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How Do I Think About the Tenure Process?

There are problems with the present system of tenure and re-appointment which hurts many people, many groups. More interaction during the tenure process, more flexibility in timelines and kinds of contributions,  more self-awareness by the department on the nature of the community of the department and perhaps more proactive guidelines to the kind of feedback required for tenure would be a kindness to many.

Let me begin by asking the question -- What is the purpose of tenure?

What is the purpose of tenure?

There are of course many possible answers but I prefer to think of tenure as a way for a community of scholars to replace members and/or add new ones. From this perspective the tenure process becomes one where the community and the applicants get to know one another. The community is looking for someone to carry on and expand its goals, traditions, and reputation. Applicants are looking for a base which will allow them to pursue their careers in the balance and pace they desire. Tenure then becomes not so much a prize but a natural outcome of an extended communication.

Do they share the same values? goals? Do they communicate well enough with each other to work together? Do they have the same priorities? Do their resources, talents and abilities complement and strengthen one another?

The process is a vital one for young scholars since this is the path of their career. The process is a vital one for the academic institution since ultimately its fate rests on the strength and vitality of its students and faculty.


What is needed for tenure?

Normally this question is answered with the words -- research, teaching and community service. But let me answer this question with different words -- ability, work, the support of the community, and a bit of luck.

How do you earn tenure?

The academic lifestyle is one of extraordinary challenge requiring exceptional commitment. New faculty usually only dimly perceive the level of time, sacrifice, and effort to which they are committing. But it is against the backdrop of research, teaching and service that new faculty will be judged on their ability to work and on their fit to the academic community.

Even small schools which have historically focussed on teaching now look to undergraduate research as a way to relieve some of the financial burden confronting schools today. Additionally, many schools now see the value of undergraduate research as a way to augment and enhance the undergraduate experience. And large research universities now expect more substantial external funding and a higher productivity, in terms of publications in peer-reviewed journals, than ever before.

The success of the educational research community in not only demonstrating the failure of many traditional pedagogies but also developing alternative ones has led to an increased expectation of effective and appropriate teaching at all levels. Even research universities who had rarely responded to student input now expect more time and attention devoted to teaching than in the past. And smaller schools which have always emphasized teaching now expect a higher level of teaching skill sooner.

Even the demands of service have increased. Many schools now expect faculty to actively participate in recruiting and retaining students. In particular, new faculty from under-represented groups are particularly hard pressed to serve double duty in this area. And many schools have added a dimension of service to the local community which faculty, especially new faculty, are expected to shoulder.

In short, never before have new faculty been asked to be so productive, in so many areas, so quickly. And so before they commit to the academic life-style new faculty should carefully consider not just their ability in the areas of research, teaching and service but also in their interest in working in these areas.

How do you gain the support of the community?

But not only must new faculty earn tenure, they must show clearly and convincingly that they have earned it.

Research would seem to be the most easily evaluated component. But that is not always the case. The amount of external funding, the number of publications, the number of citations, the journals used for publications, the number of talks given, the number of students (both undergraduate and graduate) who participate in the research work, external comments of the value of the research,  can all be used to evaluate research work. Yet details of what would be considered tenure-able results are rarely given. This is both good and bad. But the result is that new faculty must not only pursue research but must carefully document their work and obtain feedback to determine it is enough and of the "right kind".

Evaluating teaching competence has always been more ambiguous. Few faculty are trained in the techniques, strategies, and use of formative and summative assessment. And most disciplines do not train their faculty in teaching methodologies. So new faculty are simply instructed to "teach well" and thrown into the water. New faculty must then learn how to teach, distinguish between useful information and noise among student feedback, and then demonstrate that they are indeed teaching well and at the appropriate level of concern for their department. The problem is exacerbated if new faculty are trying to introduce new pedagogies into their teaching. Many students see these paradigms as extra work and if only one faculty member (particularly an inexperienced one) is pursuing these methods, student backlash can be formidable.

And service remains a question mark in the minds of both new and senior faculty. Though the expectation is present, the value of this commitment is still under fire. And faculty are even less trained for this kind of involvement than for teaching. Indeed frequently new faculty must find ways to be of service to the students, the school, the community, and to the discipline. Then they must document this service in a way that clearly shows its value, effectiveness and "fit" to their participation in the academic community.

And yet a mix of research, teaching and service is only the beginning. Faculty must also develop a balance between family and career, between collegiality and personal life, between service to the department and challenging the department.

Either implicitly or explicitly many departments and schools use a fourth factor, that of "collegiality."

By this academic communities tend to mean how well does the applicant "fit in" to the extended community of the department/school. Though the use of collegiality as a criteria for tenure is frequently used (implicitly or explicitly) it is rarely mentioned and its evaluation is markedly varied and ambiguous. There is so much danger in this practice that the use of collegiality as a criteria for tenure has been strongly condemned by the AAUP.

And also The Latina/o pathway to the Ph.D. : abriendo caminos, edited by Jeanett Castellanos, Alberta M. Gloria and Mark Kamimura