Saturday, August 23, 2008

Thinking about the Tenure Process

So this year marks my final year on the tenure-track in this job.

It feels weird writing that, like I should be crossing my fingers and knocking on wood or something, but that doesn't make sense, because whatever happens, that is a true statement: it is my last year, the year that I submit my materials once and for all and in which the tenure decision will be made.

I've been thinking a good amount about what tenure actually "means" to me, and thinking about the process that I've experienced at this institution, and I feel like it's worth writing about, as I read others' posts about beginning their time on the tenure track this year. What I'll write is in no way a one-size-fits-all "this is what the tenure process is everywhere" manifesto. It's just about what I've experienced, which looks little like what I'd imagined I'd experience when I got this job in 2003. And so here it goes.

1. The Tenure Process at My University

Ok, so I'm at a regional comprehensive four-year institution, the primary focus of which is teaching undergrads, though grad programs have been expanding very quickly throughout my time here (cha-ching!). We're a university in transition: in the past five years, we've become more (though not outrageously) research-oriented, and there have been a great many junior hires, so the faculty population (which had included many faculty members who were here when the university had only just opened its doors) looks much different than it did for about the past 30 years. Teaching undergrads is still number one, but teaching alone is no longer the only thing, if that makes sense. When I look at my tenure materials, the distribution of activities is roughly 50% teaching stuff, 30-35% research, and 15-20% service. Some people flip the research and service distribution. When I was hired, it was indicated to me (how is that for passive construction?) that I didn't need to do any more publications and I'd still safely get tenure. Basically, 2 conferences a year was supposed to be enough to prove I was active. People have gotten tenure here in my department as recently as 7 years ago without any publications. Now, the party line (within my department) is that one publication in a peer-reviewed journal would make for a fine tenure bid, so long as everything else was up to scratch (though other departments at my institution stipulate that it should be more, and they actually list journals that would qualify). My institution does value "non-traditional" publications, like scholarship on teaching, textbooks, creative works, and publication related to public engagement.

In your first year, in my department, you pick a mentor who is tenured who serves as your point person for any questions you might have, and who agrees to look at your book to give you advice if you'd like it at any point in your probationary period. Also, most of my tenured colleagues were very generous and more than happy to share their own books and narratives to give models for how to do this thing.

The review process goes like this. You put a binder together every single year - even a pathetic one during your first year, just to get the thing going. Each piece of "evidence" goes in a plastic sleeve, and you include narratives to explain your material - including one over-arching narrative and potentially individual narratives about teaching, research, and service. Each year the binder goes all the way up the chain of command: it is reviewed by the department's tenure, promotion, and reappointment committee, then by the department chair, then by the dean, then by the provost, and then it is approved by the board of regents. (Note: we have no university-wide tenure committee.) If there is concern about your materials during the probationary period, you can get a "conditional" reappointment, with advice about what you need to do in the next year in order to get the condition removed. Each year, once the books have passed out of the department, the department's p&t chair meets with you to give you feedback on your binder. Annoyingly, in my experience, this feedback has had more to do with the binder itself than about my performance in the three areas. That said, perhaps this has been my experience because my performance is fine and so they just don't have performance-related comments for me.

The process in your final tenure year looks just like it does in the preceding 5 times through the process, except I suspect that you don't have to have the annoying conversation after about using bullet points in your narratives and using a highlighter to make certain documentation "stand out" for upper administration.

Benefits of the process at my university: NO SURPRISES. Also that you really do feel mentored toward tenure - like your colleagues and even the upper administration, in looking at the books each year, really are investing in you getting tenure at the end of the clock.

Drawbacks of the process at my university: Needing to do that fucking binder. Every fucking year. And the emphasis on one's scrap-booking talents.

2. Why This Process Didn't Match Up with What I'd Imagined

Well, the main reason, I think, is because the only things I'd heard about how tenure works came from my mentors at high-powered research universities, and in particular my mentors at grad institution. I'd imagined tenure was much more about publishing and perishing than it is here, and I'd imagined that my scholarly stature would be the big thing that determined whether I could achieve tenure. I'd imagined that I'd only put shit together twice - for a 3rd-year review and then in the tenure year - and I'd imagined that the process would be much more mysterious. I'd imagined that the whole department would vote on whether I should get tenure. I'd imagined I'd need outside letters to go in my final tenure application. I thought this was "how it worked" everywhere. It isn't. I also imagined I'd feel much more angst surrounding the tenure process, and that my time on the tenure-track would be typified by lots of anxiety about meeting requirements. This hasn't been the case. I also thought that my colleagues would be much more mysterious about what they expected from me. Not so, not at this institution in my department. (I specify my department because word on the street is that things are less clear in other departments.) I suppose the point of all of this is that the tenure process is highly specific to institutional and departmental culture. And most advice that you will get from anyplace outside of your institution and department will relate to how the process works at research universities, or at elite SLACs. If you don't work at one of the above, that advice will likely not be of much use to you. The tenure process is quirky, and it depends on where you actually work. Knowing that from the outset I think is useful.

3. How I've Approached the Job While on the Tenure-Track

So, I noted that I've not felt much (if any) anxiety about meeting the benchmarks for tenure here. That said, I think the "probationary period" does influence how we approach the job, or at least it has for me. I think I was less likely to put down roots here because I didn't feel secure that this was where I'd remain. I think that I continued to feel pressure to go on the market to move up the academic food chain because that was what I was "supposed" to do, even though I really do feel like this institution really fits my ambitions and what I want in the profession. I think I sometimes felt like I was producing more than my peers, and so I was "better" than this place, with its less rigorous tenure requirements. I think in some ways I wanted the process to be more mysterious and less friendly, in order for it to "mean" something more than it feels like it "means" here. So those are the negatives.

But the positives are that I really have felt like I could just sort of do my thing and that it would be fine. Sure, I published more (far more) than I "needed" to do for tenure, but not because I felt like there was a gun to my head. I just sort of puttered along and followed ideas and opportunities as they came to me. I taught classes that filled gaps in the curriculum and that dovetailed with my research interests. Especially after I got the hang of things a bit more, I did service that interested me and that I felt was rewarding. (At first I didn't really understand that there's more than enough service to go around, and so I did a lot of service that I resented. Not that I'm completely un-resentful when it comes to service these days, but it's not necessarily the dominant thing I feel when I think about the service that I do.) I've really felt a lot of intellectual and professional freedom in this job, even without tenure.

4. What "Tenure" Means?
But so if I already feel like I have intellectual and professional freedom, what is the point of tenure? Hmmm. This is the question I've been pondering lately. Well, there's not having to do the Dreaded Binder each year. That's truly awesome. But that's probably not the only benefit, or if it is, that will be a bit of a let-down, no? As I think about it, I think that the biggest change that I'll feel will have to do with being able to feel like I can fully invest in this place - both the community itself and the institution. Instead of being so focused on my accomplishments and how I'm perceived, I'll be able to take a greater role in shaping the future of the university, in speaking up in ways that are less diplomatic, in really participating in the life of this place rather than in worrying about whether I'm getting mine, so to speak. I also feel like I'll have some greater freedom to do things that don't easily fit into one or the other of the tenure categories. I think I've been pretty traditional in my approach to what I've written, for example, just because I didn't want there to be any question about whether stuff "counted." Now, it won't matter so much if what I do "counts" or it can "count" in ways that aren't so quantifiable or assessable. I don't need to feel obligated to do two conferences each year just because I'm "supposed" to. I don't need to feel like I need to develop new courses unless I really want to do so. I don't need to feel like I have to say yes to serving on committees that don't interest me. That's not to say that I plan to become dead weight. I don't. I don't think it's really in me to become that. But it is to say that there's a way to be active in the life of one's institution and department that still leaves space for one's personal needs and desires, and I've sometimes sacrificed for the job in certain ways while on the tenure track that I do not plan to do once tenured. And I think it's the prospect of the security of tenure that allows me to think about my whole life in a more complete way. I'll be done being an apprentice. I'll be done proving myself in certain ways. And that's maybe the most exciting thing about finally going up.

5. After This Year, What?
Which leaves the question of whether I can imagine going on the market again, and if I don't do that what that means. Well, here's the thing. I sort of am who I am in the profession at this point. I'm not going to get hired at the associate level anyplace with a higher research profile, and yet I'm too far along on the tenure-track to really be considered for assistant-level, entry-level jobs, and I'm not interested in making a lateral move and starting over someplace new with the same constraints that this place has. What's the point? I make enough money. No, I'll never be rich, but there are things that matter more in life than money. I'm fairly close to family, and it's not worth moving farther from them than I am now. Would I perhaps want to be even closer to them? Perhaps, but the likelihood of managing that is probably pretty small. I like my colleagues. I like my life. No, I think I'm dug in. I think this is where I plan to stay.

And I think I don't care if that seems like that's giving up, which I'll admit it does seem that way to me sometimes. I think that I internalized enough of the competitiveness of this profession to sometimes feel like I'm "settling." But you know, maybe it'll be nice to settle here. Maybe that's a reward, ultimately, rather than some kind of curse. I think about all of the people who long to settle in someplace, but who go from adjunct gig to adjunct gig, or VAP to VAP, and I wonder why I think "settling" is something negative. I mean, dude, "settling," after these years of not feeling like I could really settle, sounds kind of awesome.

So those are my thoughts about how the tenure process has felt to me throughout and about what I think I might feel once this year of waiting is over (knocking on wood that all goes well, of course). Of course, I may feel nothing of the kind. Or I may be denied tenure, in which case I'll totally lose my shit. But I don't think that's in the cards (crossing fingers, etc.). At any rate, we shall see.


Belle said...

I think you've nailed it. I too was astonished at how... normal it was by the time I put my tenure package together. And those binders? Seriously a pain. Being in an evidentiary field, I understand the need to provide evidence of my work. What I really hated was the compilation of the big scrap book every year.

Tenure has, for me, given me precisely the kind of feeling you talk about. I'm here. I still look at the ads, and if one interests me, I apply. But the 'settled' feeling feels kinda good after umpteen years of being a working gypsy (and not just academically either).

Note to others: service is a drag when you feel like you can't say no. My VPAA was astonished that anyone felt a no was a killer. Once he said that? I quit two committees (literally within days). But it all depends on your institution.

Good post.

Earnest English said...

Thanks so much for this post. Of course, I'm just going up on the market (again), so I don't quite have to deal with this, but I really appreciate that you've made the tenure process (at your institution and in your department) much more plain to me. I've been lucky to tutor people in other departments: so I've seen, for example, how some pre-tenure faculty are basically forced to draw up a plan at the beginning of every year, then see how well they met their goals in research, teaching, and service. That's another way of doing it. I don't know about the binder, though; I think it was just a report.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks, Belle :)

EE: what you're describing about the plan and then the assessment is what we do for performance review, and we do that both pre- and post-tenure, and full-time lecturers have to do it, too. That is completely separate from the tenure process at my institution, and it relates to whether we get merit raises. The tenure stuff is much more... massive... and it basically includes documentation of *every single thing you've done* on the tenure-track.