Saturday, September 20, 2008

Processing the Tenure Process

So, the Binder is turned in, and I've been trying to think about how I feel about having passed this particular milestone, and about how the tenure process at my institution has worked for me personally. Now, I have written about tenure in general before - with a dash of the personal thrown in - so I'm going to do my best not to just rehash stuff I've written here before. But I thought I might as well write something about how I'm feeling now that the thing is out of my hands - what I've done, what I might have done differently, how I think my experience measures up to the typical narratives we hear about how junior faculty feel about the tenure process.

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.
It then lists the potential solutions to these problems as the following:
  • Adopt formal written policies.
  • Offer workshops.
  • Interpret tenure policies.
(Head on over and read the article if you haven't - I'm only recounting the bullets of it here.)

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
As I've outlined all of this, I think that what I see clearly is how consistency over time and consistency across areas have really been what I've emphasized in the path toward tenure. I didn't look for specific instructions about what exactly I should do: I just took the stuff that's written in our faculty handbook about what counts as evidence in each area to heart, and I tried to come up with evidence for each area that demonstrated my specific value to the institution. I also tried, with varying degrees of success, to think about myself in a broader academic context: ultimately, my performance in these areas isn't just about my standing at this institution but about my success in the profession as a whole. At the end of the day, though, it's not about, or shouldn't be about, reading tea leaves. It's just about doing the job as best as one can.

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.


Shane in Utah said...

Hey, Crazy, congrats on turning in the tenure binder! I plan to turn mine in next week as well, so I read this post with great interest.

Some thoughts of my own: my first job out of grad school and my current job are like case studies in wrong and right ways to run the tenure process. Old school: research requirements were incredibly vague, and the entire department voted on tenure decisions, despite the fact that most of them never read the binders, effectively turning the process into a popularity contest. New school: there are clear-cut guidelines for each sub-discipline--literary critics have to publish a monograph or its equivalent in peer reviewed articles in pretigious journals, etc; and there is a dedicated committee who reads the updated binder every year, gives the candidate feedback at annual meetings, and votes on whether to recommend the candidate for renewal and, ultimately, tenure. My new job's system is infinitely more humane, I have to say.

As for the schools that refuse to spell out tenure expectations clearly: I think it is mostly about the nebulous fourth category, "collegiality" (which is made explicit at some schools, but is effectively in place at many others). If the handbook says research is the most important area and you must publish 6 articles or a book for tenure, and the candidate meets those criteria, the department will be on shaky ground for denying tenure to candidates who are personally disliked by senior faculty, or whatever.

There's one other part of the equation that seems not to be part of the calculus at Crazy's institution, but figures large in research-oriented universities: the external reviewers. It's their job to certify not merely that the candidate published a sufficient quantity of articles (a quick glance at the CV will confirm that), but also that the candidate's scholarship is making an original and valuable contribution to the field. And as with blind peer review for journals, there's a good chance that one of your 4 or 8 or 10 reviewers is going to be a randomly malicious asshole who will sabotage your tenure bid out of pure spite or ideological objections to the work. And then there's the uncertainty about what standard the reader will apply, regardless of what the candidate's institution decrees. What if the reviewer from Cornell judges me by her institution's criteria, rather than my own? It's enough to cause a few sleepless nights in the most confident junior faculty member.

Sorry to blather on so long. Good post.

Maggie said...

First, congrats on getting the thing done. And congrats to your school, for putting together for what sounds like a rational process.

I guess the only part I have difficulty with in your exposition here is that you are clearly an "excellent" case for your school. (I was also an "excellent" case, and so my tenure process went pretty smoothly too.) I say this not to either butter you up (or brag) but because I think the best tests of a school's system are its "less than excellent" cases: the borderline cases, or the downright difficult ones.

For example, I got feedback through the process, but it was mainly stuff like: "Keep doing what you're doing! Go you!" Which, you know, was fine for ME... but I have had friends who could've used more meaningful feedback and didn't get it. Or got conflicting feedback from the t&p committee and their department chair.

(In general, I think that academics are never really TAUGHT how to give feedback in the context of tenure/promotion, and a lot of us are really BAD at it.)

Or scholarship: like you, I aimed for "five years from now" requirements and published accordingly: things that would look good no matter who was reading the vita. But not everyone is so lucky and/or rational. In fact, I would say that at least half aren't. What do you do with someone who's publishing according to the requirements they came in under, but requirements that people on the t&p committee think are outdated? Or whose cv's are chock full of questions about whether or not something "counts"?

I guess my hogging of the comments here is all to say: I think you are amazingly smart and rational in the way you approached the tenure process. But not everyone is that way. And how an institution deals with these less-than-stellar cases is really what counts, since I actually think it's more typical. Which is not to diminish your school's awesomeness (because for all I know, they could be really good at that too), but I know it's where the rubber hits the road at my place. And the end results aren't always pretty, and certainly aren't uncontroversial.

Dr. Crazy said...

Shane, thanks for the comment, and thanks for adding in the research university perspective! Also for bringing up the outside reviewer thing: we don't do that here, so I couldn't speak to it. And YES that would cause at least some anxiety.

Maggie, point taken about me being... well, whatever I am :) In relation to tenure that is. Actually, I do think that my school does a good job of communicating all of the above to new faculty - the issue is whether people actually LISTEN to it (word on the street this year is that a good number of people are refusing to take the P&T committee's advice, and if that's the case, I don't think that's a failure in the system so much as that some of the people going up are idiots). You are right, though, that meaningful feedback is really important, and that it's got to be given in a way that is consistent. I think some departments at my institution are better at this than others, and I do think that my department is very good at it. There are other departments though that are less good.

I guess the reason that I wrote all of the above out was in part, though, in irritation at the way the chronicle takes the experiences of 30 junior faculty and says they speak for everybody. I so hate that! Don't they know that *I* speak for everybody?!? ;)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

In general, I think that academics are never really TAUGHT how to give feedback in the context of tenure/promotion, and a lot of us are really BAD at it.

A friend of mine who has had a crappy tenure process is adamant that this is true. In fact, her goal is - once tenure goes through - to institute some kind of "how to give useful feedback" system. (She's not sure what that will look like, mind you.)

I think Maggie's point about the problem being the borderline cases is a really important one. Me, I've been bitter-ized on this whole question. My experience at Rural Utopia was much like yours where you are; and my experience at Former College was NOT. But I'm the same damn person. I thought I knew how to handle tenure wherever I was, but all my successes and proactivity (not as a scholar/teacher, but at figuring out how the tenure system worked!) at Rural Utopia didn't mean squat at Former College. It was really frustrating.

My feeling is that the dangers of the bad tenure systems/situations are much greater than the benefits of the good ones - not necessarily saying that we should get rid of tenure (though I've said that before), but just that it's worth talking about how terrible the process is because when it goes wrong, it goes REALLY wrong. Like you, I know people who angst over every little thing rather than just be sensible about it. But I didn't do that. And my friend with the crappy tenure process, she *does* tend to do that, but the crap she got went way beyond that (and was rooted in the abusiveness of one dominant department personality).

I'm not disputing what you say about how tenure works at your institution. I just think sometimes positive stories about tenure processes do tend - probably unconsciously - to imply that people who don't share those experiences have somehow screwed up.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comment, NK - I was kind of hoping you'd weigh in on this one. I suppose I feel like the danger in talking only about the problems with the system, though, is that the knee-jerk (and not necessarily most useful or good for faculty) response would be "well then we should just do away with the system" without coming up with something to put in its place. Tenure is *problematic* in the ways that it is implemented at many institutions - I'm all for agreeing with that point. But I suppose I feel like it's useful to look at places where the system works as a guide to how to fix the places where the system is broken. Unless we talk about the good and the bad together, I think you're right that it ends up looking like people who have negative experiences are somehow to blame.

I suppose I wrote about how this process has worked for me because I haven't encountered many positive and/or transparent accounts of the tenure process, and a lot of the time throughout my time on the tenure track I felt like I might be delusional because I didn't feel angsty about it.

And I think that I didn't get information from mentors or typical sources about the range of ways that the tenure process can work - the information is typically skewed (I think) to the situation at R1s and selective SLACS. (Or at least that's the impression that I get - that there the process is much more fraught. Or at least I have that impression because I've never seen any mention anywhere of the tenure process at a CC or at a school like mine that really outlines how it works.)

Anyway, though, this is a long way of saying that I don't disagree with you, and I take your point that the process is *often* really screwed up at *many* institutions. Maybe those institutions could learn something from the ones where it's not, though? And how can they if we don't ever talk about how it works when it's working well?

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I see what you mean about the knee-jerk response, but I think that's more going to come from people who want to get rid of tenure no matter what anyone says - I think there's a big difference between criticizing the process in a given institution and saying that the system should be abolished in general.

And it's definitely true that bad institutions can learn from other institutions how to do this. Rural Utopia was really great about the process. And Dr. Virago's written about her U's system and it sounds very much like yours. (Rural Utopia's was very much like yours.) I'm curious, personally, whether public institutions (yours, Dr V's - if I have those right - and Rural Utopia) tend to have better systems in place than private ones (but I'm generalizing from a sample of two private places!).

I also think one of the problems is when the system is fine, but the personalities running it are not (like when you have bullies like Historiann has written a lot about). Ideally, the system will outweigh the people, but some systems that look great on paper are still subject to cultural/individual problems. Not sure there's much that can be done about that.

Eh. I don't know. I can't be impartial about this. I guess I think positive experiences need to be couched as, "people, this is what the system SHOULD be like EVERYWHERE," rather than as "the system is okay because there are good experiences too," but that's because I'm pretty negative about the system as a whole now and, as I've said, can envision academe without tenure. (In an ideal sense - I don't know that there's any way to get there in our current reality.)