I've got to say, turning in the Binder was a bit of an anticlimax for me. I didn't feel some great sense of completion upon turning it in, nor do I feel like my life will be substantially different now that this part of my probationary period is done. I work at an institution where junior faculty take a really active role in all parts of the university, where we speak up about what we're thinking, where we've got a lot of freedom to do whatever we want to do. Or at least that's how it is in my department, and at many other departments across the institution (I probably shouldn't speak for everybody on this). For these reasons, what reaching this milestone means for me, in practical terms, is really just that I don't have to do the stinking Binder anymore. So if there's "relief" at all, it's really just relief that I will no longer be required to scrapbook as part of my job. Sure, if/when I go up for full professor I'll have to put together another binder, but the requirements for that are different (it's a much more streamlined Binder that one puts together - it's not about documenting "everything" so much as about proving excellence beyond the "everything" that one has already documented). But the short version of all of this is that the tenure process has never really caused me stress except for when I was in my first year and we had to start the Binder from scratch, and I have never felt like I wasn't clued in to what the expectations were.
This is where the Chronicle piece to which I linked above doesn't really fit my experience, and I wonder whether that's because my institution is some exception to prevailing norms or whether that's because the piece itself is making some sweeping generalizations about all assistant professors when really it's talking about "assistant professors at a certain kind of institution." See, the report is based on interviews with "30 junior faculty members at six universities," and so I wonder: how were the 30 chosen? What disciplines were represented? What types of institutions were included in the six? Is this really a representative sample of what all junior faculty experience? I mean, 30 people at six institutions means they probably talked to five people at each institution. Where in the tenure process were each of the interviewees? Second year? Fourth year? I think that could make a difference. I also think that the people most likely to participate in such interviews would be people who had a gripe, no? But maybe I'm just being cynical in that thought.
Anyway, the interview lists the complaints of junior faculty as the following:
- Vague and inconsistent tenure guidelines.
- Lack of constructive feedback.
- A culture of "don't ask, don't tell."
- Divergence between policy and practice.
- Adopt formal written policies.
- Offer workshops.
- Interpret tenure policies.
Now, when I look at the above lists, the only thing that I can suppose is that my institution - in contrast to most - is doing everything (pretty much) right. The proposed potential solutions? All firmly in place. (And I'll add that the whole "workshop"thing has always struck me as a complete waste of time - much better are individual meetings to address my specific performance.) The complaints? Well, they don't seem to be in play here (or at least they haven't been for me). The one thing that some might argue is that there can be a lack of consistency from year to year when we turn our books in. One year they suggest you should put that special issue of a journal you edited in scholarship and the next they say it counts as professional service. One year they suggest that you should include every single thing you want people to read in your personal statement up front and the next they say you should relegate most of your commentary to individual section statements. Stuff like that. And yes, that is irritating, but I suppose I've responded to it as just irritating and not as some diabolical attempt to confuse me and to get in the way of my success. Ultimately, putting together the Binder is just a matter of sticking stuff in a binder. It's not rocket science, and it's not hard to shift things around year to year - only irritating. It's just about following directions, even as they change.
Of course, I have the luxury of feeling that way because our process during the probationary period is a yearly one. While this in itself is irritating for any number of reasons, it does a lot to make the process transparent and habitual for the person on the tenure track. It's not such a big deal when you're asked to shift minor things from year to year. I imagine the anxiety about this would be much greater if one were in a position of doing just a third year review and then going up.
But so if the actual compilation of the materials isn't that big of a deal (and I really don't feel like it is: just that it's time-consuming and annoying), then why all of the angst about the tenure process for many junior faculty? Well, I think that it's angst around what "counts" and what will be regarded more or less favorably. I imagine that this can be more difficult to ascertain at a research university to some extent, perhaps. Although perhaps people might say that it should have been difficult for me at my institution, which is one that is in transition toward valuing things in addition to teaching (more of an emphasis on scholarship, more of an emphasis on serving the community) more than it has done historically. Except, here's the thing: don't we all know what good teaching, good research, and good service are? I never felt like I didn't know those things. Sure, the devil is in the details: does journal A count more than journal B; does developing new courses count more than service courses; does serving one's university count more than serving one's department? But if one gets bogged down in those details I think that it potentially gets in the way of actual productivity. If one is so busy worrying about what the "right" thing to do is, one isn't actually accumulating lines on the cv. Instead, one is spending all of that energy that could go into putting lines on the cv on hand-wringing about what lines would look better, and that results in, I think, paralysis. Or at least that's how I have felt.
So the way that I approached life on the tenure-track was (and again, this may not work at all institution types, but it worked well at mine) to be as well-rounded as possible and to try to hit certain sweet spots in each of the areas. What has that looked like? Well, let's take this in order.
Ok, so with teaching, what my institution is looking for is a bunch of different things, including: student-centered approaches, innovation in terms not only of assignments and syllabus design but also in terms of developing new courses to add to the curriculum, a commitment to teaching service courses. So over the past five years, I've kept all of that in mind and I made choices accordingly.
- While I tried to limit the number of service courses that I taught, I never tried to get out of teaching service courses, and when possible I tried to find a way to link some of the service courses that I teach to university efforts at retention. In other words, I waited until this year to find my way out of teaching composition, and I only did that after I pushed a new general education course through the curriculum and began teaching it.
- I paid attention to adding courses to the curriculum that reflected my research expertise. Now, partly I did this for self-serving reasons, but also I did it to underscore the value that I, individually, bring to the department and curriculum. I could have just taught versions of courses that were on the books when I arrived. Part of why I didn't was to demonstrate my unique value to the institution.
- In developing assignments and syllabi, I paid attention to how what I was doing showed a commitment to the university's mission and stated attitude to students and instruction. It's not that I did anything so differently than I otherwise might have done, but I did spend some time thinking and noting how I could "sell" what I do in that context.
Now, nobody loves service, but it has to get done. At an institution like mine, service is a key thing in tenure decisions, but that doesn't necessarily mean one has to be a slave to service expectations. It took me a while to figure out how to do the service thing without being a slave to service requests. What did I ultimately figure out?
- You can do service you love or you can do service you hate. It all counts the same. You get no extra credit for doing service you hate, so you might as well avoid it when possible.
- Part of the service requirement is about range, at least at my institution. It's not necessarily how much service one does, but that one is doing a certain amount of service across areas - department, university, community, and profession. One doesn't have to go all out in every area, but one should have a thing or two in each.
- When possible, choose the service that works as an easy, one-shot deal but yet that produces a line on the cv. Judging a writing contest takes maybe a few hours of your time on one day. Serving on a committee extends over many hours and many days. Each is only one line on the cv. Plan accordingly. (This is not to say that one can avoid all committee work, or that one should, but being strategic about service on committees is a good thing.)
Now, as I've noted here before, scholarship requirements at my institution aren't terribly steep and I've never felt like they were unreasonable given the other demands of the job. Still, there are some things:
- Especially in this area, requirements tend to increase over time. The scholarship requirement people tell you about in year one on the tenure-track will likely be less than the requirement when you go up for tenure. Thus, it makes sense not to aim for the minimum that they tell you in the beginning but rather to think about where that minimum bar may be in five years' time, and to plan accordingly. These changes are typically not drastic, but if you were aiming for one article placed anywhere when you started, and if by year five they're saying 2 peer-reviewed articles, then you're probably screwed.
- Consistent productivity over time is key. Publishing like gangbusters and going to a ton of conferences in years 1 and 2 and then doing nothing for years 3-5 will not serve you well. Slow and steady wins the race.
- We all know what "good journals" in our fields are. So do our colleagues. Why not try to publish one or two things in them just to alleviate stress? The thing with research, particularly at this type of institution I think, is to do at least a thing or two that is unquestionable to any academic. So, for example, in English we value essays in collections, while our colleagues in other disciplines don't so much. So it makes sense to make sure at least one publication is in a peer-reviewed journal, even if that's not the requirement. Make it easy for them to see that you've met the expectation. Eliminate questions about whether or how something "counts." Leaving question marks only increases one's own stress and makes it harder to make one's case that one deserves tenure.
Now, I'm not saying that the complaints that many junior faculty register about vague and inconsistent requirements, lack of mentorship toward tenure, a feeling that they can't ask questions or ask for clarification, or the divergence between policy and practice aren't real. I'm sure these are things that people experience. I just wanted to note for the record that not everybody experiences those things, that not all academic institutions mystify the tenure process, and that not every institution sets junior faculty up to fail or to fear for their professional futures.
I know that I'm not done with this process yet. I suppose that something horrible could happen at this point (knock wood that it doesn't). But I don't feel anxious that this will happen, and I don't feel like I should feel anxious about my chances. I feel like my record meets the institution's requirements and that, really, it speaks to my tenurability. And I can feel that because my institution and department have worked really hard to mentor me through the process. At the end of the day, they want to tenure every t-t hire that they make. They don't want to do another search; they don't want to weed people out at tenure. I think that's the reality at many institutions, and to indicate otherwise seems to ignore the wide range of institutions and contexts in which the tenure process occurs.