Presenting My Path to Tenure

February 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve been asked to be on a panel that will meet with a large group of new faculty members to discuss what we did to get tenure or how we managed the challenges of being a new faculty member or how we balanced life and work. Since, I am not entirely sure what will help new faculty members or what exactly the organizers of this panel expect from me, I thought I would offer some rather generic advice that summarizes what I did to try to ensure that I would get tenure. (Understanding, of course, that this may be different from the reasons why I actually got tenure.)

I’ll offer five points:

1. Work Hard. Be the first one in the office and the last one out every day. I think my father (who was not an academic) gave me this advice. I try to get into the office by 6 am and leave around 6 pm. I have generally found that the hours from 6 am to 9 am and from 3 pm to 6 pm to be the most distraction free and productive. By making sure that I have at least 6 hours a day that are reasonably free from teaching, students, colleagues, meetings, and other distractions, I give myself the space I need to be a good colleague, teacher, and university citizen.

2. Teaching. I have followed three strategies in my teaching life. (1) I took on courses that other faculty members did not want to teach (e.g. Graduate Historiography). We call these courses “service classes”. Teaching these courses provided a disincentive for my colleagues to challenge my teaching too rigorously. After all, if they didn’t like how I taught classes that no one wanted to teach, they could teach them. (2) The teaching reviews for service courses tend to be skewed a bit lower. This meant that I had a ready-made and widely accepted excuse for average teaching reviews. And finally, (3) I teach the same courses every semester. This has made prep time far more manageable and given me a chance to develop my courses without interruption.

3. Service. I also have three rules for service. I am temperamentally unsuited for committee work. (1) So I focused my service work on individual projects. For example, I wrote our Departmental History for the 125th-a-versary of the University. I created and managed a teaching blog for our Office of Instructional Development. I transitioned our department’s webpage to a new content management system. I often take on departmental writing tasks. When I do have to be on a committee, (2) I try to serve on committee that I have created myself or that my friends have created or serve on. I find friends are far more patient with me and I have more passion for committee work if it is doing something that I find important (i.e. our Working Group in Digital and New Media Lab (here and here) or creating a microphilanthropy program for the College of Arts and Sciences or brining speakers for the Cyprus Research Fund).  Finally, (3) if I do have to serve on a committee that is not filled with friends or created at my initiative, I try to serve on committees where there are only a few faculty members. I find that administrators and staff on campus have a far greater respect for one another’s time and are better capable of running an efficient meeting. Moreover, on these committees, my job has largely been to represent the faculty rather than to perform actual faculty governance. My experience is that committee work is at its worst when faculty fee compelled to perform governance.

4. Scholarship. Most of my energies go into teaching, but scholarship remains an important part of being a university faculty member. To that end, I always try to keep four projects going to ensure that I have something underway at all times. (1) I have an almost completed project, and this is whence publications come (e.g. those related to the Corinthia.) (2) I have an ongoing project, and this tends to produce conference papers and publicity (e.g. PKAP). (3) I have a future project that is just getting underway, and this produces grants (e.g. my work at Polis-Chrysochou). Finally, (4) I have a crazy project that might be a bad idea or is outside of my specific area of expertise (e.g. Punk Archaeology or Dream Archaeology or Work Camps in western North Dakota). This is where invited lectures come from.

5. It takes a village. My final point about my path to tenure is that I did not do it on my own. It took good colleagues in my department, in the college, and across the U.S. to help me negotiate my path to tenure. People allowed for my idiosyncratic behaviors, were patient with my failures and shortcomings, and were attentive to whatever successes that I had.

To cultivate good colleagues, I found it very useful to ignore one of the most common pieces of advice that I see popping up now-and-again on the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Instead of learning how to say “NO”, I spent far more time figuring out way to always say “yes” when colleagues asked me to help on campus or in the community.

The main reason for this is that saying “no” to helping builds no social capital. In fact, I can’t think of any time when I admired or thought better of someone for saying “no” to me when I asked them for help. (And I never feel better when they tell me that they are very busy. Obviously, I asked for help because I was very busy. The only people who aren’t busy on campus are people no one asks for help, and there is usually a good and obvious reason for that.)

When people asked me for help, it was largely because they needed help.  By saying “yes”, I developed the social capital to ask others to help me when I needed help. It takes a community to bring a junior faculty member to tenure. Central to having community support is the development of a robust network of reciprocal obligations. Saying “yes” builds this network and ensures support when the inevitable crises occur.  In effect, it builds a community.

§ 2 Responses to Presenting My Path to Tenure

  • jennball says:

    I have to comment on the learning to say no/yes discussion above. There are those of us (very common among women) who say ‘yes’ to everything – it is ingrained in us to want to please others, to want to prove ourselves, etc. This is NOT a good thing. I struggle and am working on saying ‘no’ because the more I say ‘yes,’ the more I get asked to do things. I have become known as someone who will do something (well and in a timely manner) when asked and as a result my network is plenty large. I have reaped the benefits to saying yes, of which you speak – I have a great network. But I – and others like me and you too if you keep up with saying ‘yes’ – need to go in the other direction, learning to say ‘no.’ Saying ‘yes’ affects my scholarship by sucking away all of my time which is no good for the next phase: promotion to full professor! Congrats on tenure.

  • dpettegrew says:

    I agree that learning to say ‘no’ is as important a skill as learning to say ‘yes.’ One must be wise about what one accepts not only in service, but also teaching and research. Otherwise, it becomes impossible to produce high-quality work in any area of our professional life.

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