My Beautiful Wickedness

What tenure means…
February 17, 2008, 4:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

That’s actually a good question and the term is one that I’ve been having to explain to a lot of people. So, here goes. Tenure gives me a presumptive right to keep my job unless I do something totally wackadoo — like claim someone else’s work as my own or sexually harass a student or knock over a bank — illegal, immoral, unethical, or so forth.  I can still be fired, like any other employee, but I can’t be canned for no reason, or because I offer an interpretation of the past that differs from what the college president thinks should be taught, or because I don’t vote a certain way in the faculty meeting, or because I sign an anti-war petition or join a political group that my boss doesn’t like. In that way, it guarantees that I have academic freedom equivalent to the academic responsibilities that I’ve taken on and carried out. It’s an earned job benefit — like other benefits offered by other employers, like being able to vest in a pension plan — that some economists argue allows academic employers to offer less competitive wages and still retain their highly qualified (risk-averse) teachers.

But what does it mean? It means you’ve been assessed in about every way imaginable by about everyone who has had any contact with you in the last six years and they’ve all agreed that you’re ok. It means that if I decide to apply for another position at another college, I have been vetted as someone with a fully developed set of administrative, research, and teaching skills and so I can command more money and better working conditions. It means a somewhat higher pay scale. It means that my kid qualifies for full tuition benefits at 400 or so different colleges. It means that I’ve now got a pension. Financially, it’s a big deal. It’s also the goal that I set for myself when I started my PhD program. I didn’t just want to get my PhD; I wanted to get tenure and make a living teaching and researching. I’ve been working toward this since I entered grad school in 1991, so it’s a huge milestone in my professional life.

So how do you get tenure? Well, it varies, but here’s what I had to do. I started out with a one-year contract on the “tenure track” — meaning that if everything went well, the college was budgeting to keep me, but I’d have to prove myself worthy of that investment. That first year, I had an endless parade of people watching me teach — three colleagues, a department chair, a Dean, a Provost, an outside observer from another department — to make sure I was doing an ok job. I was evaluated by my students frequently and I had to hit certain measures of perceived quality on their evaluations. I had to deliver a couple of public lectures on campus so that everyone on campus could come and take a look at the quality of my work. I went to all required meetings (no duh), took on some committee work to demonstrate I was active in the actual running of the college, and got involved in some student groups to get to know the people I was teaching. I volunteered in the community at various historical organizations and I did all the ordinary stuff you do when you’re a historian (active in my professional organizations, presenting talks, doing research, and whatall). And finally, I had to make substantial progress on my dissertation, which wasn’t done yet.

I then got a two-year contract and did all the stuff above, but I was also expected to step up my game. I took on the advising of a couple of dozen students. I started to do some publishing. I applied for and won internal funding and some external grants. I got some continuing ed experience in those two summers, going to summer school for a couple of weeks each time. I mentored some students into national scholarships. I started up a campus branch of Phi Alpha Theta, which is the history national honors society and served as a mentor. I was a finalist in both the top post-docs of my fields, but I didn’t win either of them. I served on a bunch of faculty searches (reviewing applications, interviewing candidates, going to a lot of job talks…what, you thought we had an HR department?). I did more community work to increase the reputation of our college locally. And the teaching, of course, continued — I created another bunch of classes (13 new courses in five years), I continued to be observed in my teaching by the Dean, my chair, all my colleagues, and evaluated by my students. Finally, in July 2005, I finished my dissertation.

The next two-years included all the work of the first three years, but also more committee work (lots of actual administration of the college). I started to direct a department myself (proving I could take on more responsibilities and work with faculty and administrators across the campus). I published some more and I won a national prize for my written work and was a national finalist for other prizes that I didn’t win. I taught a lot and was expected to show improvement in my teaching over time, so I developed new materials and took some classes on how to teach better. I wrote a grant to underwrite the creation of a campus research center and I helped to create a dissertation fellowship program for our campus. I delivered papers at all the major conferences in my field, so I showed I am still research-active. I started to take on officer positions in my national historical organizations. I helped to plan a national conference last year and this year, I am wrapping up the planning of an international conference on campus. And I had to get my dissertation manuscript ready to be a book.

I then had to put together a huge book documenting all this. I had to compile all my teaching evaluations, all my performance reviews, get letters from everyone who had watched me teach, letters from people outside my department, letters from people outside the campus, and so forth. That book went to my department chair. She had to approve it. Then it went to my Dean. She had to review it and make a positive recommendation. Then it went to a campus review board composed of someone from the School of Ed, three computer scientists, a saxaphone player, and an artist — so people from completely outside my field evaluating my whole six years of work. They had to make a positive recommendation. Then it went to the Provost. He had to approve. Then the President of the college reviewed it and had to endorse me. And then the Board of Trustees had to sign off, because they have ultimate budgetary authority for agreeing to take on another permanent employee. When the lights all turn green, you hit the gas and then….no, wait, that’s drag racing…anyhow, everyone had to agree that I was worth keeping, from the students up to the Board.

And it was just that easy. Seriously, though, that’s why it’s such a crushing blow when you miss tenure. Being a college professor is a 70-hour-a-week (at least) job — you’ve gone to school for between five and ten years beyond the BA to get the degree and then you’ve beaten the odds to get a job and then there’s this huge mountain to climb. It becomes so much of your life that it’s hard not to interpret a failure to tenure as a comment on your self-worth and a good twenty years of your life. When you miss tenure, you might have difficulty finding a new job, as there’s a perception that you’re damaged goods, or you might be so demoralized you don’t want to try again. But you basically get a year to pack up your shit and git (called a terminal contract), so missing tenure means that you get to hang around like a leper in your department wondering which of your colleagues thought you sucked. You have to get back in the saddle at the lowest point of your life, fight like hell to get another job in the field or plan a major career change, prepare to sell your house and leave the town, and uproot your family. Making tenure means that I don’t have to do that. I get to stay in a department that respects me and likes my work. They have invited me to make this my home.

If I want to be further promoted, I continue working like this, publish my book, and continue to make outstanding contributions to campus. My teaching will continue to be evaluated by colleague observation and by students. In other words, there’s no chance in hell that someone with tenure winds up going AWOL and becomes a slack-ass clock-puncher or a wild terror of tenure privilege. That’s not the kind of people who get tenure in the first place.


7 Comments so far
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Boy, and i just thought you hung out, smoked out, and dropped out, but with better bennies. 😉

Seriously, my niece got tenured at Penn St, so I know what you went through. Congrats!

Comment by Mack

All of that work just makes me shiver. I hate to say it but I’m glad life pushed me off that track. I would *never have had* the physical stamina required to do that…It’s good to know, so it’s one less thing to kick myself over.

Congrats, again

Comment by imfunny2

I’m so happy for you! I got tenure after only 3 years, with no peer review. I think that would actually be a good thing for public school…

Comment by patti

Congratulations… though you definitely scare the shit out of a first year PhD student. Well, I did just buy a copy of “Writing your disseration on 15 minutes a day,” so all crises shall be adverted in due time. But enough of my tribulations, I’m glad to see your hard work has been duly recognized.

Comment by buffalochips

Did I not tell you that you have to need to do this? I mean, really need to do it? It’s not enough to be smart — there are a surprising number of smart people in the world as one gets out more. If you want to do this for a living, you’ve got to be driven and determined and patient and lucky and willing to work your ass off because this is what you really really really need to do. However, I believe that you know something about beating the odds and we share a similar class background that is — believe it baby — a great help when it comes to being able to live poor, recognize academic hierarchy for the BS it is, and work work work. Do remember, though, that it’s all building on one thing at a time, You don’t have to do everything at once. It was a shock to me to find that I worked a LOT harder (and on someone else’s schedule) once I got a teaching appointment because I thought I was just killing it before I came here.

The skunk part is, as you know, that this is not a very academically prestigious place and so it’s a fairly easy place to tenure. When one of our colleagues moved to NIU, he was not automatically awarded tenure because of the disparities of the tenure process between teaching schools and research gigs. He had to prove that he really was research-fit (and of course he did), but that would suck to win tenure and then to be thrown back in the hopper again some place else.

Comment by bridgett

Hi, I no this is so late, But, I was a school Bus Driver from 1979 to 2002 and then a new boss, an then she fired me after 23 years and 3 bosses that loved me, she is now gone,, ha ha they did not renew her contract, but, I’m still out of work. Because I was fired, I can no longer work as a school bus driver (an yes, they do black ball you), plus I get no Health Insurance. Yea, its been now 10 years, but, it still hurts my heart and my income.I did’nt no my rights, I tried but ya can’t fight the schools (the goverment) So, no house, on food stamps, and lookin for a jobs every day. Could the tenure help me in any way ????

Comment by Diane Vollamr

OH, and by the way, on my
application, do I say I have tenure ???? Hey Thanks

Comment by Diane Vollamr

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