How Tech Tools Can Help Professors Prepare Their Tenure Portfolios

Professors who are on the tenure track carry out every moment of their professional lives with a clock ticking  namely, the tenure clock. From the moment we’re hired and on through the process of earning tenure, we’re on the clock to assemble and submit a portfolio that consists of our best work, for a decision that seems eons away. It’s a privilege in this day and age to have a tenure-track position at all, so we can’t complain about having to make a tenure portfolio. However, there’s no doubt that assembling a portfolio is hard work.

We’re tasked with curating years’ worth of professional material so that we don’t forget about anything that could be potentially useful, to be finally included in a greatest-hits collection that won’t be due until the Phase 4 Marvel movies are out. The hardest work might be simply managing the process of creating it.

I say “we” here because I am not yet tenured in my current position. I’m up for tenure and promotion in a couple of years, and every day I manage the stuff that will eventually go into a portfolio and get shipped off to the decision-makers. However, unlike many pre-tenure faculty, this is actually my second time through the process. I spent seven years at my previous position working toward and ultimately earning tenure and promotion before starting over three years later at my current gig. So I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work, and I’m having to put those lessons into practice now. And I’ve found that technology can be the secret weapon for making all this project management a painless, and dare I say even fulfilling, experience.

The mind-set behind the technology

But first, let’s talk about the frame of mind one has to have in order for technology to be useful in preparing materials for tenure.

The first time I went up for tenure, I didn’t use any technology to help. I just kept stuff in a physical filing cabinet, and when it came time to submit my portfolio (which, in that position, was actually a yearly process throughout the pre-tenure period) I just raided the filing cabinet and hoped that nothing had gotten lost. It worked (i.e., I got tenure), but it was sometimes a painful experience, because I was never sure of what I didn’t have. What if I was forgetting some important note or document? Or what if I could remember it but then couldn’t find it?

My problem here was not a lack of technology usage. It was a lack of discipline. I was chucking stuff into a file cabinet like I would throw unwanted items into the kitchen junk drawer at home and hoping that when the time came, all that disorganization would work itself out. Spoiler: It didn’t. Or as one wise person on Twitter put it:

Even with no electronic technology at all, I would have been better served if I’d just kept three important principles in mind:

  1. There has to be a trusted system in place that is simple and easy to use for housing and categorizing stuff. There has to be a system, something intentional and not just throwing things into a file cabinet. The system has to be trustworthy, so that you can rest assured that once you put your stuff in the system, it actually goes into the system and it won’t somehow get lost. And it needs to be simple and easy to use because otherwise we academics won’t use it.
  2. The system needs to be easily searchable using both the data inherent in the stuff and any other metadata we might add. The system we use can’t just be good at housing our materials; it has to be easy to find things inside it when needed. And it’s definitely needed. When the time comes, you may well be looking through seven years’ worth of accumulated stuff to find anything that has to do with advising, for instance. If that’s hard to do, it will be a major point of stress later.
  3. All the stuff we receive has to be processed on a regular basis  at least weekly — and put into the trusted system so that we operate with a clean inbox. This is possibly the most important point here. Too many academics use their email inboxes as their filing system, staying topped off at sometimes hundreds of emails. We operate with a much clearer mind once those inboxes are cleared and the stuff is put into the trusted system. The ideal is “inbox zero,” where all emails have been shipped off to the trusted system — or deleted, or delegated. If you let the stuff pile up, it becomes impossible to find or even think about what you need.

Many of you will readily recognize these principles as being key components of the Getting Things Done or “GTD” sytem of time/task/project management popularized by David Allen, which I cannot recommend highly enough. If nothing else, let the tenure preparation process be a reason to learn more about GTD and put it into practice.

And now, the technology

With those principles in mind, we can now think clearly about the kind of technology that can help. It’s possible to be effective in preparing for tenure with no high technology at all, but rather just a well-organized filing cabinet. But with technology, the process of preparing tenure materials can be easy  even fun.

For our technology-assisted tenure preparation process, I recommend three items of technology.

  1. A scanner. This is out of necessity in institutions where tenure portfolios are all-electronic, but it’s a good idea anywhere because the portfolio is so important that there’s no way you just want one paper manuscript for it that can be lost or damaged. However, not everything we put into a portfolio is paper to begin with, so the scanner is our digitizer.
  2. Evernote. For those unfamiliar, Evernote is a tool that will accept just about any kind of stuff  plain text notes, images, emails, files, clipped webpages, screenshots, and more  and add tags and other metadata to it, and then organize it thematically into “Notebooks.” Evernote also features a high-powered search tool that will search through your entire collection of stuff, in the contents of the stuff as well as in the tags and the titles you give the stuff, to find what you are looking for. We’ll use Evernote as our main trusted system.
  3. Dropbox. Dropbox is an almost-ubiquitous cloud-based storage service that functions just like your computer’s internal storage or hard drive, only it’s not on your computer (although it can be synchronized to your computer). We’ll use Dropbox for housing files and images that we don’t want to keep in Evernote, including any files that we edit on a regular basis such as the portfolio narrative text.

I should mention that both Evernote and Dropbox are free to use, although the free versions are limited. It’s worth it to pay the annual fee ($50 per year) to upgrade to Evernote Premium, which will allow you 10 GB of uploads per month and other useful features. Some people also have enough files, particularly if they are multimedia, to burn quickly through the 2 GB of free storage offered by Dropbox. If that’s the case for you, an upgrade to 1 TB of storage is $100 per year.

Another advantage of these two software tools is that they are cross-platform, with apps available on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android as well as browser-based interfaces. That makes them easy to reach and not dependent on any form of hardware.

Finally, a note about scanners: I happen to have — and use heavily — a professional Xerox copier/scanner across the hall from my office in the department copy room. Chances are your department has something like this too, and these are frequently much nicer than personal scanners. If not, personal scanners like the Fujitsu ScanSnap are a good investment for all future efforts at organization. Essential features of a good scanner would include the ability to quickly scan stacks of paper items, particularly if they are different sizes (for instance, a stack that includes receipts, business cards, and papers), and especially OCR or “optical character recognition,” which converts printed text into electronic text that is searchable.

Using the technology to organize our stuff

With those tools in place, let’s now think about a workflow that we can use on a daily basis for managing and assembling the tenure portfolio. I do mean daily even though it might be seven years or more until your tenure decision. Every day there is at least the possibility of something coming across one of your inboxes that merits consideration for putting into your portfolio.

  1. When something comes into one of your inboxes that could be usable in your portfolio, get it into Evernote. How the item actually gets into Evernote depends on what the item is. If it’s just an email, then you can forward the email directly into Evernote and then delete the email from your inbox. (Go ahead! Delete it!) If the item is a file, like an image or a PDF, you can drag and drop the file into an Evernote note. If the item is a physical item that can be scanned, use the scanner to digitize it and then get it into Evernote (using email forwarding or drag-and-drop).
  2. Once the items you got out of your inbox are in Evernote, add tags and metadata to make the items organized and searchable, and then move them to notebooks. My system for tagging and organizing works as follows: First, I have a special notebook called +INBOX that is there to house all incoming items (forwarded from email, dropped in from a file, or scanned in). When I process my +INBOX (which again happens once a week at minimum), I add tags to the note if needed. The tags are there to help in future searches. Keeping in mind that Evernote searches all parts of the text in a note, sometimes tags aren’t necessary. But if I wanted to add a few more hooks that the search engine could latch onto, I’ll do it. The tags I use tend to correspond to chronology — for example, Fall 2013, so that later, when I need to see stuff from Fall 2013, it’s a simple search. After tagging, the note is put into a notebook. The notebooks I use correspond to the three main areas of my job: Teaching, Scholarship, and Service, as well as an additional notebook called Professional where job-related items go that don’t fall under the first three categories (for example, informational notes from the dean about the tenure process itself). So this hierarchy is not complex — I use as many tags as I think are needed, but I only operate out of five notebooks. There are numerous philosophies about tagging and notebooks with Evernote, though, and you should develop and stick with a system that works for you.
  3. Finally and importantly, once a week, go through all inboxes including the place you put stuff in Evernote and keep your inboxes cleared. This process is part of the “Weekly Review” that is at the heart of the Getting Things Done philosophy of organization. I do this every Sunday afternoon as part of a larger review process that takes about 90 minutes. It is the only job-related task I allow myself to do on Sundays. Once I am done, all my stuff is put away and my mind is more or less clear.

What about Dropbox? It’s possible not to use Dropbox at all in this system since you can put files into Evernote. However, I personally find it hard to work with files once they are embedded in Evernote (editing can be tricky), and both of the main file-finding/launcher tools I use, Spotlight and Alfred, have a hard time finding files put into Evernote. So Evernote is for only those files that I don’t plan on working with or searching for on a daily basis.

Staying with this process means that you have a consistent flow of information that you might need for your portfolio coming in and then going out into a trusted, searchable system that is simple to use and easy to search. And the idea is that this workflow should become a week-in/week-out experience, over the course of the months or years between constructing and submitting portfolios.

Using the technology to make the portfolio

At some point, of course, it’s time to stop putting stuff in to our system and start to get things out, when it’s time to put the portfolio together. This is actually the easy part because we have all our stuff in a system that is easy to search.

Every institution has its own requirements for a portfolio, but generally speaking, faculty are asked to provide evidence that certain standards for quality in teaching, scholarship, and service have been met or exceeded. When focusing on a part of the narrative, we need only go to Evernote and search for what we need. For example, if I am going to provide evidence that I have been an excellent adviser, I can go to Evernote and the SERVICE notebook (which is where I put my advising stuff) and do a search under advising. Up will come all the items I have in Evernote that are in that notebook and have the word “advising” in them somewhere — as a tag, as a word that appears in a text, as a word from a scanned document that the OCR from my scanner recognizes as “advising,” and so on. Or I can do a global search for “advising” over all my notebooks. Then, with those search results, I can pick and choose which items I want to include.

This is a lot better than relying on sheer memory, and a lot better than my throw-it-in-the-filing-cabinet system from my first tenure process. In fact, since the system is trustworthy and easily searchable, I find that my mind is completely clear to think about writing the narrative for my portfolio. I am not worrying about my stuff.

Final words

If Evernote and Dropbox aren’t for you, there are alternatives:

  • Microsoft OneNote is an Evernote competitor that runs across platforms (not just on Windows devices) including tablets and phones. Its search and web-clipping capabilities are, for the moment, a step or two behind Evernote, but catching up. It integrates nicely with Microsoft Office and Microsoft’s OneDrive, so Windows users might prefer it.
  • If you’re concerned about privacy issues or the pricing plans for Dropbox, there are a growing number of alternatives such as Google Drive, Box, Microsoft OneDrive, Apple iCloud, or ownCloud.

Making a portfolio for tenure and promotion is a long-term, high-stakes project that requires care and attention. A judicious use of helpful technologies, with the right mind-set, can help us place attention on it productively so we can focus our main efforts on the jobs we were hired to do.

Robert Talbert is a mathematician and educator with interests in cryptology, computer science, and STEM education. He is affiliated with the mathematics department at Grand Valley State University.

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