Sunday, October 16, 2005

Post from the Other Side

New Kid asked me a week or so ago to write on what it’s like to have survived the tenure process. This is a great suggestion, and indeed there is an implicit promise made by those of us who venture across the Great Divide to report back if we make it intact.

So here I am on the Other Side, and let me start off by saying that I haven’t had a chance to post to the blog at all this week because I’ve been buried in grading and class prep and meetings; indeed, three days out of the last week I stayed on campus nearly twelve hours a day. Do you get where this is going? Yeah, tenure isn’t the big holiday on the beach I was hoping it would be. I do get a kick out of seeing my new title on my business cards, and on noticing they updated the department website as well. And the raise was nice! (It may even keep us up with cost-of-living increases.) But the sky is still blue, campus still looks the same, my daily routine is exactly what it was before the Change.

To be fair, I didn’t expect things to be much different. There’s nothing controversial enough about me to make the job security seem more comforting. And my motivations are largely internal more than external; I didn’t spend my time over the past few years writing comments on student papers and helping to design a capstone course for the department because it would help get me tenure. I did these things because they matter to me. They’re an important part of how I perceive my role at a university, and they’re rewarding in that I can see the effects in student performance and the progress of the department. Now that I have tenure, I’ll continue to do these things in pretty much the same way and for the same reasons.

The only thing I did do differently because of being on the tenure track was to push the book through, and I have mixed feelings about that. Had I stayed in my previous position at Small Liberal Arts College, I wouldn’t have needed the book for tenure. I like to believe that I would have finished it anyway, more carefully and at my own pace, rather than scrambling to get it out and cutting every corner along the way. I like to believe that my internal motivation would have been enough to maintain my research agenda. But I also face the reality that academics have a notoriously hard time finishing projects even when they are under deadline, so it may be too much in the realm of fantasy to think that I would have done this without the maddening tick of the tenure clock. How the book is received will probably have a great deal to do with how I look back on the tenure process: if it gets much criticism, especially for the weak spots I know it has, I’m likely to feel fairly resentful that I had to forego some revisions and additions in the interest of meeting a hoop-jumping deadline. If it gets rave reviews, I’ll be relieved and grateful that I took a position that made me crank the thing out in record time.

Now here’s an interesting twist: what I’ll miss about being on the tenure track. I’m increasingly convinced that tenure is a stupid, stupid system (see any number of Dean Dad’s latest posts for evidence of this), and I was frequently frustrated by the meaningless and even counterproductive aspects of the tenure process. But I have to confess, I was drawn to academia in the first place because I’m a talented hoop-jumper, and I’ve always been pleased by the applause for my performances on standardized tests and getting-along-well-with-others. I gained a fair amount of smug satisfaction from preparing my annual reports each year and checking off all the things I’d done that I was supposed to do, and then some. Now those things don’t count for so much, at least in the sense that the hoop-keepers don’t particularly need to keep track anymore. I should feel freedom and relief at the fact that I ought to be able to progress towards full professor as long as I keep up my publications and don’t kill anyone, but really, those standards are a little low to be satisfying. Plus there aren’t any penalties for not making full professor, so there’s not even that sword hanging over my head.

My experience of the last twenty years has trained me to think in terms of measurable stages of work and aiming at the next goal: college degree, MA program, thesis, PhD program, prelims, dissertation, job search, tenure-track treadmill. It’s a little odd to think that of all the progressive steps built into an academic career, at the stage of associate professor I’ve completed all of them but one, and I’ve got a good thirty years of career still ahead of me. I’m back to relying on my internal motivations, which is fine, but the applause was nice too. There won’t be as much of that from here on out, so I’d better figure out how to generate my own.

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