school and the profession. 

And then the students arrived! How exciting to meet scores of socially-conscious young adults who had relocated their lives to prepare for planning careers. I probably turned them off at orientation by handing out a reading assignment for the first day of class, but no one told me so. Many conversations at the barbecue reception at the chair’s home the Friday evening before classes were to begin left me certain this was the right place to be.

My first semester assignment included three sections of the introductory planning theory course: two sections on campus in Tallahassee, and one section in an off-campus program in Orlando. This was a great mix for a first-term professor—the on-campus students were mostly recent college graduates who were bright as can be; the off-campus students were all mid-career planners who had experience to back up their opinions about the theories we studied. First day of class, I naively announced that I thought grades were counterproductive—that as long as you did the work, everyone would get a “B.” That didn’t last long. Bowing to the upswell, I renegotiated the ground rules over the next weeks.

For the most part I managed to stay a couple of lectures ahead of the class outline, and I quickly figured out that I was good at moderating discussion and drawing out student views. As the youngest faculty member, my office hours were often full both with follow-ups about the work and also with questions about navigating life. I couldn’t help the recurring feeling though: “Why do they think I would know the answer to that?”   

Then, there was the morning I was diverted by some crisis and had to walk into class without lecture notes. Adrenaline flowing, I surprised myself with one of the best lectures I gave that year. That experience taught me the really important lesson that I could make things work when I had to. 

It sure was good to finally have a regular paycheck. Those bi-weekly checks on Friday were followed by bill paying on Sunday. I wasn’t getting rich, but I was meeting the rent and even made a down payment on a new car, replacing the Avocado Bullet after it broke down the last time I drove it out of town.   

A sizeable portion of my income went to paying unfunded research and publication costs. My book needed a typist, and conference travel went well beyond the funds allocated by the university. Then there was the $13.95+ prix fixe breakfast at the Boca Raton Hotel and Country Club where I was to testify to a legislative committee; the state per diem reimbursed $3.00. I complained about the skimpy state travel budgets at a conference dinner table some months later. My former grad school professor’s response was clear: “I’ll be damned if I’ll let some department chair determine the course of my career.” You need to go where your research will be heard and where you can get feedback from people who know what they are talking about.

Every first-year assistant professor will tell you that finding the time to research is difficult. Classes happen six times a week. Students line up at your door. The decision agenda of the university demands your presence. Making the time for research is largely a solitary endeavor, however. My Day-timer blocked two days a week for research, but too often that time was sucked into other things. Colleagues told me to close my door, or to stay home. The reality was, this work often happened on evenings and weekends. Results seemed slow, but my conference presentation that year was met with positive reactions, two manuscripts were accepted for publication and a research proposal was funded. 

What didn’t happen that year was finishing my dissertation. Dissertation work lingered into the following year and the weight of possible implications on keeping my job mounted. When I finally defended in Chapel Hill and returned to campus at Florida State, my colleagues greeted me with a cake decorated with the phrase “It’s about f***ing time!”

A classmate from UNC started work in Tallahassee the same summer I did. It was wonderful to have a connection with someone who wasn’t embedded in the life of the university. Kathy and I became good friends as we explored the subtle but beautiful landscape of north Florida and the cultural scene of Tallahassee and she connected me with environmental planning issues and people I would not have otherwise known about. My Gordon Setter, Cody, was a godsend. His relentless need for exercise and unbridled enthusiasm ensured that I got outdoors every day and picked me up when I was down.    

Looking back on my faculty start these many years later, I know I was fortunate to land in a department that gave me the room and the resources to do the work that I had long trained to do but wasn’t yet polished at doing. I benefited from a family that believed in me and supported me, an extraordinary education at UNC, and wonderful colleagues who gave their time and assistance freely. I would like to tell you that I would have succeeded without those incredible supports, that disciplined purpose and hard work would have paid off regardless. Maybe—but, especially today, as universities are in a tightening stranglehold of fiscal pressure and political divisiveness, I know I was very lucky.

I also know the professoriate is a remarkable calling. Few jobs give you such opportunity to influence the future. Few expose you continually to new ideas and imaginative thinking. Few give you the warmth of a continually renewing community of colleagues and students who share your passion.

Forty years, and counting.   

Bruce Stiftel

Bruce Stiftel, FAICP, is professor emeritus of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech. His research concerns planning theory, adaptive governance, and international development. He chairs the Planners for Climate Action knowledge/research group, co-chairs the Researcher and Academic Partner Constituency Group in the World Urban Campaign, co-chairs U.N. Habitat's University Network Initiative, and is vice-chair of the American Planning Association, International Division.

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