Coda: Getting Tenure

The tenure track was a very long track, like the extended-play dance remix of a very long song, and now the time has come to sounds its final notes.  In talking about tenure I join a chorus; in addition to the Chronicle forums about Balancing Work and Life and The Tenure Track, lately some people are talking back about the tenure process on the internet.  The first I saw of it was "The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc," which asserts that you can work  for about 50 hours a week and still have a family life, if you organize everything and keep to a schedule.

Organizing everything is basically what I did to get tenure, but I did it my own way and with a lot of reflection up front, in the middle, and in this present coda.  What I've learned more than anything else is that, depending on your productivity style, academic field, and goals, there are so many great ways to do this work.  There are myriad smart, creative, and effective ways to get tenure.

After tenure, the work is yours in a new way; no one can judge you, and you are free to (and charged with) pursuing productive work that brings you the most meaningful kind of joy.  That in itself is another high bar!  One senior academic I spoke with this summer mentioned the "post-tenure therapy year," wherein goal-driven academics come to terms with losing the structure that seemingly tormented them but actually supported them.  Due to a spate of life lessons and crises that emerged during my tenure years, I doubt I'll need the extra therapy on this end. :)  But some of you might, and I would celebrate that form of recuperation from what is, hands down, one of the most stressful periods of time one can choose to have in a professional life.

So this coda is about my own particular, humble, and successful path to tenure.  As of 8/16, my job title says associate professor!  I'd love nothing better than to celebrate that by sharing my own strategies here as a record of my approaches.  I also hope this post will serve as an open letter to my treasured colleagues who are still on the track.

First, I paused to figure out how I would approach this tenure-track thing.
I decided that I would use metaphors to motivate myself.  I thought of each annual review, and especially the third-year-review, as a distinct level of a videogame; I scored points by hitting publication targets, receiving successful feedback, and planning my strategy for the next level based on what I learned from the last one.  I thought of conferences as exotic flea markets where I was shopping for inspiring ideas and adding my own wares to the jumble.  I though of myself as a "Tenure Athlete," so I slept, ate, and exercised regularly so that I'd have the energy to keep playing the tenure (video) game.  Basically, I found images that my right brain could enjoy so that my left brain could take the linguistic lead on writing, presenting, and publishing.

I also looked around the department.  I had just come from being a children's librarian, which is a completely different sort of workplace dynamic, so I watched the dynamics between people.  I learned a lot from the ways colleagues spoke to each other, through agreements and disagreements.  Some people opt to stay silent the first year and just listen; that didn't feel natural to me, so I looked for opportunities to contribute to our conversations and spoke my mind.  Regularly.  I feel confident that this was the right strategy for me, because it allowed my senior colleagues to see that I was willing to take risks.  Different contexts and different people would require other approaches, of course.

I had one person snap at me in a meeting; as gracefully as I could, I left the meeting.  I also awkwardly left a meeting that was clearly going to become a morass of work with/for a disorganized senior colleague.  Another person did stop speaking to me for a bit, and I forged ahead and tried not to take it personally, staying cordial enough that it eventually dissipated. Basically, I navigated conflicts as well as I could while I made a deliberate effort to understand what "good work" looked like in academia, thinking and planning about how to reach my goals, do "good work," and stay motivated by my own values.

Then, I made a list of places I'd like to be published. 
Right away, I had to decide between parsing my dissertation into articles or working on a book.  I was also aware that, having been hired on the inside, I had two extra challenges: 1) I couldn't be too closely aligned with the work of the senior colleagues in my area lest it appear I was incapable of generating my own ideas, and 2) I had to get new work out there quickly, lest it appear that I was incapable of more ideas than just my dissertation.  I wanted to demonstrate quickly that they had made the right choice by hiring me before I finished my exams, my proposal, and my dissertation.

So I chose produce articles, and my target journals list was:

  • Library Trends (a top journal in the field; as of next year, I'll have been in twice)
  • Children & Libraries (the core practitioner journal in my part of the field--also in twice)
  • Library Quarterly (the top journal, and one paper here won a bi-annual award)
  • Libraries and the Cultural Record (now Information & Culture:  a journal of history)
  • Book chapters (wrote and published three, two through conferences at The Center for the History of Print & Digital Culture, one for a British history of readers 3-volume set)
  • One children's literature journal (though I received a "revise and resubmit," I didn't make this target, and it was okay anyhow.  I don't know yet whether I'll finish this or move on to new ideas.)

After a conference, the Book History editor approached me, and so I hit a target that was well above the level I had expected to attain, because that's a top journal in the closely related field of book history.  I was truly thrilled, and, between that paper being a popular download and the award-winning paper for Library Quarterly, I felt reasonably good going into last few levels of the tenure process.

Still planning, I read some great books about academia.
This was truly unfamiliar territory for me, so I learned a tremendous amount from books like these:

I also consulted a more general productivity resource (written by a fellow New College alum).

I found within it a structure for thinking about what I wanted to accomplish and why I wanted to do it.  I still refer back to this model when I'm thinking about work goals, life goals, and satisfying living.

Here's a sample from an older one of many of my six-level charts over the past six years.  Notice that in addition to Research, Teaching, and Service, I had a category for Health.  I typically propped this notebook with the chart up on my desk for awhile after I'd made a new one, to keep my big goals and concrete steps fresh in my mind.

I also charted out the years with publication targets.
By thinking and writing, I was clarifying what I wanted to do.  However, like all academic writers, I faced the significant challenge of having no externally imposed deadlines.  None.  More than 90% of the time, you have to muster up the gumption to submit a paper simply because you must.  Because of this, often, the main reason "why" I was doing this stuff was:  to get tenure.  We'd all like to be loftier and more driven by a holistic, organic, stars-aligned view of the worth of our work, but I found that I had to get real and humble and, most of all, get to work.

To motivate my own deadline setting, I made multiple year-by-year charts of the whole six-year shebang.  Here are two of my early ones, though I re-drew them frequently when new publications came along.  I added "submission," "acceptance," and "publication" ticks on the timeline.  The "reality check" one is from very early on, when I was being extremely hard on myself about not having done "enough."

I also had a big paper calendar on the wall, charting out all of my conferences and publication targets.  It took discipline to turn papers around for submission right after conferences, but it was worth it, and all of these visual reminders were about keeping me on a clear path toward the tenure goal.

I made a list of senior professors in my general area at peer institutions.
These are the people who would be eligible to anonymously evaluate my tenure case, and this list initially gave me tremendous anxiety.  I tried to get used to looking at the spreadsheet occasionally to desensitize myself to the fear of anonymous review.  It's not a huge field, so I knew that these were the likely people, and I knew also that I'd need their names at some point when my dean asked me for a few names as input to their evaluation process.

I did try to learn about their work, met several of them, and even became friends with a few.  However, I did not go out of my way to extensively schmooze or network except in one case where it was clear to me that this person really respected go-getter schmoozers, so I did my best.  Mostly, though, I tried to make sincere connections over shared research interests, shared my articles with folks I thought might enjoy them (I didn't want to be too self-deprecating either), and I learned a ton by reading books and articles published by these scholars.

I painted my home office a bright green-gold.
I'm well aware that the terminally serious among you will find this silly.  You can see something of the color in the above photos.  For me, this is seriously not silly.  The color reminds me of spring even in the winter, and it's a visual metaphor for the new ideas that are growing whenever I am writing.  Medieval alchemists associated green-gold with their dreams of transformation.  I had a very rough personal patch involving health and other crises with home, family, and friend at about year three.  A new office color was just the ticket for revitalizing my interest in writing.  Basically, do whatever works to motivate yourself.  For me, the aesthetics of my work space are key.                                        

With reservations, I caved and did my part to perform the "I'm-so-busy" culture.
Of course, I was actually very busy, and falling back on saying "I'm so busy" tended to keep others off my case.  Because nobody but me valued my research and writing time.  Sure, everybody wanted to see the PRODUCT, but nobody validated the time-consuming nature of the PROCESS.

I know this "I'm so busy" culture is an artifact of academia because I used to be a children's librarian, book reviewer, and adjunct instructor all at the same time.  It was great fun, but I was incredibly busy, and yet we never acted especially busy at work.  In academia, the culture is to say "I'm busy."  I did have one negative reaction to this "I'm busy" strategy from a non-phd colleague, so I moderated it in their presence, but I also kept in mind that this colleague was out of sync with my goals on the tenure track.  

Am I always busy?  I always have a lot of goals, but I accomplish them by carving out quiet research, thinking, reflection, and writing time for myself.  Having been a nonstop-busy children's librarian, I STILL feel slightly guilty about this time.  But it's my job to think and write as well as teach, and teaching alone could easily take up all the available waking hours.  So I used "I'm so busy" because it worked.  I hope to someday join the next generation of more radically honest academics who quit using "I'm so busy" and instead say No.  Peacefully.

I did listen to my dean.
I had a dean who understood my work very well, saw my potential, and encouraged me along the way.  If you don't have that--and most people do not--then you have to find colleagues who believe in you, some senior and some junior, and decisively not listen to the people who will make you crazy by projecting their own insecurities and tearing you down.  I still had the significant challenge of this dean departing midway through my fifth year, and there were numerous little dramas (including routine belittling of my time spent writing from a senior colleague and a proposal/offer that I do an administrative job, which was then rescinded), but, ultimately, I focused on doing my work in hopes that the work would count more than any particular relationships--and it did.

I didn't listen to people who were throwing negative feedback my way as a kind of last-minute can-you-take-it hazing.
I'm so sad that this happens, but it does, and it's best to be prepared.  The last two years, when you are preparing or up for tenure, someone will try to throw you a clever curveball in your office, in the hall, or in your pre-tenure evaluation meeting.  As you prepare your papers, think back to when you prepared your job talk.  Be ready to speak positively about your own work at all times (while being humble and gracious enough not to talk about it constantly).  Dig deep for compassion toward those senior colleagues who know no other way because they were hazed themselves.  And end the conversation quickly.

There's more to say about this six-year process, but I have other writing I want to do!  If you've been in academia at all, you know that the theoretical talking of the talk does not always mesh with the day-to-day human walking of the walk.  I've witnessed this impacting my friends and colleagues, and I've witnessed thoughtful colleagues who pour their lives into academic work demonstrate their ignorance and lack of examination of sexism and the systematic biases of racism in our society today.  I've even done some dumb stuff myself, missing intersections of race and class or race and religion.  This writer brings an encouraging and determined eye to being a person-of-color on the tenure track:  The 7-Year Experiment.  

Planning, setting targets, reading books, meeting goals... it probably takes someone terminally geeky like myself to see so much beauty in timelines and spreadsheets.  Nonetheless, these have been my key strategies, and I'm delighted and relieved to be on the other side of the tenure-track video game.  Every level played.  Colleagues liked my flea-market wares.  Now I get to recuperate a bit while I go back and replay the levels that were especially fun and choose a new "game"--writing a book--to challenge myself further.

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