How to think about the promotion & tenure process

On campus today we had our annual workshop on the renewal, promotion, and tenure process, hosted by the provost, the union, and HR.  There was also a panel of deans, the chair of P&T, and two faculty who had recently been through the process.  I was one of those faculty members, and this, more or less, is what I said:

  • You should love the p&t process.  It’s normal to feel anxiety about such a high-stakes process.  But the promotion, tenure, and renewal process is the only time in your career when people care about your work in its entirety.  Ohio State UP doesn’t care that I do a lot of service, or that I’m a good teacher.  My students don’t much care about the details of either research or service work (though they may like the idea of these, or the results of them).  And no one on, say, the assessment committee cares that Lost Causes has gotten  good reviews, or that I have two editions of various novels forthcoming.  But during the p&t process, members of your department, your dean, your colleagues from around the university, and your provost or president will all think seriously about the nature of your work.  Embrace that opportunity!
  • Be mindful of the collective bargaining agreement, but do work you care about.  It would be foolish to advise anyone to ignore the stated standards for promotion and tenure.  But don’t  get trapped into thinking that you should undertake *any* activity solely for the purposes of p&t.  Every day you come to campus, or check your e-mail, or open your research files, or grade a paper, you have to live with the consequences of your decisions.  Activities that you can only imagine as makework for p&t will make you crazy.
  • Be able to explain the values, principles, and methodologies that animate your career.  This is what I learned from Donald Hall’s The Academic Self:  Come up with a set of coherent intellectual concerns that excite or interest you, and be able to talk about how those concerns underpin all your activities around campus, even service.  Sometimes this might take some work, and, as I’ll say in a minute, you may need to think about service in a different way.  But if your core values or concerns aren’t engaged by a class, a research project, or a service commitment, then something needs to change.  Maybe you need to rethink the way you teach the class, or you should stop teaching it.  Put the research project on the back burner for a second and try something different.  Figure out a way that you can get on at least one committee related to your intellectual or personal interests, or sponsor a student club, or something.  The surest way to burn out is to think of the work you have to do as imposed on you from without.
  • Think differently about service.  People get appalling advice about service.  If I didn’t know better, I’d think that the standard advice about service is actually designed to make people resent their jobs.  I’ve said all this before, so won’t repeat myself here.
  • Remember that the promotion and tenure process, while important, does not hold the meaning of your life, your worth as an intellectual, or even your career.  You can’t let a bureaucratic process decide whether or not you can be happy, or live an intellectual life that is sustaining and meaningful.  The p&t process is significant enough without investing it with those additional powers, as well.

I didn’t say, but would have done except that we were over time: Read blogs in your area.  Especially the pseudonymous ones.  You’ll gain fresh perspective on your own institution and your own struggles and triumphs.

This isn’t to say anything at all about the merits of the tenure system, or about the specific justices/injustices about the tenure process at other schools, or the merits of any individual case at my own school.  They’re just some thoughts for faculty who might be going up for tenure in a couple of years.

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