What’s it Like to Be a Visiting Professor?
There comes a time in every visiting professor’s life when the visit must end. In my case, the end came a little sooner than expected due to an injury. Although my time was somewhat truncated at Universidad Europea in the Canary Islands, I have some thoughts about the visiting professor experience and a little advice for other faculty who might want to embark on a similar adventure.
It pays to plan ahead. Planning needs to begin very far in advance because it can take a lot of time to make arrangements for a work visa, housing, health insurance and other essentials. Different customs, time zones and government bureaucracies can greatly elongate the process. It is important to bring anything you need, such as medications and personal care products, because you may not be able to get them easily or at all in the host location. I brought a complete set of course materials and backed them up on a USB in case I could not access the internet. I also printed out a few key items in advance if I could not get access to a printer on-site.
Adaptability is key. Never forget that you are a visitor and the place you’re visiting may not do things the same way you would expect due to different cultures and organizational priorities. Adjusting to different norms and practices (and even a different pace) requires a large degree of flexibility and the willingness to ask a lot of questions. There may be many unspoken assumptions and expectations about how a professor behaves and interacts with students. It’s important to try to flush out those expectations to avoid any misunderstandings or conflicts that could affect the student experience.
Communicate in their language. Although there might be people at the host organization who speak your language, it’s important to be able to communicate at least to some extent in the site’s native language as well. Even if your language skills are rudimentary, they can help you build relationships and avoid misunderstandings. I made a habit of putting a lot of my emails in Spanish to enhance communications and convey respect. I started working on my Spanish (which was mostly non-existent) six months before my visit, and the effort paid off.
Leaving can be bittersweet. About the time you really bond with your students and colleagues, it can be time to move on. There may be a certain let down feeling when it’s all over. On the other hand, returning home with special memories you can share with friends and family can be exciting. Keeping in touch through social media can be a great way to extend the experience and maintain friendships around the world.
Document the experience. Being a visiting professor is an adventure and not always smooth and easy. My medical crisis impacted the experience but didn’t eclipse it. By taking a lot of pictures and writing about the experience, you can keep the adventure alive and gain valuable perspective. I am glad I had a chance to get out of my comfort zone, at least for a short time.