Friday, January 18, 2013

Things I Learned the Hard Way on the Tenure Track

This week I got the happy news that the top journal in my field has asked me to write another book review for them.  I had written two others that were well-received by the editor, but this is the first request I've had since leaving academia and teaching at a private school.  It feels good not to be forgotten by my former life.  Anyway, this event has prompted some reflection on what I managed to accomplish and where I failed in my academic career.

I came into my tenure-track job with two years as a "visiting" professor behind me, so I though I was wise to the wily ways of academia. I learned that it is entirely unfair, that getting a job really boils down to "fit," and that the university runs on cheap labor. However, the three years I spent at as an assistant professor at a third tier public university in Texas were a wholly different and further learning experience. Here are a few hard-bought lessons/realizations, aimed at those on the job market this year just lucky enough to find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  (Finding a pot of gold is just as likely as getting a good job in the current market.)  For all the other t-t folk out there, feel free to provide any I missed in the comments.

The Intellectual Stimulation of Grad School Never Returns
When I was a visitor, I noticed that parts of my brain were beginning to stagnate. My job then, as on the tenure track, did not require me to find great insights into scholarship. Instead, my main task was to find out how to take complex historical events and distill them into hour-long chunks of knowledge that an undergrad can comfortably digest. I still managed to get some research done, but there were few intellectual conversations among my colleagues, partially due to lack of interest and partially due to lack of time.  A very large percentage of academics simply check out from being scholars once they hit tenure, or even before, as was the case at my old school.

If a University has a Bad Reputation for Faculty Retention, it is Usually Well Earned
To keep myself from getting in trouble, I'll just say that I learned this one the hard way.  This is an increasingly widespread issue, since schools are using the punishing market to squeeze faculty at every turn, and then remind them they are recplaceable once the tweed army starts to flex its muscles.

At Less Exalted Universities, the Values of the Institution Trump Those of the Profession
During my three years on the tenure track I worked hard to succeed according to the dictates of my former profession. I published articles, secured a book contract, taught many new courses, and took an active role in university service. However, I have seen others accomplish much less in these traditional categories of merit, yet reap much bigger rewards. Why? Because they did the odd things that the institution cares about, things that at most universities might be considered extraneous or even tacky. Here's a piece of advice for all the newbies on the tenure track: keep in mind that many of your senior colleagues might have very little connection to the profession, and a great deal to their employer. It behooves you to do what they want if you'd like to get the goodies your department doles out (raises, sabbaticals, etc) even if it's the kind of thing your advisor would never tell you to do.

You Need to Learn How to Say "No"
I was thankfully mostly spared from a common pitfall of junior scholars: overextension. In many departments a great deal of the service work, especially the most menial kind, is foisted on the new faculty. If those faculty are female or people of color, the burden and pressures are usually that much greater.  No matter how much you might think you have to do everything you are asked, occassionally it's good to set boundaries by saying no, especially if you keep getting asked.

Accomplishing Too Much Makes You a Target
Workers in all walks of life often resent the super-keener, because they end up pushing a speed-up of work for everyone. Academics are no different. If you make yourself conspicious by your accomplishments, you may earn the dislike of those who wish to just skate by, or feel threatened by your abilities. When I got publications as a visitor, the news was not praised by the full profs who had never published anything in their careers. Similarly, I know of adjuncts who have received worried looks rather than praise for the publications from department chairs. Although the reactions aren't as extreme for t-t faculty with stellar publications, I have heard them described as "divisive" by senior faculty at my old job.


bmi said...

I'm not on the T-T, but I will add one thing to this list: In some departments, especially at second- or third-tier universities, professors are very territorial and will want to pigeonhole you as a scholar of X or Y as quickly as possible. They want to protect the narrow field of scholarship and teaching that they have cultivated over the years. If your PhD program was one of those where you were rewarded for cutting-edge scholarship that crosses thematic and temporal boundaries, be careful: that is exactly the kind of work that might turn you into a pariah (and get you branded as a charlatan) at a different institution.

chaunceydevega said...

my favorite: "you really want to publish and be a "public intellectual" that would not be a good fit for our department."

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@bmi: Yup. I still remember describing a new transnational history project to a military history colleague during lunch, and he merely replied "that sounds stupid."

@CD: Ah, the ever elusive "fit." It is the biggest factor in whether one gets an academic job, but rarely defined. What did this place want? Future tenured driftwood?

Anonymous said...

I don't like how tenure translates into powers in the workplace that have absolutely nothing to do with scholarship, teaching, etc. Senior professors have near-limitless abilities to intimidate, threaten, and harass junior and untenured faculty members in their departments for whatever reason they can find or create. Rather than see tenure as a marker of (increasingly rare) accomplishment, it is probably the most corrosive force in the academy. Turk 182