Thursday, April 15, 2010

In the Home Stretch - First Year with Tenure Nearly Done

Not to pretend that I don't remain stressed out (for I do) but at the very least Major Committee has had its last meeting (with some fun and stupid contentious discussion that changed nothing to end the year on a high note!).

I feel like I probably pissed some people off with some of the things I said during the fun and stupid contentious discussion, but dude. Somebody needed to say those things, and what is tenure for if you can't just say the things that need to be said?


You know, I thought the above was all I was going to post, but it occurs to me that this is the perfect time to reflect on my first year with tenure.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

I think the dirty little secret about earning tenure is that doing so doesn't really change a whole lot about one's job, about one's status in one's department or institution, or about one's attitude. As one was before tenure, so too is one after tenure. In other words, if a person hates her life pre-tenure, she'll probably continue hating it after tenure, only with greater intensity and a greater license to complain aloud. If a person basically likes her life pre-tenure, she'll basically like her life after tenure, although there may be greater pressures in certain areas (ahem, service). Tenure is not some magical thing that changes the game entirely. Instead, it just means that you'll keep playing the game in perpetuity.

I think this is probably a lot like those studies that show that major life changes like winning the lottery or ending up in a wheel chair don't actually change people's lives that much ultimately. While they may experience an immediate burst of joy or an immediate slough of despond upon first receiving the news, and while that may linger for about a year, after that initial reaction, they basically revert to how they felt before the major life change.

This convinces me that it's really important not to hold out for tenure as some milestone that will change every single thing about one's life, because as far as I can tell from my experience and from the experience of those around me, it just doesn't work that way. Happily, I was pretty happy before tenure. I remain pretty happy. I think if I'd felt really miserable pre-tenure that tenure would not, ultimately, have released me from my misery.

Except Being a Faculty Member with Tenure Really Is Different, and Mostly (for Me) in a Good Way

So what is different about tenure? Well, pre-tenure I was very protected from controversial, contentious types of service. This was wise of my department, to protect me in this way, and it ultimately benefited me. But, here's the thing: those controversial service things? That's where real decisions get made, and that's where the work that you do has the most potential to make a significant impact on the direction of the department and institution. This is something that I think is particular to my personality, but I'd much rather be dealing with something controversial and contentious and have it mean something big at the end of the day than do what I perceive as "busy-work" style service. To be fair, what I would call "busy-work" style service others would call "enriching" or "positive." But at the end of the day, I'd much rather serve on a difficult university-wide committee than be in charge of planning events for students, to give just one example. Those "positive" things are nice and all, and I'm happy to give my support to them in order to lend a sense of occasion and importance, but I don't want to actually do all the leg-work that they involve, mainly because from my perspective they don't really mean much at the end of the day in terms of the future of the institution. Also, I hate the details of that kind of service. Not that there aren't details to the other kind, but those details contribute to a wide-ranging bigger picture, and I'm a much more "big-picture" sort of a girl than one who cares about enrichment and positivity. (Let me just say, though, that I love that I have colleagues who want to devote themselves to these other types of service, because I do like that they happen, and I do think that they are important to the unity of our department, to the university community, and to our students. I just don't want to have to do the work on the front end to make them happen. I feel like it's a waste of my talents, rightly or wrongly.)

And so now, this year, for the first time, I've been able to participate in those wide-ranging bigger picture things, and that has been really rewarding (though often maddening, too) for me. For the first time I have really felt like I have a voice that matters at my institution, and I've reveled in using that voice (even though I do worry, sometimes, that people feel like I'm a jerk, except that I sort of don't care, because the people who think I'm a jerk are people whom I think are stupid, and the people whom I respect seem to think that I'm grand). Doing the "difficult" service has given me a greater sense of investment in my department, my institution, and even in this place more generally, and I really do feel like I've accomplished great things, although obviously I made many compromises along the way (and I wasn't happy about all of those, but still, even if I wasn't, I feel like we're still in a better place than we were at the start of this academic year). It has, ultimately, felt really good to be in a position where I could speak up for things that I cared about, and even to compromise where necessary to make change happen. The freedom to stand up for what I believe in and even the freedom to let go at certain points even though I know some people wanted me not to do so has meant everything to me.

But Beyond the General Attitude and Service Stuff, What Does Tenure Mean to Me?

Tenure means not stressing over student evaluations. Not that I don't care how students perceive my courses - obviously I do - but that the evaluations themselves no longer have the power over me that they once did (even though I don't think I realized pre-tenure how much I was fishing for positive evaluations). Tenure means that I feel completely confident in my "research agenda" and that I'm not worried about how others will perceive it (though, again, I don't think I knew i was worried about this pre-tenure).

So the Long and the Short of It Is....

Tenure for me has felt very, very good. For the first time I feel like the mountains of service that I do actually mean something. (Because, seriously, I had a heavy pre-tenure service load - it's just that it was mostly service that I pretty much loathed and saw little value in, other than that it provided the service lines on my going-up-for-tenure cv.) For the first time I feel completely free to teach as I believe my courses need to be taught, without worrying about how the numbers on evaluations will rank me. For the first time I feel like I truly can do whatever strikes my fancy in terms of research, although obviously the research is going to matter very much in terms of my desire to go up for full. But I no longer need to worry about satisfying people who don't actually do very much research in the range of what I do, if that makes sense.

So tenure. One year in. I'm into it. Sure, there are annoying things, but because I was basically happy pre-tenure? Tenure is golden.

But at the end of the day....

And this is why I feel like those who think that tenure should be abolished are wrong. All tenure has done for me is to give me a greater commitment to my department and institution, a more honest commitment to my students, and a stronger commitment to innovation and originality in my research. In what way are any of those things bad for higher education? In what way are any of those things bad for my university or department? What we need is to give the privilege of tenure to more people, so that more people can feel that strong commitment to the institution and to students, so that more people can do research that really matters as more than just a line on the cv.

But what about the "dead wood," you say? What I say is that those folks were "dead wood" long before tenure. Don't give those people tenure. That's just fine. But tenure, as a concept or institution, isn't the problem, in that scenario. Those people are. And seriously? Those people were a problem before tenure, just as they will remain a problem after it. I'm not saying that we should as a rule deny a certain percentage of people tenure, or something like that. I'm saying that it's not like, in most cases, it's a surprise who becomes dead wood. Those people were dead wood before - we just have tenured them because we were afraid of losing the line.

Now, there are good reasons for being afraid of losing the line. It's because lines have been lost. This is where institutions need to step up and guarantee that if you don't grant tenure to a slacker that the line won't be lost. (I know, I'm an idealist. And I also know that this is unrealistic.) But if there's a problem with tenure, it's an institutional problem with how institutions regard what tenure means, and it's a problem with institutions not being committed to the programs that they advertise. It is not a problem with tenure itself, as a concept, ultimately.

At any rate, tenure. There should be more people eligible for it, not fewer. And earning it should be dependent upon performance, not on a department or college protecting a line. And if a person doesn't earn it, then the department or college should be able to deny that person without fear that the line will be lost. Period. Because, seriously, people who only do the basic requirements for tenure, doing the bare minimum and nothing more before tenure, are going to suck after tenure. You know what's funny? At my institution, people in business, and accounting, and computer science recognize this. Where it's not the case is in the Humanities and in the Social Sciences, those disciplines that most serve the general education of our entire student population. In those areas, we award tenure to people who are lackluster because we're afraid that the lines will be lost. Why? Well, because clearly if we don't "save the line," then the institution will just get adjuncts to teach those courses. How fucked up is that? How antithetical is that to the health of the institution and the university? Oh yeah, it isn't healthy. But it's possible, and so that's what is done. What a great plan for how to run things. What a great plan for demonstrating the value of general education for students.

I want people to be tenured in my department and college who are invested. Who do the work. Who think that the work matters. Because if they are those things before tenure they will likely remain those things. As so many of my colleagues have. But not all of them. The reality is that we'll tenure anybody who's hired into a tenure-track line, because we're so afraid of losing tenure lines that we exercise absolutely no judgment. That fear is what produces dead wood. Not tenure.

So yes, I love having tenure. And you know what? I think tenure has made me a better faculty member. I think that's also true for many of my colleagues. But that's only possible because I was already a strong pre-tenure faculty member. If I had just been biding my time until tenure because tenure would set me free? I would suck right now. Because, ultimately, tenure doesn't set you free. It just allows you to be more of the person that you were pre-tenure.

So those are my thoughts after my first year on the tenure-track. Tenure is good. But only for people who are really willing and excited about using it.


PhysioProf said...

Instead, it just means that you'll keep playing the game in perpetuity.

Dr. Crazy, I'm afraid we're going to have to have a little talk.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Love this. I think a lot of us expect things to be Very Different. So far they haven't been. I was anxious about my productivity and teaching before tenure, and I continue to be so -- boils down to what you say: that tenure doesn't change the person.

On the other hand, I'm pretty damned glad to have some job security these days.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This is a thoughtful, useful post, and so if I take issue with a small point in it I hope that will be taken in the spirit of useful discussion. I question your characterization of "deadwood" as being identifiable before tenure. This may, of course, be peculiar to your institution, or to others where denial of tenure means losing the line. Or maybe the question is how you define "minimum." I myself barely got tenure; it hinged on two articles appearing in print the week before my file went to the college (and LRU required print, not just acceptances). My teaching was okay, not stellar but acceptable; I'd done a suitable amount of junior-person service.

Since I got tenure, I have continued to publish slowly but steadily; I would say my teaching has improved. I'm not a superstar in either category. My department includes people who are considerably more accomplished than I am. It also has people who don't publish as much and/or get lower teaching ratings. I have done a lot of service, though not an exceptional amount. It would be easy to make the argument that in a no-tenure system, I could be fired and some hungry young go-getter in my field could replace me. LRU would lose my experience and institutional knowledge, but time is a cure for those ills. Overall, I think I am a useful and productive member of my department. My research has matured and deepened since I got tenure; I do better work now (or so I like to think). But looking at my pre-tenure record, I think I could have been diagnosed as "pre-deadwood."

So maybe I'm taking this too personally; and I think I understand the kind of people you're talking about. It's more a matter of attitude, though, than of actual accomplishments, and that is much, much harder to explain in a way that isn't just "I know it when I see it."