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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Tenure Blogging

I don't think I'm revealing any big secrets when I say that I'm the first Blogging the Renaissance blogger -- if I can still claim to be one, after being disappeared for so long -- to be going through the tenure process. This seems to merit some commentary. My department is meeting very, very soon, and right now I'm finishing up the "tenure file," for their reading pleasure.

The thing I want to say about tenure is this: we should all relax. I'm probably jinxing myself here, but I've heard so many people freak out about it, and so many people talk about the process itself as though it were some enormous task they had to accomplish, some huge project, that I feel the need to demystify it a little bit. There are definitely things to freak out about in our professional lives. Getting the book published, chiefly. But, honestly, that's about it. To get tenure -- and I'm talking here about the kind of institution that actually *gives* tenure -- you really only need to accomplish a few, pretty basic things. You have to have good teaching evaluations. OK. But as far as I can tell, on my campus at least, *everyone* has good teaching evaluations: students are incredibly generous on those things. At State U, the average (on a scale with 5 as the best) is about 4.5 You just can't tell me that the teaching is actually that good. If there's grade inflation, there's also evaluation inflation. So teaching evaluations aren't a big issue. As for "service" -- well, that ain't nothin'. I've been on committees that never even met. That leaves research -- ie, essentially, the book. (Plus the "and a half" that you have to dream up, for the file). And that, on the other hand, is something, and something big.

But the issue with the book is really an issue about the current state of academic publishing, and therefore in part a separate conversation. For tenure, under the guidelines that seem to be generally accepted these days, if you do your work and manage to publish the book, everything else happens as though by magic: maybe there are departments that are crazier than mine, but it really seems to me that if you're just a little bit canny about how you interact with others, and if you have just the slightest self-awareness about your position, you will fulfill all departmental and university expectations without really even realizing you're doing it.

And as for the "tenure file" -- please. It's a glorified CV, with a little commentary.

Now, I should admit that I'm in a department that has been *very* supportive, and at a university that is pretty sane in its practices, at least as far as tenure goes. I'm sure there are places where these things aren't true, and I'm sure there are places where the amount of pressure on junior faculty is just higher, on a day-to-day basis. At this point, every time I run into a colleague in the hallway, they tell me that the meeting about my tenure will be "a celebration." That seems to be the word they've settled on. So, this may not be a typical situation. But even the scary stories I've heard circulated are not really always that scary, when you hear them as an outsider. Academics are an anxious people, and I think most of this is in our minds. The scariest things, in the long road to tenure, are the everyday interactions: in other words, the really taxing thing is a kind of magnified social anxiety. But that social anxiety has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual, concrete tasks we're expected to accomplish. Those are no big deal.

None of this would apply, of course, if I were writing about, say, Yale, rather than State U. But I take it that at places like Yale there's basically no such thing as tenure any more anyway.

OK, I've definitely jinxed myself. Back to the unlocalized, pointless anxiety.

  • At 10/21/2006 11:49:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I know what you're saying--the situation was the same at my old university. I haven't been at my new place long enough to decide yet whether it's true here, though I certainly hope it is.

    I don't think it's always true, because you might end up in a department with secret internecine feuds that get played out via the junior faculty. But I do think at most places that require a book for tenure, if you get the book published, you're pretty well off. The great unknown, though, is the outside letters: if the dept picks the wrong person, and that person write a bad letter (whether intentionally or unintentionally), then the college-level committee can get jittery. That's the aspect that worries me, because I feel confident that if I know what the basic requirements are, I can fulfill them. But those outside letters are just so out of one's control...


  • At 10/21/2006 11:51:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    P.S. You'll have to keep us (and all our oh-so-numerous readers) informed of the progress, so that we can have our own "celebration" on BtR.


  • At 10/21/2006 03:57:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Yeah, the outside letters are an issue. But a good department chair can do a great deal to alleviate that. In my own case, I was not only allowed to propose 4-5 names of people who I wanted as letter-writers, but I was also allowed (less officially) to put forward a couple of names of people I definitely *didn't* want to write. I didn't really have anybody in that category, and certainly not on the basis that my chair suggested -- "you know, in case you slept with somebody's spouse, we don't want that person writing a letter" -- but I appreciated the opportunity as a sign of their committment to my case. And, finally, I think that people from my department consulted with my graduate advisors in finalizing the list as well.

    So, yes, it is important to be at a department where people are operating in a savvy, professional manner. This isn't just about conflicts among the senior faculty being worked out over the careers of the junior people -- though that's clearly a big issue. I think it's also, on a more mundane level, about professionalism and attentiveness. A bad letter might very well be the result of the department not paying enough attention -- that is, it might not be an honest evaluation of your work, but just might come from somebody who writes bad letters, somebody who has a personal axe to grind, etc. A good department chair will know how to work to minimize the possiblity of that kind of thing.

    This process has *really* made me appreciate what a difference a good chair makes. The person I'm talking about has been really wonderful, and has also made me able to appreciate what it is that a chair can do, and what a difference that makes for a department.


  • At 10/23/2006 10:28:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    I'm still a few years off from this, but this is, in fact, the single most useful thing I've read about the tenure process. Tell us more, as the celebration kicks into gear.


  • At 10/24/2006 12:53:00 PM, Blogger Pamphilia wrote…

    Just the same Inkhorn, many warm best wishes and good luck! Tenure (both the process and the bid) doesn't always fare well-- even for the most prolific young scholars seemingly thriving in supportive departments. You're very lucky not only to be where you are, but to recognize it!


  • At 10/30/2006 11:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I am also at a large State university, and I have to say my experience (I am also in the middle of it) is much like Inkhorn's. The one issue is the book. If the book is under contract, then there is really only a very small amount of wiggle room for something to go wrong (crazy external evaluator, nutcase on the college level committee, and so on). But the real point about all these issues is that you don't control them. There is nothing you can do about a crazy external evaluator--sure, you try to keep them off your list, but often, even in a small field like mine, you won't know until it's too late. A good chair can mitigate or elimate those problems--but that's not in your control, either (you might be lucky and be your chair's first tenure case). The college-level review? Really not in your control.

    People tend to have one of two responses to such situations. They either fret about every detail and spiral into a hysterical anxiety, or they relax and say: "I've done everything I can do, and my chances are pretty good. I'm going to go watch some TiVo now." At my particular State U, once the department has voted (unanimously, of course) in favor of your tenure and promotion, your chances of actually getting tenure at the end of the year are already about 90%. Once the college-level committee does the same, your chances go to over 99%. I'm at the 90% spot right now, and I should know the next level's decision in December or January.

    My method of getting this far was one that will be familiar, I think, to all of you--it's the same one that generally led to success throughout all my schooling: I did what I was asked to do.


  • At 10/30/2006 11:56:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    @aldo: good to hear from you, and good to hear that your case is moving along well -- congratulations! Your point about the lack of control is exactly right. All of these processes are more or less occluded -- back room kind of business, or closed files that you can't read, or can only hear about (illicitly) from talkative colleagues or tenure reviewers who identify themselves to you -- and that's guaranteed to generate anxiety, even when everything else is in place.

    In fact, every time my colleagues tell me that everything's going to be fine, it actually causes me to freak out more -- because of course I have to wonder, "why are they saying this, is there in fact a chance that things won't be all right?" -- or, a little more darkly, "are they lulling me into a false sense of security?"

    But the thing is, despite the closed doors and the anxiety, I really do think everything is pretty clear. There aren't really mysteries -- just things that the anxious mind wants to make into mysteries.

    As for doing what you're asked to do -- yeah, my basic theory is that as junior faculty, "no" just isn't part of one's vocabulary. I hear stories of junior faculty saying "no," and I often think, man, that person is either very confident or else just doesn't get it.

    And I would add one other way of getting along: drinking. Lots of drinking. But then, that, also, has applied to every previous stage of my schooling as well. Or most of them.

    @muse: Thank you!


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