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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tenure Blogging Part Drei

Part dry indeed: a little bit like a good martini, and a lot more like a pile of sawdust -- dry and comprised of tiny, annoying, desperately pointless litte particles which nevertheless in the aggregate amount to a huge mass of nonsense. I've now submitted my tenure file, and am sitting on ass and hands until the department meets. It was a lot more labor-intensive than I expected. But I still stick to my initial claim that going through the tenure process is not nearly the huge hurdle it's sometimes made out to be. I've heard of someone taking the whole summer to put together their file, which seems to me to be completely insane, ludicrous, unbelievable, and crazy. Who would waste their time in this way? What benefit can possibly come of this? Either you've done your business or you haven't, and if you haven't, laboriously polishing your teaching philosophy is not going to get you tenure. This process is completely unlike the process of applying for jobs when you're a grad student: there, the whole thing is about the elaborate fabrication of a totally factitious "record," which somehow magically suits you for a job (professor) for which you haven't, actually, been trained (since you've been trained to be a scholar or critic). The tenure file is just about documenting what you actually already have done, and therefore as long as you understand that this has to be a thorough documentation, should be pretty straightforward.

The problem with the tenure file is that it has to be so damn thorough. Writing a narrative about your research -- OK, inventing a narrative into which you somehow plop all those articles and books you dreamt up in fits of madness -- is one thing. But you also have to document every other aspect of your work. Do you remember the title of that undergraduate honors thesis you directed three years ago? What was the topic of that independent study you did in your second semester? What's the title of that grad student's dissertation -- the student whose committee you got pulled into when you first arrived on campus, even though the work isn't really in your field, because that student had already run through every one else in the department before you even came? How many times have you been on the graduate program committee? The undergraduate program committee? What years? What have you done that could possibly constitute "university service"? What about service to the academy at large (whatever that is)?

This leads me to a couple of very simple pieces of advice for those of you still a few years away from this.

First, and most importantly: Write Everything Down! I thought I was being pretty careful about this, but I was taken aback at what I didn't know. Specifically: I hadn't written down the titles of my grad student's dissertations. Unbelievable, but there it is: it never occurred to me to write that stuff down, because I was living with it day in and day out. I could tell you in detail what each project is about (and how good it is), but the actual titles -- well, they fluctuate, and they're often not so catchy, and I figure they'll continue to change, and suddenly I realized I didn't know what to put down. So, document everything, absolutely everything.

Secondly: find some way to do some university service. This is the most ridiculous category on the tenure file, and it's insane that it could matter, but I could totally imagine a scenario in which somebody very remote from our field on the university tenure committee -- somebody who felt at sea in actually evaluating your work in any substantive way, or saying anything of consequence about your teaching -- might just happen to notice a blank for that section of the file, and decide to blow it out of all possible proportion. Organizing a conference or symposium is, apparently, a good strategy: for some reason, the adminstrators think of it as university service, I guess because it contributes to intellectual life across campus, but, clearly, it can also have immediate professional benefits. This is one way to make your scholarly activities actually double with the weird categories imposed by the tenure process. (Of course, if you can get on some nonsense university committee that doesn't really do anything, that works too).

Finally: the keyword in putting this thing together seems to me to be "narrative." You have to tell a story about everything. The target audience is really that university tenure committee (assuming you've been making your own department happy), and in the case of State U, this means, in significant measure, scientists. In other words, as I understand from a friend of mine who once was in the unenviable position of being the sole junior faculty representative on the tenure committee, people who generally have little patience for our discipline, and no understanding of it. (Sorry, but that appears to be the way it is). So, my advice is: don't just state what you've done. Make a story of it. This is easiest for the "research purposes" section, which is obviously a story about what you've done and how it connects to your future research plans. But I think a similar angle can help with other sections of the file as well. I included brief descriptions for every class I taught, not just a listing of the titles and enrollments. When talking about an event I organized, I introduced it, pasted in the rubric I had written for the event, pasted in the bios of the various people involved, and pasted in the write-up of it I did afterwards, for an on-campus institute's newsletter. So it became not just an event but a little story. Make everything into a story -- or, at least, overwhelm everybody with words, words, words, until it's easier for them to just give you tenure than to read all the nonsense you've compiled.

Speaking of which, I should stop. Let's hope that "Tenure Blogging Part Quatro" will involve fewer words but more good news...

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