On Time to Tenure

This is Professor Zero, from parish prison (for those of you who live in states, districts, and colonies other than Louisiana, that means county jail). I am allowed to go to class and so on. I am not allowed to comment on blogs because I have far too much to do and it is only going to get worse. It will not really let up until June.

Today I am tired from teaching one set of undergraduates too hungry to concentrate, another too phobic about the university, books, and computers to learn, and finally a set of graduate students who do not read Spanish or have a background in literature but whom I am expected to pull through a beginning graduate course, including some reading in secondary sources, on a major Spanish American author. Due to their heavy teaching and commuting schedules these graduate students are unable to visit any library at any time.

Still I wish to add a note, or at least a footnote, to the tenure wars. First, I disagree with the Constructivist‘s plan to have different tracks for different types of professors: research-teaching, teaching-research, teaching-service, and so on. I work in an institution which has such tracks and I do not like them. I could give details, but I am in parish prison with limited computer time. The bottom line is that one wants to develop all of one’s faculty. The creation of differences like these creates less equality and opportunity, not more.

Lumpenprofessoriat wants to make sure nobody spends more than seven years untenured after the PhD. I understand the spirit here, but I do not think the plan is necessarily practical. It would be hard to enforce and in some cases, not desirable to enforce.

Note how different this plan is, too, from my original proposal which was to hire everyone to tenure in the first place. Historiann modified my proposal to a “two years to tenure” plan, so that one could save one’s department from disastrous hires. I initially endorsed that as a good compromise but I retract it, seeing that the next compromise would lengthen the time to tenure again, and that we would soon be back to the traditional seven, or more than seven years.

This leads me to the new question of the day: what is tenurable? In some institutions I have worked for, to be tenurable is to have become an important figure in your field. To become that does take seven years or more. Other places I’ve worked, to be tenurable is to be a decent teacher, publisher, and colleague. To show that one is that does not take anything like seven years.


5 thoughts on “On Time to Tenure

  1. Quick qs for when you have more time: are the problems with your institution or the model itself? That is, are they fixable? I ask b/c I wouldn’t dignify my idea with the term “plan” just yet–Craig Smith of AFT and I want to explore the possibilities, strengths, and weaknesses of various strategies, so whatever you can offer would be much appreciated.

    I’d just like to mention that such tracks exist at many institutions already, but only the tenurable benefit from them. I’ve been batting away requests to become chair of my department, president of my union local, and president of the faculty senate for years because I like teaching too much to go for any of those major-course-release positions just yet in my career. But were I to go in that direction, that would certainly be the “research-service” track. There are plenty of tenured people who basically duck service and so are on the “research-teaching” track.

    So why not formalize this and make those w/tenure already suffer a bit for not being/staying triple threats? Why not use it to provide paths to more job security for, say, adjuncts who may not wish to get a terminal degree but who are awesome teachers and great institutional citizens (the “teaching-service” track)?

  2. Tracks here apply to everyone – tenured, tenurable, and non tenure track. However *in practice* – and this is the worst of the system – your track depends on your discipline and field. They figure out how much and what kind of teaching they want done, divide that by how many faculty they have, and then put those faculty on the requisite track.

    They are also very concerned to make those who are in heavy research tracks look like good researchers. So if you are in the 50% research track and you publish a book in a vanity press, it is a book and that is fantastic. If you are in the 20% research track and you publish a book in a university press, that is not so important.

    The problem is money and staffing – what the system does is ghettoize faculty in non-favored fields (even within the same department, if it is a large department with divisions or subsets) into the lower tracks, so that they have to do more teaching and service and cannot get so much credit for research.

    The advantage this has is that if you are in a lower track and don’t get a lot of research done, you can still make tenure and things like that. But you also cannot move tracks because the tracks are there to serve institutional needs (justify higher teaching loads in some departments/fields), not to play to faculty strengths and weaknesses.

    Also, when you come up for merit raises, promotions, and renewal of graduate faculty status for that matter, your track doesn’t count, and the best raises and things still go to people in the highest (research-heavy) tracks and to people with administrative roles.

    The higher your track, the better your working conditions and the better your chances for raises. And yet the lower tracks exist so that research faculty can be exploited / pushed to more teaching and service, and yet still tenured (at lower pay, of course, since this work is less valued).

    Your plan would work in theory but it would have to be implemented by people who truly understood it and who were truly of good will, and who had the money to implement it as intended. In my experience it works to promote a few superstars and super-departments, and proletarianize everyone else.

  3. P.S. We have four tracks. Track 1 is instructors and adjuncts: teaching plus optional service. Tracks 2 through 4 are research faculty. Of these, track 3 is the one that most closely fits a traditional professor job description (research- teaching- service, and nobody escapes service around here). Track 2 is heavier on teaching and lighter on research (teaching-service). Track 4 has either course release (so it is research-service) or relief from service (so it is research-teaching).

    Very few people are on track 4, and people in short staffed or “service” departments are forced onto track 2. I’d much rather create better working conditions for the track 2 people and put them on track 3. It would be a lot better for morale, productivity, university reputation, quality of teaching, *everything*. What we have in effect is a research faculty divided into haves and have nots, and discrimination among disciplines.

    I’ve seen these issues dealt with a lot better and more fairly in the institutions which did *not* create caste systems for their faculty.

    And that is what this track system is, in effect: a caste system. Added to the hierarchy that is already there, it is very stifling.

  4. P.S. everyone: note this great post on the matter (by Craig Smith, I think):

    The public believes tenure is when you stop working, but the truth is that tenure is what enables you to really *start* … !!!

    [One of my illuminations, by the way, is that not to have tenure is sort of like being ABD … you’re still in a process of becoming or of getting in.]

  5. I understand your concern that 2 years to tenure would perpetuate many of the abuses of the system. I also agree with you that the “different track” system is limiting and unfair for all of the reasons you cite. It strikes me that a virtue of the current tenure regime is that once people meet the mark in scholarship, teaching, and service, they’re free to focus their energies on the one or two fields they most enjoy or are best at. (And, over the course of a lifetime, we find ourselves necessarily doing more service or more teaching or more research sometimes–that’s I think typical to the academic career cycle). As we all know, these 3 areas of achievement are not all created equal, but at least people can have a job and, for the most part, focus on what they like best. The “track system” limits people’s abilities to shift their focus over the course of their career (or if they do, they can’t be appropriately rewarded for it.)

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