Were the Road Signs Wrong?

February 08, 2006

Two years ago I wrote a column"Road Signs to Tenure," about my initial experiences with the tenure process at my university. I wrote about how, in preparation for submitting my official dossier, I had consulted six trusted professors, who offered me all sorts of suggestions, from "be patient" to "keep everything."

Now, as I read back through their comments and not-so-gentle suggestions, I have begun to ask myself: "Really, how useful was that?"

Needless to say, I am not an expert on tenure (thank goodness). But as I prepare to go up for tenure next fall, I thought I should rethink the advice of my experts and whether it had proved helpful. I have shared this column with all six of my tenure counselors, and even though we had some interesting debates (usually along the lines of "You took that too literally"), they, for the most part, understood my conclusions.

Their first suggestion, "be patient," was easy to follow for two reasons. First, time flies when one is engaged in research. As a matter of fact, I wish I had more time. Not because I need the time to publish 10 more articles, but because I feel as if I am just hitting my stride as a researcher and a scholar. I hope that I am able to present a clear picture of the professor that I have become. That, as I have been told, is reflected in the quality of my writing and not the quantity.

The second reason is all the tenure horror stories. I first heard one of those shortly after a column appeared. And then I heard another, and another.

I heard account after account of young, brash, and bold professors who thought they had it all together and went up for tenure a year or two early because they perceived themselves to be "bullet proof." I guess someone failed to tell those brash upstarts that is isn't about being able to withstand attacks on your record, it is about building strength over time and demonstrating your commitment to the institution.

Another important piece of advice that I got from my tenure advisers early on was to "forget about tenure." How did that pan out? Well ... fuhgeddaboutit.

In an academic world where everything we do, say, and write is noticed (especially as nontenured faculty members), it is very hard not to think about the impact that our academic activity will have on our tenure bid. For example, should I have served on one more statewide language-assessment committee rather than having spent that time writing an article? Or, should I have presented at one more conference rather than having directed a summer program for students who speak English as a second language?

Most of our academic actions will affect our tenure bids, and we need to carefully weigh our decisions and talk to colleagues who will help us assign the appropriate academic weight to our skittish and youthful energy.

The same people who told me to forget about tenure also advised me to "keep everything." Part of me thinks that they were playing with my untenured emotions. But I did keep everything, and that was actually the most useful and practical advice.

Remember, however, that if you keep everything, you will need to re-evaluate everything when it comes to putting your dossier together, and that will take some time -- a great deal of time.

To identify the elements that you believe will best reflect your contributions to research, teaching, and service, you will need to sit down and look through all of your materials. I did that with the help of a friend (and I helped him with his record). We evaluated each other's choices of what to include in our tenure files.

If you do that, make sure it's with a very good friend or someone that you trust who will turn into a very good friend after all this is over. (A mutual liking for fine cigars and good beer -- or whatever your poison -- always helps the process move along.)

The advice I received about being my own advocate in the department has turned out to be true. But it's also true that the friends you make in your department can help you put your accomplishments in perspective. I continue to benefit from tenured colleagues who make sure that junior faculty members receive credit when credit is due and who also tell us to "settle down" when what we have accomplished is what is expected of us and not out of the ordinary.

The last piece of advice -- to find a trusted colleague who will speak plainly to you about the tenure process -- has been invaluable.

As junior faculty members become not-so junior, some of us may think (in fact, believe) that we know what we are doing. In some cases (like my own research) that may be true, but in other cases (like going through the various accreditation processes) I am an academic tourist and need (and receive) a great deal of guidance.

In times like these, you need to know which door you can knock on without worrying about the expression that will greet you.

Miguel Mantero is an assistant professor of foreign language and of English-as-a-second-language education at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.