Thoughts on going up for tenure... again

This year I am up for tenure, for a second time. The process is moving along and with it comes some perspectives on the whole notion of tenure, what it can and cannot do.

Thoughts on going up for tenure... again

This academic year is going to be pretty interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I am up for tenure this year. For the second time. That's because I received tenure at my previous job back in 2007, then left that school to come to my current place in 2011, and now -- right on schedule -- I am eligible this year.

Tenure is so much the golden snitch in academia that you tend not to find people like me who went through the process once, got tenure, left tenure behind for another tenure-track job, and then got it a second time. Usually once a person gets tenure, they become smart and stay put in the job where they were tenure. Not me, of course. So as I come up for tenure again, it's giving me some perspectives on higher education and my work in it that seem worth sharing.

Before I do that, what is tenure, anyway? The American Association of University Professors says:

Society does not benefit when teachers and researchers are controlled by corporations, religious groups, special interest groups, or the government. Free inquiry, free expression, and open dissent are critical for student learning and the advancement of knowledge. Therefore, it is important to have systems in place to protect academic freedom. Tenure, understood as an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation, serves that purpose.

So tenure is a kind of "enhanced employment" that is earned through completing a process of proving to the university that you should remain employed there indefinitely, the purpose of which is being freed from the possibility of having your speech and your research dictated to you by outside forces (and from the possible threat of being fired for your views or your subject). Tenure allows faculty to be independent thinkers, which then allows students to be taught how to be independent thinkers too. Once I am tenured, the university cannot fire me without a darned good reason that will survive a lengthy internal proceedings and probably an external court battle as well -- extreme financial duress, program termination, detonating nuclear weapons in the faculty break room, and so on.

Like I said, this is my second time through the tenure process, and with that second time comes perspective.

  • The hardest thing about the tenure process this time isn't so much getting all the paperwork done. It's writing about yourself and your work knowing that most of the people reading this stuff have no idea who you are or what you've done. Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking that I am somehow famous. I give a lot of workshops; I have this blog; I have a book coming out. So surely I don't need to work that hard on my portfolio, right? My reputation will simply speak for itself. Except, my supposed "reputation" exists only among an extremely small group of people. Outside that group, I am an unknown. I have no laurels upon which to rest. Instead, getting tenure depends instead on my ability to explain why all the ideas I've had and work that I've done matter. This is an excellent way to let the air out of the balloon that my head can sometimes become. It's also very hard work.
  • I am learning through this process that I have not outrun impostor syndrome and probably never will. The group of people with whom I work are so smart, so talented, so good at what they do, that I am terrified at the idea of putting my professional identity in front of them for scrutiny. Sometimes I feel like my career consists a series of impostor-syndrome episodes in front of progressively more and more talented people. If you are a newer faculty member or a grad student who feels this impostor syndrome bearing down on them -- maybe you can take some encouragement in knowing that some of us still struggle with it.
  • One thing that hasn't changed, is my view that tenure should be given because of the innovative and interesting things you do, not because you've managed to suppress them until it's somehow safe. I hear a lot of faculty members say about teaching with evidence-based active learning practices, That's for after I get tenure. Until then I have to focus on [fill in the blank -- publications, research, etc.]. If it were up to me, such people wouldn't be awarded tenure. Why would I want to give indefinite appointments to people who won't take intelligent risks to improve students' education?
  • Back in 2007, the state of contingent faculty in this country was not as dismal as it is now. These days, whenever I write or talk about tenure, I'm very much aware that I am doing so from a privileged position, and that there are legions of faculty members --- qualified in their fields, truly caring about students, and highly skilled teachers --- who have no such option for tenure. If higher education is to move forward, I think it has to figure out how to create a more just tenure system for the huge number of contingent faculty that are in its ranks, as well as for tenure-track faculty who simply want to teach well and not be judged solely on their fantasy faculty league stats.
  • At this point, I don't have any major concerns that I will not get tenure here. But I also have no illusions about what tenure will do for me. I've learned in previous jobs that if you are not doing interesting, excellent, innovative work prior to tenure, then tenure is not going to be a magic switch that gets flipped, whereupon you become suddenly awesome. What tenure often means, instead, is that you are given jobs where tenure is a must, because those jobs entail situations where the protection that tenure affords is really necessary, because you have to deal with the worst that academic humanity has to offer. In my previous job, after tenure I became the chair of my college's Promotion and Tenure Committee; while this was important and often enjoyable work, there were also times where I had to deal with sensitive and, frankly, extremely ugly situations where personal vendettas are born and raised, and in which people who lack certain aspects of basic humanity can easily make your life miserable.
  • So, being post-tenure does not mean that life becomes great. I am reminded that tenure only protects you from dismissal. It does not protect you from having your life made miserable, by someone else or by your own hand. Just as you do not suddenly become awesome upon being tenured, you also do not suddenly become happy. All of these good things -- awesomeness, happiness, etc. -- are choices, or disciplines. They are things we have to pursue intentionally if we want to have them, and the presence or absence of tenure doesn't change that.
  • Likewise, I am fully aware that despite what the AAUP says about tenure, if someone higher up the chain wants me gone badly enough, they will find a way to make it happen, tenure or no. I have seen this happen before. Therefore getting tenure does not absolve me from being on my toes, staying marketable, and having my parachute ready to put on if worse comes to worst. We know neither the day nor the hour when Something Might Happen -- whether it's because of an evil person getting you dismissed, or because your program gets cut or state funding for universities collapses or something else. Tenured faculty still need exit strategies.
  • On the other hand, and on a more positive note, if you do like what you are doing in your work, then getting tenure takes it to the next level. I experienced a fair bit of that the first time and I am looking forward to more that this time.

I love my job and I would be perfectly content to spend the rest of my career here. I wouldn't have left a tenured position if I didn't feel even back then like that was going to be the case. So this second time through is very much like the marriage proposal that I hope gets accepted. Also, I'm way too old for there to be a third time.